Friday, May 30, 2014

New Music!

Going into Summer I've been lucky enough to stumble onto one amazing music release after another. Predictably, none of them are on major labels. Several of these artists have made their careers outside the major labels for a long time, so it's good to know there remains an outlet for quality music.

But I digress (and bitterly too!). Here is some first-rate new (or new-ish) music I'm recommending to friends for the summer:

MC Yogi - Mantras, Beats, & Meditation
I really wish I could remember how I stumbled onto this, because I would be sure to engage in the same behavior again and again! The music I love most is that which does something unique, which represents an approach or vision not to be found anywhere else. Northern Californian MC Yogi is unique because he makes religious rap music for Buddhists and Zen Buddhists. You're thinking: "No way!" but the religious aspects are completely credible, MC Yogi can spit rhyme, and the beats are solid. Further, traditional music is brought into the mix and the lyrics are steeped in Buddhist and Zen Buddhist philosophy. There are tracks about major sutras ("Heart Sutra", "Diamond Sutra"), the story of Siddhartha ("Buddha"), and parables of philosophy ("Ahimsa", "Ganesha and the Moon"). Judging Mantras, Beats, & Meditations independent of the subject matter, it's a great album from start to finish. It goes beyond great to become essential listening for a Buddhist or Zen Buddhist who wants to hear about our faith in a contemporary music setting.

Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
This album is actually a few years old, but it's new to me because over the past several years I've found my musical interests slowly drifting towards what I call "roots music". This is music that is largely acoustic, focused on lyrical themes (or depth) one might typically expect from folk music, and is sonically free of the digital "wizardry" that has killed popular R&B, pop, and rap for the last decade. Musically, The Harrow & The Harvest is just Welch and collaborator David Rawlings singing while playing acoustic guitar and banjo. The spare musical setting, however, doesn't keep the pair from creating songs that are instantly distinguishable from one another, thanks largely to Welch's sophisticated sense of melody. While the feel of the album is like a lazy, hot summer day in a bayou, the evocative lyrics are often tinged with an understated darkness that stretches a thread of tension throughout. Even the album title reflects this lyrical ambivalence. Not depressing nor self-conscious of its intelligence, The Harrow & The Harvest sounds simple but runs as deep as you're willing to wade into it.

Thievery Corporation - Saudade
This Thievery Corporation release, dubbed as "the quiet sound of Thievery Corporation" came out of the blue for me. The content was equally unexpected. After several CDs of upping the urgency and political commentary of their material, Saudade is a hard left turn into surprisingly gentle territory. In fact, it's rather like their classic sound from the 90's. This was a good move creatively as it reinforces that Thievery Corporation is a duo with wide-ranging musical sensibilities unwilling to be pigeon-holed by music critics. The neo-South American vibe of Saudade is well-supported throughout by a veritable 'who's who' of talent from the ESL label. Federico Aubele contributes guitar work, Frank Mitchell Jr. works horns, and a broad roster of female vocalists (including Natalia Clavier and the ever dependable LouLou) croon with detached seduction. And that's just the names I recognize. The mood of the music reflects the album title, which is one of reflective longing and (kind of) nostalgia. While delightfully grounded in acoustic sound, some of the tracks admittedly have difficulty distinguishing themselves. However, I've found that Saudade rewards repeated and close listening. If I were to knock the album, it would be for the failure to include lyrics (with translations please!). Overall, Saudade is a very welcome and timely return to the initial Thievery Corporation sound, which is well-worth spending time with again.

Mirage of Deep - Northern Lights
I've been downloading material by Spanish duo Mirage of Deep for a few years now. On the Lemongrassmusic label, Mirage of Deep have delivered widely varied ambient soundscapes and consistently refused to sit still. The duo really seem to explore new sounds and evolve over time. I believe their debut was 2009's Deep Flow, which sported the lounge ethos of the period (albeit quite well done). My first purchase was the 2010 EP Talking To Stars, which found them experimenting with astral-sounding ambient. That same year the "Luxury Living Room" single kept their lounge side going. Lounge and ambient were merged for their 2011 full-length Talking Earth, which was followed by my next purchase from them: 2011's ambient and nature-themed EP The Garden of Gaia. This EP took their ambient sound into a more musical arena, while at the same time incorporating different instruments (of which I can't tell what - if anything - is acoustic vs. programmed). The increasing complexity and evolution of their sound did not prepare me for Northern Lights. I've only recently picked up this full-length, but my initial reaction is to be dazzled by the breadth of music, instrumentation, confidence, and styles. Listening to this music truly fires your imagination and takes you on a voyage. The album that immediately comes to mind as a point of comparison is Vangelis' ambitious, beyond-fantastic, and genre-bending El Greco. If you like ambient music, Northern Lights is an essential purchase. It's literally a tour de force, including a mind-blowing remix of "Cloudless Sky" from The Garden of Gaia as well as an album length continuous mix. Aside from the high quality, the sheer volume of music offered on this release is overwhelming.

