Saturday, June 27, 2009

Paul Mathers on yoga

First, the question you are doubtless wondering: Why is Paul Mathers learning about yoga? Well, I wanted to start a project where I seek to learn more about any number of things that interest me by talking to the people involved (or experts, if you will.) I thought that this might help me to be more compassionate, loving and generous and gain wisdom in being able to look at things from sides that I never would have imagined on my own. I thought that sharing things that excite and interest me is a fine way to reach out, meet new people, interact, grow and so forth. And maybe some of you out there might do similar things on topics you're interested in but know almost nothing about. I feel like this could enrich all of us.
Learning about yoga was a really interesting experience for me and took me to places and headspaces that I would never guessed.
Yoga would not have been on my normal bill of fare. Ever. But I met some people who sparked some curiosity in me and here is what happened.

If you were here in this room with me right now we could walk out to my car and drive up behind Oroville, back up winding Oro-Bangor Highway, past emu farms and old timey cemeteries and tire sculptures by the side of the road, to Marysville Road with fantastic views morphing from valley to hills to mountain terrain, right on 49 where in the other six of the year we would need to carry tire chains (left on 49 goes to the Gold Rush town of Downieville), up through North San Juan/Nevada City turn down a backroad (a very windy and thin one) past horse pens, a road with the same name as one of my ex-girlfriends, left by the little organic foods store with the vaguely scatological name, up another winding road with the falling down framework of a barn on the left and, in slightly under 2 hours, we would pull into a forked road with a sign in front that reads "Ananda Village." To the left and up the hill is Expanding Light, a yogic center. Forward is a small village which I understand is a permanent yogic community (based on Paramahansa Yogananda's concept of World Brotherhood Colonies.) At Expanding Light you will find a large building for classes, a fully organic kitchen, and several small cabins for visitors and private meditation. It is breathtaking with some of the most beautiful views in Northern California.
The people I knew from Expanding Light were some of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever met. Loving-Kindness, generosity and compassion came off of them in waves and washed over me as I spoke with them. I asked them a lot of questions about what they do, how they came to find out about that place, their work-study program and so on. Then I didn't see them again so I never got to ask some of the big questions that I had. I wondered what kind of doctrine was involved in their practice. So I started writing to anyone and everyone I could find who knew anything about yoga.
Let me start by saying that I knew next to nothing about yoga. I knew that there were some rather acrobatic stretches involved.
So I was determined to find out more.
I spoke with Tobi Sondgroth Becerra who is a yoga instructor at Cloud Nine Yoga Studio in Huntington Beach (for those of you in So Cal. Go check it out.) "Part of my teacher training is making sure that students that graduate from my school embrace ALL of yoga...not just the asanas (the physical practice that is all too often highlighted in the west)."
Which would be the stretches that I mentioned. This seems to be an issue in American yoga as there is so very much more to the practice than just the stretches that lead up to meditation.

So what is all of yoga?
Again from Tobi Sondgroth Becerra, "there are actually 8 'limbs' of yoga, as laid out in the yoga sutras of patanjali. the 'eight limbed ashtanga path,' includes the 'doctrine' that you speak of.

Here is the CNY version of the 8 limbs:

1. Yama (right action)
Ahimsa (compassion, non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (not stealing), Brahmacharya (not being careless with one’s sexuality) and Aparigraha (non-attachment).

2. Niyama (observances)
Shaucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (study), Ishvara-pranidhana (worship).

3. Asana
'The spinal column must be held straight and the body firm, in a comfortable position for meditation.' Patanjali doesn’t happen to mention the thousands of asanas we have been learning in Hatha Yoga classes. Asanas are steady poses that help us to concentrate and become ultra aware of our physical body. They move us into a meditative state.

4. Pranayama
In Yoga practice, breath control forms an intimate relationship with our life force (prana). The breath carries vital energy, giving oxygen to every cell in our body. Breathing exercises and breath focus have a great purpose in Hatha Yoga practice: it helps us pay close attention to our body and ourselves, it brings relaxation by creating mental serenity, it builds physical heat within the body allowing us to stretch deeply without injury and it rejuvenates through the release of dormant energy. Without proper breathing, Yoga postures (asanas) are incomplete and benefits won’t be attained.

5. Pratyahara
To relax deeply and have a clear head sometimes we need to detach ourselves from the external world. This doesn’t mean that we completely lose contact with outer reality; we just don’t let ourselves be disturbed by it. It is the feeling of hearing a sound, but it is far enough from us that it doesn’t cause us to react. The practice of pratyahara can be done in relaxation poses such as Savasana (the corpse pose), in asana practice and even in daily life situations. It teaches us that we have the power to choose how we respond to the external world by consciously withdrawing the five senses.

6. Dharana
When we focus our attention on a single thing, either with our eyes, ears or voice – we practice ridding ourselves of distractions. The goal is to become aware of nothing but the object on which you are concentrating. This is often done by fixating on a divine form such as a picture of a spiritual master or using a mantra. As we hold our minds within a center of spiritual consciousness, we are connecting to the Truth within us. The practice of Dharana eventually trains us to eliminate all excess chatter and bring stillness to the mind.

7. Dhyana
This is the state in which uncluttered mind and heightened awareness lead to complete stillness. The focus is clear and vast – awareness resting on the All in the moment, without preferences. We call this meditation and it can be achieved through practice of Dharana and Pratyahara, Pranayama and even Asana.

