Wednesday, May 30, 2012

St. John (Days 6 & 7) - End of Trip

This morning we tried another new bay, but this one was much closer to Andante. Honeymoon Bay is supposedly a less frequently visited bay, despite its north side location and proximity to Cruz Bay. That's what people posting comments online led me to believe anyway, and I must admit that, when we got there about 9:30AM, the beach was nearly deserted. The snorkeling was pretty good, and there was a nice sandy bottom if you don't like rocky bays. A little further out were some coral groupings were havens for a great array of fish. After a reasonable length of time, Jim told me he was headed in and I let him know I probably wouldn't be much longer.

Twenty minutes later, Jim calls out to alert me some people have arrived in a couple of kayaks. "A few more snorkelers," think I, "that's okay. I'm not going to be in here too much longer."

Within minutes, seven people are 'snorkeling' around me. They're making a ton of noise and splashing (I think it's their version of swimming). One is snapping pictures with a strobe flash that could signal aircraft. I'm thinking: WTF?  I lift my head above water and see a herd of two or three dozen people 'swimming' in gaudy neon snorkel gear and inflatable floatation devices...and they're coming my way! On top of that, small motorboats are coming to shore to drop off a couple people each. Plus there's a herd of these creatures migrating towards the beach. To a snorkeler like me this sight is as horrifying as the Vandals were to an ancient Roman.

I do not like snorkeling in crowds...especially crowds of cruise ship people.  I'm willing to go to great lengths to completely avoid this species. They don't ever look where they are going, plus they splash around every reef in sight and scare a lot of the fish away. Surrendering immediately, I wove my way through the melee back to shore. I had my fun, but Honeymoon Beach was no honeymoon for us. If you can get there early, it's a good quick snorkel. However, go in there knowing you will have to flee before the arrival of...'Them'.

After Honeymoon Bay, we went back to Andante and closed out the trip by hanging out at the pool, tanning, and swimming in complete privacy. A relaxing end to another wonderful trip to St. John. I miss it already!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New Regimen for Piano

My return to the piano, begun about a year ago, has continued largely without break. In addition to picking up a lot of the pieces I used to know, I have learned a new piece: Beethoven's Sonatina in G. More recently, I had felt my fingers getting 'mixed up' or even feeling stiff as I was playing. It was very frustrating, especially in some of the more difficult passages where I needed to be nimble. Right about that time, I went away on vacation and then more recently I was sick for a week and a half. So my practicing was curtailed for a good period.

What I found upon returning was that my playing was more relaxed, a bit slower, and the 'mixed up' stiff feeling in my fingers is completely gone. I think what was happening is that I was blowing through these pieces I was familiar with. I was 'practicing', not playing. It brought to mind something that I read from a Zen master who was explaining the purpose of Zen studies. To explain, he used a music metaphor and said (I'm paraphrasing): "the purpose of listening to a piece of music is not to get to the end." Meaning that it's the music itself we enjoy, and the completion of the task (listening) is not the point.

I think this goes for playing music as well. I was getting to much into 'practicing' and playing all these songs a certain amount of times each week. What was happening is that it was becoming a task, not a performance, and I was playing faster as a result. This is what led to my hands getting gummed up. Now that I'm really playing again, the legato lines are nicer, the errors are far fewer, and the MUSIC is back in what I can hear myself playing.

I've decided to alter my practice regimen as an experiment. The pieces that I have down, I am going to limit myself to playing once a week or when the mood strikes me. The new piece and the Diabelli sonatina I'm still relearning will be the core of my practice, plus a new sonatina by Clementi (totally new not picking it back up) and Bach's Air for G (again totally new piece). I'm also not going to relearn any more older pieces. The goal is to keep my grasp of the material I have relearned because I do like it, but to put the focus on picking up new material. Seems like trying new material is the best way to challenge myself as a performer and grow, not slogging through material I have already learned.

Practicing this way seems to take a weight off me. It's not that it's easier really. It's probably actually harder because I'm working with material I'm not familiar with and trying to learn it. However, there is a freshness in my practice sessions now. I feel like I'm learning...and that it is what this is supposed to be about.

