April 30, 2007

Spring fever

"Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring."
(Ivan Karamazov to his brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Doestoevsky)

Every year at this time, I have to pull out that big fat Russian soap-opera of a novel and read that line (which Doestoevsky apparently cribbed from a Pushkin poem).

If you haven't been getting out and experiencing the opening of the sticky little leaves lately, then shame on you.

April 25, 2007

Interesting encounters: Chris Cornell and a fox

Last night, I headed up to B'more to experience Chris Cornell performing live at Ram's Head. I passed up a couple of Audioslave shows over the last few years because I'm just not interested in experiencing music in an arena setting anymore. The one time I saw Soundgarden was at a Lollapalooza event (with The Ramones and Metallica, woo-hoo!!), and that was definitely a cool experience. My memories of SG's performance are hazy at best, since I spent most of their set in the mosh-pit (where I learned that I'm armpit height to the average male), but the entire day was an experience. And a few years ago, I saw a few shows on T00l's tour for Lateralus. One was general admission at an outdoor pavillion, the other two were in arenas. The pavillion show is the only one of the three that is firmly planted in my memory. There's just something about the energy of a general admission crowd that adds to a show, and it's even better in an intimate club setting. So, when Cornell seemingly threw this club tour together at a moment's notice, I was glad that I heard about it in time to snag a ticket the day they went on sale. If his new solo career follows the course begun with Audioslave, it may be the last chance to see him in an intimate venue.

I did hesitate a bit, I admit. Chris' voice has definitely shown signs of wear over the last several years. Something happened to his throat between Euphoria Morning and the first 'Slave album. While the new huskiness evident on tunes like "Cochise" and "What You Need" was definitely sexy, it concerned me. Then I started hearing live recordings in which it was obvious he was straining. Worst of all was a live performance after the second album, Out of Exile, was released. It was some VH1 award show or something, and Chris' voice cracked all over the place while singing "Doesn't Remind Me". I cringed watching it. Somehow, between Out of Exile and Revelations, though, he managed to gain some control over the situation. He sounded better on the new album, and live performances on the 'net had a smoothness to them I was afraid he'd lost. He's held onto that whiskeyed huskiness, but seems better able to hit those high notes he was once notorious for. So, I had a hard time keeping my expectations in check on the drive to B'more last night.

In a nutshell, the show was awesome. The fact that there were too many tall people between me and the stage, and that the sound mix was frustratingly muddy, couldn't detract from the fact that the man who's music has entranced me for 16 years was bouncing and prowling around the stage mere feet in front of me. I missed not hearing "Like Suicide", "Call Me a Dog" or "Zero Chance" (which I've heard he's performed at other shows this tour), but Chris put together a great selection of tunes nonetheless. A handful of SG Badmotorfinger classics, a couple of Temple of the Dog gems, his movie soundtrack treasures "Seasons" and "Sunshower", and a few tunes from his soon-to-be released 2nd solo album. It was hard to catch the emotion of his voice, between his mic being buried in the sound mix and everyone (myself included) singing along with every song, but it was obvious that he was having no issues hitting every note with intensity. I have to admit to being so caught up in the experience that I actually sang along with "No Such Thing" (from the new album, not impressive) and "Black Hole Sun" (the song for which SG is doomed to be remembered, not one of their best). And the more up-tempo, dramatic version of his "Billie Jean" cover was fantastic, much better than the slow, actually dull (my opinion, sorry) acoustic version I'd heard on the 'net.

I've got mixed expectations for Carry On, the new album coming out in June. Of the four tunes I've heard so far ("You Know My Name", "Billie Jean", "No Such Thing" & "Arms Around Your Love"), two of them are pretty weak lyrically, continuing a trend that concerned me on the 2nd & 3rd 'Slave albums. As much as I hate to say this, my impression is that sobriety has tempered Chris' poetic ability. The incredible imagery and metaphors of his past tunes have been repaced by a clear-eyed straightforwardness that just doesn't have the same impact. And he's picked up a disturbing habit of sophomoric rhyming. After last night's show, though, I'm more than willing to give the new album a chance to grow on me. I'll follow Chris' new direction for as far as I possibly can.