8. Samadi
Samadi means 'to merge.' It is the ultimate goal of Yoga. It is defined as a state of super consciousness where one has achieved, for any amount of time, oneness with the universe. This integration, or union of the All, is wonderfully blissful and is believed to be the true expression of the Eternal Self."

So, there I had a basic framework of what I was going on about when I misapplied the word "doctrine." One of my questions was whether yoga is a religious practice or not. Tobi told me that a lot of confusion stems from yoga being born from the vedas, which is a Hindu religious text "and it was born in a time historically that overlaps the birth of Hinduism. but yoga is an art form, to be sure. the art of living, breathing, meditation,'s a way of life." In fact, this was confirmed by everyone I spoke with (it is not a religion, but there are religious aspects to the practice.) A pastor friend of mine in town told me, when I mentioned I was working on this project, that there is a confessional Reformed Baptist church on the East Coast that offers a yoga class as part of their church. From the words of those I spoke with, yoga is a tool and an art form.
So, yoga is not a religion and would not contradict a particular religious reality tunnel any more than, say, belonging to a political party or painting or being part of a chess club or, more to the point, having a philosophy (which, I would have to argue, everyone does), nor would yoga replace religion. Now having a basic grasp of the limbs of yoga and seeing how it is a system that is applied to all parts of one's life (not just the time when one is stretching) this brought me around again to the question "what is yoga?"

I have to say at this point I began to wonder if I had taken on way too big of a concept for a single blog post.

Savitri Simpson is the current director of Meditation Teacher Training Programs at Ananda Village (the yogic community that was straight ahead on the road, remember, when we turned left up to Expanding Light.)
"The word 'yoga' means union... the process of uniting the little self with the greater self through various practices, chief among which is silent, sitting meditation and the techniques which help you to do that effectively... It is really much more than Hatha Yoga (yoga stretches or asanas) which is only the physical branch of the yoga sciences. Hatha Yoga is a means to an end, the goal being this being able to sit still in meditation, calming your thoughts, beginning to realize your true superconscious union with God or The Divine or All That Is or however you wish to look at something like this. It is a philosophy and also a way of life, encompassing every aspect of living."
I mentioned that I had a few years of Tai Chi experience and that I had found a sort of calm, peacefulness in me when I was practicing. Savitri Simpson replied, "A spiritual discipline like Tai Chi or Yoga or anything else has as its goal, whether stated this way or not, a personal unification process, that is, calming your body and mind so that you can realize who and what you really are- much more than a body, personality, mind, etc."

On the Ananda website they say:

"We seek fellowship with others willing to join hands with us in this loving labor for universal upliftment. Thus, by our united efforts, our hope is to share inspiration with ever-increasing effectiveness. We recognize that, whether or not others join us consciously in this labor, all human beings, each one individually, serve the Eternal Purpose, doing so by the simple act of seeking, either ignorantly or wisely, the bliss of their own being."

Which made total sense to me suddenly how a rather intrepid Reformed Baptist church with a grasp on the concept of synonyms would have a yoga class.
Needless to say at this point I was becoming increasingly fascinated with the concept of yoga. I went to the used bookstore (to be honest I went to look for an unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Christo) and bought Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I have just started it and I am also looking for several books as there were so many recommendations. Books by Donna Farhi, Swami Vivikananda, Swami Svatmarama, Ed Crowley, Gary Kraftsow, and James Hewitt. How to Meditate by Jyotish Novak, Light on Yoga by Iyengar. As I said, I realize that in embarking on this particular project I have set foot on the tip of a very large iceberg. You can probably expect a lot more posts on this thread.

I wrote to my friend Sean Campeau. He said, "Doctrines seem interchangeable to a yogi. That is not to say that ideas are toys to be tossed about with disrespect. On the contrary, practitioners seem to strive towards respect for all doctrines. Try on your neighbor’s doctrine for a few months. Really try to get into his spiritual head as part of a regiment of Bhakti yoga (devotional yoga). The more doctrines you are comfortable with, the more realities you can successfully mesh with. The more guitar styles I master, the broader my venue opportunities."

Which was a pretty good encapsulation on what I am aiming to achieve with this ongoing project of learning more about the world around me. My project is to find topics which strongly interest me, ask people who know things on that topic a lot of questions, and share what I have gleaned. This will be an ongoing project on this blog (and a wide variety of topics.)
Sean continued, "Don’t ask why. Just do the exercises, and PAY ATTENTION to what is happening. After successful Hatha Yoga (the Tai Chi-esque body exercises) you should know more about yourself/body. Teneo Vestri. Asking ‘why’ requires the construct of an abstract, cause-effect chain which may not jive with objective reality so much as the psychology/expectations of the answerer.
Sean tries to avoid 'why.' It’s so disruptive…
Observations follow curiosities along similar lines; there is no need to slow down the process with abstractions surrounding ‘why.’
The goal of yoga is Paul Mathers;
there are a billion paths that lead there, but the number of distractions is exponentially greater.
Yoga is a set of tools to help you reach the goal of Paul Mathers by avoiding the distractions."

At the end he wrote "You’re already good at yoga."