We'll see how it goes.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wildlife on the Bike Paths

Jim and I went biking today, and we went early since the temperature was supposed to get into the high 80s or low 90s. Due to the unpredictable weather, this is only my third ride this year so I'm only up to about 60 miles total so far. I am beginning to get the feeling I need to get into riding in cooler weather or I'm going to have trouble racking up the kind of mileage I'm used to. 

As often happens, there was a wildlife sighting. This time it was big turtle (or a tortoise?) sitting on the edge of the path. He was about a foot long, and just sitting there. Maybe sunning himself? I snapped this picture of him, but it didn't help me figure out what kind of critter he is. I searched online but was unable to find anything that looked like this guy.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gallery B1E & Gretchen Hasse

Gretchen Hasse "Couple Number 1"
Went to the city yesterday and hung out with Gretchen, my artist/videographer pal who gets involved in a wide range of social causes and lives it what sounds like a really awesome commune. Anyway, her work is hanging in Gallery B1E in Rogers Park.  It was a good space in a juicy location. Here's a link to a video about the gallery and some of it's artists (I'm not real crazy about the interviewer's questions): . I don't know that I spent much time (if any) in Rogers Park when I lived in Chicago, but its an interesting and extremely diverse place with what feels like an active arts community.

So I went to see Gretchen and check out her work and the gallery itself. I have one of her pieces posted here, which I picked because I have always loved her figure drawing technique. Here's Gretchen's website, if you want to see more: Beyond the piece I have here, Gretchen had a good range of stuff on display, including photography and several urban scenes using distressed windows with panes of glass as frames. This gave the impression of looking out the window at a view, which in some of the pieces created an interesting tension between the mundane idea of looking out a window and the collage-like compositions which not always are meant to be a cohesive whole and/or have a clear tie to representation.  It wasn't at all gimmcky, because the color and texture of the window frames made them an organic part of the work. We drank in her work and the work of some of the two other artists on display. One was a painter using a lot more color than Gretchen does and the other was a sculptor. It was good that the work was unrelated, as it provided a broader range of visual experience. 

Then we moved out to have dinner. We found a tiny Persian restaurant with really friendly staff called Masouleh, and we enjoyed a pleasant dinner. We chatted about her video and artwork, I provided some input on her story arc and cells from a comic she is planning, I revealed my efforts on a nascent script for a horror short called 'Revenant', and I shared my experiences learning some new sonatinas on piano.  You know 'girl talk'.

We noticed a restaurant called Den Den just down the street...with Eritrean cuisine! Never had that, though I would suspect it may be similar to Ethiopian given the geography. Definitely need to give that a whirl! There was also a Peruvian restaurant too. I think we'll be back to Rogers Park.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

C.P. Cavafy

C.P. Cavafy was a Greek poet (born in 1863) who lived much of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. He isn't an especially well known poet, although he did publish during his lifetime and seems to have been read by some of the avant-garde writers of the day (such as Gide).  I was drawn to him because of several factors, the main two being that he used Classical motifs and characters as inspirations in his poetry (something I liked doing for quite a while) and that he was open - and apologetically open - about being gay.

Many of his poems are love poems to and about gay men, which the author of the introduction to the hardcover volume of his poetry that I bought recently suggests may be why Cavafy did not publish more work. Back then, naturally, it was not acceptable to be out.

I've picked up several works by writers who were openly gay at around the turn of the century, so hopefully I'll get to reading them soon. I've always been fascinated by the first 20-25 years of the 20th Century. It seems like such a heady time, with all the rebellion in painting and writing, music and philosophy. And I've always wondered how fantastic and exciting it would have been to be in Paris at this period, which seemed like such an epicenter of the new culture of bohemians, intellectuals, and radicals. Reading gay men at that time seems like an interesting project!

