December 31, 2007

I haven't felt the way I feel today...

I hadn't intended to write a summation of the old year/intentions for the new year-type blog, but I've been thinking about this Incubus song more and more lately and the time seems apropo to explain its impact on me. I've posted the lyrics before, so apologies to anyone for whom this is repetitive:

"Nice to Know You"

Better than watching Gellar bending silver spoons.
Better than witnessing newborn nebulaes in bloom.
She who sees from 'up high' smiles and surely sings.
Perspective pries your once weighty eyes and it
gives you wings.

I haven't felt the way I feel today
in so long it's hard for me to specify.
I'm beginning to notice how much this feels
like a waking limb... pins and needles,
nice to know you, goodbye!

Deeper than the deepest Cousteau would ever go.
And higher than the heights of what we often think we know.
Blessed She who clearly sees the wood for the trees.
To obtain a 'bird's eye' is to turn a blizzard to a breeze.

I haven't felt the way I feel today
in so long it's hard for me to specify.
I'm beginning to notice how much this
feels like a waking limb... pins and needles,
nice to know you... Goodbye!

So could it be that it has been there all along?

Now I unfortunately have to admit that, sometimes, I'm a bit dense. I didn't totally get this song at first. It's always stirred a strong emotional response in me, but for a long while I wondered just what lyricist Brandon Boyd was saying goodbye to. My instinctive response was to hone in on the euphoria the song made me feel, which is very similar to that inspired by "Wish You Were Here", in which he beautifully describes a moment of serene contentment and the desire to share it. When, in "Nice to Know You", he sings "I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long", I related the words to experiencing a state of joy after being stuck in a long period of doldrums. But if Brandon were singing about a joyous mood, why would that be something to say goodbye to and let go of? So where I grasped the simplicity of "Wish You Were Here" immediately, "Nice to Know You" left me exuberant but puzzled. It turns out that I wasn't totally off-base, but I was missing the connection necessary to get the full meaning of the song. Then I found this old quote from Brandon:

I had a moment in my life about a year ago where I was way too close to everything that was going on and I was blind, I felt like I was asleep. And the clouds parted for kind of a strange reason and I gained perspective. What happened was my hand had fallen asleep on the airplane on the way to Europe and it remained asleep for about 10 days, which was kind of scary. I must have pinched a nerve or something. But as my hand started waking up, the clouds started breaking away from that emotional state as well. The two happened simultaneously, so I created a simple metaphor for it. So it's basically a song about gaining perspective on a situation.

Kapow. Not only does that make more sense than my original interpretation, it also makes the song so much more meaningful.

As a self-proclaimed "student of Buddhism", I've read a fair amount about enlightenment, which is sometimes described as waking up or an awakening. Better people than I have written about this more coherently than I could ever hope to. In fact, according to Brad Warner in Hardcore Zen, the Soto school of Zen Buddhism actually shies away from discussing the idea of enlightenment at all because it's basically ineffable. If it were so easy for our intellects to grasp, it'd be way easier to achieve. But, for the sake of this blog, I'll go ahead and say that my impression of enlightenment is that it's the ultimate state of perspective. It's stepping back from all of our desires and aversions, our assumptions and expectations, and seeing things as they really are. Beyond that, it's not just seeing them that way, but actually experiencing and dealing with true reality as it is. There's way more to it than I could begin to sum up here, but this little nutshell description is sufficient for the topic at hand **

So, while I understand on an intellectual level the idea of dropping delusion and dealing with reality, I've yet to actually grasp and live it any more than any other average schmoe. It's not as if one day the alarm clock goes off, you lift your head off your pillow and swing your legs off the side of the bed and into nirvana. It takes a commitment and then continual effort to strip away all the illusions and delusions and bullshit that we all cling to and swear are "reality". It's really very much like the metaphor Brandon created for "Nice to Know You": We sleep-walk through much of our life, sometimes feeling that the world is ok and things are good, but more often stuck in a state of dukkha, a Buddhist term that's translated in various ways from "suffering" all the way to merely "unsatisfactory experience". Brad Warner takes a different angle on it and describes dukkha as "idealism":

When you look at things from an idealistic viewpoint, everything sucks... Nothing can possibly live up to the ideals and fantasies you've created. So we suffer because things are not the way we think they ought to be. Rather than face what really is, we prefer to retreat and compare what we're living through with the way we think it oughtta be. Suffering comes from the comparison between the two.

So the trick is to shake out that metaphorical limb that's fallen asleep, to wake up and take off those idealistic blinders. What makes that so hard is those damned prickly pins and needles, our desires and aversions. Here's more from Brad:

...the origination of suffering [is] our wish that things be different from what they are when they cannot possibly be. Things can never be other than they are... So the "desire" often spoken of by Buddhist teachers isn't just the fact that we desire that big car or that busty redhead... Everyone has desires. We can't live without them. Nor should we. The problem isn't that we have desires and needs. It's that we have a compulsive (and ultimately stupid!) desire for our lives to be something other than what they actually are... The problem is the way we let our desires stand in the way of our enjoyment of what we already have.

Letting go of our intense attachment to those desires is like the blood trying to re-circulate in that sleeping limb. It hurts like hell, but if we want to get rid of the pins'n'needles we've gotta let it happen. Otherwise, we end up either remaining numb and asleep, or stuck in that prickly, unsatisfactory state.

In my own case, a couple of years of reading about Buddhism did nothing for me but put me through a series of waking limbs: I'd read something that really struck a chord and I'd set the intention to follow the Path, only to have personal issues and my habitual responses to those issues throw me right back into a state of dukkha. 2007 was a particularly chaotic year, what with an increasingly meaningless job, illnesses of my own and those of family members and, finally, having to euthanise my cat the week before Christmas. Over the last couple months of the past year, there've been two things that carried me through and seemed to begin lifting me out of the sleeping state I'd become stuck in-- Incubus' music and Brad Warner's books. Warner's shown me a form of Buddhism that I can fully embrace, and finally grasping the full meaning of "Nice to Know You" has woken me up and helped me to step back from the things I was too close to. As this new year begins, I'd like to say "pins and needles, nice to know you, goodbye!", but I know it's too soon for that. What I can say is this: "I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long, it's hard for me to specify..."

** If you're really interested in a more thorough explanation of Buddhism in general and enlightenment in particular, I highly recommend both of Warner's books: Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up. Great stuff, especially if you, like me, are leery of concepts such as "reincarnation" and "loving-kindness".

December 23, 2007

Digging for friends

Since this summer, I've lamented not getting into Incubus several years ago when I was first introduced to them. I feel like I've missed out on following the band's growth and on many, many opportunities to experience the fantastic energy of their live performances. When I stop to think about it, though, I realize that the time just wasn't right back then. I'm not sure that I would have been open then to what this band has to offer. I'm at a point now that their music speaks to me in very meaningful ways. One particular song, Dig, struck me right away when I heard it for the first time a couple of months ago. I have to say that a part of me is a bit embarassed to admit how much I love this song. Dig's an exceptionally pretty tune, bordering on power-ballad, and jaded, cynical ears might even consider it to be cheesy and cornball. The lyrics, though, are really wonderfully self-aware and quite touching, and have given me much food for thought.

At this point, I imagine some of you may be rolling your eyes. "Is she just gonna babble about that Brandon Boyd guy again?" Well... yes. But with a purpose that I hope you'll appreciate by the time this already rambling mess is done. You see, Dig is about friendship, which is something I've thought about frequently since getting into the whole MySpace thing, with its collecting of virtual "friends" who can be anything from family members to 'net trolls to aspiring or established musicians to that mysterious entity named "Tom". It's made me wonder just what constitutes a friend, and what's involved in both being and having one.

The friendships I've had over the years, both real-life and virtual, have been like rollercoasters on which I've ridden through intense highs and lows with one or a couple of people for a few years, and then the ride has ended abruptly for some reason and we've parted ways. It's either been an argument, a disappointment, or just that vague feeling of growing apart. I've described in previous blogs (here, and again here) how I ended my last batch of friendships because I felt I was no longer getting anything from them. I have to wonder, though, if much of the problem hasn't really been with me and the level of my expectations. Have I expected loyalty and a level of understanding that's unrealistic for most people to deliver?

Michel de Montaigne, in his essay "Of Friendship", described what seems to be the rarified pinnacle of relationships:

"...a friendship, which we afterwards improved and maintained, so long as God was pleased to continue us together, so perfect, inviolate, and entire, that certainly the like is hardly to be found in story, and amongst men of this age, there is no sign nor trace of any such thing in use; so much concurrence is required to the building of such a one, that 'tis much, if fortune bring it but once to pass in three ages."