In all of this I am finding what sounds like a beautiful practice which I never understood nor was particularly aware of outside of the peripheral. So, I decided to try something. Having a teacher was recommended (and I think we probably all know that most of us near a city can easily find one) but there are some practices that one can just try out on their own.
I have to start by saying that this was very very basic and nothing more than a suggestion from a website. It is called Walking Meditation. It is simply this: stand, make sure your spine is straight, walk, let the scenery pass by, let your thoughts pass and don't cling to them, when you are done walking stand.
Now I have to mention I had a misgiving going in about letting the scenery pass. Part of the reason I go to Bidwell Park and not the mall is the scenery. In fact I carry a camera when I walk because of how attached I want to be to the scenery. But for the sake of the experiment...
And I found something I'd forgotten. This little experiment showed me that my brain is a tangled mess, full of stresses I don't even notice most of the time, screaming to be drowned out with noise. Also I don't usually stand up straight. I slouch. I imagine a lot of my problems come just from that.
It amazed me what a simple few moments of focus could show me about myself, the world around me, and the way my brain works. And I was struck by how I have anger in me, how it hops out at odd moments and I think "Gee, where did that come from? I didn't know I still had that in me." I begin to see some potential benefits here in possibly getting to know what really is in me and maybe gaining a few tools of self-control. And while I'm not sure that this is a practice by which one somehow gains, somehow is endowed with joy, peace, brotherhood, contentment, compassion and loving-kindness, I do think that it may be a means or a tool by which one might keep what is important and discard what is not helpful. I fully intend to do a lot more experiments.

My conclusion is that I still don't completely understand all of this, but that's okay. My understanding of myself, the world around me, God, are a process that grows and shifts the more I live. Also that living 26 years in Orange County and 5 in Chico may not have opened all of the answers, points of view and lessons that are out there. The more you dig, the more you find. Or, as Sean put it in his email, "Who cares if your cart is loaded with the best produce?
Who cares if your ox is the strongest in the land? Without a yoke to attach one to the other, neither will get to market."

More soon.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Can I Get You Something While You Wait?

I thought I might do a post while I am preparing my secret project (and waiting on a few responses and starting to read a whole book on the subject.) The project will post in the next few days for sure but barring any personal life changes (I still look for work, go for walks, talk with Laurie, watch movies and then go to bed) or anything to rant about, I find I don't have anything to post on between now and then. So, as a humble offering in the meantime, I thought a fun little post might be a few recommendations.

- BBC's complete works of Shakespeare DVDs- they probably have these in your library which means you can borrow them for free. If you live in Chico, I know that this is the case. Some of them are the best. I really do believe that this set contains the best film version of Hamlet. Their King Lear is excellent, as is their Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, and many others. There are also some that are not so good (I did not like their Macbeth.) But they are wonderful and you should watch them. You should devour them.

-1554- This is a dark ale by New Belgium Brewing Co. This is one of those beers that Laurie hates because she calls them "chewey." I love those. They are dark and chocolatey and they are like a meal. I like the Rogue ales, especially Dead Guy Ale. This is along those lines, but a bit mellower. Also, I used to use Dead Guy Ale in the my chili recipe but I may try this one next time.

-park walks- also if you are in Chico, you have a wonderful resource at your fingertips. You have one of the largest municipal parks in the country. Regardless, now is the very hottest season. I love hiking in this weather. I love walking, sweating, listening to something on my headphones, surrounded by trees, feeling like I can barely make it, being sore, kind of vaguely concerning my loved ones by having to call them and get them to pick me up far from home. Also, how glorious to get home, drink tons of water or citrus juice, bathe, sit down. Step out of your comfort zone! Go hike like a lunatic.

- TAL & Radiolab- If you are not already, you should subscribe to the podcasts for This American Life and Radiolab. You can even listen to Radiolab on my sidebar over there on the right if you are so inclined. They are the best shows on radio today. TAL is stories of normal, modern people. Sometimes tragic, sometimes charming, always beautiful. Radiolab is a show about big ideas and the science that surrounds them.
And if you like them, as they are public radio shows, send them a few bucks here and there to keep their podcasts free.

- Love By The Glass: Tasting Notes from a Marriage by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher- Laurie got me this as a birthday present and I am enjoying the heck out of it. It is by the wine tasting columnists for the Wall Street Journal. It is part biography, but also a very informative course in wine. It is a wonderful book. Guys, it's not the manliest things to carry around, the cover is beige with two intersecting wine glass stains and the title is in red cursive, but I tell you it is a joy to read. And, if you're anything like me, you've set precedents to the people around you and no one will even bat an eye that you are reading it.

Just a few things rattling around my brain over the past day or so. This was kind of fun. I shall probably do this again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The truth can be told!

Or half of it anyway. I am going to be rolling out the first secret project on this blog later this week (I am still waiting on a few responses) so I feel that I can explain this secret project here and now. The other secret project remains under wraps for a few weeks while we hustle up some cables.
The one that concerns you right now is this. I have decided to start an ongoing project in which I take a subject about which I am interested but about which I know little and go talk to experts, experience for myself, and report the results. This is kind of what I would, in my ideal world, like to do, that is to say become sort of an information conduit. I would like to be a professional sharer. It doesn't seem to be a very large field so I must probably needs relegate this to a blogtime hobby. However, I was suddenly struck by the realization that I have a blog, nothing is stopping me (especially in this hopefully brief period of unemployment) from talking to people from all over the place about things that interest me, sending unsolicited emails to experts and that sort of thing.
The purpose is to scratch my itch of learning new things and the delight of sharing them with others. Also to expand and grow as a person in ways besides the one I do as a result of my love of beer and candy.
So, within the next few days I present to you "Paul Mathers on..."
I think I can also guarantee that you will not be able to guess what my topics will be.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Quick personal update

I thought I would take a few moments and do a quick personal update as I haven't for a while. You'll notice that I changed the blog name. Dave Porter's suggestion in the previous post's comments which I found kind of wonderful so I did.

