Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pancakes with Kaz

Today I had the pleasure of escorting the pre-eminent Calligrapher, Writer, Poet, Artist, Peace Activist, Translator and Zen Sensei Kaz to the airport in Brussels. Last weekend I participated in one of Kaz’s “signature” calligraphy workshops and last evening I was able to attend a truly special event in which for the first time (as far as anyone knows), the poetry of the Japanese Zen Master Ryokan was set to music and performed live. Kaz had translated the poetry, Luc De Winter composed the score, and the duo of Els Modelaers (mezzo) and Veerle Peeters (piano) brought the poetry to life at Antwerp’s Kunst Humanorium (Performing Arts School).

Within a mere week’s time, via Kaz, both directly and indirectly, I was exposed to an entirely new aspect of a city I have lived in for the past five years. As I have written before, there are two ways to see the world: to travel as much as possible to as many places as you are able to; or, to sit still and the world will sooner or later pass by. I have tried to balance both of these approaches, and this past week, the latter proved to be quite effective as I discovered many things “in my own backyard,” so to speak.

I picked up Kaz quite early this morning, and the brilliant autumn full moon was still quite high and bright in the sky, and the air was crisp and clear. It was a beautiful morning.

We made it to Zaventem with no problems as it is Sunday, and the infamous Belgian traffic jams were not to pose a threat today.

However, when Kaz tried to check in, there was a bit of a security snafu as he had previously lost his Green Card and is waiting for his new one. As such, we were told he was not going to be able to fly and that he would have to go to the American Embassy and procure papers, etc.

Two things could have happened. The first, which unfortunately is more common, is that he could have made a scene, complained, be rude to the woman helping him, or a myriad of other ways to cause ill will. We had just experienced that as the woman in front of us had been told she had to shuffle her luggage a bit to make the weight limit. She loudly protested, became highly agitated and in the end left both herself and the woman helping her in a huff. That was the woman who was helping Kaz next, and she began in a rather defensive tone from the beginning.

Yet, the other way to deal with such situations is the way that Kaz did. There was no huffing and puffing. There was no anger. There was no anxiety (at least not outwardly as far as I could tell), and Kaz remained calm, which is what one would expect of one in his station of zen practice. After various people coming to help out, calls to INS in New York, re-booking of tickets, and so forth, the end result was that we got Kaz on a later flight, which ended up having a better connection as well, and each person that we dealt with, in the end was smiling, and everyone wished him a fine journey.

Once, many years ago, I was traveling with my ex-wife and we were on a flight that was canceled from the US to Europe. It was about midnight when the flight was finally canceled after a couple hours of delays. As a result, the entire flight had to be re-booked, one by one. Tempers flared immediately. People were loudly protesting and generally making the women’s lives behind the desk quite miserable. We were the last to be re-booked, by then it was nearly 2am. The people in front of us had been particularly rude, and the woman that helped us was at wit’s end.

Instead of following suit, I tried to be as understanding as possible, and lighten the mood for us. A slow wave of change came over the woman’s face, and she said, “just a minute.” She went into the computer, began ticking away, and ultimately handed us new tickets for the next day. She said, more or less, “I ‘accidentally’ booked you in these new seats, I think you will like them.” She slid the tickets across the counter with a knowing smile. That was the only time I have flown first-class on a transatlantic flight…

After Kaz had his tickets sorted out, we still had a couple of hours before he had to board on his new flight, so he suggested we have breakfast together. As there is not much in the Zaventem airport for departures before you go through security, we were limited to a couple of places, one of them being a “themed” American-style dinner, which we chose.

We both decided upon a small stack of pancakes, which neither of us had had in some time as it turned out. Complete with a jug of Maple Syrup, we had a very nice breakfast, and I was able to learn more about Kaz and his family as well as being able to tell him about my wonderful daughter as I had given him my book that I made for her, so he was “familiar” with her vicariously.

Last Sunday I learned of the inspiring art of the enso/enzo zen circles, and today I enjoyed a very pleasant conversation over a stack of American pancakes with an elderly (only in years…), kind Japanese man in the Brussels airport, served by a Turkish waiter. Again, the world does indeed sometimes come to us in our own backyard, and the more receptive we are to it, and the more we meet it with kindness and understanding, the richer our experience can be.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Circles Squared

This summer I re-discovered one of (if not the) America’s greatest thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I picked up Emerson at a rather low period in my life this summer, one in which I needed some inspiration, some words of wisdom, some encouragement from somebody, and I found them in his words.