Wow. How many of us have had buddies like that? Apparently, the guys in Incubus come close. Three of the five have known each other since middle-school and have been making music together, not to mention traveling around on a tour bus together, for 15 years. Watching them together in interviews and in parts of their recent dvd, Look Alive, it's obvious that these guys have a strong rapport and genuinely enjoy each other's company. I find myself feeling envious of them, that they seem to have such strong ties based on shared history, laughter, creative stimulation, and support. There's been some severing of ties, specifically the controversial firing a few years ago of one band member who was also a high school buddy, but the overall solidity of their relationships is apparently what inspired Dig:

We all have a weakness
But some of ours are easier to identify.
Look me in the eye
& ask for forgiveness;
We'll make a pact to never speak that word again.
Yes, you are my friend.
We all have something that digs at us,
at least we dig each other.
So when weakness turns my ego up
I know you'll count on the me from yesterday.

If I turn into another,
dig me up from under what is covering
the better part of me.
Sing this song,
Remind me that we'll always have each other
when everything else is gone.

We all have a sickness
that cleverly attaches & multiplies
No matter how we try.
We all have someone that digs at us,
at least we dig each other.
So when sickness turns my ego up
I know you'll act as a clever medicine.

If I turn into another
dig me up from under what is covering
The better part of me.
Sing this song!
Remind me that we'll always have each other
when everything else is gone.

Up to this point in my life, I didn't feel that I had experienced anything like that with anyone I'd known. In the past, I often went out of my way to help friends in need, giving of my time, even my car and money. And I've always made a point of trying to learn about the interests of people I consider friends, as much to develop common bonds between us as for my own curiosity. And, so often, it seemed those things weren't appreciated and reciprocated. In those instances, I invariably felt slighted.

Lately, though, I find myself wondering what's changed. In hindsight, I think I've realized that what I felt I wasn't getting in past friendships was attention, and comfort and support when I needed them. I'm learning now that I don't have to have the attention, I can sit back and let others take the spotlight, and yet know that I still have something to offer. And I've been on my own long enough to feel confident that I can weather pretty much any emotional crisis without external support. What I do need, though, is communication, people with whom to share ideas, discuss experiences, and learn from.

I've already written (in one of those blogs linked above) about the various places around the 'net that have led me to begin establishing quite a few new relationships that seem to be burgeoning into friendship. I'm finding that what I enjoy most from these new relationships is the stimulus-- my cycling/kayaking buddies push me physically; various of my MySpace "friends" and music forum acquaintances have exposed me to new literary paths or inspired my creativity; and with some of these folks, I'm exploring new spiritual ground and being challenged to think about my future. But there's also been much of what I felt I didn't have in past friendships-- With everything I've been through lately with my cat's illness and death, I'm having trouble keeping up with and responding to all the thoughtful messages of comfort I've received, and it's left me a bit astounded. (And grateful. Thank you all very much.)

So where have all these people come from? What's behind all these sudden synchronous connections? Is it just chance that I've found internet sites frequented by like-minded folks? Or is there something in me that's shifted and allowed me to reach out? Or all of the above? As these friendships develop, will I allow expectation to take a backseat and just be open to whatever I can learn about and from these various people? My feeling is that I need to avoid expecting a certain level of support or loyalty, and instead hope for more of the stimulus that inspires me to be a finer person. In other words, I think I'm ready to aim for Brandon's ideal of friendship over Montaigne's: If I turn into another, dig me up from under what is covering the better part of me...

December 18, 2007

Goodbye to the cat

So, I had the cat put to sleep this afternoon. The kidney issue could possibly have been maintained for a few years, but the anemia he developed as a result of the renal failure was too severe. When the red blood cell count falls too low, not enough oxygen is carried through the blood stream and breathing becomes difficult.

When I first noticed a week and a half ago that the cat's breathing had become labored, the vet said that we could try a blood transfusion and a few treatments of
EPO (Ironically, had the cat lived, he would never have been allowed to race a bicycle professionally. Sorry, lame joke that couldn't be resisted since I'm into cycling. Anyway...). He said straight out that he couldn't guarantee positive results, or how long the results would last if there were any. For the first few days afterward, though, it was like having the old goombah back again. He was alert and hungry, climbed his scratching post, and even ran across the living room one evening when I walked into the kitchen. By the end of last week, though, there was an obvious decline. By this past Monday, his rib cage was heaving again and he wasn't eating much. So, this morning I called the vet's office at 7:45a.m. and said that I needed to bring him in. Blood and urine samples showed that his stats were worse than before the transfusion.

The decision itself wasn't hard. As I wrote
earlier this month, I've always known what I would do. What's difficult is dealing with the timing of it all. You go along with everything fine, then boom, the animal is suddenly sick. You balance that shock with trying to understand the situation and how to treat it, then boom, the condition is too far advanced and nothing you do will have long-lasting positive results. Even if the animal's condition drags on for years, I think that final realization is still a sudden thing, no matter how often you've considered or how long you've anticipated it.

The vet and her assistant were very nice, and very efficient, which was what I needed most. They gave me some private time to hold the cat, but he was too freaked over being at the vet's office to respond to my affection. The longer we sat together, the worse it would have been. When the vet came in, I put him on the table for her to administer the injection. It took effect immediately, and the cat slumped into a soft, limp bundle. I stroked him a few more times, then the vet checked his heart and said that he was gone. It was quick enough that I was able to keep from dissolving into total blubbering and managed to hold my voice steady while I thanked the vet and her assistant for taking care of him.

I chose to have the goombah cremated, so I left his body there and headed straight up the highway to
Sugarloaf Mountain. Going home would have led to blubbering and brooding, but in the woods and on the mountaintop I can think instead of brood. I know I'll cry more over the next few days-- when I go to bed alone and the cat doesn't wake me up in the middle of the night to beg for attention and food; when I clean up his toys and food dish and litterbox; when I go to work tomorrow and have people ask me how I am; and when I begin to think about whether it's time to go out and find another cat.

There is a part of me, though, that feels relieved. That might seem callous on the surface, but I have to be honest and admit that I'm relieved to not be dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of the last couple of months. I'm relieved for both myself and the cat that we don't have to go through the twice-daily torture treatments anymore. And I'm relieved that he's no longer nauseous and laboring to breath.

My plan for the cat's ashes will involve a hike up another mountain. When all of this started and I began to anticipate the end, I thought about what I'd do with his remains. I don't want to bury them where I live. It's not the only place the cat and I lived together, and I wouldn't want to leave him here if I move. And I don't want an urn or box of ashes on my bookshelf. I may have morbid tendencies, but that isn't one of them. But there's a spot in the Catoctin Mountains called Cat Rock that's reached by a couple of nastily steep, though fairly short, trails. Back in my younger years, I hiked up there a couple of times and had some great moments of reflection while taking in the view. And the symbolism can't be denied. There are tons of beautiful places in Maryland where I could say goodbye to the goombah, but will I remember where I did so in 10-20 years from now? How could possibly I forget that I scattered the cat amidst the boulders at Cat Rock?

And now I'm at home, trying not to look for the cat out of the corner of my eye and wondering how many days it'll take to be ready to clear out all of his toys and other stuff, not to mention the kitchen counter full of medicines and IV bags. And, hey!, I can set my alarm clock back to it's usual time and not get up early to administer morning tortures!


December 5, 2007

Punch Drunk

Where did I park my car?
If I found it I would drive so far from here
The city streets are dim
And my hands are tempted once again
To give in

I'm having trouble seeing
I'm punch drunk and
I need to find a way back home
It would be a miracle if you'd oblige

I will survive
On this island I am stuck
Could you correct my crooked luck tonight?

On the road, my thumb is out
I'm hitchin home, tonight I am without a name
Where was it that I lived?
Well nevermind, just take me with you
And forgive

My lack of information
I'm punch drunk and
I need to find a way back home
It would be a miracle if you'd oblige

I will survive
On this island i am stuck
Could you correct my crooked luck tonight?

I will survive
Tonight I wander and I roam
Just lookin for a way back home tonight

The sun is coming up
I think I've had my fill
Wait, who the fuck are you?
Where did I park my car?
Please forgive my

Lack of information
I'm punch drunk and
I need to find a way back home
It would be a miracle, ohhh

I'm having trouble seeing
I'm punch drunk and
I need to find a way back home
It would be a miracle if you'd oblige

I will survive
On this island I am stuck
Could you correct my crooked luck tonight?

