Sunday, July 27, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #1: Guitar vs. Piano

It's been about five or six weeks since I started talking acoustic guitar, and it's been a totally fun and rewarding experience. While I shouldn't do it, I can't help but compare piano and guitar and wondering which is better.

I love piano, but what amazes me about the guitar is how intuitive it is to play. Within days of picking it up, I was playing 'songs' and felt very comfortable noodling around. I never had that kind of connection with a keyboard. Of course, this comfort doesn't take into account steel strings biting into my fingertips, building callouses, and some awkward hand positions. Or that during the first couple weeks I often had to stop playing because my fingertips just hurt too much to keep going.

The way songs are played and notated on guitar is much simpler than piano, as well. Often you only need to know the chords of a song and nothing else to jump in and start playing it. Guitar tabs are offered up free of charge on the Internet, making it easy to try new songs in a casual way. Guitar is also much more rewarding with pop, folk, and country songs than piano.

The portability and low-frills of a guitar is also a new experience for me. I could play it anywhere, whereas a piano is pretty much stuck in one spot and portable keyboards are a poor substitute for the real thing. Along with this, I only need a pitch pipe with the low E-string tone working to tune a guitar. Tuning a piano requires calling in an expert. Working with and maintaining a guitar is just a lot easier.

Now I'm sure that a at least some of my ease with this instrument is the result of what I learned from all those piano lessons, but there's no question that guitar is easier to develop a basic skill set on than piano is. And on guitar it feels like a basic skill set gets you a lot more mileage than it would on piano. As one progresses, I wonder if the piano becomes more appealing due to the greater complexity of what you can compose and play. I do sense piano has a lot more nuance, while guitar requires electricity and pedals and weird tunings to get to the same place...not sure if that's true just an impression.

Early days, but right now there is a part of me that wishes I could back into time to eight-year-old me and say: "No!!!!! Don't switch to piano!"

Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Player Dog Rest in Peace" & The Power of the Arts

cover of "Player Dog Rest in Peace"
A friend of mine posted on Facebook that, as she was going through old folders, she found a copy of the poetry chapbook I published back in 1996, titled "Player Dog Rest in Peace". I shared the cover on Facebook and several friends remember and/or still have a copy of it!

Seeing the post from someone else reminded me how happy I am that I put out the effort to publish this. I didn't make much money (I covered the printing costs and had enough extra to buy a nice dinner during a night out with friends). And it didn't "lead anywhere" (i.e., I'm not a famous poet). However I've long since learned that, if we only do things that make money or lead somewhere, that we're missing some of life's most enriching opportunities and experiences. I learned a lot from creating and publishing "Player Dog Rest in Peace".

The power of this chapbook is what it conjures up in me. I smiled the instant I saw the picture posted by my friend, because a flood of memories associated with it and the poetry it contains - which was all written during my first few years living in Chicago - came to mind:

  • Reading "Intro to Urban" at the Green Mill with a jazz trio playing "Cantaloupe Island" behind me
  • Afternoons and evenings hanging out at La Piazza coffeehouse on Broadway
  • Being a featured poet in the Poets Alive! series at Cafe Voltaire
  • My experience of love at first sight, which ended very sadly within days and led me to write "Dominoes", a poem published by four publications within a few months
  • Having over a dozen poems published in various small press zines
  • Performing my gay rap song "Icebreaker" at Pong Jam (again with a band behind me)
  • Lifting interesting phrases from opaque personals in The Reader (the title for the poem "Apocalypse Surfer" being one) 
  • Seeing rapper Guru perform live with jazz legend Donald Byrd (and Vanessa Daou opening)
  • All the crazy little theatre venues: Annoyance Theatre, Torso Theatre, and the Neofuturarium
  • Discovering Sartre and Nikki Giovanni and loads of other writers while riding the el to wherever I might have been going at any particular time
  • Seeing a tour bus go by and then realizing in shock that someone was taking a picture of me(?)
  • All the fun I had drawing the cover, designing the book, and playing with fonts
  • Sitting in the window of my third floor walk-up, with my feet dangling into space and writing as the sun set, while listening to the latest acid jazz CD I'd picked up at Evil Clown Records 
  • Going out for Ethiopian food with friends and finding a man there playing a giant kora harp
  • The joy of completing large poems like "The City is Made of Music" and "I am Pete; I Be Writing"