Tomorrow marks 8 weeks since my lay off. I am plugging along, continuing to put in applications daily. Nothing is dire or even all that tight for us. And there are some irons in the fire. It seems like I get calls about once a week and interviews about once every two weeks. It is just a matter of time and, while I continue to treat seeking work as a full time job, we are not worried.

Laurie starts her new job tomorrow which is both exicting and a little daunting. I think it sounds great. I think it sounds like she will run out of This American Life and Radiolab podcasts really quick with that six hour job every Thursday. I may have to hook her on The Bugle.
As mentioned elsewhere, yesterday was our two year anniversary. We had a lovely dinner.

Tony has graduated (you probably already saw the pictures) and both he and Gina are going to visit their dad in LA in a few days. Gina is talking about working for a non-profit NGO abroad after college (hope that's okay for me to broadcast on my blog) and we are both very happy and proud of her. Tony is going to work for his father for a time and then is talking about getting his HVAC certification. We are very happy and proud of him as well.
My parents are coming up for a visit in a few days. I'm sure it will be difficult for Mom, but I am also sure that it will be so so good for all of us to be together.

I am working on another secret project, one independent of the other secret project (and independent of Laurie although she knows about it), one that will probably manifest its self before the other secret project. I'm excited for both. You should be too. The new secret project will manifest here so stay tuned to this blog. The other secret project will be revealed when we finish the first installment.

Other than that, all is fairly well. We had a surprise this afternoon when I took the dogs out and a man in a truck drove by slowly and asked "Is that a Schipperke?" I told him that it was and that his name was Schubert. He said "I have two of them in the back of my truck!"
He pulled over and sure enough out hopped two Schipperkes. In an instant I knew once and for all that Schubert is not pure bred. It was neat and we talked Schipperkes for a time. It is so rare that one sees other Schipperkes about!

More soon.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Use What's Been Given

I wanted to take a moment to talk about a wonderful phenomenon from the past week which you may or may not have heard of. On the day of the Iranian elections,CNN's main stories dealt mostly with a) Sarah Palin and David Letterman and b) things that Dick Cheney, the world's loudest unemployed man, had said recently (oops. I'm getting dangerously close to breaking my "don't get political" rule in this post. Isn't it exciting?!!?) The news of the Iran election was scant, next to nil, really only to state that some election had taken place.
My own two cents on what happened next is that this is one of Gladwell's Tipping Points where the absurdity hit critical mass so much that regular folk, not just cranks like me, were also outraged at the ridiculousness of the major mainstream news sources in America. People took to the tweets. Twitter's #1 topics were 1) #IranElection (which actually remains the top trending topic at the time of my writing) and 2) #CNNFail. The latter should be self-explanatory. In light of how CNN so recently wrapped its self up in Twitter (back to the world of the ridiculous, of course you remember the contest between CNN and Ashton Kutcher to be the first Twitter user with a million followers) CNN monumentally backpedalled, has spent the past few days almost entirely on Iran and, in a further act of journalistic (or perhaps Stalinistic) cowardice or at the very least being grossly misguided, they stated on air that we are all wrong and that never happened and that they had been reporting mainly on the Iran election all along (the "What are you talking about, Billy? You never had a puppy! Quit lying!" tactic of public apology.) In fairness and balance, they then followed with a series on "The Power of Social Media." In short, CNN has behaved a bit like someone who never apologizes when caught publicly in a lie.

There is a current trend as well of changing one's location on Twitter to Tehran so that the couple dozen people actually reporting from Tehran will be lost in the flood of Tweeters claiming to be in Tehran to the Iranian government spooks who are monitoring Twitter. Journalists and citizens of Tehran are using the ease and relative anonymity, the easily concealed tool of a camera phone and texting, to give detailed reports from the middle of the action. It is kind of breathtaking.

All of which sounds a little unlikely in light of how Twitter has traditionally been reviled as vapid (as I pointed out before, it is only as vapid as those who wield it... although I have been struck with the cognitive dissonance in the past few days of Tweets about beatings, riots and corruption mixed with "I can't decided if I want tacos or sushi for lunch.LOL ." It's a bit like a Hotel Rwanda/Spice World double feature. Or trying to jump from a speeding train onto a tricycle) although I would point out to you that a story broke a few minutes ago about how the United States State Department asked Twitter to postpone routine maintenance of their site (which would pull Twitter off line for about an hour) because of Twitter's role in the coverage of the Iranian Elections. I am not making that up and I did not get it from some Art Bell crank. I got it from an MSNBC reporter, a NY Times reporter, a gay man in Houston, an online underground magazine reporter with (surprise!) a goatee, a musician from Brooklyn, some guy in Tehran, and a cyborg anthropologist from Portland. In a lot of ways, I love this age in which we live.