I will survive
Tonight I wander and I roam
Just lookin for a way back home tonight

Spare me, a ride, a ride tonight
Spare me, a ride, a ride tonight

On this island I am stuck
Could you correct my crooked luck tonight?

- (Boyd, Einziger, Kenney, Kilmore, Pasillas)

December 2, 2007

The death watch

Ok, so maybe that title's a bit melodramatic, but that's how I felt at 2:00am this morning.

The cat I've lived with for the past ten or so years is sick. He's been diagnosed with chronic renal insufficiency, which basically means that his kidneys are pooping out on him. Once a hale & hearty part-Maine Coon/part-Labrador Retriever, he was 19lbs of attention-hogging affection and appetite. Ironically, the vet had me put him on a diet just a year ago. Over the last couple of months, though, he's lost over half of his body weight and spends most of his time huddled in a little ball with a woe-be-gone expression on his face. Trying to pet him causes him to either pull away, or to let out pitifully sad squawks that pass for meows. I also get to hear these squawks in the middle of the night, when he wakes up feeling poorly and gets right up in my face to let me know about it. He's gone from being a big, goofy goombah of a cat to a furry, miserable little bit of skin and bones.

Treatment of CRF is tons of fun. His usual vet went for minimal treatment: special food (which he won't eat), one medication, and subcutaneous fluid therapy to help maintain his hydration level. After three members of her staff couldn't hold him still long enough to give him one full sub-q treatment, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to do it alone. There's no experience quite like holding onto a squirmy, agitated cat that shouldn't be stressed with one hand, trying to insert a needle under his skin with the other hand, and then turning on an IV drip with your non-existent third hand. Toooonnns of fun. I gave it up on the first attempt without even poking him once.

So, when he continued to lose weight and the usual vet continued to insist that "some cats with CRF can live up to a handful of years", I took him in for a second opinion. While being examined, the goombah collapsed. The new vet immediately put him on oxygen, and collected lab samples once the cat had stabilised. He finally came out to the reception room to announce to me that "That cat is going to die!" My response was a stunned pause and then "Uhhh, yeah, I already know that. What are you really telling me?" I finally gathered that there's no way to predict how long the cat will hang on, but that he's in worse shape than the previous vet had led me to believe. His increasing weakness and dehydration has apparently contributed to a heart murmur, and the stress of being at the vet set it off and caused the collapse. The new vet prescribed a more aggressive treatment of six medications: three pills, two liquids, and a gel, each to be administered twice a day. So far, I've been able to get no more than one or two medications into the cat at a time. If it's in his food, he won't eat it (and he's barely eating to begin with). If I try to give any of them to him orally, he puts up a hellatious fight for such a weak little thing, and I'm paranoid of stressing him and having his heart give out. In addition to the six meds, the new vet also strongly recommended sub-q therapy. Surprisingly, this has been much easier than expected. The new vet installed a GIF-tube, which is basically a catheter, into which I can insert the IV tube with no needles involved. The goombah looks like a little Franken-cat with the thing sticking out of the back of his neck, but so far he's been amazingly good about allowing me to remove the cap, insert the IV tube, turn on the IV, then everything in reverse. He freaks a bit when the fluids begin flowing under his skin, but it's over fairly quickly.

The big question at this point is how long all of this is going to last. The cat keeps wanting to pry open the kitchen cabinet and curl up amongst my extra plastic grocery bags and cleaning supplies, and this gives me unhappy visions of sick animals searching for a solitary, quiet place to die.

The other spot he seems to like is a corner of my computer room. In the middle of the night, I woke up to find him gone from the bed, and got it into my head that I should try to get him to eat something. I found him in his little corner and gingerly carried him out to the kitchen, where he licked up a few bites of food. He then wandered back to the computer room, staggering a few times, and straight into the corner, where he huddled up into a ball, staring at the floor and occasionally shivering. I sat and watched him and convinced myself that every twitch he made was the beginning of the end. The big thing I wonder about is how I'm going to handle it when he does go, considering my phobia about dead things (can't recall whether I've already written about that or not). Will I freak and not be able to touch his body? Would it be better to have him put to sleep? And, if so, at what point? I've always believed firmly in quality of life over quantity, so my main concern at this point is that he be comfortable. If he deteriorates to the point that he's in pain or constant distress, I would have no qualms about putting him to sleep. It'd be devastating, but so would watching him die slowly or coming home from work to find him lifeless. I'm gonna be sad as hell no matter when he goes, so it's the how that has me agitated.

At 3:00am or so, I finally tucked a couple of fleece blankets into the corner around him and went back to bed. At the moment, he's huddled down there next to me. Every now and then, he'll curl up like normal and go to sleep with the tip of his tail wrapped over his nose, which is a relief to see. And I've written way more than I intended to. My intention for this blog was to briefly say that my cat is sick and his care is taking up a lot of my time, and as a result I'm going to be slow to respond at length to communications. A few brief posts or comments here and there are all I'm going to be able to manage for a while. Unless, like today, I have a bunch of mental or emotional crap that I need to unload.

The silly goombah:

November 25, 2007

More Sunday afternoon ramblings

Very lazy day today. I'll backtrack a bit to explain why, then move on: Friday evening, I drove straight from work in DC up to King of Prussia, PA, to spend the night at a friend's house, then we left her place early Saturday morning to head to NY for a day of adventure-- A visit to Alex Grey's Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, then a reading by another friend of ours from her memoire-in-progress at the Bowery Poetry Club, then a bunch of us from the reading headed to Chinatown for a tasty dinner of vegetarian dim sum. And then, seven hours, three trains, and 154 miles driven at 80+mph later, I ended up back home in Maryland at 3:00am Sunday morning. Needless to say, I was a bit tired today. So, I headed out for a late lunch and a brief, easy meander through the woods at Monocacy National Battlefield Park.

I wish I could write about Saturday's experiences, but the day was a bit of a blur so I really don't have many concrete thoughts about it. The Chapel was incredible, but there were too many people there for me to fully absorb it the way I would have liked (which would have been to plop my butt down on the floor in the middle of the room and just sit there quietly for a while). And the memoire reading was funny and moving and stimulating. But, sorry, that's about all I can put together about it. So my thoughts were kind of vague and rambling today as I wandered through the woods along Monocacy River.

On the train(s) home last night, I began reading Brad Warner's latest book, Sit Down and Shut Up. His first book apparently describes his own discovery of Buddhism, specifically the Zen kind, and how he became an ordained monk. SD/SU is an explanation of the teachings of Dogen, an apparently influential 13th century Zen master. So far, Warner's focused on the idea of reality in Zen, and the process of sitting zazen. The guy's incredibly irreverent and even talks about how he pretty much hates being a zen monk and teaching the dharma. It's great stuff, because he explains everything so clearly and meaningfully, yet comes at it with an attitude that I can so easily relate to. I'd really love to know his take on the whole "loving-kindness" aspect of Buddhism, but I'm not sure whether that's a big concept in Zen. Guess I'll find out (or not) as the book progresses. Read this while at lunch and almost cracked up in the middle of the very crowded Golden Corral restaurant:

The truth is always with you at every moment, or as Dogen puts it, "The Buddhist truth exists under the foot of every human being." It's not something far away, abstract, or difficult. It is the uncomplicated and direct truth of what is right here, right now. Truth is not removed from your day-to-day existence. God, way up in heaven on his big gold throne, is just an idea. That itch on your left ass cheek right now is the truth. It's way bigger than God could ever hope to be.

Awesome stuff. Right up my alley.

Found myself at one point while sitting along the river, cursing as I have so many times before that I didn't have my camera with me. I had glanced downstream along the trail and noticed a very pretty interplay of clouds and tree branches, touched with a bit of gold from the late afternoon sun. Had the potential to be a great photo, but the camera was back at home. So I sat and had the debate with myself that I've had all those other times in similar moments: Should I make a point of always bringing the camera with me when I leave the house, or should I only bring it when I'm specifically in the mood to shoot photos? There are pros and cons either way.

With the camera, I can capture and keep a concrete memory of, not to mention share with others, all the gorgeous &/or interesting things that catch my attention. But having the camera with me changes how I move through whatever place I'm in. My vision is narrowed to the perspective of the view finder, and my perceptions become focused on lighting and composition. My other senses may as well just stay at home on those occasions.