This period of my life seemed to be one moment like this after another, and it lasted something like three years. It was one of the best times of my life, partly because I was writing, publishing, and performing so much but also because what I was writing was such a perfect prism of my experiences in the city as well as all the things going on in my life. I was writing very personal poetry and creating a kind of private language, yet it was all very accessible work that captured a place and time in words. At the tail end of it, I met Jim and - before I knew it - one chapter of life came to an end and another began.

As for the title of the chapbook? When I was a little kid and we drove into the city, I always remember seeing this overpass where someone had spray painted the phrase "player dog rest in peace". For me, this was the gateway to Chicago. While I always wondered who wrote the graffiti and why, I'm glad I never found out and it remains a question mark. Anyway, after I moved into the city (as I'd wanted to do for most of my life), that overpass graffiti immediately suggested itself as the ideal title for this chapbook I was making to compile all the poetry that encapsulated my experiences in Chicago.

Almost two decades have gone by. The overpass graffiti has been erased, La Piazza is closed, Evil Clown and Cafe Voltaire are both gone, and the neighborhood I lived in is a lot more like Lincoln Park than the diverse, quirky, rough around the edges community I remember. And I'm different too. I'm definitely not that brassy little gamin with the oversized clothes and backwards baseball cap (think The Little Rascals with a grunge/hip-hop make-over) who moved to the city to - as I wrote in the poem "Intro to Urban" - "walk rainbow streets/and take a hit on the blunt of life".

I'm writing about this, because it's an example of one of the most powerful things about art - our own or anyone else's. Art encodes itself into our lives and captures parts of our lives like gas giant planets with a hundred tiny moons in orbit. When we experience that painting or song or poem again, we get to go back and relive those memories and feelings again.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 2: Hyakujo's Fox

image: The Gateless Gate blog
I had forgotten to post this koan! Maybe I didn't because, back over four years ago when I first integrated the Mumonkan into my Zen practice, I wasn't sure if I was going to stick with it. Or it perhaps it's because I didn't think I had solved it. (Or maybe I just dreaded typing it!). Whatever. I went back into my journal so the Mumonkan thread would be complete.

When Hyakujo Osho delivered a certain series of sermons, an old man always followed the monks to the main hall and listened to him. When the monks left the hall, the old man would also leave. One day, however, he remained behind, and Hyakujo asked him, "Who are you, standing here before me?" The old man replied, "I am not a human being. In the old days of Kashyapa Buddha, I was a head monk, living here on this mountain. One day a student asked me, "Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation of not?" I answered, "No, he does not." Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox. I beg you now to give the turning word to release me from my life as a fox. Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?" Hyakujo answered, "He does not ignore causation." No sooner had the old man heard these words than he was enlightened. Making his bows, he said, "I am emancipated from my life as a fox. I shall remain on this mountain. I have a favor to ask of you: would you please bury my body as that of a dead monk."

Hyakujo had the director of the monks strike with the gavel and inform everyone that after the midday meal there would be a funeral service for a dead monk. The monks wondered at this, saying, "Everyone is in good health; nobody is in the sick ward. What does this mean?" After the meal Hyakujo led the monks to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain and with his staff poked out the dead body of a fox and performed the ceremony of cremation. That evening he ascended the rostrum and told the monks the whole story. Obaku thereupon asked him, "The old man gave the wrong answer and was doomed to be a fox for five hundred rebirths, Now, suppose he had given the right answer, what would have happened then?" Hyakujo said, "You come here to me, and I will tell you." Obaku went up to Hyakujo and boxed his ears. Hyakujo clapped his hands with a laugh and exclaimed, "I was thinking that the barbarian had a red beard, but now I see before me the red-bearded barbarian himself."

Yeah, it's a long koan and it's rather unique because of its length. It's also unique because it contains this fantastical, supernatural story involving a form of 'divine punishment', which I find distasteful. After reading my notes about it in my journal, I think it's pretty clear I didn't really 'solve' it.  Maybe the length threw me?