Anyway, Cavafy has a rather unique writing style for his time. He seems to be blank verse yet very direct in his writing, a clarity which seems opposed to some of the work that would come after him. And yet he was devoid of the flowery trappings of poets before him and perhaps of his own time.  I was struck by this particular piece written in about 1910 - one of his more famous - called Ithaca.  The message is clear and well-expressed, and the references to the Odyssey speak to his fascination with ancient Greek and Roman culture. I also really like the cadence of the words; they flow with a meter as patient and quiet as the speed of travel the work recommends to us in life.

(translation by Daniel Mendelsohn)

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you won't find such things on your way
so long as your thoughts remain lofty, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you won't encounter them
unless you stow them away inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when - with what pleasure, with what joy -
you first put into harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire the finest wares:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
Many Egyptian cities may you visit
that you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always in your mind keep Ithaca.
To arrive there is your destiny.
But do not hurry your trip in any way.
Better that it may last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you've gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey;
without her you wouldn't have set upon the road.
But now she has nothing left to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca didn't deceive you.
As wise as you will have become, with so much experience,
you will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.

Monday, May 21, 2012

St. John (Day 5, Part 3)

Bringing momentous day 5 to a close...

After we left Little Lameshur Bay, I was driving when I saw something that I have to admit gave me a start. We were going up a steep hill on a narrow road when suddenly a huge truck started coming down! Had to drive halfway off the road with no guardrail and a steep drop off into the jungle to let it by. Not something a Midwestern man of the plains like me is used to!  As we got back to 107, we saw a mongoose. I knew they were around on St. John, but we had never seen one before. One more sighting on the way home: two wild white donkeys (or burros or something) along the road.

After we drove home, we ate, tanned, and swam in the pool for the rest of the day. This was the first afternoon that we were able to (or maybe just noticed) that we could see St. Croix from the villa. We knew the island was south of us, but always just assumed it was too far away to be visible. Nice dinner and then we sat out and watched stars. I swear I can sometimes see a trace of the Milky Way late at night.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

St. John (Day 5, Part 2) - Octopus Sighting!

Now...on to the detailed story of my first octopus sighting!

I'm making a huge deal out of this, because I have always been absolutely fascinated by the octopus. As mentioned in another post, it's an animal I call an 'earth alien' because it seems like it could come out outer space (or at least an imaginative science fiction novel).  They have eight arms, no backbone, and a highly developed brain. They can problem solve, change skin color to match their background, change their skin texture to do the same, shoot ink to confuse their enemies, and squeeze their bodies through tiny holes far smaller than they are. They can even move around outside the water for limited amounts of time. Earth aliens!

In my reading about them, I had learned long ago that they are shy and prefer to hide than be seen. However, you can find the entry to their homes if you look for a small pile of empty oyster or clam shells (their principle food). So all through the years, I have been looking and eager to see an octopus in the wild. However, I have never been lucky enough to find one. The trip to Little Lameshur Bay changed my luck.

I was snorkeling well out into the bay along the rocks on the east side, when I saw five or six opened shells right along this large group of rocks. The shells looked so clean that I realized this was it. An octopus den must be nearby! So I looked at each hole and crevice I could find, searching for some hint of an octopus. Of course, knowing about their talent for camouflage I had to look very carefully or I might mistake the octopus for a piece of coral or rock. But I couldn't find it.

Then...BAM!...I realized it wasn't in the crevices at all. It was sitting right there on the side of the rock no more than a yard from me. It was colored to match the rock and curled up to hide its tentacles, but I was sure I'd found my quarry when I saw the eyes and the siphon. I moved around it a bit and could see the suckers on several of its tentacles.  It's head was about the size of a football but, because its tentacles were curled under it, I had no way to estimate how big it was. The thickness off the tentacles near the head made me think that for them to taper to a tip as they usually do that the tentacles would have to be 2 or 3 feet long, making for a diameter of 4 to 6 feet. Not enormous, but certainly big enough to send me into orbit! The picture above is not actually the type I saw, but it's pretty much the exact position I found mine in (just imagine most of the tentacles pulled up under or curled up around the base of the head, and the color matching the rock and you can get a fair idea.