Without the camera, though, I can allow the focus of my eyes to soften and my peripheral vision comes into play. I see more. Without the distraction of composing a picturesque shot, I'm able to have a more intimate connection to my surroundings and feel that I'm a part of the place. Which, in it's way, makes scenes such as the rosy-gold clouds behind those bare tree branches just that much more special, because I fully experience, yet can't capture, them. But, as special as those moments are to me, do they become even more meaningful when I'm able to share them with others via my photos?

Nice little circular argument, there.

And (apologies to anyone who's becoming tired of my Incubus obsession, feel free to read the poetry below but skip my babbling), I'm continuing to find inspiration in Brandon Boyd. I recently read a wonderful poem by Jane Hirshfield that made me instantly think of the Incubus song Pantomime (the lyrics of which I posted at the end of
this blog). First, here's Hirshfield's piece:

To Speech

This first, this last:
there's nothing you wouldn't say.

Unshockable inclusion your most pure nature,
and so you are like an iron pot---
whatever's put in, it holds.

We think it's the fire that cooks the stew,
but, speech, it's also you:
of fire-making and stew-making,
orator of all our plans and intentions.

We think we think with a self.
That also, it seems, is mostly you---
sometimes a single spider's thread of you,
sometimes a mountain.

The late sun paints orange
the white belly of a hawk overhead---
that wasn't you
though now and here, it is.

If a hungry child says "orange", her taste buds grow larger.

If a person undamaged says "hungry child",
his despondence grows larger.

You are not, of course, omnipotent.
In fact, you do little unaided by muscle, by matter.
And still, present and absent, speech, you change us.

As Issa changed, writing after the death of his daughter,

This world of dew
is a world of dew.
And yet.

How much of you
was left uninvited in those lines.
That silence your shadow, bringing his grieving to me.

For days
I made phone calls to strangers,
the few words repeated over and over,
between the "please, if you have a moment" and "thank you."

I didn't expect to make a difference, and didn't. And yet.

Your vehicles are air and memory,
teeth, tongue, papyrus, woodblocks, iron,
signing fingers, circuits, transistors, and ink.
A wheel is not your vehicle, nor an engine.

Terence was your vehicle,
saying in Latin:
"Whatever is human cannot be foreign to me."

Your own truth as well---
For all of our parts, you are our closest mirror,
growing thin or fat, muscular, clumsy,
speeding or slowing as we do.

The wolf-child without you called wolf-child, not-fully-human.

You are held, in the forms we can know you,
only by creatures
able to pass you to others
living often in sadness and tiredness, sometimes in hope.

A friend, who is sometimes sad, said this:
"To be able to hope means that we can also regret."

You rest, fierce speech, in both.
As well as in bargaining, persuasion, argument, gossip,
flirtation, jokes.

Fear, hunger, rage stammer beyond you:
what lives in words is what words were needed to learn.

And so it is good we sometimes set you down
and walk---
unthinking and peaceful, planning nothing---
by the cold, salt, unobedient, unlistening sea.

Only then, without you, are we able to see you completely,
like those wandering monks
who, calling nowhere home, are everywhere home.

I was struck by the contrast between Boyd's idea of gaining freedom by giving up speech and Hirshfield's concept of it as something that is so much a part of us. "there's nothing you wouldn't say... Unshockable inclusion your most pure nature" vs. "I've found beyond all doubt, we say more by saying nothing at all". There's a romantic irony to Pantomime, that vision of someone whose creative career depends on word and voice choosing to give up speech and communicate by less "messy" methods. Especially considering Hirshfield's contention that "what lives in words is what words were needed to learn".

I'll throw another final contrast into this rambling mess of a blog. I keep finding myself hitting the "repeat" button of the car's cd player for two specific, yet very divergent, Incubus tunes: One is the wacky Azwethinkweiz that I posted the lyrics to a few days ago, and the other is 11am, which is one of the most beautiful of the many gorgeous tunes on Morning View:

7 a.m.
The garbage truck beeps as it backs up
And I start my day thinking about what I've thrown away
Could I push rewind?
The credits traverse, signifying the end
But I missed the best part
Could we please go back to start?
Forgive my indecision

Then again, you're always first when no one's on your side
But then again, a day will come when I want off that ride

11 a.m.
By now you would think that I would be up
But my bedsheets shade the heat of choices I've made
And what did I find?
I never thought I could want someone so much
Cause now you're not here and I'm knee-deep in that old fear
Forgive my indecision
I am only a man

Then again, you're always first when no one's on your side
But then again, a day will come when I want off that ride

12 p.m. and my dusty telephone rings
Heavy head up from my pillow, who could it be?
I hope it's you...

Then again, you're always first when no one's on your side
But then again, the day has come and I want off that ride

To anyone who's read thus far... I'm not sure whether to thank you for your attention, or to think that you're more obsessively weird than I am.

November 21, 2007

Almost as much fun as Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"

Actually, the two really have nothing to do with each other aside from both being fun little bits of nonsense. This tune brings a grin to my face every time I listen to it:


Floatin' round my brain,
tryin' to think about the other thing
than that thought you know I'm considering.
What if what I thought
about who I think I thought I was,
was nothing more than my cerebellum slobbering?
Azwethinkweizm is hard to think about,
but simple to trust.
You'll know you're on it when your brain won't stop to take a break, no!
So when donut boy comes askin' around, tryin' to figure out somethin' new,
you just smile and say, "Pardon you!
I'm sifting through some particles and farcing through some folds
I've stumbled upon a brain fart which melts away your molds!"
So I think upon that ponder while I'm pondering the thought...
Just thinkin' about the 'thinkweiz is leaving me distraught!

Well I think I thought I saw an Azwethinkweiz
Lookin' like we think we do
Like we think we do

Some think I'm insane,
'cause I think about the other thing
than that one thought you call reality.
What if what you thought
about who you think you thought you were,
was nothing more than delusion rapidly crumbling?!
Azwethinkweizm should be a topic we all can trust-
It's just too bad that it makes your head go zippitykrack @$% dang!
So when donut boy comes sniffing around trying to figure out something new,
you just laugh and say, "Pardon you!
I'm sifting through some particles and farcing through some folds
I've stumbled upon a brain fart which melts away your molds."
So I think upon that ponder while I'm pondering the thought...
Just thinking about the thinkweiz is leaving me distraught!

Well I think I thought I saw an Azwethinkweiz
Lookin' like we think we do
Like we think we do

So what if you thought about the 'thinkweiz
was nothing like you think you are?
You'd probably more than likely be a looky-loo
Lookin' like you think you do
Like you think you do

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Incubus were a wacky bunch of boys way back when.

November 12, 2007 Incubus (It's done, Part II)

I've been considering lately what it is about Incubus that I've responded to so strongly since this past June. As mentioned before, I've known of the band for several years and never gave them a serious listen. I've written already (July 7, 2007 blog) about what made a couple of particular tunes jump out and grab my attention a few months ago, but as I started buying and listening to the rest of their catalog, I began to think about which elements of their music turned my initial reaction into a full-blown addiction. As with every other band with which I've been obsessed over the years, it comes down to the same two things: Words and a voice.

I don't know much about music theory and composition, but I do know enough to realize that all of the guys in this band are incredibly talented and creative. And the overall sound of the band is definitely the first thing that would get anyone's attention. As with T00l, there are musical interludes by Incubus that are very interesting &/or beautiful to listen to, and the live jams they go into in the middle of certain songs on stage are fascinating to both watch and hear. For me, though, Brandon Boyd is the undeniable focal point of Incubus.

So what is it about this guy? Might as well mention one thing right up front and get it out of the way: He's very pretty. Incubus often seems to be looked down upon due to this fact, as well as for the hordes of teenage girls who are apparently into the band for this reason alone. And I certainly can't deny that Brandon's got just about every physical quality that I find attractive and that I've created a folder on my computer of particularly appealing photos of him… But that's definitely not all there is to him.

First, there's the voice. If all you listen to are the singles that have taken over the airwaves and launched Incubus into top-of-the-charts status, it could be possible to label Brandon as some light-weight tenor who can wail but nothing more. But if you pick just one song and really listen, the quality of Boyd's voice quickly becomes obvious. First apparent is the clearness of his tone and enunciation. And there's an appealing youthfulness to the timbre of his voice, even on more recent songs released since he hit his 30's. Listening to a wider range of Incubus tunes, though, also reveals an impressive versatility. Early songs like Redefine and Vitamin, from 1997's S.C.I.E.N.C.E., are full of fast-paced rap and rougher, heavy metal-ish screaming. The same album, though, includes a complete 180 degree turnaround on Summer Romance, in which Boyd croons the verses in a smooth, warm, sensuous tone. And probably the best example of his control and power is in the song Nebula. The changes in tempo and style in this song demand incredibly precise diction and breath control. I've watched videos of live performances of this song on YouTube and Boyd doesn't stutter, skip a beat, or lose his breath at any point. That alone makes him a fairly amazing vocalist.