When I was driving for the produce company (apropos of nothing, today marks 2 months of unemployment for me by the way, but it also marks 2 years of marriage to Laurie which eclipses the former) I would listen to podcasts in my truck. One of my favorites was "Great Speeches of History" (again and not to be self-congratulatory, but the technology is only as good, evil, rich, poor, or vapid as those who wield it. Podcasts can be a wonderful free educational and/or artistic tool. They can also be a place for the audio version of The Man Show. We choose if we want to step up to our "responsibility", an unpopular word that I will probably be raked across the coals for using) and I recall the week, even the turns of the road as I listened to Newton Minnow's "Television is a Vast Wasteland" speech. It was weird listening to a man 40 years ago pretty much lay out exactly what happened to television to date.
One of his main points in the speech was that television had such potential to elevate a culture, to educate, empower and evolve a society. Instead... Well, I mentioned to Laurie the other day that I have probably spent over a day's worth of my life watching Gilligan's Island and I hate that show. This is why I don't watch television especially since ours does not pick up PBS. He implored the heads of television stations to rise to the great opportunity at hand and not be muscled down by advertisers and greed. Not to pander to the easy, the quick, the lowest, the basest. Not to fill children's heads with fast cut technicolor dross and adults with sex and violence, avarice, self-indulgence and discontent.

Guess what happened next.

So, along comes the internet and everyone has a voice. It is truly a democratic tool. Unfortunately a lot of people have been trained over the past three generations to act in certain ways, a certain etiquette and sense of humor has been carefully taught and has evolved from The Honeymooners through, say, Family Guy and South Park (or am I dating myself? There are probably even more modern examples but, as I say, I would not know of them.) And a lot of what we see with the internet is the people spitting back out behavior and humor that they have been taught by television (which means advertisers) for a few generations. We have obsessive branding disorder. We have trolls. We have macros.
We also have phenomenon that did not exist when I was a child. There are flash mobs and improv everywhere. There are blog celebrities and podcast celebrities. And then there are viral things. I am thinking specifically of Snakes on a Plane, Never Going To Give You Up and the three wolves howling t-shirt. All of which are ancient history by contemporary standards, but I bring them up for a reason, one of which is that we shall see their like again. I get that they all have elements of throwing popular culture back in the face of the greedheads constantly slopping the trough with your entertainment allowance. I get the joke of mockishly elevating utter crap to the level of masterpiece as social commentary. In one sense I can applaud such things for everyone standing up to the moneyholders and throwing their crap on a gilded plate right back in their face. Of course there is the problem that if you were one who camped out opening night for Snakes on a Plane, they got your money no matter if you were being ironic or not. And there is also the problem of isn't there a lot more important aspects of life than what's on at the Megaplex? I don't know. Maybe the Depression will sort out some of our priorities for us.
I don't want to come off as humorless either. I doubt those closest to me on a daily basis, my family: Laurie, Gina and Tony would ever make that accusation toward me. And I am certainly guilty of posting the occasional stupid video to share with everyone and there is without a doubt plenty of room online for everything. In short, the wasteland has the potential to be far more vast (and I am about 15 years late with that observation.)

I'm not sure we've reached the point where public outrage online could potentially bring down a major news source, at least not over this and in this manner and at least not yet. But this past week was an indicator of how forces have shifted. All would do well to take note.

Faced with great power (with which, thank you Uncle Ben, comes great responsibility) I am left facing a question. What exactly ought I do with all of this? Because like so many others (virtually) around me, I guess I find myself staggered with potential.

picture post day

The other night we sat on the porch with milk and milk chocolate and watched the lightning storm.

Cinco took the opportunity to sit next to Laurie and receive messages from her home planet.

Me in front of our house showing off to the world how much I need to mow the lawn.

Laurie reading on our stoop. It has been glorious porch weather lately.

Laurie wanted to show you how massive her "organizing Paul's cds" project turned out to be. This is not all of my cds.

Two from the paper mache elephant day.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Is it a world to hide virtues in?

"Conceal me what I am; and be my aid
For such disguise as, haply, shall become
The form of my intent."

When I was in my teens I started collecting the writings of countercultural figures of the 1960s. I was fascinated by their hope, their optimism, their rhetoric. Especially the concepts of peaceful living, sharing, community, love, respect, freedom, reverence, joy, and so forth.
As time passed I learned more history which changed everything in regards to how I viewed these ideals. First, I would hear from my father about the 1960s as he would spy me reading some brightly colored Yippie tract. My father was a Quaker in the 1960s and a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He had a very different view of the 1960s than the mainstream media's rewritten version. It was hell for him. It was a nightmare. He told me that those countercultural figures I was reading and putting up posters of, the ones who the media throw up on the screen with every 1960s montage, represented the thoughts of a few thousand people in the whole country in the 1960s, and they were mainly in two or three cultural hubs (which were not the cities where my father lived.) The bulk of the country was all gung-ho for the war, no matter how they try to rewrite it. And my dad has horror stories.

And then there were bits that leaked into my consciousness like Abbie Hoffman offing himself with a bullet in his brain; Jerry Rubin's Growing Up at 35 and death on Wall Street; Timothy Leary's CIA file where he very well may have fingered a few Weather Underground folk; Allen Ginsberg's kind of obvious self-promotion and lack of greatness in his work post, say, White Shroud (I have The Ballad of the Skeletons within arm-reach to prove it!); Hunter Thompson offing himself with a bullet in his brain; The Grateful Dead in the year Jerry died making more money than IBM (plus the Grateful Dead sounding like they did anytime after, say, about 5 years after Pigpen died. Who in their right mind even owns a copy of Go To Heaven?) Add to that my going to Dead shows and Phish concerts and taking trips to the Bay to try to find some of this wonder, loving kindness, energy, and instead finding some of the most self-absorbed and self-serving pessimists I've ever met. Where was the love? Where was the peace? Where was the community?
Where indeed.