My initial reaction had been to ignore the wacky story and focus on the interaction with Obaku. However, as I think about it now, that was probably a mistake (more on that in a bit). What I initially got out of this koan is how dangerous it is to give answers (this is why Obaku boxed Hyakujo's ears and why Hyakujo was so pleased that he did so). It's really suggesting that the old man's offense was not giving the wrong answer but because he gave an answer at all. To extend this, perhaps we are all foxes when we try to tell people 'answers' or hand them 'truths'.

Image: Marvin Schulz
This lesson also touches on perception through it's 'Russian doll' structure. The koan's structure is a story within a story within a story. The writer of the koan is telling us about Hyakujo, who has apparently related to him this story about an old man he met, and the old man is telling Hyakujo a yarn about being made a fox. So we are, at minimum, third or fourth hand from reality. This is another possible reason for Obaku to box Hyakujo's ears, for they were discussing interpretations of recollections of experiences, rather than dealing in direct perceptions.

Now, back to my mistake in dismissing the wacky story. In the story, Hyakujo's answer about whether an enlightened man is subject to causation is: "He does not ignore causation." This made me think of, how when I sit in zazen, thoughts always come to me as I clear my mind. What I've learned is that if I try to ignore those thoughts or silence them, they persist. It's better to acknowledge them, even as I do not pursue them. I imagine them as small helium balloon drifting towards me. I acknowledge each one and think "later" to send it away. Doing this make it much easier to clear my mind. This might be similar to what Hyakujo meant in his answer. Whether we are able to keep something from impacting us or not isn't the point; we cannot ignore it if we want to stay in the right mind state. Ignoring or suppressing something is an activity. An alert mind can be clear, but and active one? Probably not so much.

These are all nice take aways, but I'm still not sure I've exhausted this koan. Perhaps that was the reason I didn't post it way back when I worked with it, and it wasn't until much later (Koan 12) that I really grasped that koan study cannot be viewed as a relay race. Not getting a particular koan isn't a bad thing, and it's not something to be stymied by.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Speaking About Climate Change

Is this the important battle to win?
In a recent post (Climate Change is Real...And?), I laid out my views on global climate change. To summarize: claiming climate change does not exist is as foolish as claiming the Earth is flat or that the Sun goes around the Earth. At the same time, I'm very critical of the way climate scientists and environmentalists engage the public on this subject. By focusing on models that do not credibly prove their often hysterical predictions for the future, I believe climate scientists have not only have encouraged the irrational skepticism they complain about, but they have also drawn attention away from the real problems society faces related to this issue. 

Happily, in what can only be described as an ‘at last!’ moment, a major news outlet (BBC) has instructed its journalists to stop giving air time to those who deny climate change is real. In doing so, the BBC is helping to shift the popular discourse around climate change from the three-ring circus of extremist politics to the public policy discussion it should be. As Sir Mark Walport - Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA) in the UK - pointed out in a recent Guardian article, society needs to discuss how to respond to climate change. This includes investigating the role of science and technology, the pros and cons of alternative energy sources, and even the impact of livestock. 

Walport goes on to make an even more important point. He states: "We can only have a good conversation about this if we have good communication from the scientists. More scientists need to do it and they need to do it well." The italics are mine, used to emphasize that part of the reason the public discourse on this subject is so poor is because scientists have spent too much time discussing 'climate change' which, as a concept, is not intuitive enough to drive public consensus.

To explain what I mean by this, remember that one reason it was hard to shake geocentrism as a belief (aside from the violently anti-science mentality of the Catholic Church) is that when you look at the sky you see the Sun, Moon, and stars move across it, set, and then rise. From this, it's easy to conclude the wrong thing: that everything revolves around Earth. Climate change faces the same scenario. It's easy to have doubts about the Earth heating up when you experience the coldest Spring in recent memory or a winter with especially heavy snow. Normal observation appears to directly contradict the claim. People roll their eyes and say, "Oh you know those scientists..." 