S.C.I.E.N.C.E. seems to be one of Incubus' most experimental albums in many ways, including vocally. Incubus and Boyd seemed to find a more defining sound beginning with Make Yourself, released in 1999. They continued to explore the boundaries of musical genres they associate with, though, while Boyd seemed to shift his focus to exploring the emotive range of his voice (which is a similar progression to that made by Chris Cornell in Soundgarden). On both Make Yourself and Morning View (2001), songs like Pardon Me, The Warmth, Just a Phase, 11:00am, and Aqueous Transmission showed that he has the ability to stir a variety of emotions through his singing. On A Crow Left of the Murder (2004), the song Zee Deveel indicated a return to some playful experimentation with different vocal sounds, while the rest of that album and the more recent Light Grenades (2006) confirm that Brandon's voice has become an instrument fully in complement to those played so well by the rest of the band members. The guy can hold his own against the best vocalists out there, including Chris Cornell in his prime, and deserves much more recognition than he gets for his talent.

But, like a pretty face, a fantastic voice alone isn't enough. Boyd apparently writes all of the lyrics for Incubus' songs and his words are what solidified my love of this band. As a bibliophile and writer-wanna-be, words are very important to me. As I mentioned in the July 7th blog linked above, it was the imagery and emotions evoked in Wish You Were Here that first struck me. The opening verse alone shows what an evocative poet Boyd is:

I dig my toes into the sand
The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket
I lean against the wind
Pretend that I am weightless
And in this moment I am happy...happy

Very simple, yet the emotional state conveyed is intensely beautiful. But Brandon's word choice can also at times be quite, umm… idiosyncratic. The latest album, Light Grenades, is especially full of phrases such as "…if it's right to pick a fight, we're fingers in a sugar bowl" (Diamonds & Coal) and "You're 'bout as reliable as paper shoes in bad weather" (Paper Shoes) that on first listen come across as cliche'd sounding. Repeated listening, though, found me debating whether these lines really are trite or just very strangely clever. The song Here in My Room (from ACLOTM) is another example of the quirky contrasts in some of Boyd's lyrics. The guy writes ravishingly wistful love songs, yet this one jarred me the first few times I listened to it:

If the world would fall apart
In a fiction worthy wind
I wouldn't change a thing now that you're here
Love is a verb here in my room

Pink tractor beam into your incision
Head spinning as free as dervishes whirl
I came here expecting nothing
So thank you for being that kind of girl

Okay, so that one's not so much a love song as it is a lust song, but it gets the point across. "Pink tractor beam"?? Every time I hear this song, I just shake my head at how cornball that line is, especially in contrast to the gorgeous imagery of whirling dervishes in the line immediately after it.

I can't speak for critics or fellow fans, but I personally have come to the conclusion that Boyd's quirky lyrics are the result of what seem to be some interesting personal eccentricities. Considering those eccentricities along with how he expresses himself musically and in interviews, though, leaves a strong impression of someone totally at ease with himself. In speaking about one of my other favorite song-writers, Chris Cornell (same July 7th blog from above), I mentioned that what I always identified most with in Cornell's lyrics was the tortured quality he seemed to convey. While I accept certain aspects of my own character, I still battle with them on a continual basis, and I sense the same sort of struggle in the words of my favorite old Soundgarden songs. Maynard James Keenan is another lyricist I've discussed, who has also brought his internal struggles for growth to light in his songs. T00l's music has progressed over the years from bitter and angry to more contemplative and spiritual, and I've related strongly to that progression as I've followed my own difficult path. Still, though, some of my favorite T00l tunes are their darkest and most ugly. In contrast, there's nothing at all tortured about Brandon Boyd's lyrics. There's often intense frustration, even anger, and he sings more than once about the scars he bears, but underneath any negative expressions in his lyrics seem to lie a strong sense of self and a belief that things can be changed for the better. What resonates most strongly for me are Brandon's seemingly optimistic spirituality and his ability to find joy in the world in spite of the things that leave him confused or dismayed. I've come to a point in my life where I've realized that's how I want to live, and listening to Boyd's words has become an inspiration for me.

It could be easy to dismiss many of Brandon's lyrics as being so simple as to approach naiveté, but in a way that's the very beauty of them. Coming from years of listening to Soundgarden and T00l, I find the ingenuousness of his imagery and metaphors to be refreshing and very engaging. It's like the simplicity of Zen compared to the deep mysteries and ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. To have such words conveyed by that voice of his is a potent combination. I have a feeling it's going to be a blast to follow Boyd's continuing maturation as an artist.


In my fantasy
I'm a pantomime
I'll just move my hands and everyone sees what I mean
Words are too messy
And it's way past time
To hand in my mouth
Paint my face white, and try to reinvent the sea
One wave at a time
Speak without my voice
And see the world by candle light

I ain't afraid to let it out
I'm not afraid to take that fall
But I've found beyond all doubt
You say more by saying nothing at all

In my fantasy
No such thing as time
Minutes bleed into days of avant garde art, show
Me your heresy and I'll show you mine
We only speak in pantomimes on this carpet ride

I ain't afraid to let it out
I'm not afraid to take that fall
But I've found beyond all doubt
We say more by saying nothing at all

In my fantasy
You look good entwined
In my hair and skin and spit and sweat and spilled red wine
You're my deep secret
I'm your pantomime
I'll just move my hands
I promise you'll see what I mean

November 11, 2007

It's done: From Cornell... (Part I)

This is the first of what will be two long, rambling babblings about music, so if you're not into Incubus or Chris Cornell you may want to skip both of them. Unless, of course, you find my writing incredibly compelling, in which case, read on…

On 11/9, I drove 4 hours from DC up to Allentown, PA, with the two-fold purpose of seeing Chris Cornell perform at the Crocodile Rock Café and to meet a bunch of people from the Cornell forum. Leading up to the show, I realized that I was more excited about meeting the forum folks than I was about seeing Chris. Since getting into Incubus over the summer, I haven't even listened to Cornell for the last two months. No Soundgarden, no Temple of the Dog, no Euphoria Morning. But I was still expecting to be entranced and transported once he walked onstage.

So, all of us forum folk found each other in line at the Croc, and we all managed to get right up at the front of the stage, directly below one of the speaker stacks hanging from the low ceiling. Some of us had seen Chris at least few times this year, and some hadn't seen him perform for a handful of years. Every one of us was fairly giddy with anticipation as we waited through the opening act and the set change.

And then it began. The lights dropped, the band members filed out and began playing on stage, and I craned my neck to watch for Chris to emerge from the backstage door. I could see a tall shadow reflected on the wall and knew it was him, and the disagreeable thought flashed through my mind that Chris Cornell was making us wait so that he could have a grand entrance. That thought was disregarded, though, once he finally strolled out and hit the stage to tear into "Let Me Drown" and "Outshined". The one-two punch of those ripping SG tunes had me banging my head and dancing as much as was possible in the confines of the crowd, even after I realized that I couldn't hear a single note of what Chris was singing. Now, everyone says that the sound is always terrible right up front, but I swear I could hear every screaming note from the two guitar players. They were mixed so loudly, though, that I heard nothing of The Voice. The music was ridiculously loud. Through the first several songs, the guitars shredded my ears and the bass literally had my guts quivering to the point of nausea. For a while, though, it didn't matter, since I recognized the music, I could hear the people around me singing the same words I was singing, I could see Chris mouthing those words, and it got me excited. When the band left the stage for Chris' acoustic set, I finally was able to somewhat hear the golden tones I came for. And that was the turning point. One of the tunes he played acoustically was "I Am the Highway", which for the past few years has been my theme song, if you will. I had my hands up, swaying along with the song, and I gradually became aware that I really wasn't feeling the rapturous emotional response to Chris' singing that I felt in Baltimore and Philly earlier this year. I realized that I was just going through the motions. That and the twisted sensations in my gut suddenly left me subdued. There were a few points further on when I felt a nostalgic exhilaration in response to an old SG tune or two, but for the most part I just did not enjoy the show.

