Temporality has enslaved America

I wonder if other countries are like America. If they embody the same essence, if the same underlying culture oozes from its pores, from the tallest condos and shopping malls to the humblest ghettoes. I hear about some of those countries from people who’ve traveled, and they all say great things about the beauty and economic prosperity and freedom of Germany and Switzerland, and of the natural beauty of Indonesia. When I hear of Korean or Taiwanese people (to use a common example) say how they had dreamed of coming to America, “the land of the free” and the place where opportunity abounds “for all”, I pause and inwardly question why. Why would they want to see America and live in America now, unless all they wanted to do is see the scarlet golden gate bridge, dirty Hollywood, or crowed Times Square for a couple of weeks?  I know there is a prodigious classical music scene here. Perhaps that is why. If they are unaware of the problems that we live with, then America is indeed, on the surface, one of the most beautiful and prosperous places on earth.

Now, the problems are many, but I will only shed light on one that plaques my mind, a mainstream problem with many tributaries branching off of this one. I’ll admit I am quite hazy on the goings-on in American politics; I haven’t read a newspaper in weeks, and barely watch any T.V. I’m only peripherally aware of what is happening in Trump’s Oval Office.

What I will discuss in the following paragraphs is on a deeply personally and deeply biased level. It goes deeper into the psyche of America’s collective mind. Most of all, it is biased because perhaps I’ve just been unlucky with people.

There is an unwritten, unspoken agreement, a code by which many of us unwillingly or willingly follow, subconsciously. It is the code marshaled by our culture, driven by our fetishization  of the superficial and our fear of the unknown. This code must be destroyed if, collectively, America is to find love at its purest again, if she ever found it at all.

Why must we leave so early? Why are our instincts shoved away so violently?

I want to know this: if someone likes you – let’s give that someone a title: X, and a gender, her) – and they say so multiple times, and then suddenly they permanently stop talking to you, what drove this person to walk away from you? You have certain ideas, but they only confuse you more. You can’t ask, because she won’t talk to you. To your knowledge, you did nothing to hurt her, said nothing that upset her. It could be literally anything. Perhaps your complex demons scared her off? Something benign to you could have offended her? The answer is unknown – cause enough to be afraid of life from then on out. But we can’t be afraid, not if life is to be given its due credit and respect again.

Time is not a funny thing. What could be more serious than the most consistent force of the universe? It waits for no one.  What is funny what people do with father time. How people compress or elongate it, how they shape it to their need with their will.

In our globalizing economy, we have in place the flexible model of hiring employees in corporations. Big businesses have the power to hire and fire any of their blue-collar labor employees with no strings attached.Has this fluidity affected our collective psyches too?We think, because our jobs are not guaranteed, that nothing is guaranteed. Consequently, everything we do or say is distracted, fragmented and compressed.

There is power in staying put.

Many people have suffered because of the death of staying power. And altruism has suffered because of this death.

Temporality has enslaved America because we allow ourselves to be governed by the systems of power in place, by our weaknesses and fears, not our love, and we don’t crave knowledge as a society anymore; we only crave information and immediate pleasure. (Information = immediate knowledge)

They say the essence of fear is “not knowing”. we fear the dark because our eyes can’t see. How can you overcome fear if you never stayed put in one place for longer than a hot minute? because if you don’t, you’ll never know what you just missed, and thus, you will grow to fear what you just witnessed. It is like reading a book halfway or watching a movie a quarter of the way. You won’t understand it then. Or, like meeting some person at the cafe, and you get her number. You will never grow to trust this person if you only hang out with her one time.

In order to combat collective fear, I propose slowing down, stopping when the wind blows on a hot summer’s day to feel the coolness of the breeze, and stopping to pet someone’s cute little dog on the sidewalk, then saying hi and how cute that person’s dog is. To look up and around every once in a while. Steve Jobs did a fantastic job in achieving our enslavement. Let us, since he is now dead, bring back our joy and alleviate and prevent our chronic neck pain!

Breath will come back if we do this. I would sure love if I did this. I am guilty of this as well. I am not strong enough, not compassionate enough, to defy an entire nation. I’m not Muhammed Ali, nor am I Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks, or Desmond Tutu. I understand though, that if I care deeply for this, I can do my part. It is a subtle problem, subtler than the overt racism of the civil rights movement or the Apartheid struggle, but nonetheless real, if subjective. I will also not deny the existence of a future hero to emerge. This is a big country and a bigger world. However, as we sink deeper and deeper into our own heads, our enslavement will be hard to shake off, as we slip farther into the quicksand of darkness and fear – and what is darkness and fear? Distrust. We must learn to trust again. From compassion comes trust, comes love, comes civilization.

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Pale Light, Burning Bright, Even Now (Part 2, The Dallying Llama)

In the kitchen, I spread some margarine on a piece of toast, which melted quickly, and I gazed at the window. The trees on the other side of the street had just begun to bud their leaves. Then I looked beyond, at the sky which was light blue and icy cold. Sunday morning. I saw children playing with a jump-rope and chalk. It was then, I realized, I had very few friends.

This dawned on me suddenly. Like Haruki Murakami realizing he was destined to be a novelist simply by watching a home run being hit; or even like a baby bird realizing they could fly by falling out of their mother’s nest –my knowledge liberated me. My friend Nicholas had gone back east in the fifth grade and we had lost contact. My best friend from college had married and gone off to Hawaii, to enjoy their marriage in paradise forevermore.  I had failed to keep in contact with my friends from the martial arts club, and spending time with you, I realized kept me apart from them. The few friends I had were gone by the time I figured I needed them, and by then—

All I had now was my little poodle, Sally.

I felt her tongue on my leg.  She was there below me, smiling her hound smile, panting and licking my leg. I reached down and pet her, the toast in my hand. She sat down and closed her mouth, hoping for a bite of the buttery toast. It’s all she wanted.

I gave her a piece and I put on her leash. It was difficult to say what exactly dogs wanted. What did a poodle really want? Your food.  Your love. But then, what was love, but food? A giving, a sacrifice, a giving of something that you wanted that the other needed too, so you give it to them gladly.