The best and most abiding thing to come from the 1960s counter-culture is Sesame Street.

Then, Laurie and I watched Twelfth Night the other night. There is a sub-plot (which I think actually takes up the bulk of the stage time) that largely revolves around two polarized characters. The two in question are Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch. Malvolio is a Puritan (not exactly overtly although at one point one of the characters likens him to one. It is clear that Puritans were the group that Shakespeare meant to lampoon with that particular character. Bear in mind that was very timely and modern in that day. And perhaps today but I will come to that in a moment.) Sir Toby Belch is, as the name may lead you to assume, a drunkard, carouser, and generally the character that we come to love and side with (with perhaps a few reservations) because he is the fun one. Malvolio comes out to repremand Sir Toby and friends as they are having a loud, drunken, song laden party. Our strongest reservation toward Sir Toby comes because the rest of the sub-plot comprises sort of a vendetta against Malvolio for being a killjoy which at times falls very much on the bad side of cruel. I am thinking of one bit in particular at the beginning of the revenge where they trick Malvolio into thinking that a lady is in love with him through a forged note where the "lady" tells Malvolio to show up with cross-gartered bright yellow socks and to smile a lot. At the hint of a young lady's love, Malvolio casts aside all of his puritanical trappings and, indeed, we all get a chuckle at his yellow socks and ridiculous smile. All it took was the suggestion of love. On the opposite side and I venture to guess a wink from Shakespeare to the audience comes when Malvolio is speaking ill of Sir Toby, he says of Sir Toby that he has “no respect of place, persons, nor time.” Sir Toby is ribald, bawdy, drunken and foul in front of beggars, priests, lawyers or kings, but he is consistently so. No circumstance leads him to be untrue to that aspect of his character.

Which lead me to think on a few other subjects including my own spiritual path.

There was a Youtube video that my sister sent me this week from a Rainbow Gathering in Wyoming last year. The sheriff's department decided to invade and then, for no visible reason whatsoever (no violence, no rocks thrown, no reason at all), the cops start shooting hippies with beanbag guns and mace balls. Well, I assume the reason largely had to do with the good ol ' boys not wanting hippies feeling welcome in their jurisdiction and getting a little carried away. These things happen. I remember them vividly from my protesting days. But one of the unexpected (and I suspect unintended) aspects I noticed from the video was how enraged (although I hasten to add never violent) the Gatherers became at the violence. Understandably to be sure, they had every right to be there and doing what they were doing. But what struck me was that the violence was not being matched... but just barely.

I began to think of having a changed life, being a changed person. Because life and circumstances often turn on us in such a way that the universe seems to be playing a wicked game of "see what it takes to make the Quaker hit you."

And I rather think this may be near what James had in mind when he wrote "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." I was remarking to Laurie how for my entire adult life God has provided for me and yet now two months into being laid off I am a ball of worry over where my next job is going to come from. Why should I doubt? And what does this mean for my walk. I said "You know, Laurie, I look at that in myself and wonder what I would do if I were at the end of the row of Christians who were one by one being beheaded." And she very wisely replied, "I actually think the harder one would be being at the end of the line of people denying Christ so they don't get their heads chopped off and what do you do when they get to you."
I do think it is very good to look at one's self every once in a while and think "What kind of man am I?" Especially when you are in a fairly comfortable time in your life.

Also, I think that we really ought to be marked by our love and our grace. We ought to be the people that people go to for love and grace. I told Laurie that so often I have found that the doctrinally flimsy churches are the most loving and accepting while the supposedly doctrinally sound churches are the most forbidding and legalistic (let me take great pains to say that I am not talking at all about my own church. I love my church very much.) Which rather suggests to me that they are not actually doctrinally sound because if they were they would be marked by their love and grace. Yesterday, I had to explain to my atheist neighbor about how my religion has nothing to do with picketing people's funerals. Because that is increasingly what people associate with Christianity! I have some frustration in wanting to show radical grace, preach the scandalous freedom that is in Christ, reverence for life (in the many ways that can be interpreted), compassion, joy, the fruits of the spirit and love love love for my dear neighbor whoever they may be as a fellow human no worse than I, no matter who they may be. It is difficult when the bloody ghost of Jerry Falwell looms over the label like a deflating dirigible. What to say to my out-and-proud-gay friend from college who posts on Facebook about people protesting a funeral of a loved one, and those people are also calling themselves Baptists? And so I am left holding a bag again. So often I feel so alien in my own religion, especially from those in my religion loud enough to make it onto the news.

(At least, historically.
That may not continue to be the case in this brave new world. I don't know if you've caught it, but there seems to be a very vocal group calling for the downfall or repentant restructuring of the major news sources {I'm looking at you, CNN} after the Iran Election Coverage Debacle. Who knows! Maybe we shall finally all be free of sensationalism as the driving force behind our news sources. Wouldn't that be a lovely surprise?!!?)

Because the truth is that I don't hate anyone and I don't think there is one scrap of good doctrine that would lead me to. I want to let everyone know that honestly, in my heart of hearts, I love everyone just the way they are, and that I am probably more rank of a sinner than any of them, and that God forgave me anyway in the midst of that. One of the key points of our beliefs is that we are no better than anyone else. Do we really believe this? This ought to make us love everyone, but it doesn't. I am so weary of a set of wonderful ideals becoming a thinly veiled excuse to hate, for self-righteousness and pride.