Emerson had a very difficult life, despite a seemingly cozy, entitled position. Because of his revolutionary and challenging viewpoints, he was ostracized for nearly 3 decades from his alma mater of Harvard before eventually being anointed with an honorary doctorate, once clearer minds prevailed and realized what a treasure he was for them.  Often that is the sign of a truly “great mind,” to be marginalized on knee-jerk reactions only to eventually be recognized by a measured response, though just as often this may come long after his or her death. For Emerson, it came within his lifetime, but he was no stranger to hardship and tragedy as death shrouded his life with many younger relatives and friends dying early deaths.

From those experiences though, Emerson did not shirk, nor did he resign himself to quiet desperation as many in his place would have. Somehow, somewhere, he delved deep within and found a strength to continue to write, to continue to speak, to continue to live, never outwardly bemoaning his fate, even after the death of his son Waldo from Scarlet Fever.

Instead, Emerson met each adversity with writing and lecturing. He did not withdraw from the marketplace, but rather used his strength to overcome his tragedies and to share that strength with others through his words.

In his essay “Circles,” Emerson writes:

Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess to-day the mood, the pleasure, the power of to-morrow, when we are building up our being. Of lower states, of acts of routine and sense, we can tell somewhat, but the masterpieces of God, the total growths, and universal movements of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable.

For as far as I can tell, Emerson did not wallow in the Past, nor did he try to divine the Future, but rather was firmly rooted in the Present.

As with Kant’s concept of the impossibility for our human reason to comprehend the totality of Space and Time, Emerson gives us the same caveat. There are just some things we cannot do. That is not failure, but it is the necessary imperfection of life that we must encounter on a daily basis. We can respond with despair, or we can embrace the imperfection and move forward. In those moments of embrace, we can discover new worlds within our own, or maybe just see what is right in front of us all along.

Life is indeed a series of surprises. Although I don’t like to be “scared” (never was a fan of Haunted Houses), I embrace the surprises because as Emerson said, we cannot measure what tomorrow may bring. As such, to expend the energy of fretting about something we cannot know, is futile. A difficult, yet necessary lesson to learn, and one that needs to be refreshed on a daily basis, lest we drink the waters of the river Lethe and forget.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

FIrst it is a Home, then it is not, then it is a Home

This summer I returned once again to Amarillo, Texas, where I still have family, with my daughter for some time.

There was a period of time when I loathed going to that town, and it was truly just to say "hello" to those family members as I would nearly stay sequestered in my mother's home, not wishing to venture out into the city I had left in heart and mind when I graduated. This was for many years.

It has only been since having a child, and returning to a place that at one time was home, then was quite foreign to me, but is now a place that I enjoy returning to with her as I learn new things each time about the place I thought I once knew.

It often takes the eyes of the child to wipe the sleep from our eyes, or cleanse our jaded minds about something.

Much happened this summer during that trip. Some good, some not so good, but all of it was a learning experience, and one that allowed me to come back with much to think about, work on, and to celebrate, even when it was tough.

It's when we let go of thinking we know what we think we know that we actually begin to learn something.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I Had a Dream

Forty-five years ago on this date, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That is both remarkable and unbelievable (though two seemingly synonyms, not quite). It is remarkable in the fact that in that time so much has happened, and that on this anniversary there is a Black President, who is also African-American, meaning that he has immediate African heritage, in the Oval Office of the United States of America, but also unbelievable in that it was JUST 45 years ago that Martin Luther King was struggling for Civil Rights. It is one of those cognitive disjuncts that just seems so far away, but in reality is so close. Today also celebrates the 40th or so anniversary of a cellular phone that ten years later became a cell phone on the public market, and that the smart phones we know of today are less than ten years old.

Times fly, yet, because of the swiftness of such advances, it is easy to forget the glacial progress that proceeds such monumental events as MLK or the cell phone. You may say that this is to place the sacred against the profane, but in all honesty, the are both signs of the Times. Things are moving now at a lightning speed. The fiber optics of both the civil sector as well as technology makes it hard for one to keep up, to appreciate the advances that we are seeing on both levels.

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, in the wake of the Civil Rights' Movement, we experienced something most of the rest of the country did not. In fact, as far as I know, it was the first city to implement "bussing" into the curriculum. Louisville, in the heart of the Mason-Dixon divisional lines, was experimental in the sense of in the early 70's, each year, depending upon the first letter of your last name, you would either be bussed to the "inner city" or out to the "suburbs." This was an attempt at integrating two worlds, two worlds that had very little in common except youth.

I remember the "black kids" who were bussed into Norton Elementary and I remember my "white friends" who were bussed out to the inner city. There were successful cross-overs, but there were also monumental failures.

It was forced integration, which superficially may seem good, but ultimately it fails, which it did some years later, after we had moved to the even more divided Texas town of Amarillo, where, for the most part, white is white, and black is black, unless you play football or basketball, and then the lines are blurred.