I grabbed my keys from the mantle and Sally panted harder, jumping high in the air, and we walked out the front door. It was chilly, but the smell of Spring approached. I could recognize that scent no matter how slight, because the approach of it made flowers bloom in my head, colors and sunshine gushed through my bloodstream.

Spring meant so much to me. To me, it was a microcosmic universe, in a flower bud. Everything was in that: birth, aging, death. Every time I smell the coming of Spring, I am reminded of every sadness, happy moment and everything in between that transpired from those points.

The sidewalk up ahead on Church Street still had water on it from the vestiges of yesterday’s rain. We walked that way. A young couple walked the opposite way, talking loudly. The young woman saw Sally and dropped down to pet her. Her face beamed brightly. Her companion, a young man with a fifty-fifty hat on backwards and a leather jacket on, had a stony expression on his face, looking this way and that.

“What’s your dog’s name?”

“Sally.”

She laughed, “Sorry, I forgot to ask if I could pet her. I just went for it!”

I smiled, “that’s alright, have at it. She usually only has me to pet her. She enjoys new people.”

The young woman kept petting her, then looked up at me. She said, “She’s the cutest dog I have ever seen.”

Her eyes twinkled with so much fiery affection that I didn’t know what to say. The young man looked at me with the slightest trace of a scowl on his brows and said to his companion, “Hey, we need to get to Costco before it becomes a shitshow.”

She got to her feet and said to me, “buh-bye! And thanks!” I saw a trace of darkness cross her eyes as she got up.

I waved goodbye to her. Now, the two muttered to each other as they continued walking.

I had recently started meditating. I had read a book by the Dalai Lama, and I couldn’t stop reading it. It took me only a day to finish the book, and by the time I was done, I had a better sense of my own grief. I could distance myself from it, and thereby ending that vicious cycle of suffering a little. I had stopped staring at the photograph of us as kids at nighttime, and went outside more often.

One day, at the park, I saw a llama. The animal, not the spiritual leader of Tibet. It was just there, in the middle of a knoll, chewing some grass methodically, lowering its long neck to take a bite of the damp earth, and then slowly raising its head again to survey its surroundings. Sally was with me. She barked at the creature and panted, trying to get at it. I wasn’t paying attention to her. The llama’s eyes. The shine of them emanated a patience that was palpable. The animal made me remember that day, the day we went to a llama petting zoo. You said it would be fun, petting animals with long necks that sometimes spit at you. Just make sure not to get spit on. A traveling circus had gone through town at this time, the freak show and smart monkeys and trick elephants, the whole freaking nine yards. It was so cool—the idea of it, really, was the excitement of it. I mean—and you agreed—the actual spectacle was nothing that stimulating. Just a bunch of cliché sword swallowers with their corny jokes and babbling auctioneers hawking some stupid knick knacks, the majority of it. But what you really wanted to see was the llamas, and I was so curious to see why that was the case.

The animals were standing in a fenced off area near the freak show tent. Every now and then, the equanimity vibe that the llamas gave off was punctuated by the cries and moans of something in that tent, followed by screams and oohs and aahs. You ignored an obsequious young man wearing a poncho and some dirty jeans and cowboy boots on his feet, who kept telling us the words: They’re all very nice. They’re very nice. He also said, just don’t look them in the eyes. They’ll see through you and change your soul.

An offhand admonition, but I should have heeded it. I started petting one’s rough fur and looked at its long neck, and then up to its eyes. And then I couldn’t stop looking.

They pierced right through me. And through its large black pupils, I could see the infinite sorrow of an animal’s lifetime of solitude. Beyond that analysis, however, I couldn’t see anything. Just an infinite cesspool of blackness in the eyes of this creature. I stared back as best as I could, but it won the staring contest by a mile. And I was hypnotized by the lulling lure of its animal magnetism.

When I finally pulled my gaze out from its eyeballs, it had lowered its head to the grass below to munch on it. I cleared my head. I didn’t know how long it was since I last thought about the passing of time. You were still stroking their necks, an inscrutable sort of adoring expression on your face, one that I yearned to see given to me in moments of intimacy.

And then, I remembered that on the same day, after we saw the freak show and a small Indian elephant balance a ball on its nose, you took my hand and led me to a grove of flowers near the bridge. The manmade lake glistened in that special kind of weather. It was sunlight after rain—I could never know how to describe the way it was, the way it made me feel. Though, perhaps it is what you said to me when you led me under that cherry tree that makes me feel this way still.

This talk we had was unlike any time we had hung out on the freeway overpass, smoking and holding hands, or counting the stars at night on the highest point of the city. In fact, it is photographically imprinted on my cerebral cortex; I believe a neuronal pathway was formed just for this memory, and I am cursed to feel a certain way every time I recall it.

If need be, I could write a transcription of our dialogue. It’s not that hard to do, what we said was rather straightforward. And do you know why? How could I do that, when I can’t even remember where I put my coffee mug down five minutes before?

Anyway, I could tell you how many roses were near us, how many were pink and how many red. I could recall the number of times that morning dove that was behind us somewhere cooed, and how big approximately the clouds were in the sky. Is this creepy? You might think so, even you, and most definitely a lot of others would too, but I don’t forget what is important to me. The world must understand this. It is important that the world understands this. You’ll understand, I’m sure.

We sat, and you had a on your face the strangest smile. It was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen you.

A god from above had shot an arrow through my chest, and blessed you to make you more radiant than any woman on earth, at that moment. There was a little creek next to us. You said, “You can put your feet in the water to make them feel better, Darren.”

You took off your shoes, and then your socks, and did just that. So I followed suit. The slight ache of my arthritic feet subsided almost immediately when I plunged my feet in the cool water.

I was curious. Why you looked this way. Your eyes twinkled like starlets. Your cheeks full of color. The little pond had fish and turtles and moss in it.