Really I guess in a way I am still that strange lost and very lonely child who wants to love everyone and love God. At least I like to think so. I hope that I am. I know that I cannot do it by my own steam and that getting hit in the face with a mace ball could rile me toward hatred. I have no hope without Christ.

And in the end I said to Laurie that I naturally find myself associating far more with Sir Toby (and got a laugh when she asked "Which one was he again?" and I said "the fat, drunken one.") I would like to have “no respect of place, persons, nor time.” I really would hope that when the rubber meets the theological road I find that I really do believe what I claim to believe.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pep rally

Today I finished A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. I loved it. I should also hasten to add that I expected to hate it to be completely honest and I loved it and found it difficult to put down. So it had a high peak to surmount with me and this book slam dunked it (oh, I'm mixing metaphors again. Well, I've buttered my bread and now I must lay in it.)
It reminded me of talks with friends I had in the 1990s. One of the common topics of conversation was how we assumed that that time in history would probably be remembered as a Dark Age for literature. "Where are all of the great writers?" we would say "Whither literature?"
Lately I've found an abundance, which makes me think that either we have suddenly entered a Golden Age for literature in the past few years, or I had my head up places one ought not have one's head up in the 1990s. I would expect the latter to be the case.
I guess it started with the discovery of Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris for me.
And there are so many great new writers out there that I find myself loving unabashedly and recommending wholeheartedly (Neil Gaiman, Mark Danielewski, Susanna Clarke. The list of names doesn't matter except to possibly point you in a few directions.) Modern people I suspect may be great is one of my literature kicks right now. Sometimes I strike gold. Sometimes I strike crap, but that's not what I'm on about in this post.
At the moment I have borrowed The Time Traveller's Wife which seems to be one of those books for people who collect images from Italian Vogue, are anxious for the new Regina Spektor album, and do a lot of crafts with bright colors; (In case you didn't know, I am the strange, rare beast of a heterosexual man who falls into that category) and Infinite Jest (which was on my list at the beginning of the year of books that I want to read before I die but find daunting and so will do my best to get through this year in spite of how much they scare me. Or maybe because of how much they scare me) by the incomparable David Foster Wallace. We are all walking on a poorer planet since he has joined with the infinite himself.

I was struck the other day by a comment I read by a young person who said that they were ashamed of the time in which they live for the dearth of good music. I have to say that I have no idea what they were talking about. I think the past 5 years or so have turned out to be sort of a golden age for the arts. Bear in mind that I came of the age where popular music consumes one's identity in the early 1990s. That, my friends, was a dark age for popular music. I am hard pressed to come up with popular music from my teens that I still love.
Today I can barely turn on my computer without discovering a new Airborne Toxic Event, The Ting Tings, Regina Spektor, Department of Eagles, Beirut, Animal Collective, M. Ward, Kaki King, Lykke Li, Fleet Foxes, Jonathan Coulton, Le Loup, Dan Deacon (love love love Dan Deacon), The Tallest Man on Earth, Zoe Keating, Of Montreal, Joanna Newsom, and the list goes on and on. All of which I love. Do you realize how rare it has been in my short life to find new popular music that I like until the past 5 years? If I had been of high school age today I might not be the classical music geek I've become.

So thank God for that.

And if we're talking about what I so snobbishly refer to as "serious music" or composition, such exciting changes. For the first time in 50 years composers are getting over film scores, atonality and minimalism. Not that those have disappeared, but it is as if the modern composer has become comfortable living and working in the modern world. And without ignoring the trends and lessons built in the past 50 years, they feel the freedom to compose pieces that are, not to be too harsh or too classicist, enjoyable for a change. I have heard reliable reports that television shows have finally risen to some level of greatness. I don't care how good they get though. I still won't turn the dad-blamed thing on to save my life. I push it for myself just watching Lost every eight months or so. I am very comfortable staring at this particular lighted screen for many hours thank you very much.
There has been a grand resurge in art films, magazine culture, sculpture, live theater, street art. Modern Architecture has become delightful.

There is a wealth of really great art out there now. I am finding this to be a hard period in which to remain a staunch classicist. I encourage everyone to experience it! Dig. There are gems about.

And get involved. Make great art. The excuse of being a drop in the ocean is a cop out. Go out and make some great art, all of you, no matter who you are. We ought to because we are going to die one day, which ought to make us love one another, and ought to make us wake up every morning burning to do electric things. Like I said in the anonymity post, don't worry about what will happen to it or to you. Just start aiming at the stars (in the inspirational way. Not in the Wernher Von Braun way.)
But please don't try to tell me that there is no great new art happening in the world. If you look around you and still think so, all the more reason to take matters into your own hands. Why not create the kind of art you would like to see?

Friday, June 5, 2009

another picture post

Hooray! New photos from our life from the past week or so!

Tony graduated last night.

Me, Tony and Laurie at Tony's Graduation.

Laurie, Tony, Gina and the kids' dad Joe.

Laurie, Tony and Gina at Tony's WEST graduation.

Laurie and I at Tony's WEST graduation.

Our house with our new plants, most of which you cannot see in this picture.

Some of our new plants.