Of course, scientists do try to explain why cold springs and heavy snow don't disprove climate change. However, at this stage, the debate is already lost. To crystallize: by focusing on 'climate change' scientists have run the public discourse off the rails in a way that makes it virtually impossible to get back on track. The public discourse will never go anywhere as long as the focus is climate change theory or the veracity of some model predicting weather in 2114. As Walport says, scientists need to talk about climate and "they need to do it well". Rather than improving the quantity of engagement, I would argue scientists must improve the quality of what they say. 

To this end, let's identify some of the many tactics scientists and environmentalists have used for ages to communicate about climate change. These tactics have given climate science a bad name, have simply failed to get the public discourse moving in a productive direction, and need to be abandoned:
  • Inciting Hysteria - The Eastern-seaboard-will-be-underwater-by-2050 stuff may be entertaining in Hollywood disaster movies, but scientists who spout it just come off as shrill and alarmist. Besides, these kinds of claims are based on models, which are not evidence of anything. Keep your credibility by leaving the crystal-gazing to the astrology folks.
  • 'Could Scenarios' - As in: "We could see another dust bowl develop in the US heartland". Yeah, that's interesting and...I could die in plane hijacked by a jihadist. There could be an Ebola pandemic next year. You could get skin cancer from too much sun exposure. There's a reason people ignore warnings of what could happen: because most of it doesn't. 'Could Scenarios' are a one-way ticket to irrelevance.
  • By 2030... - See inciting hysteria and 'could' scenarios. Don't waste people's time with your theories about the future. If you want people in 2014 to act then talk to them about 2014.
  • Tugging at Heartstrings - The most obvious example of this is the recent PR polar bears facing extinction. I know people will hate me for this but...who cares? Don't get me wrong, I care. I would love to save polar bears. However, if they do go extinct, it's not going to really impact me. And, more importantly, it's not going to impact 99.9% of human beings. If you want to mobilize people, you've got talk about something that measurably impacts them.
  • Days of Future Past - Examples: "Living in cities will become unhealthy" or "starvation will become widespread". Uh. Huh. Excuse me, what planet are you living on? 
  • Gibberish - Example: "In some models, ocean currents appear to be disrupted, potentially leading to a possible....." - The ..... is me not listening to you anymore as you drone on about something that may or may not happen at some unknown point in the future and which may or may not cause such and such to some unknown degree and I don't really understand any of it anyway...oh look, there's a new episode of The Kardashians on! 
Avoiding these tactics would eliminate most of the climate change discussion everyday people are most often exposed to. So what should scientists and environmentalists talk about instead? Two broad areas: here and now. I argue that scientists will be much more persuasive if they build intuitive sensible talking points focused on what's really happening right now. The only further requirement is that the talking points address topics broad swaths of people are affected by (i.e., no polar bears). Just a few examples of the desired tonality:

  • Due to changing weather patterns, yields from several crops have shrunk [insert %], leading to higher prices for a wide range of food [give examples].
  • Water acidification levels have destroyed coral reefs which harms sea life we depend on for food
  • Due to shifting weather, firefighters are seeing increased wild fires causing [insert damage in dollars per year]
  • Chart the annual cost of damage from storm surges in adjusted dollars over the last twenty years.
  • Hotter temperatures in recent years have slowed productivity of agricultural, transportation, and construction workers by [insert percentage] a year, leading to [insert dollar impact]
Note that there are no apocalyptic predictions here. No abstract climate change gibberish. Just concrete problems that are demonstrable in the here and now and in dollars and cents. They are also about topics (food, the economy, and disasters) that people care about. The nice thing about moving away from a focus on climate change science is that these issues much more persuasively convey that there is a problem. Therefore these issues - unlike abstract, impersonal climate change discussions - are far more likely to motivate action.

Robert Rubin, economist and banking executive
Coming full circle, once the discourse goes in this direction it's going to get much easier to introduce the broader issue of climate change. For example, the recently released Risky Business report (click here to go to their very impressive website) brings together the acumen of business and risk management experts to quantify in detail what the projected costs of climate change are (and also what they will be). 

This approach would seem to run afoul of some of the 'don't do' suggestions made above. However, the Risky Business report has a huge edge in credibility given that it's produced by someone other than polar bear huggers and climate scientists. Further, by giving the discussion a concrete basis in the present, projections then become more relevant. Partnering with business people in this way will likely be critical to repair the damaged credibility of the climate change discourse and to get the discussion moving in a productive direction.