Charles Bruffy & the Phoenix Chorale - Northern Lights: Choral Works by Ola Gjeilo
Coincidentally, this classical music CD has the same title as the Mirage of Deep album. An award winning and critically acclaimed release, Northern Lights is heavenly sounding Christian religious music. To think that it was written by a contemporary Norwegian composer/pianist in his mid-thirties rather than excavated from some five hundred year old Italian cathedral is amazing. This music is like light: it's open and expansive, pure and wondrous. While I know nothing at all about the chorale music genre and do not follow it in any way, the sense I get from this music is that the composer and arranger have preserved the feel of traditional Christian chorale music while at the same time adding a bit of contemporary gloss (i.e., there can be just a touch of Enya here and a good way). I learned about this CD via local classical music station WFMT. Probably the first time in over a decade that a radio station has introduced me to new music (which is a sad comment on today's music industry). This is uplifting, beautiful music that transcends spiritual persuasion.

Triptykon - Melana Chasmata
On the other side of the spectrum, black metal's Triptykon have released their latest album. As anyone in the black metal scene knows (and as band leader Tom Gabriel Warrior continues to remind us in his liner notes), Triptykon formed after an exciting, but ultimately abortive, regrouping of the classic band Celtic Frost. Triptykon's first release, 2010's Eparistera Daimones, made it very clear the new band - while different - was able to fill the void left by Celtic Frost. While this debut was phenomenal, I have to say Melana Chasmata is even better. Warrior no longer needs to prove his chops; he's clearly got the goods (and has had them for decades). So the improvement - this is me totally guessing - might be the result of the band having an even better feel for how to play together. The 2010 single "Shatter"is a good indicator of what to expect on Melana Chasmata. This music is dark, dark, dark. Sonically, it pummels like Godzilla on a rampage yet still manages to sound like oozing, Dantean sludge. Oddly, one of the reasons for this enhanced attack appears to be the inclusion of standard pop arrangements, notably on "Breathing" and "Aurorae". While I'm sure this thought turns the stomach of any true black metal fan, these structures make the music sharper and more evil sounding. It's like having a hurricane channeled into a PVC pipe before the floor drops out for a harrowing guitar solo of doom and despair. While fortifying their credentials for abusive thrash, Triptykon continue to push the envelope in terms of what black metal can do and be. The question one is left with is: how much better can this band possibly get?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 27: Nansen's "Not Mind, Not Buddha, Not Things"

A monk asked Nansen, "Is there any dharma that has not been preached to the people?" Nansen answered, "There is." "What is the truth that has not been taught?" asked the monk. Nansen said, "It is not mind; it is not Buddha; it is not things."

If this is what has not been preached, then nothing has been preached. That is, in fact, what Nansen means. The truth cannot be taught; we must learn it for ourselves.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Abstract Art is Art

Franz Klein Mahoning 1956
Oil on canvas, 203.2 x 254 cm
Convincing people that full abstraction is reasonable art can be a difficult challenge, even though we are coming up on a full century in which abstraction has been a major component of painting. A while back, I set myself a challenge to write an essay for Zen Throw Down that might persuade 'non-believers' to consider abstract painting as art rather than automatically rejecting it. I've been letting the subject marinate in my had for some time, and I think I have something that's reached a form in which it can be shared.