Laurie and I took Schubert to swim in Bidwell Creek.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

a vote for anonymous

Last night Laurie, Gina and I went to Tony's graduation from Chico High's WEST program. For those of you unfamiliar with the WEST program, we find ourselves in similar boats. I failed to procure an explanation of the program. As far as I can tell the program is a smaller group of students who spend the bulk of their high school career in WEST classes so they are mainly the same group in their classes for 4 years. They create strong bonds and interact with students they wouldn't normally give the time of day to. They learn largely through projects. On occasion they do things like climbing Mt. Lassen or creating a silkscreen shop to make t-shirts to benefit clean Ecuadorian water supplies or raising one million pennies for a cause that the teacher forget to tell us.
I liked the idea of WEST as I understood it. We are all very proud of Tony.

There was a portion at the end of the ceremony where they allowed the students to get up and say whatever they wanted to say to the group or about the group. The teacher encouraged them (which I appreciated) to make sure they aren't going to wake up tomorrow "shoulding all over themselves" as in "I should have said..." I thought that was one of the more valuable life lessons of the evening which I hope was not lost on anyone in the room regardless of age.
I was amazed by how easy it was to read the kids when they got up to speak. Their mannerisms, their vocal patterns. You could tell right away what they were like, what they fear, desire, seek, miss. You could also tell, barring the few inevitable and seemingly random crushing experiences that change lives (tragic accidents, fires, winning the lottery, ect.), exactly the kind of person each of them would be in 10 or 20 years. It was heartbreaking and encouraging at the same time. In the old, rickety public school room with so much pent up anxiety and knowledge of importance of the event while not knowing what that importance might be in those students and, to some extent, in all of the adults. Everyone's life ahead of them like a canyon full of clouds. The students are the only ones who aren't used to that yet.
So it was a weird mix for me of pride for Tony, nostalgia for my own graduation 13 years ago, and comparing what was being presented with reality. I wonder if the teachers really ought to build up expectations that the students are a great hope, destined to be giants in their generation, heroic and unstoppable. I wonder if the teachers might do well to encourage, but to let the kids know that if they find themselves repairing shoes or laying bricks for a living, those are very important things as well and that they can be fabulous in whatever corner of life God ordains for them (yeah, I know. Public school. As a free agent, I can use whatever terms I want.)

It struck me deeply that several of the students kept yelling out when someone would choke up words to the effect of "It's not over" or "this isn't the end." That broke my heart. They really have no idea. None of us do I guess. As I spent the last 48 hours cleaning office and as I've friended many dozen old high school and college friends in divers and sundry online social media I am struck with how very over it is. If I were giving a commencement address, I would probably at one point tell them "Keep what's important. Wisdom is learning what is important. Wisdom is learning that most of it isn't. And that's a good thing."

I think that my wife Laurie, and even maybe my step-children Tony and Gina, would never think of me as a man in a rut. I do follow some similar patterns in my daily life, especially as I am in-between employment (get up at normal hours with coffee, job search mingled with incessant twitters, in the evening popcorn and a movie most nights.) When I was working, I loved it, I loved the dailiness of it, the patterns with slight variations like a Philip Glass piece, there were some great rewards to that job not just in a monetary sense, but also in a zen sense. I honestly could have seen myself doing that job for many more years especially the delivery routes and especially my beloved and much mourned Downieville route. Everyone around me knows that while I am fully ready to move on to the next job, I do miss that job and wish that I had not been included in the lay off. But so it goes.

I also keep it flowing, keep things joyful, keep it mutating, try new things. We go exploring the area in our free time. I make new foods. One night we'll watch an opera DVD, the next a zombie movie. Currently I am thinking about where to get starch to make paper mache sculptures. But this is not to shock the brain awake in the mind numbing monotony of daily life. It is a joie de vivre born from the abundance of our hearts. We find vitality in the constant, just as much as in the spontaneous. Such is the balanced life. But we don't expect to be famous. We seek where we can do good in this world and eschew recognition. We wish to be fabulous. We do not seek money or fame.

There is a very popular book out which I have not read (and don't expect to) called Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I've heard the author interviewed on NPR and the book seems to always be in the "to shelve" rack when I go to the library, which means it is checked out often. It is a best seller.

The book seems to be about a young lady who is pregnant and married, decides she doesn't want to be either anymore, divorces (and I'm guessing disposes of the child in one manner or another) and goes to Italy to glut, India to co-opt their religious practices and exploit them for her book (oops. I promised myself I wouldn't do a book review for a book that I have not read. Well, judge me for judging if you must) and then to Bali to engage in sexual intercourse... I guess the author wasn't told that that is also done elsewhere. One need not save up for a ticket to Bali for that.
I won't talk about how narcissistic and entitled all of this strikes me. Okay, okay, you're right. I've talked very clearly about how this strikes me ever since I've brought it up and I have condemned it. I've done nothing but talk about how narcissistic and entitled the book strikes me pretty much since mentioning the title. You got me. You may also notice that I have not gone back to edit out my opinions before further discussing it.
Thrift, my friend. I really don't need to go on to map out any further how alienating your loved ones and destroying a life you've built doesn't make you complete. It just makes you a self-absorbed twit in another country. Being spontaneous doesn't make you great and doesn't mean you are sucking the marrow out of life. Sometimes people you see trying to suck the marrow out of life are just leeches.

I don't believe ruts are indicated by a person's consistency.
I should start saying that at job interviews. That's a good line.
Again, I am coming out in support of contentment. Not that one ought not aspire or do wonderful things. But I really feel that one ought to be capable of sleeping soundly after making an amazing work of art, a masterpiece, without signing one's name on it. That is all.

Maybe I'll write a commencement address to no one in the next few days.

Stay tuned for that.