We sat there for a bit, enjoying the gentle sloshing back and forth of our feet against the friction of frictionless water, so cool and blue, amongst the turtles and fish and moss. I remember the single cloud above us concealed the high noon sun, canceling the brightness from the great light, keeping the air cool and dark at that moment.

When the cloud passed over the sun, at that moment you sighed.

“Darren? What made you first realize you were never going to be homeless?” She asked, staring into my eyes hard.

I returned her gaze. I thought it was obvious at the time. “I don’t think it’s a choice. I don’t want to be homeless. I never want to be homeless. It would be unacceptable to me. I wouldn’t do it.”

“But—what if you were? What if you became homeless?”

“I wouldn’t allow it. Homelessness is like death to me. I would prevent it from happening, just like I would prevent myself from drowning by avoiding the riptide.”

You smiled a little, dipping your chin. When it rose again, your face held concern.

“Darren. Have you ever imagined how it would be, though? It wouldn’t be so bad to think about if you just thought about it every once in a while.”

Just then, the little cloud that had passed over the sun passed beyond it and further towards the north, and the sunlight grew brighter.

I looked up and coughed. This fleeting moment in time, I remember as being the first time being aware of your presence slipping away. The first time that delicate crystalline ice sculpture melted, started to fall apart. It was a breaking, but this feeling of breaking was so intimate, so slow in passing, that I mistook it for love.

“Darren.” You moved closer to me then. “I need to know: Have you ever experienced grief?”

And I answered immediately. “Yes.”

You looked skeptical. Your eyelids fluttered and your nose twitched. “I don’t think you have.”

You looked away and down, contemplating the water, those turtles, those fish, that moss, deep green, and then after a minute, you looked up at the cherry blossoms beginning to bloom inches above our heads. I remember feeling a slight grumble in my stomach.

Then I said, “How would you know, Laura?”

“I can just tell. The way you move, the way you talk—the way you say good morning to me. You try to make everything hunky dory. Life isn’t always sunshine and roses.”

“But Laura—what if it is?”

Up till then, everything is preserved perfectly in my brain like a wax cylinder recording. But then it started to blur. I just remember my stomach feeling worse. I didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now—the only regret I have is not telling you how much grief I had experienced in my life, and how much joy that eventually brought to me. I acted like everything was hunky dory because everything was hunky dory. I’ve felt grief. Lasting, piercing, insidious grief. I don’t know if you would understand the grief that comes from personal illness; it is unlike grief that comes from alcoholism in your father or an abused mother. I was dragged to the bottom of hell, and as a young man too. But you know, many people have come from hell. I know a few personally. This doesn’t mean they’re not worth it. Prisoners from super max jails come out and they know joy unlike any one on the streets of the city. When people on the streets holding umbrellas run away from the rain and back into their houses, they run from their houses and into the rain, to feel the heaven-sent drops on their faces.

It is the doubt I saw on your face that I now know I mistook for love.

My wings have opened, Laura. If I had them then, that Sunday afternoon, I would have spread them, unfurled them and taken off into the sky to see what the glory of the sky tasted like. How wet one could get while flying through a cloud. I would have grabbed your hand and taken you with me whether you were ready or not and you would have seen how sublime the world really was. Where the air is clear and azure bright. Where you could taste the joy of the sky and see the beautiful world.

But after that, we drove home, and nothing in our lives remained to save us. Not little Sally and her ferocious wagging tail begging for more kibble; not Steven Colbert heralding the advent of gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana; not our newly installed dishwasher; not the new neighbors or our parents, not anything.

But I accept it. This is all I can do. Just one thing to ask, if nothing else can be done: Please, when you stop to smell the roses, or look up to feel the first drops of rain, or when you lie in bed thinking about dreams, take a minute to reflect on your grief, and know that it is not unique.

Yours truly,

Darren.

P.S. The llama was gorgeous, he had blue eyes.

Helplessly Hoping

Pale Light, Burning Bright, Even Now (Part 1)

Many, many nights, we talked. After I shoveled snow off your garden, the poppies finally bloomed in the Spring. When we woke, we were like these poppies, as the sun shone through the open window. My kettle of tea whistled joyously, and you calmed it by switching off the burner.

A beam of pure essence shot up my body when you first touched me. You put a hand on my index finger and squeezed it lightly, goosebumps razing my skin.

Then, one summer’s afternoon, you left.

And, like a midsummer night’s dream, I started to question whether or not you ever existed. Flesh or spirit? Woman or mirage?

It was so balmy. The birds in the trees twittered like thunder. My favorite show on Television was on while I cooked breakfast for us. It wasn’t abrupt. You left gradually, like the melting of an ice sculpture. Our relationship lost definition over time, and with application of heat, its crystalline edges dulled. Our desires decided to melt into confusion and hesitation and our mouths refused to open for each other.

That afternoon, after the program ended, I was spreading Tupelo honey on my toast. I watched the honey glisten in that golden light. Watching it, I felt something intangible slide away, so slowly it seemed like nothing. I looked at the light hitting the honey, at the bubbles within the goo. It slid down my blackened bread, and as I tilted it further, it dawned on me that today would be the last time I saw you. You would be gone. You would not return that evening, and the sweet potatoes I made would be sitting there in the oven, waiting to be eaten.

And for many nights, I would sit on the edge of the bed, sometimes with a tear in my left eye, but usually just sitting there, thinking. I would hold a photograph in my hands under the lamplight in the growing darkness and quiescence, just looking at the picture. There she was, on a swing, and there he was, perched on the precipice of the jungle gym, his grand smile betraying his sense of triumph and virility. The sky was so very teal in that photograph, more teal than the sky was earlier that afternoon and beyond, forevermore. Like you, the sky as it was in those years would never, ever return to be. I would sit there for an hour, maybe two, every night, in that spot under the lamplight, with my back slightly hunched or else on the bed, lying down – simply looking at the photograph, studying it and finding it pleasing, until I would finally become tired and yawn, pulling the covers over me and pulling the lamp switch off, ‘click-click’.