Given the size and that there was no weird shape or pattern to it, I have to assume it was octopus briareus - the Caribbean reef octopus - which I assume is probably a pretty common type. This is a picture of an actual Caribbean reef octopus.  They seem to look like other octopi, but the only thing that makes me wonder if it might have been a different kind is that the pictures of the reef octopus I've seen seem to show a more extensive mantle with more connective tissue between the arms.  While I didn't see the arms of my octopus very well, it seemed as though the mantle ended much further up the arms.

Anyway, I was ecstatic! I just floated there watching him (he did nothing, so I guess I'm easily amused). His siphon pumped water, his eyes just watched me. I have to admit I did flap my fins towards him a little thinking I could get him to move, but he was far too smart to fall for such a puerile ploy. In any case, this sighting was the highlight of the trip for me and is something I have always wanted to see! Scratch that off the bucket list...(yeah, I am easily amused!).

Sunday, May 13, 2012

St. John (Day 5, Part 1) - Little Lameshur Bay

Click to expand
This day was the highlight of the much happened! So the document of it all has to be split into two parts.

That morning, I was able to convince Jim we should drive beyond the end of the road at Salt Pond Bay and head for the Lameshur bays. He was worried because the map specifically says "no rental vehicles beyond this point". Since most rental vehicles are 4-wheel drive jeeps, he was probably right to have doubts. But I checked the Internet for other people's experiences and thought the map was making a big deal over nothing. When we visited Salt Pond Bay, we walked part of the road. Lots of major potholes and stretches that were unpaved, but that's why we have a 4-wheel drive jeep right? We made the drive today, and I'm sooooo glad we did!

Little Lameshur Bay is beautiful! I lifted the picture here, as I'm becoming less interested in photographing things...I'm there why not just experience it?  Anyway, it has a nice sandy beach and loads of shallows both among the rocks/coral and in the middle of the bay where there is a sandy bottom and sea grass. This was great, because Jim got to see plenty of stuff close in while snorkeling, while I was able to explore way out into the bay. As a result, while we still love Salt Pond Bay, Little Lameshur Bay is our new favorite beach on St. John.

There's fewer people who get out this way, as the cruise ship people usually stick to the other side of the island and buses can't do the road beyond Salt Pond Bay. While there were about twenty people on the beach, it is so wide a beach that we were not at all crowded. When we arrived - around 9 or 10 - there were only four other people there! Close in, Jim and I both saw sea turtles and we could get quite close to them as long as we just floated along. They kept an eye on us, but didn't seem that bothered by us. Awesome!

I didn't explore the west side of the bay, but the east side has loads of rocky outcrops (which you can see in the picture above). This is a fantasyland of snorkeling: reefs, sea plants, rocky 'canyons', grottoes... It just beckoned me on and on, and I was at least two-thirds of the way to the point by the time I thought to come back in. I stink at estimating depth, but I think the water was about 20 feet deep as I got further out (by the rocks that is), but I also found inlets where I could stand in two feet of water if needed. Visibility was fantastic!

Of course there was plenty of coral, but some of it had its arms out despite the daylight. Looked like these were under rocks or in crevices where perhaps they don't realize it was daytime. So this was something interesting to see. Brain coral, finger coral, and circular corals that looked like unglazed pottery. With the latter, each one was occupied by a single darkish fish about five inches long that would chase away other fish.

The sea life was just as varied. Aside from the usual panoply of colorful fish, I saw 11 reef squid hovering in a line, shifting colors as I approached. Several sea turtles. Bigger game fish. A huge, angry red sea cucumber. A school of about 20-30 needle fish stretching off as far as I could see. These predators are thin, silvery, and have needle like teeth. They hang right near the surface, so sometimes you don't see them until you are right on top of them. The thing is I have never seen so many all together.  Then I saw why: massive schools of fry were hanging out near the rocks and in the grottoes. One school of well over a thousand were a cloud all around me, and each one had a bright neon blue stripe inside its body. Another smaller school had about 100 tiny muddy-colored fish in a round shape the size of a medicine ball. I reached out towards them and, instead of scattering, the 'ball' shifted shape as if the motion of my hand were shaping it! Really neat! And then there were two firsts!  I saw a bright red sea spider (see picture) which seemed to be harassing a sea urchin. And the best of all...drum roll please! octopus!!!! At last!