When it was all over, the crowd began filing slowly towards the exit. The forum folk all stopped to re-group near the swag table, and a few expressed interest in the t-shirts. Now, I generally don't wear clothing that advertises anything, not even the music that I'm into. And the fact that every single one of the Cornell shirts incorporated his illegible signature into the design was slightly distasteful to me. I don't know whether it was an impulse brought on by sheep mentality or what, though, but I ended up shelling out $20 for a shirt with one of the cooler, more obscure designs.

Afterwards, we all headed to a local diner to grab some food and hang out. I felt like crap and couldn't bring myself to consume more than a cup of soup and some tea. After a while, the conversation became targeted on how skinny, haggard and unhealthy Chris had looked during the show. Was it the clothes he was wearing, was he tired out by non-stop touring since March..? None of us had a real clue, of course, but we were all disturbed by it. The talk continued as people brought up things that had struck them about his facial expressions and antics on the stage and then, as will happen when you get a group of fanatical music fans together, we began to analyze various examples of Chris' bizarre behavior as represented in the media over the last several months. Photos of his home in a recent issue of In Style, an interview in a Turkish mag that included photos of him and his wife Vicky lounging around and having a pillow fight on their hotel bed, the cancellation of a couple of shows so that he could perform at a media event for Paris Hilton… Based on postings at the CC forum, things of this nature have many of his fans confused, and have blatantly turned off many others. At one point during the conversation, I posed the question that I've considered many times over this past year: What would the 20-something punk rock Chris Cornell of Soundgarden think of what he's recently become? The general consensus around the table was that the early Cornell would be scornful of the actions of the current one. But what do we know, really? We're just a bunch of fans basing our opinions on what we see and read, much of which is either taken out of context, misquoted, or totally created by the media. What I do know, though, is that the t-shirt I bought after the show is now a symbol of my nostalgic love of what Chris Cornell was and the music he once made. I am no longer a fan of the new Chris Cornell. **

That said, I've also been considering lately what it is about Incubus that I responded to so strongly this past summer. As I've mentioned before, I've known of the band for several years and never gave them a serious listen. I've written already about what made a couple of particular tunes jump out and grab my attention a few months ago, but as I began buying and listening to the rest of their catalog, I began to think about which elements of their music turned my initial reaction into a full-blown addiction. As with every other band with which I've been obsessed over the years, it comes down to the same two things: Words and a voice. (See part II, if you're so inclined)

** I feel that I should add some kind of caveat to the statement that I'm no longer a fan of Chris Cornell, since it was very hard to write that. As my Incubus obsession levels off, I know that I will definitely continue listening to Soundgarden and other Cornell music previous to the second Audioslave album. And if I hear that the guy transforms again and quits acting like such a fucking Rock Star, I'll certainly give his next album a fair listen. Until then, I am a confirmed Incubus addict.

November 4, 2007

Impermanence in WV

Had a surprise on today's drive. After breakfast in Shep'town, I set out to cruise some back roads I first explored a couple of weeks ago. At one point along this curvy little set of roller-coasters during that October drive, I had to slow down for a young boy of 9 or 10 who was playing basketball in the road. As he moseyed off the blacktop, I glanced at what I assumed was his home. There in the midst of farmland sprinkled with nice, somewhat aged, little single-family homes, was a stereotypical West Virginia trailer-cum-shack, complete with junk-strewn front yard. At the edge of the yard, apparently for the kid's entertainment, they'd erected a basketball hoop facing out into the road. Having been the only obstacle to an otherwise smoothly flowing cruise, the boy stayed on my mind for a while that afternoon.

So today I'm flying along the same road and remember that, not sure exactly where, but somewhere, I'm going to need to watch out in case that kid's out in the middle of the road again. Cresting a small rise, I recognize the spot and am taken aback. Not only is there no boy with a basketball, but the trailer/shack is nothing but charred black bits pointing up at a roofless sky, in the middle of all those piles of junk.

And the basketball hoop is still there, on top of its pole along the edge of the road.

November 2, 2007

November 2nd haiku

Another great hike today that inspired a bit of haiku. Too bad the poem's not as good as the hike was

Hot November sun
A deer snorts in the distance
Sycamores applaud

Ya had to be there.

October 27, 2007

Aimless meandering

Had a good hike today. Three days of rain cleared into a beautiful autumn day, so I hit the woods and let both my feet and my mind wander. Passed a couple of guys in the parking lot who were donning camo gear for some bow hunting in the area, and that prompted the majority of my mental ramblings. (Disclaimer: As with everything else I post here, what I'm about to state are my own opinions and ideas, and they're not even terribly well informed ones, at that. I'm not looking to offend anyone with these opinions, I'm just putting my thoughts into words. So, my apologies in advance to any cattle ranchers or Bambi fans who may be reading.)

I decided long ago that I have no problem with hunters, even when their hunting grounds coincide with my hiking trails (Becoming common practice where I live. The deer population is huge.). Poachers and trophy hunters disgust me, but someone who goes out with a bow and spends the time to familiarise themself with the animal's habits, learns to think like the animal, and then actually makes use of the meat after the kill, seems to have more respect for the animal (though I don't generally poll the hunters I meet on their intentions and practices, so for all I know the guys I saw today were just looking to score a big rack). Since humankind was stupid enough to kill off most of our predatory competitors, we've put ourselves in the position of having to control the populations of herbivores like the whitetail. Controlled, managed hunting culls the population and helps to maintain the health of the herd. That's how nature intended it, and by decimating fellow predatory species we perverted the cycle of life. Hunting somewhat helps to restore it.

Another element of this equation is the whole meat-eating question. I've been considering this more and more frequently and, as usual, I'm conflicted about it. I vaguely remember my parents dabbling in vegetarianism at one point back when I was a kid. Or at least Mom did. Dad's always been one of those guys you see in the current Wendy's ads, screaming for meat as if it were the source of all manliness. But anyway... Since I began reading about Buddhism and the Yogic concept of ahimsa, you'd think that going veg-o would be a natural course of action. Thing is, though, that I don't necessarily believe that humankind isn't supposed to eat meat. I believe that we evolved to be omnivorous, similarly to bears and raccoons. We developed rudimentary canine teeth and the ability to digest meat proteins. Our bodies actually require a certain amount of protein to function properly. Evolution just did not develop us to be herbivorous grazers. Where we went astray, though, was in allowing our appetite to consume us.

Think about it. In the beginning, humans had to work for their meat. It was a "special occasion" kind of thing, depending on the success of the hunt. But that bit of protein helped our brains to grow, and we ironically became smart enough to begin coralling and domesticating some of our more gentle, less-skittish protein sources. From that point on, meat became a staple in our diets and the Big Mac was the unfortunately inevitable outcome.

It's always our intelligence that gets us in trouble. From throwing up a fence, we moved on to members of the tribe learning to specialize in butchery and, voila!, the Meat Industry was born. What we have today is such a perversion of our original instincts that it's almost on a par with the atomic bomb coming from the ideas of someone like Einstein. Not only have we industrialized our consumption of something we originally had to work for, we've allowed that industry to become a filthy, corrupt thing that's cruel to the animals in question and, by ironic extension, hazardous to ourselves. (What's being fed to animals raised for consumption is disgusting and frightening. And that doesn't even get into the chemicals and antibiotics they're pumped up with.)

But what's a lazy slob like me to do? I hate to admit it, but I'm a slave to convenience. If I can't nuke it, order it, or pick it up at the drive-through, then I don't eat (cereal and fruit are nifty alternatives, though). This doesn't mean that I can't cook, just that I choose not to. I go through periodic phases when I make use of a few pots and pans and my handy-dandy George Foreman grill. It ain't gourmet, but I can make some fairly tasty meals. But then there are all those pots and pans and dishes to clean up... I'll admit it again: I'm a lazy slob. For someone like me, going vegetarian is decidedly challenging. Until Chick-Fil-A changes its name to Tofu-Fil-A, I'm a pawn to an industry that I'd rather have no part of.

And that's what it comes down to. For me, if I were to get off my lazy ass and make the decision to go veg-o, it would be as a boycott of Meat Industry practices, not out of any ahims-ic feelings towards my fellow creatures. I'll emphasize, again: I feel that truly needless killing is reprehensible. But if a bear or a wolf or a lion can remorselessly consume an animal that sits lower down the food chain, I can as well. And when I'm mindful enough to stop and think about it, I try to do so with respect and gratitude towards that animal. I'll admit, though, that my conscience would rest more easily if I were out there working for it, rather than having it neatly sliced, diced, and packaged, then handed to me at the drive-through.

Life feeds on life feeds on life...