Racial divisions still play a deciding factor in much of America, but, I have this to say. At least we addressed it. At least it came out to the fore and became a social issue. What I have and still experience in Europe is a pseudo-Civil Rights attitude, meaning that they think that they have transcended it, without ever having gone through the Rosa Parks, the Million Man March, the "I Have a Dream" speeches that America did give free speech to. Like it or not, America does give that voice, and even more so when it is fought for. I feel that often in Europe it seems to be taken as a given, but is not really given at all.

I believe that Race and Religion still divide the majority of the world, despite all of the progress we have made in those areas. I believe that they always have, and sadly, most likely, always will. However, as I have written, when in India, the three most important Americans were: Abraham Lincoln (now denigrated to a Vampire hunter), MLK and Bill Gates. That gave me pause then, and it gives me pause now. That is America, in a nutshell. We are a country of extremes and innovations. I do get a bit tired of the European jadedness of what America actually has contributed on the world stage, beyond "Hollywood Endings," and that we do have something to say.

MLK came out of the American culture, and I believe that it was because of the American culture that someone like MLK could have flourished, and sadly enough, was vulnerable to the death he suffered. Like JFK and John Lennon, and many others, MLK proved to be very human and very susceptible to human frailty. He was no saint. He was no martyr. But, he was a man who stood up against the tide.

U2's "The Unforgettable Fire" is an album that more or less in its entirety is devoted to MLK and his legacy and his message, so with that, I will leave you with Bono, a much better spokesman than myself.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Wasn't sure where to post this one, but, chose this blogsite.

So, driving in my car just now (no, not like the Beatles' Rubber Soul), I heard Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and I realized it really was my birthday.

Unlike in the States, where you have Classic Rock stations, to hear Jimi on Studio Brussels is about as rare as spotting the Dodo bird.

So, I knew it was my special day.

I used to listen to KISS, Jimi, Rush and Led Zeppelin on my Walkman II nearly 30 years ago before all of my swim races. So, what a treat to hear the Seattle man back on the wavelengths. Officially, he only put out 3 LPs, but unofficially, there are nearly 80 Hendrix albums. A man after my own heart, behind the scenes.

So, here is a second video for the day...

Friday, March 15, 2013

Rob The Obscure, Redux

I am in Cambridge, UK right now, visiting the University in order to attend a memorial lecture at Pembroke College tonight for a high-school friend who died tragically young, but before that left his indelible mark on the world of Theoretical Physics. This is the 7th Annual Andrew Chamblin Memorial Lecture about the Higgs Boson and the Large Hadron Collider. It is a brilliant tribute to the wily-haired Andy I knew in Calculus class, who would drive us nuts humming the entire class as he was also a musician, evinced by the annual Chamber Music Memorial at Oxford every year for him, where he also blazed a trail.

Cambridge has been a peripheral part of my life since High School as well, so it is interesting that because of Andrew, I have an “excuse” to come over here each year if I am able to. I first really heard of Cambridge from my eccentric and inimitable Junior Year English teacher, Mr. Gary Biggers, who had also been my sisters Humanities and English teacher as well as leading their school trip to Europe. Mr. Biggers came to Cambridge each year to participate in a Summer School program at Gonville and Caius (pronounced like “keys”), which is where my eldest sister eventually did her Masters in History, bringing Cambridge to me in real-life having visited here because of her. Similar to my sister, Andy went from Rice University to Oxford for his Masters and then Cambridge for his doctorate under none other than Stephen Hawking..., setting up a strange parallel universe of sorts as I followed his career over the years, as well as of course my sister’s, whose has been likewise as illustrious.

I recently re-read Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a depressing novel if there ever was one. Hardy is not known for his levity, to put it “lightly.” Jude is always on the fringe of academics, despite teaching himself Latin and Greek, thinking one day he would make it to Christchurch, a thinly veiled parallel Oxford University. But, Jude is a common man, from common backgrounds, and people like him don’t get to Christchurch, at best, they might work there, which is what he does for a while, as a stone mason, helping erect the lofty Gothic spires to the skies, making the Ivory Towers higher and more inaccessible for people like him.

And, like the common man, life gets in the way. And, Jude’s fortunes go from bad to worse, to simply desperate.

Times have changed a bit since Hardy’s time, and the common man does go to Cambridge and Oxford and they are no longer merely for well-heeled British men to come up, and later to “come down” from the Ivory Towers to lead a “normal life,” though once you come down from Ox-Bridge, you are no longer normal. You belong in a different universe than the common man, no matter how much modesty may hide that. That is not a judgment, but a fact.