In my experience, the main obstacle in persuading someone to accept an abstract painting like Franz Klein's Mahoning as art is the knee-jerk reaction to say it is "meaningless" or (even more often) that it is "something anyone could do".  So perhaps this is a good place to start. If we can get a person past this initial, visceral "aw, heeeeell no!" reaction, then there is a better chance to convince them to consider each painting individually and give it a chance, rather than simply writing off dozens of great artists and thousands of paintings for no reason except that they are abstract. To attempt more than this is probably not realistic since, as with any art movement, abstract art has its share of crap to dig through in order to find to the good stuff. So I'm not trying to convince anyone that all abstract painting is art, only that it can be art.

So let's start with the "anyone can do it" objection. To deal with it, we need to understand its subtext. When someone raises this objection, what I think they are saying is that they - and all of us in general should - expect an 'artist' to exhibit a technical ability or talent in portraying physical objects or people that sets their work above that of a non-artist. In short, they need to see evidence of talent. This is totally reasonable. To think otherwise would be to believe that masterpieces are no better than random bird droppings on a sidewalk. [As an aside, there are people in the art world who would say this is in fact true. However, such a position is not tenable since it would be foolish to create or buy art while claiming it doesn't exist.]

Despite it being reasonable on the surface, the problem with the "anyone can do it" position is that technical ability (of any kind) is not the most important thing in determining how good a painting is. In fact, it's not the most important factor for determining quality in any branch of the arts. While technical ability is certainly one avenue to judge the quality of a painting or an artist, there are plenty of technically proficient artists out there whose paintings are dull and uninteresting. Similarly, just because someone can write grammatically perfect sentences does not mean that we automatically assume they are capable of writing a novel anyone would want to read.

To illustrate this point more deeply, let's draw an extended analogy in music. A person can be taught to read music, play scales, and understand tempo. However, such technical ability does not bring emotion, relevance, meaning, or individual flair to anything that person might compose or perform. It doesn't make you a good musician. For example, there is nothing technically complex about early Elvis Presley music, the opening bars of "Stairway to Heaven" are fairly easy to play, and Ice Cube's gangsta rap doesn't require the ability to read music. Technical proficiency isn't what sent Elvis Presley into the stratosphere. Technical proficiency isn't the main reason "Stairway to Heaven" remains one of the great rock songs of all time. Technical proficiency isn't the reason rap music captured the imagination of a generation. What Presley, Zeppelin, Ice Cube and other great performers brought to their performances - their personal vision - is a critical part of what sets their work (and them) apart. Many people would argue it's the most important ingredient. In other words, 'you ain't got a thing, if you ain't got that zing.' For a true artist, whatever technical ability they possess supports their artistic vision, not the other way around.

Joan Mitchell Beauvais 1986
oil on canvas diptych, 110 x 157.5"
The same is true in modern art. It is wrong to dismiss abstract art as "something anyone could do" because - as in the music examples above - the best measure of a painting is not its technical execution. [As an aside, it must be pointed out that abstract paintings are - even from a technical angle - not "something anyone could do". Works such as Beauvais by Joan Mitchell require technical abilities related to working with oil, applying paint, and an understanding of color that not any random person picking up a brush possesses.]

So artists can display technical ability whether they are painting a landscape, a portrait, or something abstract. However, it is ultimately the quality of the artistic vision that an artist brings to the painting that distinguishes real art (abstract or representational) from trash.

Artists recognized this distinction centuries ago, and they acted on it long before the radical painters of the 20th Century assertively abandoned representational art. Pinpointing precisely when this realization became an active practice is not easy, but the earliest 'earthquake' likely occurred in France during the late 1800's. Examples include Cezanne, who abandoned a strictly realistic depiction of people and objects. There are also the imaginative compositions of Van Gogh, Gaughin, and others (lumped into the catch-all category of Expressionism). Many of these paintings are not especially realistic in what they portray or how they are painted. Instead, color and form primarily serve the artist's personal vision, not the goal of depicting anything in a technically 'correct' manner.