So, spending much of today's hike pondering my feelings on this subject was a good break for me. It predominated my thoughts, allowing only a short time to brood over a sick cat, necessary home repairs, and problems at work and the terribly un-skillful ways in which I've been dealing with them. Another good distraction was a very cool animal encounter. I had stopped for a bit to just take in my surroundings, when I caught the flap of large wings out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head in time to see a Barred Owl settle on the limb of a tree just a couple hundred feet away. There were a few leafy branches between us, but I was able to very quietly maneuver myself to an angle at which I could see its eyes as it turned its head from side to side. At one point I let out a low whistle and it turned to stare directly towards me. Then, stupidly, I tried to slowly move a few steps to get a clearer view, which prompted it to spread its wings and swoop off to a further tree. So I apologized for disturbing it and hit the trail.

October 9, 2007

Recent experiences in mind-expansion

In the last handful of days, I've been to two very intense, moving, and thought-provoking exhibits. It's going to be hard to convey the full impact of them, but hopefully I can get at least some of it across.

First of the two is the latest exhibit at the American Visionary Arts Museum (AVAM), "All Faiths Beautiful" (photos from the opening, apparently). I had been slightly disappointed by the last two year's exhibits at AVAM, but this one is special from the first step beyond the entrance. In addition, I had the pleasure of experiencing it with a new internet acquaintance with whom I was very much on the same wave-length. From the items we reacted to, to the connections we made with pieces, there were repeated moments of synchronicity as we wandered through the galleries. As I've written here before, I'm often hesitant to share with others things that are meaningful to me for fear that the experience will be diminished by that person not "getting it". Having this person along definitely made the experience richer and lots of fun to boot (thanks, Leo!).

So, the exhibit
begins with a stream of postcards from the PostSecret project, chosen specifically for their reference to the sender's issues with faith. The secrets shared ranged from hilarious to heart-rending and were very touching to read. At the top of the entrance ramp, before entering the galleries, a sign explains that this year's exhibit is dedicated to the middle-eastern spiritual poet, Rumi, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of his birth. I've read about Rumi in the yoga and Buddhism magazines I subscribe to, but I had never been drawn into reading anything from Rumi. After this introduction to him, it's time.

Immediately beyond the ramp and across from the stairs, AVAM hung the lone Alex Grey piece in this exhibit, "Transfiguration". I've seen a few other of Grey's works at the gallery ("Gaia" and "Cosmic Christ", both presented in the same terrific spot by the stairs) and each one has left me in awe. It's impossible to conceive either the detail or the overall beauty of his work in the tiny images linked here. The man's work is profound and amazing.

The walls along the stairs leading to the upper exhibit floors are lined with more cards from PostSecret. They're a fantastic exhibit all to themselves, but they're only the beginning. The review in the Baltimore Sun really describes the entire show better than I can, but there were a few highlights that really stuck with me. One in particular is the art of Fred Kahler. The detail of Kahler's pieces is mind-boggling. I've often walked through AVAM and imagined the various artists hunched for hours and hours over their work, compelled to create by the power of their vision (AVAM recognizes this same impression, with a separate exhibit of permanent works entitled "OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Delight"). Just as many hours could be spent inspecting, analysing and comprehending works like Kahler's. Amazing stuff.

Another hightlight is the room of Rumi. The combination of Rumi's words with gorgeous imagery is fantastic. Being with someone at the time, I didn't take advantage of the pillows along the wall, but on my second visit I may have to pull one out to the middle of the room to sit and soak it all up.

Another excellent discovery of the day was later at the Fell's Point Festival (longest running street festival on the east coast, apparently). There are always several booths of wonderful photographers, but the works of Christos Palios were the most fantastic I saw. Very Escher-esque pieces that are as trippy as they are beautiful. It's definitely worth the time to explore the portfolio area at his site.

Today's incredible experience was attending Bodies, The Exhibit. At first glance, the exhibits appear to be very thoroughly detailed models. The colors of the muscles and other tissues have a faded appearance that makes them seem fake (whether this is their true color or from exposure to light, dust, etc, I don't know). As I looked closer, though, certain details became apparent that drove home the reality: The hairs on the shin of a human skin laid out sans body; thick, horney-looking toenails on the foot of an otherwise flayed body; eyelashes on another. From that point on, my thoughts veered between fascination and morbidity through the rest of the exhibit. The information accompanying the exhibits is very detail and informative, and actually seeing the veins, tendons, muscles, organs and skeletal structures was wonderfully instructive. But then I'd catch myself thinking that a gluteus muscle looked just like a flank steak, or that a cross-section cut of thigh looked like a slice of ham (with the center bone, marrow, and all).

The circulatory gallery, though, was more beautiful than morbid. I don't remember the exact name and details of the process used to create this portion of the exhibit, but in a nutshell-- A fluid is injected into the veins that colors and hardens them. The body is then immersed in a solution that dissolves everything except the hardened veins. The result is an amazing mesh of tiny, intricately branching veins in the rough form of a human body, heart, lungs, etc. It looks as if it can't possibly be real and, if it is, as if there wouldn't be room within the body for all of those veins along with skeleton, muscles and organs.

As much fun as the exhibit itself was riding the subway home afterwards and trying to picture what was under the skin of the people all around me. What would that heavy-set person look like in a cross-section cut? Do that person's lungs look like the healthy ones exhibited, or are they black like the smoker's lungs displayed? Mind-blowing stuff, and so worth the visit. See it if you can.

I've ended up the evening sitting in front of the computer tripping myself out over the Win Media Player visualizations dancing along to Incubus' "Calgone". Damn, man, who the f' needs drugs? I mean, really. Experiences such as I've had the last few days do it for me with no controlled substances necessary

October 7, 2007

The annual pilgrimage, 2007

I've let two weeks go by before making time to write about this year's annual pilgimage out to western Md. Life is freaking busy these days.

So, anyway, the pilgrimage. I first vacationed in western Md roughly ten years ago. I had moved into my grandmother's basement apartment as a 6-year relationship was in the process of crumbling (he wanted kids, I didn't), only to find that Grandma had just been diagnosed with cancer. So, at some point during that chaotic period, I picked up a brochure advertising "The Mountain Side of Maryland". Sounded damned good to me, so I booked a room at the Cumberland Holiday Inn and mapped a route of back roads through Va and WV up into Md. I've been in love with that area ever since and have spread my exploration over into Garrett County and up into Fayette County, Pa. Cumberland remains "home base", and I head in a different direction each day for exploration and adventure via car, bike and foot.

With so many great options, I usually cross my fingers for good weather and go for 4-5 days. This year's been another chaotic one, though, and I was only able to arrange a 3-day pilgrimage. Ma Nature blessed me with good weather, though, so while short, it was definitely sweet.

Thursday's adventure was a ride along the C&O Canal towpath from Little Orleans to the Paw Paw Tunnel. I've been riding the towpath in sections for the last several years, and there was one little stretch between these two locations that had been eluding me. I'd been needing to do this ride to finally link everything up and be able to say I've ridden the entire length from Great Falls to Cumberland (I have no interest in riding the section between D.C. and Great Falls, I'd rather head away from the city). This is a beautiful, solitary section, and the half-mile long, pitch-black tunnel is a real highlight.

Heading into the tunnel at the downstream end:

Within the tunnel (taken with flash):

Coming back out, heading downstream:

Further downstream:

And even further downstream:

Headed from there into Cumberland, checked into the hotel, then up to LaVale for dinner at the Texas Grillhouse. The place is a cowboy-themed chain and I wouldn't bother to mention it except that they consistently have the absolute best snowcrab legs I've ever eaten. Full of dense, sweet meat, and perfectly cooked so that you're able to pull out nice big chunks of meat to dip in the melted butter. After a good long bike ride, it's a decadently luxurious meal (yet somewhat healthy when combined with a baked sweet potato and applesauce) and I truly look forward to it each year.

The second day's ride was along the last completed stretch of the Great Allegheny Passage trail from Cumberland to Frostburg. I've ridden this trail west of Frostburg (my blog of that ride) and up in Fayette County, Pa, but this last 15 or so miles was just completed over the winter of 2006. It turned out to be a steeper grade than I expected, though, (I'd estimate 2-3%, more in some spots) and I ended up pooping out and turning around just 3 miles from Frostburg. Took me 2 hours and a whole lot of breaks to pedal 12 miles uphill, but only a bit over a half-hour to head back down.

In the mountains, along the tracks:

My trusty steed:

The evening consisted of a wander around Cumberland at dusk, then ordering room service and watching Spiderman III on pay-per-view.