In summary, to be effective at mobilizing people in stemming the problems we face from climate change, scientists need to do more than follow Walport’s advice and speak about it. They need to get smart in how they speak about it. That means getting their heads out of their (ahem) climate models and talking about climate change in a way that is meaningful and credible to people in the here and now.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Power of Everyday Zen

Jenny Trout:
"I Wore a Bikini and Nothing Happened"
Everyday Zen is a term I use (and, I think, coined) to refer to the practice of bringing the mind state reached during zazen into everyday life. The idea is that, once discipline of the mind is learned through zazen, that it can be applied at any time...or even all the time. [Here are other posts about Everyday Zen on Zen Throw Down: Ordinary Mind is the Way & Everyday Zen and then later More on Everyday Zen.]

I thought of the power of Everyday Zen when a friend sent me a recent article by Jenny Trout called "I Wore a Bikini and Nothing Happened". It's a short, humorous piece about a serious issue: body image. In the article, the author (pictured) describes how she refused to allow others to dictate whether she should wear a bikini, how she should feel about wearing a bikini, and - most importantly - how she should feel about herself.

Trout never references Zen Buddhism or Everyday Zen in her piece, not even indirectly. However, I found the spirit of her thinking to be very much like the disciplined mindset of Zen Buddhism or Everyday Zen. In particular, the way she filtered out and refused to be influenced by the negativity of those around her. This attitude or mind state is in direct contrast with what we refer to in Zen Buddhism as a deluded mind state. A deluded mind state can be many (many, many, many) things, but it sometimes entails creating our own suffering through second guessing ourselves, creating self-doubt, or dwelling on negative thoughts.

Zazen, by disciplining the mind, teaches us how to recognize when we are engaged in the right mind state. For me, I've learned what the right mind state feels like. That way, through Everyday Zen, I can be like an adult providing a gentle course correction to a child who's learning to ride a bike. More precisely, I become both the child learning to ride and the adult making the correction. When I recognize I'm slipping from the right mind state, I can subtly correct myself. Instead of suffering the pain of a fall, I facilitate riding (even if I'm riding a bit ineptly).

I had a situation like this (and like Trout's) occur to me recently. A little while ago, I posted how I'd started taking guitar lessons. While I was considering whether or not to do it, I got discouraged when it occurred to me that most people start learning a musical instrument when they are a child. And then I thought that it might seem strange to people to see an adult doing this. What I was doing was inventing a worry or problem in my head that may or may not really exist and then allowing it to influence me as if it were real.

This is one of the many poisons of a deluded mindset: we convince ourselves everyone is focused on us to a degree that is simply unrealistic. We over think the situation and, in doing so, place ourselves on a rack of self-consciousness and self-doubt that makes us miserable. And/or we allow the thoughts and judgments of others - real of imagined - to direct our behavior. Delusion - simply put - is a torture chamber we create in our minds where we are both the victim and the sadist.

Luckily, I recognized that this was not right-minded. When that happened, I dismissed all those thought and concerns. As it turns out, I have not received any strange reactions from anyone. Of course, I'm not sure what other people think about me taking lessons but, importantly, I am not spending any time pondering it or trying to figure it out. It's ultimately not important and, truthfully, it's most probable that no one is giving me and my guitar lessons any thought at all. If I'd turned away from taking them, I would have deprived myself of a new experience for no reason.

Avoid the maze of delusion (although, in Zen philosophy,
'contentment' might work better here than 'happiness')
The way I caught myself, and the way Trout pushed back on other people's judgement of her wearing a bikini are small examples of the power of Everyday Zen. The important thing to realize is that, by disciplining the mind, we gain power over life. Happiness is much easier to achieve when we're not our own worst enemy.

This discipline also thrusts ownership for one's own life back on oneself (where it belongs). Ultimately, we can't blame our own insecurities on other people when we're the ones with the power to decide whether they or their opinions affect us. Everyone faces self-doubt or harsh judgement in their lives; how we deal with it is what determines whether we will be at peace or not. We can either let self-doubt and outside forces rule us or we can be free of them. If we allow it to rule us, we cannot forget that we are the ones who put the chains on and wear them.