The most widely known example is the Impressionist movement. These painters intentionally blurred colors and dissolved shapes despite this being a less technically correct means of painting. For the Impressionists, depicting how light impacts the appearance of objects was far more important than a clinical reproduction of a scene from reality. Notably, late paintings by Claude Monet (such as The Water-Lily Pond) are very close to the abstraction many people deride in 20th Century artists. To go further, it's easy to see similarities between The Water-Lily Pond and Mitchell's Beauvais. While Monet's lily pond paintings all have a well-known subject, the fact is there's only the most tenuous attempt at representation in some of these works. They are just a hair's breadth away from Mitchell's abstraction.
Claude Monet The Water-Lily Pond 1917/1920
oil on canvas, 301 x 200.5 cm

While these are the most easily recognized examples, such deviations from reality in favor of artistic vision actually extend much farther back. In many classic works of art - even something as sacrosanct as Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel - we routinely ignore that they are laid out to eschew the normal laws of physics. Some famous Sistine Chapel images are not realistic. For example, Michelangelo depicts God carried by tiny children floating in the air to touch Adam's finger. From the same period, any number of Madonna and Child paintings present the baby Jesus with an adult posture and expression. None of this is realistic; it represents a choice by the artist to deviate from reality in order to more accurately communicate or portray the desired theme or meaning. In all these cases, the deviation is acceptable to us because most of us would agree that what the artist wishes to express is more important than simply creating a slavish reproduction of an object, landscape, or person.

The reason the experiments of the Impressionists and Expressionists were so revolutionary was that they codified the deviations. Theirs was a systematic and actively pursued assertion of the artist's vision trumping displays of reality. As such, artists like Monet, Van Gogh, and Cezanne set the stage for 20th Century artists to go even further. 20th Century artists regularly wrote manifestos explaining and/or justifying the intent of their new visions for art. With such determined activity, new movements (with principle artists) sprung up all over Europe. Fauvism (Matisse), Cubism (Picasso), Surrealism (Dali), and many more openly placed artistic vision in the ascendant. Personal style trumped technique, realism was passe, and subject matter was only a means to an end.

The revolution continued (and perhaps culminated) with the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950's, which included artists such as Pollock, Rothko, Mitchell, and many, many more. A famous example of this movement is Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles. Again, as you look at this painting, think about the ways it is similar to Monet's The Water-Lily Pond. In part, Pollock is standing on Monet's (and others') shoulders and simply moving further in the same direction. The same is true for the whole abstract art movement compared to prior movements.
Jackson Pollock Blue Poles 1952
oil on canvas, 6' 11" x 15' 11"

Despite this fact, while Monet, Cezanne, and Van Gogh are deified by most people, the Abstract Expressionists and other later movements (e.g., Minimalism) are flatly rejected. Most often this rejection occurs because the works are not a painting of anything, which is ultimately the "anyone can do it" objection. The reason art geeks tend to look askance at this objection is that many people who use it to reject Abstract Expressionism accept all the experiments of all the Monets, Picassos, and Van Goghs that led up to abstraction. If you think about it, that is somewhat akin to loving the movie Star Wars but, when the Death Star is destroyed, claiming the movie has jumped the shark. How can you like all the stuff that led up to this logical conclusion and then reject the logical conclusion?

The other objection to abstract paintings like Blue Poles and Beauvais is that they are "meaningless". But this objection doesn't really hold water either. And for the same reason: lack of consistency. After all, what is the meaning of The Water-Lily Pond? What is the meaning of a Van Gogh sunflower still life? We accept many works of art as masterpieces knowing full well they have no intrinsic prosaic "meaning". We love them because they represent the artist's unique vision/style and/or because they speak to us on some level. The thing is that accepting a painting as art for this reason is ultimately the point of Abstract Expressionism. If prior artists could express themselves when ditching form (Monet), single perspective (Picasso), realistic use of color (Matisse), or even reality itself (Dali), then why can't a Pollock, Mitchell, or Rothko express themselves without the use of subject matter? In a very real sense, the move to full abstraction is the Death Star blowing up at the end of a Star Wars movie that began with Cezanne, Van Gogh, and the Impressionists.

Mark Rothko No. 14 1960
oil on canvas, 291 x 268 cm
The other, and far more damning, problem with the "meaningless"argument is that it assumes the only possible meaning a painting can have is one the artist intends or portrays through the objects he paints. This doesn't make any sense. What is often the case - in poetry, music, literature, and painting - is that the meaning of a piece is something of our own. something we bring to the painting/song/poem. It's our interpretation that gives the work meaning.

For example, for me, the meaning of Rothko paintings (such as No. 14) is that they visually represent the correct mind state achieved in Zen Buddhism. The simple composition of No. 14 suggests to me a Zen altar; the colors bring to mind the experience I have have during zazen. The colors and shapes in his paintings vary and, with each variation, they suggest a different kind of meditative state to me: euphoria, early morning quiet, even a seasonality at times. So, for me, there is a Zen Buddhist spirituality in Rothko's paintings. This makes these painting deeply meaningful to me.