Historic downtown Cumberland at dusk:

After cycling two days in a row, I weenied out of a third and headed back east a ways to Berkely Springs, WV. For the past several years, my Cumberland trips have begun with a massage at The Bath House (These pilgrimages may be solitary, but they are most definitely not ascetic). This year, though, all the time and money spent with the chiropractor made me feel I couldn't justify this particular luxury at this time. When my thighs turned to lead on the uphill to Frostburg, though, I changed my mind and decided to have myself kneaded into a lump of blissed-out clay after all.

After that, another indulgence-- Warm Brie, apple and almond salad at Tari's Cafe. And after that, I chose to partake in a bit of my favorite drug: Adrenaline, induced by high speed on smooth pavement. Instead of driving the highway back to Cumberland, I turned off to take a run up and down mountainous rural route 9 through WV. My trusty little Honda Civic flowed through the repeated 'S' curves like water, while Incubus cranked through the stereo. Brandon Boyd's no Chris Cornell (Edit 11/11/07: I've since changed that opinion), but he's got a sweet, fresh set of pipes nonetheless. A few choruses of "Nice to Know You", along with a couple of high-speed passes of slower pick-up trucks, and I was quite high.

After coming down, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading Rudyard Kipling at a table in front of the Mountain City Coffehouse in Frostburg (with Jasmine tea and Belgian waffle with chocolate chips for dinner). When I first began these trips, it was the Tombstone Cafe, a funky little coffee joint geared towards the local college kids. The tiny little building, next door to St. Michael's church, originally housed the town's headstone carver. It's been through a few incarnations over the last decade, ending up as Mountain City, which seems to cater less to the funky college crowd and more to their yuppie parents.

Funny how the definition of "Yuppie" has expanded, at least in my mind. Originally coined to describe "Young Urban Professionals", it now encompasses, for me at least, a decidedly vaster age and geographic range. I find myself appying the term to 40- & 50-somethings piloting mini-vans and Hummers through the suburbs. What acronym would be more accurate? M.A.S.T.-ies (Middle-Aged Surburban Twits)? And how about the SUV-driving, born-again hippies who guzzle gas on their way to Whole Foods? That bunch makes me feel almost affectionate towards the born'n'bred country locals rumbling around in their pickup trucks. They seem somehow less hypocritical and disingenuous.

And yet, where do I get off judging the people around me in this way? Me, who dodges group identification as if it were a plague and fastidiously avoids labeling myself in any way, how can I so easily classify individuals about whom I know nothing but what I imagine I see in a quick glimpse? Like Camus' "judge-penitent", I'm cynical enough to exercise hypocrisy with impunity (and tongue firmly in cheek).

"[My words] have the purpose of...avoiding judgement personally, though there is apparently no escape. Is not the great thing that stands in the way of escaping it the fact that we are the first to condemn ourselves? Therefore it is essential to begin by extending the condemnation to all, without distinction..." (Albert Camus, The Fall)

To shake off the bitter direction my thoughts were taking, I headed out for an evening drive before my last night in Cumberland. In addition to being a great high, driving's also a meditative and relaxing activity for me. I often think that if I could just keep driving, all the need for judgement and condemnation would just fall away somewhere around the next bend...

"Nice to Know You"

Better than watching Gellar bending silver spoons
Better than witnessing newborn nebulaes in bloom
She who sees from up high smiles and surely sings
Perspective pries your once weighty eyes
And it gives you wings

I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long
It's hard for me to specify
I'm beginning to notice
How much this feels like a waking limb
Pins and needles, nice to know you

Goodbye, nice to know you

Deeper than the deepest Cousteau would ever go
And higher than the heights of what we often think we know
Blessed she who clearly sees the wood for the trees
To obtain a birds eye is to turn a blizzard to a breeze

I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long
It's hard for me to specify
I'm beginning to notice
How much this feels like a waking limb
Pins and needles, nice to know you

Goodbye, nice to know you

So could it be that it has been there all along?

September 13, 2007

Another weekend in Pennsylvania

A software training class for work sent me back up to Pennsylvania this past weekend, this time to King of Prussia, home to the East Coast's Premier Shopping Destination. From what I could see, there's almost no town to speak of in K of P, just a bunch of industrial/office parks and that frighteningly humongous mall. But... The location of the training class was less than half a mile from the entrance to Valley Forge National Historical Park. Wow. I didn't know what to expect, and ended up just blown away by this park.

I drove up Sunday morning, arriving about noon, checked into the hotel, then immediately drove over to the park. As with July's Philly weekend, I had considered bringing my bike. The park map showed a handful of miles of paved multi-use trail, and the Schuyllkill River Trail was smack-dab across the river from the park (back in July, the waylaid plan was to ride from Philly to Valley Forge on the Schuyllkill). Again, though, the weather forecast was iffy and I didn't feel like worrying about wet bike components so far from home (and from proper cleaning/lubing supplies). So, the bike stayed home and I ended up regretting that decision. The park and its trails were fantastic.

Like the US Civil War battlefield parks closer to home, the landscape is absolutely beautiful.

Rolling hills rise up south of the river, and in the center of them lies the valley of Washington's encampment interspersed by woods and open meadows. At the last minute, I did decide to bring my camera in place of the bike. Unfortunately, though, I didn't think to bring the battery charger. Went through both batteries Sunday afternoon, and kept finding spots that I was dying to photograph but couldn't. Knowing that the training sessions on Monday and Tuesday let out at 4:30pm, I was severely tempted to pop into the freaking humongous mall and buy a new camera just so I could shoot those two afternoons, but managed to restrain myself (found out that Sony's discontinued both my camera and the batteries it uses, dammit). So, I didn't get all the photos I wanted, but did spend a lot of time driving and wandering around the park. Of note:

- There were deer everywhere. Now, I'm used to seeing a lot of whitetails. I've had deer right outside my suburban front door on several occasions. So when I say there were a lot of deer in this park, I mean there were a lot of deer. They wandered in pairs and groups across the road and stood grazing just along the edge as cars and pedestrians cruised right by them. The most blasé, nonchalant deer I've ever seen:

- Drove through the park at 6:30am Monday morning, heading to a breakfast spot recommended by an old-timer working in the visitor's center. The valley was filled by a thick, cottony-white blanket of fog that had totally dispersed by the time I drove back an hour later. The breakfast spot was very cool: A place called the 'G' Lodge, that's temporarily going by the name of "Filbert's". Apparently, M. Night Shyamalan recently filmed scenes at the restaurant for the upcoming film The Happening, and the owner hasn't yet taken down the signs used for the movie. The food is unfortunately only mediocre, but the atmosphere was very M. Night. Very rustic and lodge-like inside, the place has obviously been there for a long time. It looks cozy from the exterior, but inside is vaguely creepy. Adding to that sensation were the four regulars at the counter, gentlemen who appeared as old and rustic as the 'G' Lodge itself, and who sat and ate their breakfasts in stone-cold silence. I've never eaten in a quieter place. Wanted to get a photo to show that I ate in the restaurant that's going to be in The Happening, but because the camera batteries died you'll just have to take my word for it.

- Another spot that had me fuming over the camera batteries was the Washington Memorial Chapel. Wandering over from Varnum's Quarters on Sunday afternoon, I found a very pretty cemetery tucked into the woods behind Route 23:

Turns out, it's part of the chapel. And, of course, there were deer:

Wandering back toward the car, I stopped for some photos of the old rectory:

Continuing down the road, I almost gave myself whiplash when the chapel itself came into view. It was already closed by that time, but the architecture and grounds are the real draw:

It was at this point that I really began cussing. I managed one single freaking photo of this beautifully haunting statue before the camera died on me:

Reason number 1 that I need to go back for another long weekend: to do a full photo study of that statue. Reason number 2 is the gorgeous Kennedy Supplee mansion across from the visitor's center. Apparently once a restaurant, the building now sits shamefully empty and abandoned. I'd really love to know why. And, reason number 3 is to ride my bike!!!

Also of note on this trip was having dinner with a new on-line pal (one of the folks I met at the Philly Chris Cornell show in July). I've been on quite the friend-making spree this year, between my cycling/kayaking buddies and the people at the Cornell forum. So far it's been fun getting to know these people and spending time with them, but I still can't get used to the scheduling issues. My calendar for the next couple of months is getting pretty crowded and I need to make sure I leave some days to be on my own. All this socializing leaves little time for introspection, which means less self-absorbed blogs. And that'd be a pity

More and larger photos here.