Every day, my dog and I go to the park and grow a little older each time. She frolics and pulls me along the entire time, her leash almost choking her neck with her earnestness. I walk as fast as I can. I don’t want to choke her, I would never want that. She sniffs at nooks in the tree roots, sniffs the moldy mushrooms under the sticks and mud and steps all over them, or else peeing in a pile of hyacinths and pawing at her newfound territory with her hind legs. She pulls me along, searching, always searching for something, her snout going this way and that, and I do my best to keep up. My legs get tired sometimes. I now have a bit of arthritis in my feet. Sometimes, I have to sit down and take a break, my feet ache so bad. My little dog is impatient, expends too much energy panting and crooning, wanting to walk again. But I can’t do it that quickly.

Many children play in the park in the morning. One little girl walked up to me one day and gave me a Marigold. She said, “Please take this life as a token of gratitude.” She turned about face before I could say a word and then skipped off. It was one of the more random acts of kindness, and I was appreciative, though a little taken aback. I stood there for a moment looking at the flower. It was almost in full bloom. Then I wandered from the play structure to the basketball courts. Some tall black boys were playing a game. I sat down on a bench and watched them for a while, keeping my little dog in my lap.

After the game finished, a young man with corn rows walked up to us sitting there and he said to me, “Ay, you trying to run?” I had to refuse. My arthritis wouldn’t allow it. In my day, I played all the time. I could even dunk. I am quite tall, as you know. But I played too much, and that took its toll on my leg and feet joints.

The boy shrugged and walked back. “Let’s run it back Davonte.”

But then, they only had nine guys, because Lamarcus had gone downhill to eat some ribs that were done cooking at their family’s BBQ.

“Lazy ass. Ay, you trying to run, man?” Everyone wanted me to play hoops with them because of my height and my athletic build.

“Naw, breh, he ain’t running.” But then, an inexplicable fire kindled within me – I felt it in the soles of my feet and palms of my hands. It tingled and it was hot – and I knew I wanted to play. I couldn’t help myself. It was how I got arthritis in the first place. I would say, no more games, I’m done – but then the fire inside me would ignite once again.

I tied little Sally up to a sapling near the water fountain and said, “Yeah, I’ll play.”

It was tough. You know, when you finally decided you had had enough of me, I was 32. It’s been three years.

I would have liked to have been able to drive on those boys, who were all under 25 at the most, but I got picked a couple of times. My saving grace was my game in the paint. I grew up in the 80’s, when Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon and David Robinson were in the NBA. I learned my post game by watching them. Some of the younger boys made fun of me because these days, posting up is a lost art. They were the ones who only shot three-pointers, and probably only made about 30% of all their shots. At the end of the game, my squad all gave me skin and smiles, nodding in approval. One boy, who had a short flat top and looked about twenty-four, gave me a little bear hug. “Man, you raw, bruh! Come play again! My cousins are gonna eat now. You’re welcome to join us, if you want.”

I said, out oif breath still, “thanks, my friend.” I was sweating and breathing hard. My feet were on fire. I looked over to Sally, sitting near the sapling, tied there and looking lonely. “You had some good assists. Great way to stay in front of your man, too. I don’t know, I am hungry, but I don’t want to intrude.”

He looked back. His cousins were chatting and laughing, and one was doubled over from a joke cracked by Davonte. But they all headed slowly downhill, where you could see smoke from the grill, and smell cooking poultry.

“Well, if you or your dog is hungry, you’re welcome to join us. Ay, Davonte! I seen you tell that old joke again!…”

He started to walk back too, but I stopped him before he took three steps. He turned around, and I asked him for some aspirin. He looked at me blankly, and then said, “Ah yeah. You’re not young, like us, huh? You an old school baller.” He smiled grandly again and said to come on downhill. He would ask his mom if she had anything.

By the time I got downhill, my feet cramped up, and my ankle joints throbbed and ached. I realized I was in a fix before I even got downhill. When I reached the BBQ, everybody looked at me.

The boy with the flat top went up to a tall, regal looking woman with luxurious long dreadlocks. She was talking with another woman with short hair at the table. She said, before he could speak, looking at me, “Have you offered him any food, Jamil?”

“Yes, mama, but he needs aspirin, too. Do you have any?”

“Your grandma has some. She’s over there playing with your sisters.” She pointed to an elderly lady on a chair,. knitting and talking animatedly to a group of young girls sitting cross-legged around her.

By now, I could hardly move. I limped the remaining distance between myself and the table where the two women sat and extended my hand to Jamil’s mother.

“Hi, I’m Darren.”

“Toni,” she replied, smiling. “Nice to meet you. I saw you over there on the courts. You got some moves! Playing like Charles Barkley over there.”

“Thank you, ma’am. But now I can hardly walk. I have arthritis in my feet.”

She looked down at my feet, so dumbfounded at those words that I couldn’t help but chuckle a little. She held her expression. It was then I remembered Sally, still tied to the sapling.

“Oh. I left my dog up the hill.” I tried to walk uphill but my feet gave lout and I sunk to the ground. I tried to get up again, but I couldn’t. Toni looked at her friend, and they exchanged worried looks. She and Toni both helped me up and into a chair. I grimaced and groaned. Toni said I just needed to rest, and she yelled to Jamil, “Jamil! Where is that aspirin?”

“My dog,” I pointed up the hill. “She’s still up there. I tied her there.” I tried to get up again, tried a third time with all my might, but my tarsals and ankles screamed in agony and fire flowed through my whole lower body. Toni put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t get up.What does your dog look like?”

“She’s a white poodle. She’s tied to a sapling near the water fountain.” I tried to get up again and failed again, groaning in pain. Toni had placed her hands on my shoulders to set me back down. Jamil came back with another man, who must have been his father. He was a broad-shouldered, tall man with an intelligent face.

Jamil said, “Hey, we don’t have any aspirin. My grandma said she used the last of the bottle for her back pain.”

Then his father said in a baritone, “my other son is driving to CVS right now to get some Ibuprofen. Hang tight, okay?”