I have no idea if my interpretation matches Rothko's intended meaning (or if Rothko had an intended meaning). I have not read much about Rothko as a man. But it really doesn't matter. Whether Rothko intended this meaning or not, this is what his paintings mean to me, and they have this meaning despite the fact that they are not paintings of anything. Abstract art can have profound meaning, especially when we bring something to the table.

Now I don't mean to suggest that we can never say something produced by an artist is meaningless without being accused of not bringing anything to the table. That would be giving a blank check to every hack painter on the face of the Earth. However, I will say that dismissing an entire movement of art and decades of output based on a knee-jerk response/dislike of abstraction is narrow-minded and lazy.

So with the "anyone can do it" argument  and the "meaningless" argument demolished, there really isn't a logical reason to dismiss abstract art as a whole. Of course, this doesn't diminish any ones right to their subjective taste. People have the right to dislike any painting or painter. Sometimes we just don't like something. Period. That's a legitimate reaction to any piece of artistic output. My purpose in this essay is to attempt a persuasive argument against using the knee-jerk anti-abstraction response as a legitimate assessment of a movement. To say that we can't dismiss abstract art as a whole for these reasons.

Image: Petra Tornado
To conclude, I'd like to share a quote from a brilliant thinker: Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire was a poet, activist, critic, celebrity, and free spirit who knew and was allied with Picasso and other great modern artists to be in Paris during the early 20th Century. He saw the greatness of many of these artists before most anyone else and, in some cases, is heavily responsible for us knowing about them at all. He even is credited with inventing the word 'surrealism'. He wrote extensively about modern art and, in his awesome essay 'On the Subject of Modern Painting' (written in 1912), he does the best job I've ever read of explaining why modern art and by extension, abstract art, is legitimate.
"If the aim of painting has remained what it always was - namely, to give pleasure to the eye - the works of the new painters require the viewer to find in them a different kind of pleasure from the one he can just as easily find in the spectacle of nature...In listening to a concert, the music-lover experiences a joy qualitatively different from that he experiences in listening to natural sounds, such as the murmur of a stream, the rushing of a torrent, the whistling of the wind in the forest, or to the harmonies of a human language founded on reason and not on aesthetics. Similarly, the new painters provide their admirers with artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades and independent of the subject depicted in the picture."

Excellent food for thought. Thanks Guillaume!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

St. John (rest of trip)

Gimlets and a sea view from the back porch
Most of the rest of our trip was spent at the villa, just kicking back. In general, I prefer to be a bit more active on a vacation. However, we had discusses that - after four visits - perhaps it might be time to plan visiting other places in the future. Also, we both liked the idea of just being lazy, and there could not be a better environment for it than the privacy of Andante. We took a few selfies for kicks, and we had more gimlets (I got really happy one afternoon).

Our last true activity was spending a half day deep sea fishing, which I'd not done in St. John. We rented a private boat because the last time we went deep sea fishing we were crowded on a boat with two dozen other people. The crowd was kind of a hassle as wasn't as it seemed like we spent half our time untangling lines from other anglers. Having our own boat was a much more relaxing way to travel and fish.

Despite my initially catching a mahi mahi, we had a very slow start. The sky was clear and the sea very calm and, according to our captain, the best fishing happens when the water is a little disturbed and/or there is lower visibility. But we were fine with sitting out on the boat, having something to drink, and getting more sun.

Soon enough, the work set in and we caught grouper, red snapper, and yellowtail. Jim even caught a baby barracuda and a remora. We attached the remora to our hands to see what the suction disk felt like before letting it go. There was talk of a whale shark patrolling the area, but we didn't see it. I'm pretty sure I would have jumped into the sea to swim with it had we successfully gone to look for it. At the end of the day, we didn't have a massive catch, but we had a good amount of action and that's pretty much all we were looking for.