Today's encounter was much more sedate and quiet. I hit the woods for a hike, since last night left me too wiped out for a bike ride. So, I'm heading up a slight hill and I see something standing in the middle of the trail up ahead. At first I thought it was a dog, since most people who hike with their dogs aren't smart enough to keep them leashed, but then I realized it was a fox. It was just standing smack in the middle of the trail as calm as could be, watching me approach. At first, I froze, thinking it would be startled and take off. When it continued to just stand there, I slowly moved along the trail till I was a couple dozen feet from it, at which point we both stood there looking at each other. Then, the fox sat down. That floored me. It didn't appear to be injured or rabid or otherwise wacked out, it just wasn't concerned that I was there. I took a few tentative steps closer and it didn't budge. That is, until it decided to lie down. After a while, it even put it's head down and appeared to be napping. I had no choice but to stand there. Several minutes later, a squeak next to a nearby tree had the fox on it's feet. Had to be a mouse or a chipmunk. The fox, with no care for the fact that it was coming closer to me, trotted down the trail to stand next to the tree looking for the source of the squeak. It apparently didn't find it, because it soon plopped itself down on trail again, put it's head on it's paws, and re-commenced it's nap. It raised it's head once as I moved a few steps to sit on a rock near my section of the trail, but then closed it's eyes again.

About half an hour after our little party began, a full bladder convinced me that it was time to disturb the fox and continue on to the parking area and the porta-johns. I stood up and took a few steps forward. The fox raised it's head and looked at me, but didn't move. I took a few more steps and it realized the situation. It stood up and headed back up to where it was when I first saw it, where it turned and waited to see what I was going to do. I began slowly walking toward it, and it finally decided to move off into the mountain laurels bordering the trail. It didn't go far, though, and watched me as I passed. After a dozen or so feet, I turned back and saw it step back out onto the trail and down towards the tree where the mysterious squeak was sounded. I would have loved to have hung out and watched it for a while longer, but I had a 5:30pm chiro appointment and the urgings of my bladder to deal with. So, I hiked on.

That was somewhat dull in the telling, but it really was a very cool occurrence. On the heels of last night's Chris Cornell experience, it made for a pair of incidents I had to write about to preserve them in my memory.

You tell me I'm low 'cause I've slept on the floor,
And out in the woods with the badgers & wolves...
(Chris Cornell, "Call Me a Dog", Temple of the Dog)

April 22, 2007

Time to ride

Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must
Feed my will to feel my moment drawing way outside the lines.
("Lateralus", T00l, Lateralus)

I've been over-analyzing the crap out of things for the last handful of months, and it's left me a borderline basket-case. One of my MySpace "friends" recently said something about how he enjoys cycling because he "loves to reduce life to a series of actions." Good plan. I'm gonna go ride my bike, too. I may be gone for a while, so... See ya!

April 1, 2007

Locomotion as a form of meditation

I don't consume alcohol, "illegal" substances, or cigarettes. I do get a kick out of the ocassional hit of nitrous oxide at the dentist's office, I like my teas caffeinated, and I enjoy a daily piece or two of fine dark chocolate, but otherwise I'm fairly abstinent. Past experience indicates that I could probably develop an addiction to sex, but current lifestyle choices have caused me to abstain from that, too. The one and only craving I fully indulge is an addiction to fast driving.

I'm fortunate to live in a region with some pretty good roads for driving at speed, somewhat close to areas of transition between suburban and rural. That, combined with the rolling hills of the piedmont region, means that curvy, relatively low-traffic country roads are in easy access. When I first moved to this locale back in my mid-20's, I began to explore just to familiarize myself with the area. As I started to discover the back-country roads nearby, I quickly realized how much fun they could be. I also learned that driving fast gave me an unexpected respite from the cyclothymic depression I had been sunk in for a handful of years. When I found myself sitting agitated and restless in my apartment in the evening, I'd grab my keys and head out for a drive. To this day, nothing calms my nerves and relaxes me like pushing the speedometer on an open road.