I looked at him and nodded.

He looked at me wryly and said, “how old are you?”

I answered, “thirty-five.”

He looked astonished. He said, “I stopped playing basketball when I was thirty-five. You’ve got some guts, man.”

“Yeah, you should see him play, dad, he’s raw,” Jamil said.

I laughed, and looked back up the hill. It felt like my feet were being sliced off by an onion slicer. I really hoped that Sally hadn’t got loose and lost, or worse, stolen. I couldn’t bear that. You know, if I left her to die a slow painful death, or abandoned her on accident, I wouldn’t be able to handle that. I would keep a straight face in public, but the moment I would get home, I would eat a bunch of ice cream and put on some Marvin Gaye ballads. I couldn’t bear leaving her like you left me. I couldn’t lose another loved one like that, if that ever somehow happened.

(To be Continued…)

Fearless – My favorite martial arts film

Huo Yian-Jia is arguably Jet Li’s greatest role. While Once Upon a Time in China is considered one of his best martial arts movies – with his classic Wong Fei-Hung character – here are the reasons for my statement.

Fearless, the film directed by Ronny Yu and action-choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, (the same choreographer as Iron Monkey, released when I was born: 1993, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, released in 2000) is based on a real-life person. His name was Huo Yian-Jia, known in China as one of the founding fathers of modern Wushu and its sport exponents, and one of the greatest Gong Fu masters who ever lived. Jet Li’s character as portrayed in the film is unique in the martial arts film pantheon, however, which makes me love the movie so much.

Huo Yian Jia isn’t simply on a quest to take revenge on an evil emperor or warlord for some betrayal or dishonor- and he isn’t simply beating the shit out of anyone who offends him. In fact, the whole movie’s moral is basically to not take revenge on the person who would commit such a crime.

Yes, the fight scenes are cool. Nathan Jones’s character, the American wrestler known as Hercules O’Brian – his match with the transformed Huo Yian-Jia is dynamic and uplifting as well as simply pleasing to the eye of one who appreciates great fight scenes. And the opening scene where Yian-Jia fights the three European champions of boxing, fencing and spear-play respectively is a masterly one in my mind.

However…what makes this movie the coolest for me is the characters and how they tranform throughout the movie. Especially, of course, the Huo character who is the roundest of them all, the most multi-dimensional. Being the main character in a martial art movie historically meant not so much that they will transform throughout the movie or learn something, but that, by the end of the film that will have either suffered a noble and cathartic death or finally have smitten their foe who did them wrong in the beginning of the movie. Granted, this is a very Western sort if mindset, that a movie must have multi-facted characters and a plotline that has emphasis. Chinese martial arts movies are very much focused on the action and the characters and plot are secondary.

The themes touched upon in the various scenes are dynamic and personal, and metaphorically rich and beautiful. There is a scene with Anno Tanaka’s character (the Japanese karate master whom Yian-Jia fights at the end of the movie) in which Huo Yian Jia and Tanaka sit at a table drinking tea, simply to greet and get to know each other before their big fight at the tournament. Tanaka chides Huo for not knowing his various teas, the difference between the higher quality and the lower quality ones, and the different flavors’ merits and weaknesses. Yian-Jia politely retorts that he does, but simply chooses not to care about the various differences. He explains to the Karate master that tea is tea, and that the differences depend on the mood of the drinker of the tea. They then mutually analogize this topic to the differences in martial arts.

“The way I see it is…they are no high or low martial arts, there are only good and bad martial arts practioners,” Yian-Jia says to Tanaka.

“…I’ve never really looked at it that way,” Tanaka reflects back.

There are other scenes that are arguably more important than this one in the larger frame of life-context. The one I speak of takes place in the countryside, wherein the drifter Huo Yian-Jia, after his entire family – his mother and his daughter- is killed by the godson of the man Huo Yian-Jia killed, the reknowned puglist master Qin – over something as petty as adultery with Qin’s concubine and one of Huo’s “students”. Huo becomes disillusioned after all of this about life and martial arts, and walks from the province of Tianjin to the countryside. He becomes swallowed and mired in his despair and desparing nostalgia, and almost drowns in his sadness. He is saved from a literal drowing in the river by some villagers. Of course, this is where the love interest must come in, as per usual. Though, even this love interest is pretty unique in many ways. For one thing, Yuechi, or Moon in the American release, and Huo Yian-Jia don’t even make any moves on each other, which I appreciate for aesthetic reasons. Yuechi has been blind since she was a child, but she claims to see “everything beside her heart.” Whether this is truwe or not, my reading into this whole section of the movie is that Yuechi and by extension, the whole village is the second teacher of Huo Yian-Jia and he learns how to love and be compassionate to others. He then extends this love and compassion to Tianjin and his Jin Wu martial arts federation later on, when he unties the different clans of martial arts together.

Oh man, but back to the village! This is the good stuff, right here. The scene when Yian-Jia is doing farm work, planting seedlings in neat rows with the other farmhands, is beautiful. He makes the farmwork a competition by racing the others, but when the cool summer wind blows, lo! the villagers have learned to enjoy life. Their hands outstretch and in unison, they are all feeling that wind, enjoying the breeze’s coolness. The virile Yian-Jia continues to plant his seedlings so he can win.

Later on, Yuechi dutifully redoes his sloppy fieldwork in the evening. He then learns the first lesson of his new life: There is more to life than being the best. Then, when he joins Yuechi out of guilt to help redo his work, she says wih a smile:

“Seedlings are living things too. Like people. If they’re planted to close, they won’t have room to grow healthy and strong. People need their space and to be treated with respect.”

“…I’ll keep that in mind,” Huo reflects back.

When Huo Yian-Jia decides that he is ready to leave, Yuechi already knows.

“I need to discuss something wih you, Yuechi,” says Yian-Jia.

“You’re leaving the village?” she resonds plainly.