This is not to say that Everyday Zen solves all problems or guarantees life will be blissful and easy. Suffering is a part of life, and I have found there are always people who want to control me and who will punish me or try to hurt me if I do not let them. However, from experience, I have also learned that no matter how unhappy or painful their actions are in the short term, by maintaining the right mind state I will be content in the long run.

A saying by an ancient Zen Master named Dazhu sums it up best: "You are luckily alright by yourself, yet you struggle artificially. Why do you want to put on fetters and go to prison?...When will you ever stop?" (trans. Thomas Cleary).

Ordinary mind is the Way!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Zen Case Study: The Lightning Whelk

Everyday Mind is the Way
calligraphy by Nonin Chowaney
Something that can happen while in the right mind state is that we're present enough in the moment to see life lessons that are right before us. I call these Zen case studies. A Zen case study is never sought out nor created. It's not figured out or thought through. It happens like a bolt of lighting, yet it contains so much meaning that it resonates far beyond the specific event that triggers it.  They're also almost something that easily is missed if we're not paying attention.

As an example, many years ago we were staying at a beach house on Sanibel Island in Florida. The place is famous for shell collecting, but we were staying there off season to avoid the crowds. This meant the shelling was not at its peak, although it was still fun to walk the shore and look. During our stay, I immediately got in the habit of taking an early morning walk along the beach. No one was out, and even the sea birds seemed quiet. Just the wind and the waves.

I was walking very slowly, mainly because there was no reason to walk quickly. I wasn't going anywhere in particular, and I'd stoop from time to time to look at a shell or stare out at the sea. I also wasn't thinking much of anything. All the inner noise was silent, and I was only paying attention to the things that were happening right then and there before me. If someone had asked me what I was thinking, my answer honestly would have been: "Nothing".

At the same time, not thinking doesn't mean I was zoned out or a mindless zombie. I was totally aware of every gust of wind in my hair, the smells around me, the rising sun on my skin, the crash of the waves, the sharpness of sand and grit under my bare feet, and the coolness of water washing over my feet. So while I wasn't thinking, I was very alert of myself and of my surroundings. In short, I was in samadhi.

Eventually I decided to turn back. But even having a destination didn't alter my mind set. The decision to go back came and and went, and the only impact was that I turned around and walked in the opposite direction. My pace did not quicken, and I wasn't thinking about what I would eat or do when I got back. Nothing like that. I was still completely in the moment.

It was soon after I turned back that I noticed a disturbance in the surf that had not been there before. As I walked I noticed that each wave sliding up the beach recreated the disturbance, so it really was something unusual. When I reached it I found what looked like a piece of coral sticking out of the water. As surf fled back into the sea, it left a ten-inch long lightning whelk shell glistening on the sand before me!

The lightning whelk in question
Probably grinning ear to ear, I picked it up and washed it off in the surf. It wasn't the most pristine lighting whelk, but it was so unexpected a find that I was thrilled! It had clearly just washed up to shore within the few minutes since I'd passed the spot before. I held it and looked out over the sea, feeling like it had just given me a gift.  That's when the lightning struck.

I realized how easily I could have missed this gift from the ocean. I would not have seen it had I taken a more direct route back to the beach house, been staring at my phone, or walking quickly and looking somewhere else. It was a perfect case study for why we discipline our minds. Doing so let's us see the things that are right in front of us, things we know deep down but second guess or ignore while in the rush of daily life. And so much of what we need to know about ourselves and what to do in life is in those moments. If we just are open to it and not running away, wisdom washes up to our feet like this lighting whelk did for me.

Of course, once I was struck by the lighting of the Zen case study, my state of samadhi totally vanished! I instantly transformed into my ten year old alter ego, and I couldn't wait to show Jim what I'd found! Of course, I didn't say anything about the Zen case study. I feel it's best to keep Zen case studies to myself for a long time.  It helps them resonate more fully and cement themselves into my mind. Once we analyze them or talk about them, we tend to dilute them.