Since I have to run on about the octopus sighting for at least a few paragraphs, I'll save the story for the next posting.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mumonkan, Koan 20: The Man of Great Strength

Shogen Osho asked, "Why is it that a man of great strength does not lift his legs?"And he also said, "It is not the tongue he speaks with."

The man of great strength does not lift his legs because he does not need to. My answer recalled to me some lines from a poem I wrote during my Pete Retreat several years ago (the poem - 'Siegecraft' - is posted here on Zen Throw Down).

For the art of siegecraft
is to be...
and watch the world
wrap around you,
wand to sword to scepter

A strong or wise man draws his power from inside himself, so there is no need to act (to 'lift your legs'). This does not mean you should be a non-entity who sits around and waits or expects all things to move as you wish or imagine. You let this power inside of you - your essence - speak for you, and I think the more right-minded you are the more you amplify this essence to the world around you. There is a sense of strength, conviction, or truth that comes from you. So you do not 'speak with your tongue' but with your very presence or existence...with what you are.

I can look back at certain points in my life where I was definitely in this mindset and, at those times, it felt as though people and events conformed to me the way water flows around a rock. It wasn't that I was controlling anything or dominating people around me, there was a feeling of the 'world wrapping around me' rather than me conforming or adapting to the world.

When I am in that mindset, I'm not fighting things around me, nor am I submitting to them. I just am. Things happen as a result of this steadfastness. Perhaps this is what the concept of non-contention in Taosim is all about?

Monday, May 7, 2012

St. John (Day 4)

Back to Salt Pond Bay! Salt Pond Bay is a 45 minute drive from Andante. We have to drive all around the perimeter of the island and through Coral Bay to get there, even though it's closer to drive east. Problem is there is no road east through the National Park!

The bay was a hot and intensely sunny as always, but the snorkeling has never failed to disappoint. I saw two reef squid but, unlike prior years, they were not over the sea grass but near the coral. This made them easier to spot and look at. Each was about 8-12 inches long with big black eyes and hovered in the water fluttering their lateral fins. This year, I decided to dive so I could get real close to them, and they immediately flashed into a white color and backed away slightly. As I rose to the surface, they jetted away.  I always get excited when I see reef squid because they are cephalopods, and I'm fascinated by the entire group of animals.

A first: I saw a spotted eel. He was snaking around the bottom in about six feet of water, looking for a hole to curl up in for the day. Looked a bit like this guy pictured, only bright yellow all over, especially on his head. He was probably about two feet long or so. Not the biggest eel ever, but I can check that off the sighting list!

As I swam into the middle of the bay where the boats are docked, I was looking for big barracuda that usually hang around near the boats, but there weren't any out there. I did see a small sting ray and three sea turtles munching on the grass and rising to the surface for air. They didn't seem at all bothered by my presence.  There was also a large surgeon fish parked near the coral, with a tiny black and neon yellow 'angelfish' moving around him, probably nipping algae or parasites off of him for a meal.

photo by Jerry Kane
Another thing that often happens in the ocean that I like is you get a little fish or two (not even an inch long) that swims near you for protection. Sometimes, they can be very distracting as they will swim right in front of your mask, making you look cross-eyed at them. Annoying, I guess, but kind of cute too. Speaking of small fish, naturally there were tons of colorful ones to see, but I saw a whole lot of bluehead wrasses, chasing fish away (some were fish much larger than themselves), so I imagine it was some kind of territorial thing. They are really colorful and I always like seeing them.