She understands and packs some clothes and food for him. He tells her that he didn’t ever tell her his real name, and she responds with a smile, I will always know you as piggy. (His nickname is Piggy in the village because he slept a lot while he convalesced in the house. A child gave him this name because he slpet as much as the swine he fed everyday.)

“My name is Huo Yian-Jia”.

When he fianlly leaves, she sheds tears. He says he would be back to visit, but at the end of the movie, he is poisoned by Tanaka’s dilomat Mr. Mita, and he dies after he wins the tournament.

This movie is more than Enter the Dragon or Fists of Fury. While Bruce Lee, to me, is basically Huo Yian-Jia ( the actual one) for America’s late 20th century – he is that important and that good of a martial artist – and his greatest and most important movies were necessary and important for the time period, Fearless takes it a step further. Fists of Fury and Enter the Dragon are tales of catharic revenge and justice, and Bruce Lee’s charisma shines blindingly into the eyes of all those who say “Asian men are the eastern sickmen”; still, I like Fearless more because of its many-layered characters, themes of pride vs.humilty, nationalism and compassion for yourself and others, and actually now as I’m writing this, it could have even been better if longer, if the story of Yuechi and Yian-Jia was fleshed out even more. In my opinion, Ronny Yu was too eager to show scenes of nationalistic pride and probably does not share my views on the importance of that relationship between Yian-Jia and the blind but all-seeing woman who is Betty Sun’s character, Yuechi.

I mean, this movie takes a step towards Wong Kar Wai’s concept, and takes a step towards the Westernization of Chinese films which the Shaw brothers did not forsee or try out, but doesn’t quite make it. It didn’t capitalize on the themes it flirted with. But I commend the step. Verily, it is a going under, an overture to commend the higher man, as Nietzche would say – the higher man being the transformed Huo Yian- Jia, and the going under a literal drowning in a river, and the innermost struggle to find himself in a peaceful village.

A Timely interview with Malcolm X, on Willie’s Cafe Radio

malcolm-x

WH: Hello everyone, my name is William “Willie” Hanslick, and I am deeply honored and thrilled to have with me in the studio today, a Mr. Malcolm X. How are you doing today, Mr. X?

X: I’m  doing well, quite well, thank you Willie.

WH: Well, that’s good to hear, Mr.X. I find it strange to keep calling you “Mr. X”, however.

X: Oh, I don’t mind at all, Willie. Please do. Until the white man gives me back my name, my culture, and my rights – what is rightfully mine, in other words – my true name will be unknown. And so “X” is the easiest and most efficient way to call a man with no name. It is X, for Xeno, which means “stranger”.

WH: Hence, the well known term Xenophbia, the fear of strangers.

X: Yes. Xenophobia is a word that describes the moral collective psyche today, Mr. Hanslick. A fear of all things unknown. Well, I am unknown to the white man. He doesn’t know me at all, nor do I know him, and until his shackles are voluntarily or involuntarily loosed or broken from our wrists and ankles and minds, we all – black men as well as white men – will not be free.

WH: I want you to talk about your lack of a name further, Mr. X. Why do you say such a thing, if your parents in Omaha had the name: “Little”, then wouldn’t that, by default, make your name, Little, as well?

X: Not at all, Mr. Hanslick. My name given to me by my naive father was given to him by his naive father, who was given to him by my great grandfather. and so on and so forth, right down to my ancestors who were forcibly taken from their homeland. The name my father passed down to me was given to him along the bloodline from his ancestor’s slavemaster, and my father didn’t know any better. I have chosen to take an anonymous stance rather than a false one, because to me, mystery is always more true and more real than farce.

WH: But your name, in the legal documents is Little –

X: Legal documents are papers prescribed by the law that the back man and the brown man had no say in. Only whites had say in the laws back in my time. I believe it is different for you now in 2016. There are women and Asians and Blacks and Latinos in the senate and there was even a black president! This was great to find out. Though I hear tell – after I got out of the time machine, I thought it was 1930 again when I heard someone say in passing that the Ku Klux Klan had endorsed the now current president of the United States. And I was like, ‘did the time machine work? What happened?’ In any case, the rule of law might be different now, but the moral and ethical atmosphere of Amerikkka has stayed the same, especially in the south, it seems.

WH: Can you talk about what might happen in the future, Malcolm?

X: I’m no prophet or psychic, Mr. Hanslick. I can only watch and intuit what will happen. I see racism has put on a new mask over the past several decades. But now I believe that racism again has finally shed its winter coat, and the chickens have come home to roost, and the wolves and the foxes have come to eat them. There are no tricks. There is blatancy in the slaughter. I think that people will see Amerikkka’s greatest evils as what they are, and not in their disguised forms any longer. So people will finally know who their friends are and will know who dislikes them.The evil has come back to the surface, I believe.

WH: I know there has been a lot of shootings of African Americans in the past years. Obviously, this is not the thing you would have liked to seen, and I’m sure your friend and contemporary Martin Luther King Jr. would agree. How can you compare the 1960’s civil rights movement and prior to the political climate of today?

X: It is like Ursala said in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Time does not move in a linear line, it moves cyclically. The proof is in the pudding, Willie.

If America is ever to become a purely peaceful nation, untainted with the cancer of racism, then we need to do our research and stay informed. I’ve heard that America’s new president raped a thirteen year old girl. If the allegations are true, clearly we don’t care about any of our beautiful children’s well-being, girls or boys, black or asian or white, etc. He wants to deport the Mexican immigrants? He will have to learn how to survive without eating a single bean, without a single piece of bread or vegetable for four to eight years, if he is successful. Because without them, we will starve, as they currently tow the fields and make the crops. As one of your contemporary DJs has expressed: America is not riding on a white stallion like Napoleon Bonaparte, in the glorified picture of our nation. In that picture – if verisimilitude is significant at all – we would be riding on the back of an old Mexican lady. Because they make all the food for us.

WH: I can only imagine the frustration that you feel, Malcolm. You and Martin’s sacrifices must seem in vain, Angela Davis’ time in prison, all the painstaking work you’ve done to learn to read and write – it is correct you’re self-taught at literacy?