However, as I say, times have changed here, and even since the first time I visited some 25 years ago. It is a highly touristy town, and a very international student body population. It seems “cleaner” and “brighter” than I once remember, and there is a very gaudy covered arcade filled with Starbucks, GAP, and whatnot. It is truly a bike town, so there is not much traffic, and everyone seems to walk around with a “purpose.” I am always a bit confused in such places, because I never seem to walk around with such a purpose. I felt this way last time I was in London as well. I felt that everyone had a place to go…whereas as usual, I am just wondering. Usually feeling again like I am on the outside looking in. Although I have been associated with a few very prestigious universities in some capacity, there too, as one student said I was always in the shadows, despite how much influence I may have had.

I am quite shy by nature, and perhaps this is why I feel the need to write, because I have had ideas swimming in my head for decades, but never found the right outlet. Ultimately, I believe that this medium is still just a weigh station, a place for me to put out as many thoughts as possible, without editing (as someone rather bluntly pointed out to me recently), but just talking without getting interrupted or feel like I am boring someone or manipulating a conversation as I have been wary of in the Past as it has happened.

As such, though, because it is a private blog, and I don’t really know whom is reading it, though I seem to have a small following in Russia of late…, I am in some sense, still “in the shadows” feeling a bit like Jude at times when I am in Cambridge. It is a very intimidating place, especially when you are not from here, and I am really just here because I knew someone who did make it on the inside and even has a bust in Pembroke College next to Sir Isaac Newton. Otherwise, I don’t really have a reason to be here, except as a tourist.

Walking along the Backs, seeing the cathedrals of learning, it is hard not to be astonished by the enormity of the University, beginning from its humble beginnings in the city with a Bridge over the River Cam, much like its sister city, which began as a Ford for Oxen, and now, Ox-Bridge is easily the most powerful intellectual twin city in the world. It makes me wonder what my life might have been had I really pursued something like this more, rather than opting for a more common route. Not sure. It does no good to go down that route, for one will end up like Jude, but, it is hard not to when you see so many people truly believing in being filled with “purpose.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Once Upon A Time in America

Although I have seen neither Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter nor Oliver Stone's Lincoln (portrayed by an Irish actor...similar to Elizabeth being played by an Aussie...), though I most likely will see the latter, I am no less aware of the "Lincoln Hype" of late. So much, that dare I say it, Lincoln is in danger of overexposure, like so many, many things in America. Once the band wagon starts a rolling, there's no stopping it, until the next fad, that is.

And, sadly to say, it seems that that is all Lincoln is right now, a fad. It seems that nothing would put you into bad favor more than saying something negative about Lincoln. A CNN report shows that bi-partisan agreement votes Lincoln as the best President ever.

Yet, the reality that I see is not that of Lincoln bringing the country together, but rather fraction upon fraction of the fabric of the Stars and Stripes seems to be showing lately. I do not see the Land of Lincoln when I read about politics there, but that is supposedly what everyone champions. So, where is the disjunct?

The rift is in Time. It is fine to talk about a dead President and how he tried to unite, but when we are in the Present, it is almost counter the grain to even suggest a current President could unite. Lincoln has become legend, and is no longer history. And, when history becomes legend, it loses its true hold on the Present. When the man becomes a myth, the responsibility to live up to his standards ceases to apply. It becomes transcendent, and becomes the stuff of movies, not motions in Congress.

When I was in India, Lincoln was far and away the most well-known American, along with MLK and Bill Gates, but, there, the kids actually knew his words, not that he was an axe-wielding vampire killer. I swear, if I see one more, stupid series based on Vampires, I will scream. The only logical next step is "My Vampire's Vampire is a Vampire!" Seriously, people. Get over the vampires...

I digress.

Back to Lincoln. What is amazing is how recent in history Lincoln actually is. For some, he is literally only a few generations back (my mother's family included), but the world of Lincoln is light years away. The speed in which America grew and developed, like an adolescent on steroids, is mind-boggling when you view the History of Europe, much less something like India or China. As such, the relativity of Time's arrow seems so much further for me in America than when I go to Brussels, for example and think of King Leopold, who was before Lincoln, but is so much more tangible than thinking of the gangly man from Illinois taking office and taking on the biggest challenge of the country's history.

I imagine that Lincoln's comet will burn brightly right now, but within a few weeks or months at the most, it will disappear again from sight, perhaps to come back in another sesquicentennial. Will his words and deeds, however, burn as brightly in the schoolrooms when learning history, or will he be lumped together with Buffy and Sookie Stackhouse? Or, much like the looming fate of the lowly Lincoln Penny, will he just become a thing of the Past?