Another familiar but always welcome sight are schools of fish. This time it was a big school - maybe 50 or so blue tang. For you cartoon people, that would be Dory from Finding Nemo. After snorkeling during the morning and early afternoon, we drove home and - of course - vegged by the pool and tanned. Then Jim cooked us a nice steak dinner! You can click the pic below to get a load of the fantastic setting.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

St. John (Day 3)

One of the things we like to do at Andante is see how many iguanas we can spot in the cacti and undergrowth surrounding the villa. These critters like to sun in the morning and evening, and I'd say the one at picture center here is probably about three feet long from nose to the tip of his tail. Click on the picture to expand it and enjoy in the 'Where's Waldo?' fun (there are at least three iguanas in this picture). The record number of iguanas seen in this particular cactus is five iguanas. Only a little zoom was used to take this photo, so they are very close and you can enjoy watching them move their heads around from time to time or occasionally inch from one side to the other. However, they are usually the picture of sun worshipping slackers.
We check on the iguanas everyday, and have found that the same ones seem to come to this cacti each day. There are other cacti around the villa but not as many tenants on those. One day, we saw a brilliant green iguana up there. He was a bit smaller than the others, but still a good sized lizard. In fact, the road that winds up to Andante is Iguana Road and I can see why they named it that. Aside from all the ones we see at the villa, several times over the years we've seen iguanas racing across the road. (They can move really fast when so inclined!) They shun humans but, one afternoon, I snapped this photo of an iguana right at the start of the path that leads from the villa down to the beach.  He was just browsing around, munching on flowers, and didn't seem too concerned about me being there. I can see why people decide to keep them for pets; they are really cool looking!

Today, we revisited Francis Bay for swimming and snorkeling. It's on the north side of the island and usually the current and waves are a bit more active here. This activity reduced visibility so we couldn't see the fish as clearly as usual. Part of the problem was we forgot that we should not arrive at a beach before 10:30 or 11 to get the optimal amount of light for seeing fish. It's actually not the light so much as it's not usually until then that all the morning clouds have blown away. Jim suggested we should keep notes of these little factoids we discover, but I'm not sure it would make much difference. We're both such early risers that by 9:30 we're antsy to get out and about.

This day was very low key, as well. After spending the morning at the beach, we had lunch at Mongoose Junction (yes, there are mongooses on St. John though we've never seen one). After that, we just went back to Andante and enjoyed the pool and worked on our tans. As I mentioned, the plant life was thicker this year than in prior years. I think this is a palm tree (or two) growing right along the west balcony. The giant leaves on these plants make you feel like you've taken a trip back in time to some Jurassic ecosystem. (This picture expands really big so you can enjoy the beautiful landscape behind me).

Saturday, May 5, 2012

St. John 2012 (Days 1 and 2)

Back to St. John!

Without intending to, we have ended up going here every other year.  This trip is our third visit, and I think warm weather arrived earlier this year - just as it did up North - because the plants were much more in bloom than on previous trips. The front yard of the villa (Andante by the Sea) is a sort of walled garden with loads of flowering plants (like this one). This time they seemed in full bloom, which was a colorful way to be welcomed back to Andante.

I had never liked the idea of going back to an island, because I felt like there were so many other places to go that 'repeating' was unwarranted. Jim was the one who stuck to the idea, and it has paid off. The key is there is so much to do and see on St. John that we can go back again and again. We revisit old faves and then try new stuff too. Plus, since we are familiar with the island, Cruz Bay, and the villa there's none of that 'first day awkwards' I usually have on vacations to new places. We just dive right in!

Of course, on St. John 'diving in' means kicking back by the pool at the villa and being all by ourselves. After arrival on Saturday and then all day Sunday, we did nothing but tan, swim, play cards, look for iguanas around the villa, sit on the deck, and stargaze. Perfect!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

crazy jay blue)

A late entry for National Poetry Month!

ee cummings wrote this one in 1958, and I've loved it ever since one of my best friends in high school introduced it to me by giving it to me as a description of myself. For at least seven or eight years I have kept a copy of it posted at work as a reminder of some of my strengths . I especially love the construction with the unclosed parens, which create a loop that suggests the poem goes on forever.

crazy jay blue)
demon laughshriek
ing at me
your scorn of easily

hatred of timid
& loathing for (dull all
regular righteous
comfortable) unworlds

thief crook cynic
fragment of heaven)

raucous rogue &
vivid voltaire
you beautiful anarchist
(i salute thee