X: That is correct.

WH: Do you consider it moot, now?

X: No, I don’t really believe so. I believe that my work was not in vain. You all have great technology in order to access the information necessary to stay informed. Our movement, and the movement of the peaceful protests of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., can now be made known to teenage girls and boys from all walks of life and all races. Why, I bet you a young Chinese American man is typing up the transcript of this, our interview as we speak right here today, I will put money on the table that he is doing so!

And so you see, I am not so pessimistic about the future. Exposure is a key element to undermining evil in a society.

WH: Malcolm, one last thing before you go. And I want to vmake it clear that I am not pulling your leg: What is your greatest regret as a spokesman for Afro-American unity, as a former member of the Nation of Islam, and as an activist?

X: (After thinking a bit) I regret not spending more time with my family. I do not point the finger at anyone, least of all my parents, but my Father was murdered when I was six, and my mother confined to the  sterile confinements a mental institiuion when I was thirteen. I was an orphan. I believe, back in my time, that I have little longer to live. I no longer have any opportunity to ea,k away from Allah’s work now. But I do regret not going to my daughter’s basketball games, or meeting their boyfriends, or sitting down with them and asking them what they did at school every day. I would like everyone to have that opportunity one day, if they so chose to take advantage of it.

WH: IT’s been a pleasure. Malcolm X, everyone.

Say tuned for next week’s broadcast. I have a guest on Willie’s Cafe that will show you the great modifications I made to our new time machine. The one and only inventor of Tai Chi, Zhang San Feng, will joining us on Willie’s Cafe. This is brought to you in part by the James Joyce Association for the Arts, where the Status Quo is little fly on the Wall, and in part by Mystery Meats, the Non profit corporation for controversial people’s dissemination of thoughts and ideas across the nation and the globe. Only here on 107.5 the End in San Francisco! Stay tuned for some King Sunny Ade!

King Sunny Ade

An Interview with Friedrich Nietzche, on Wille’s Cafe radio

I-And so, we are sitting here today with the renowned writer of philosophy, Mr. Friedrich Nieztche. Mr. Nietzche, how are you today? Would you like some water?”

FN-Oh please, sir, Mr. Nietzche was my father’s name. Call me Freddy.”

I-Okay, then. Freddy!

FN-Could I actually have a glass of rootbeer? The studies all show that sasparilla is rife with antioxidants for the overman’s nutrition.

I-That’s all very well, Fred, that’s all very well. We’ll brew you a nice cup of old fashioned rootbeer for you. So, Freddy, you’ve been called – now, pardon me for opening this can of worms so early in our little chat here – you’ve been called arrogant and even preposterous by some of your critics in the literary circle…Now, do these claims seem fair to you, I guess I would ask you: what would you say to these people?

FN-Well, first and foremost, sir, I would say that every claim has some context to it. This claim, too, has context. With that in mind, I think it would be preposterous to call them out without knowing said context. Basically, I would have to ask them what they meant.

I mean, wouldn’t you want to know too, if you were called preposterous? Verily, those who are wisest know everything. And to know everything is a great burden. Everything hidden and invisible is now visible, which is both beautiful and an ugly truth-a horrible burden to bear. I would still advocate for knowledge, even if the truth be hard to bear. Such is the will of the overman. Thus spoke me, just now – ah! Could you put some ice in that? Thanks so much.

I-Well, Mr. Nietzche, I would certainly want to have the context told to me, ifI was called arrogant and outlandish, yes. Your language in your book,.the book for None and All, as you subtitled it: Thus Spoke Zarathustra – seems to use metaphor to the extreme, so much so, that to some people, it would go over their heads and make them seems like they’re reading an allegorical sort of poem. Tell me, Mr. Nietzche, were you intending to confuse your readers with poetic language?

FN-Please, call me Freddy. No, not at all! I would say that my allegorical language, as you call it, is a mechanism to make my readers undertand the conntent even more. You see, this book was subtitled None and All because it is indeed a book for all. Or none, if no one has the patience to read it. If I ommitted the imagistic quality of the language and simply wrote in abstract conceptual ideas, only a select few would be able to read the book, and that, I do not want. Plus, all philosophers think in images. It’s not only in our blood, but we understand that images are the most powerful form of word, that a picture is worth a thousand, nay, a million words, and that all people are poets first and analyzers second.

I-Well, we certainly appreciate the images that you have in the book, whether we understand the concepts alluded to or not. A lot of them are very, very beautiful.

I want to talk a little about your conception of women in Zarathustra, Freddy. To some in the 21sat century, the remarks you made about women would seem sexist, mysoginistic, and some are even comparing them to a certain presidential candidate’s own views on women.

FN-Now, see, I think that’s a little unfair. And here’s why: when Donald Trump calls his own daughter a “piece of ass” and says he might want to date a girl like her, this has no context whatsoever, and has no frame of reference besides his own perverted state of mind. When Zarathustra speaks of women being “incapable of friendship”, but only capable of love, and are merely “cats and birds”, or at best, “cows”, he will only say such words with a meaning or purpose or context behind them. It is a complex, intricate context. And no, the context is not: women are cows because they look like them, or are passive and mute. In this particular speech of Zarathustra, On the Friend, there is a deeper complexity to what he is saying. Plus, I was born in a time where the social mores differed from those of today. But the Donald says his daughter is a”piece of ass” most likely because deep down inside, he thinks his daughter is hot. And that’s all there is to that.

I- (Laughing) Certainly bold words need to have some reasoning behind them, especially if they will spark controversy, and if one says something, they better back it up with facts or at least context. As always, Freddy, your words incite passion and curiosity, and so do your words on the air, thank you so much for being here. Your time is very much appreciated.

FN-Thank you so much for having me, Willie.