After we were done fishing, we went back to Andante and pretty much stayed there. We discovered Candi's Delights, a restaurant with BBQ as good (or maybe even better) than Uncle Joe's but without the attitude from the she-trolls who work at Uncle Joe's. We also did a little shopping...a very Cruz Bay just doesn't offer a whole lot in that area. But mostly it was all about suntanning, pool time, hammock naps, stargazing, watching sunsets, iguana spotting, and cards (I finally put an end to Jim's outrageous winning streak!).

As we Friday evening came along and the sun started to set, we had to say our goodbyes for real. After spending four trips at Andante, it was tough to leave knowing we might not be back. Andante had really become like a home away from home, so it was sad to think that we might not see it again.

But all things come to an end, and we know that there are many new adventures yet to come.
Our last sunset in St. John

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Zen Throw Down: Top 10 Posts

Here are the top 10 Zen Throw Down posts, measured by page views. The titles are links to the posts. I'm happy to see that the most popular posts are those related to Zen Buddhism since that has become the core of the blog.

1. Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God? 
Number one by a big margin, this post arose from having been asked this question (or asking it of myself, I can't remember which). What struck me most about the question the first time it was posed was how odd it seemed to me that I had never given it any thought, despite having been practicing zazen and identifying as a Zen Buddhist for many years at that time. As I thought through my answer aloud, I was surprised at where I was led...and how quickly and easily I got there. The fact that I had not needed to answer the question before was part of what made the answer fairly obvious!

In the aftermath of coming up with my answer, I was not sure which is worse to deists: being an atheist or saying that the question of God's existence is not relevant. I will say that atheists may place more importance on the god/no-god question than I do, which seems a bit strange. Atheists may have dismissed god philosophically but enthroned him politically.

Of course, I understand why the issue is important for atheists (and others) from a social and legal (and political) perspective. In the United States, which is founded on the concepts of separation of church and state and freedom of religion, we unfortunately find ourselves more often than ever having to tangle with the Christian god in the secular realm. I believe that this flare-up of activist Christianity is a sign that religion - at least the dogmatic, repressive kind - is losing it's grip on United States citizens. And I think the dogmatists know it.

If this question (or my post about it) is interesting, make sure you also check out the follow-up post: Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God? (Part 2). This one is my attempt to apply the ideas of the first post to some of the "big issues" in life. Both posts received excellent (albeit anonymous) comments and input from visitors to the blog.

2. Zen Buddhism and Existentialism
Wherein I propose that Existentialists are depressed Zen Buddhists.

3. Concrete Poetry
Includes Pedro Xisto's Ephitalamiun. (I'm sure the hits to this page are due entirely to that fact!)

the edition of the Mumonkan that I use
4. Mumonkan, Koan 14: Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two
Happy to see so many posts related to my working through the Mumonkan are receiving hits. I don't think I ever got over my doubts abut the wisdom of posting my 'solutions' to these koans on Zen Throw Down, but I'm obviously not as worried about it as I was at the outset.

5. Mumonkan, Koan 18: Tozan's 'Masagin'

6. Mumonkan, Koan 13: Tokusan Holds His Bowls

7. Mumonkan, Koan 12: Zuigan Calls His Master
This one contained - for me - some valuable cautions for the solo practitioner.

8. Jean-Paul Sartre - 'The Wall'
Excellent short story and introduction to Sartre and his philosophy.

9. Mumonkan, Koan 6: The Buddha Holds Out a Flower

10. Mumonkan, Koan 12 (continued): Loose Marble
We can make great progress when we fail to progress. The original koan post is #7 in this list, and the haiku I wrote and reference is here.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Zen Throw Down Turns Five!

Selfie in my study, where Zen Throw Down is created
It's been almost five years since I started Zen Throw Down. I started it as a kind of experiment, but it soon came to be a journal. The interesting thing about blog-as-journal is that it has a very different dynamic than a journal I would keep privately. A blog is in an open forum on the Internet, which means that there are things which are not wise to post, too personal to post, etc.

As a result, I've found that the blog format encourages a different kind of journaling, one that is focused on events rather than navel gazing. While I have to admit there's been a fair amount of navel gazing on Zen Throw Down, I do think the blog ends up being more about living life than thinking/feeling about it. In some ways this makes it a better record of the trajectory of life, because it's always better to judge people by what they do and not what they say.

So here's a look back at the past five years:

The whirlwind of progress in gay rights was so unexpected, and allowed Jim and I to have a civil union ceremony and then get married.