The thing about driving is the focus it requires. When you drive fast on country roads, you quickly learn that you have to maintain awareness and a constant anticipation that something (an animal, a pedestrian, another car) could be in the middle of the road as you crest that next hill or swing around that upcoming curve. The focus required pushes all other thoughts out of your head and leaves you in a very Zen-like state. I've intentionally described this state as "focused" and not "concentrated". Concentration implies a tunnel-visioned rigidity and that's sure to lead to a crash. What's necessary to drive fast is a relaxed, wide-spread, yet focused, awareness. Peripheral vision is key, as is being relaxed enough to respond instead of react. Chris Cornell is apparently also a speed-freak and describes it similarly:

"Speed is true escapism. When you're going really fast you have no opportunity to think about anything else in your life. Stuff that might bug you gets forced out of your brain. When I want to clear out my mind, I'll usually go driving late at night on roads where I know there are no police..."

My chiropractor (Dr. Joe) and I have discussed this. Dr. Joe is a motorcycle afficionado, specifically racing bikes. He and his buddies frequent many of the same roads I do, and several of my chiro appointments have ended with us comparing notes on current road conditions, favorite curves, etc. In one of these conversations, Dr. Joe described the exhilaration of of entering a curve and feeling that point when it's time to accelerate to sling your vehicle around the apex and out the other side. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Whether it's a car or a motorcycle, there's a thrill in feeling that no-mind, totally instinctual one-ness with vehicle and pavement.

Another great description of driving fast that mirror my sentiments is from a January 1999 National Geographic article about T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). Lawrence was apparently a motorcycle buff and spent the years of his retirement tearing around the English country-side on a pretty cool-looking Brough Superior SS1000, before an unfortunately fatal crash on that same bike. The Nat'l Geo writer had the opportunity of driving the Brough:

"...blasting down the narrow roads of Dorset that day, I did get a taste of what Lawrence found on this bike at the end. It was a kind of surrender, I think-- a speed-induced state of bliss in which things go empty and white, as they sometimes do in the desert, and where... struggle might be briefly forgotten, or somehow resolved, and penance seems no longer necessary."

To a lesser degree, my bicycle induces this same bliss. As I mentioned in another recent post, I'm no speed-demon on the bike. I just don't have the watts for it (yet...?). I've gone as fast as 30mph downhill, but I slow down like a granny going into turns. And I'm just not powerful enough for sustained speed on a straightaway. But there's a similar relaxed focus required in cycling. To maintain a steady cadence on flats or rolling hills demands attention to breathing, gearing, pedal stroke, and any upcoming obstacles that will affect that ideal combination of rpm/mph. Obviously, there's a necessary amount of knowledge of these various elements required, but at a certain point that knowledge becomes muscle-memory and thought exits the equation. Again, it's body, machine and surface congealing into a harmonious state of mindful-yet-mindless freedom from care.

Getting back to the car: Most people would probably not consider me to be a "good" driver, but I'd like to think of myself as at least a skillful one. Yes, I'm aggressive behind the wheel, but I honestly believe that I might be a tad more aware and attentive than the average cell-phone afflicted motorist. I try to be realistic, though. I tend to attribute my lack of accidents (beyond a handful of weather-related incidents in my early 20's) to a smidgen of skill in handling the car, a teensy bit to my awareness of what's going on and what could happen at any moment around me, and a whole lot to just plain dumb luck. Of course, now that I've written those words, I'll probably go out tomorrow and have a tremendous wreck. Unless it leaves me maimed or dead, though, it probably wouldn't be enough to curb my addiction.

Anyone know of a local chapter of Speed-Demon's Anonymous...?