Lots of athletics: I tried parasailing, deep sea fishing, kayaking, rock wall climbing, hiking, and yoga for the first time. And there was continued biking, bowling, lifting, and martial arts.

Travel: Las Vegas, Mineral Point, California, Bristol Renaissance Faire, Panama City Beach, St. John, Grand Cayman, London, Paris, and even a 'vacation to Chicago'.

Creativity: After a long period of low/no activity, there has been a resurgence. I got back into piano (for a while anyway) and flirted with art. I shared some old writing projects (The Real Egypt and The Ancient Elm cycle) but also began new ones (Haiku Thursdays and getting back into writing poetry).

Spiritually, Zen Thrown Down has lived up to its name with entries relating to a moment or two of kensho, various Zen exercises I've invented, and celebrating the writing and legacy of Bodhidharma. My sitting has become more frequent, I joined a sangha, and then there is my ongoing study of the Mumonkan.

Getting back into reading has been a very positive outcome of keeping this blog: I read (most of) Melville's novels in the order he wrote them, devoured a bunch of obscure works by early Twentieth Century novelists, and am closing in on completing Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle.

Beyond all this, there has been plenty of miscellanea (or errata, depending on how you take it): my martial arts movie obsession, music reviews of all kinds, learning to love sushi, making my first serious art purchase, robins hatching in a nest outside my study window, amped-up activism/giving, loads of op-ed pieces (some less crazy than others), and just records of time with friends.

Christmas parties...

...and - of course - Halloween!

It's been a great five years...Here's to the next five!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

St. John (Day 4)

We left Andante early (in the care of an unprecedented six iguanas on the deck-side cactus) and drove around the island to Salt Pond Bay, where we have had great snorkeling experiences before. This time, we were not planning to snorkel. Instead, we decided to hike the Ram's Head Trail, which heads out to one of the southernmost points on St. John.

The hike wasn't difficult (the trail is only two miles round trip), but this part of the island is hot, humid, and bakes under a brutal sun even with cloud cover. And it was all uphill with jutting stones in the trail that could easily send you sprawling onto rocks and barrel cactus. This made the hike a bit time consuming (somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes round trip. Of course, we were snapping pictures and at other times trying to figure out where the path was.

During the hike, we were reminded how varied the landscape is on St. John. There was a large salt pond just past the bay at the start of the trail, then we went up into the rocky scrub of the point. As we approached the sea, we came to a side trail that led to an overlook. The view was wonderful, including a sheer drop into a crevasse where the ocean roiled two or three stories down. Even here, the jagged rocks were supporting life. A beautiful green tree abloom with flowers grew off the rock, like a delicate fairy in the middle of an ogre's den. Jim was not thrilled with me venturing near the edge, but I had to see this inhospitable natural beauty.

The next highlight was a wide beach completely covered in cobblestones. Each one was a paperweight-ready smooth stone. I can't imagine how long it took to for the sea to smooth all these stones and pile them over the entire beach. As the waves came in and ebbed, they made a sound like one of those new age rainsticks. I imagine the snorkeling on this beach must be very good, but the idea of hauling snorkel gear all this way is a bit daunting. If I could have popped it in a backpack, that might have worked. While I'm not sure a backpack would have been comfortable on hike like this, a swim certainly would have been a nice way to cool off!

Looking west towards Andante
The rest of the trail to the Point is dry and high above sea level. More rugged crevasses on the east side provided great views. On the west side, the view of Salt Pond Bay - and really all the bays along the south side of the island was amazing. We tried to spot our villa, but we couldn't quite figure out which point Andante looked out on in order to locate our home away from home. The Point itself also offered some great views.

While we were stopped at the point and before turning back, it was sobering to remember that the area has some dark history. Slave owners victimized the indigenous people of the island. From what I read, Ram's Head Point was a rough but welcome refuge for many escaped slaves. Survival here could not have been easy. But it was hospitable enough that, during a slave uprising in 1733 by the Akwamu tribe, historians believe Ram's Head Point may have been a stronghold for the slaves. When their uprising was being put down, apparently a group of warriors committed suicide rather than be captured and return to slavery.

I don't mention this history (similar to what we learned about the sugar mill we visited years before) to be depressing, but it does seem important to keep in mind that in spite of all this beauty there was some deep human ugliness on this island in the past.