I-So, that was Mr. Friedrich Nietzche on his book for None and All, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Coming up next, here is a tune by A Tribe Called Quest. They have a new album coming out, the first one they’ve released in 19 years! I recommend listening to these guys if you love the classic gold oldies hip-hop. Once again, I’m William “Willie” Hanslick, I hope you tune in next time to Willie’s Cafe on 107.5, The End in Sacramento, 103.5 the Bomb in Salinas, and V101.1 in San Francisco, this is your place for Non-Profit radio and defineitely not all the greatest pop singles of the 21st century, ad-nauseum. We’re coming back after some short messages with the one and only Malcolm X, don’t you touch that dial!

A Tribe Called Quest – Check the Rhime

A Letter Inside Nothing Afterward

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Dear       “_____”,

What good will this do? In hindsight, all is lost, and the present that was given to me is now lost. My chance to go deeper has passed by like a ship on the sea.

What words haven’t been said that can now be written? I think you know this too: but a fundamental problem that I have and have had for all time since embryonic form is that I write a thousand times better than I speak. I know why now: It is because, in writing, I have a thousand chances to say what is in my heart, and a thousand more chances to change what I have just said. In speech, however, I have one chance – and only one – to say what is in my heart. How can you ask me to do that? I’m not Steph Curry: I’m not that clutch…

Nor did the time allotted for me to develop such a feeling allow me to say such a phrase as “I care about you”, or even a “I love you.” I’m simply not the type of guy to outright say that. You understand it’s not my lack of being able to, per say, because my musical passion proves that I have feelings, so, there is no other way to interpret my actions (or lack thereof) than by interpreting them as lack of feeling for you altogether.

Maybe it’s true, or maybe not. I believe that time is the master, father time will teach us everything. Because what is time? Nothing but a veil, a label, to describe the invisible but ineluctable existence of change itself. That’s all it is. My feelings could have changed. Or, rather, they could have grown, from something shallow and small, to something deep and large and as resplendent as the sea. But now, we’ll probably never know…

Even though you’ve told me with your woman’s conviction that I only liked “the idea of you”, this doesn’t mean that it will be true for all time. Who really knows though? I used to take it for granted as we all do, but I now know that a woman’s intuition is one of the most powerful forces of the universe. Especially yours. Because of it, mine grows stronger every day.

I may be interested in your looks; and I may have been attracted to your looks when I first laid eyes on you, but I knew nothing else beforehand. I am infatuated, nevertheless, with the idea of love, and in the truest sense. Maybe, it’s not the idea of you being pretty, but the idea of love, that I liked. But really, only time can really tell. Or, in other words, change and action spurring inertia to get off its lazy recliner.

Do you, even you, know what love is, and more importantly, what love takes? Like, how much time it takes for it to even exist? At least for me, it takes a tremendous amount of time.

I believe that I have always lacked patience. I know that about myself now. I am no longer in the dark, in denial. I am working industrially and economically, with every fiber of my being to craft a more patient self out of the marble of flailing turmoil that is my mind. Not in order to impress you, but to make my life easier. Time is the greatest gift precisely because it is the only gift. This life is too precious too waste and to be idle. We can’t afford to spend time people who want (or don’t know they want) to squander it for their temporal “desires”.

Another thing that I am astonished about you, is that you can understand that fact in the first place. That you can even have a conception of wasted time and shallow people is astonishing to me, and gives me back my faith in humanity. The industry and conviction of a human. The will to be compassionate. And, like I said, before, it is even more astonishing and wonderful that such a pretty girl could reach such a level of wisdom at such a young age!

This wisdom of yours can tell you many things, my dear friend. But can it enlighten you to the point of psychic abilities?

You said something which made me think. That the idea of you – a pretty girl – being my girlfriend was more appealing to me than you – the entire you. That your image elevated my status in the eyes of others. Being my ultimately submissive self, I had to agree, wholeheartedly. And I still believe there was grains of truth in the statement.I do. My esteem for you was, and still is, strong. It wasn’t merely my own awareness I bowed down to. It was my appreciation for your intelligence and respect for you that broke me.

I know that you gave me a chance to redeem myself. I know this now. But tell me, how could I retrieve something from the depths of my heart when something that deep can only germinate and then grow after a long period of time? The time I am talking about takes more than a year. I know that in our society, time is compressed. “If you’re not first, you’re last”, Ricky Bobby’s Dad once said in Talladega nights. Well, so be it. It’s already been longer than most people my age. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that i am a late bloomer. This is alright. As long as I finish at all, it will be alright.

But, this doesn’t mean that time passed is time wasted. You see, if a guy falls in love with a girl and remains in love for eleven years, (nothing ever coming to fruition because of a unique mixture of pride, cowardice, and coyness), then a matter of three years i will estimate will at least have to pass before those kinds of feelings express themselves.

Of course, “i” realize that you probably don’t want to wait so long. But, I don’t know. Many of the things you said were so vague that I have no choice but to ponder them, as I am now. you do know that life is short, and that five years taught you something, probably a great deal about people. That’s why you have the gall to teach me, your elder by several years! You were right every time, of course, and I will be the first to admit that.

The compulsion to write this manifested itself before I went to work this morning at 6:45 a.m. I wanted to write it so bad, that I wrote some notes down in my little brown journal during work on the times in which business was slow, so that my ideas wouldn’t leave me like fly-by lovers, like so many dry leaves in Autumn. I wanted to write these down and then put my little blog, so that i may indirectly tell you all this. You say you block everyone off for want of privacy and peace of mind. If you’re telling the truth, then I not only respect and understand that, but I love that about you. But, I feel like Maurice Ravel, alone in his study with his kittens, composing long letters to the woman he’ll never see again; I feel like Levin, wondering how to approach Kitty on the ice rink; I feel like a baby bird who fell out of his nest on the eve of Spring. I feel abandoned and confused, even though your explanation was as transparent and as clear as a wiped window and a clear summer’s day beyond it at my grandpa’s old house in Sonoma.

But your objectivity… This always baffled me. It was as clear and as cold as bitter chill in Chicago’s winter. It always complimented my powerful sort of artistic subjectivity well. My passion. What you know of my passion is analogous to how well a mother knows her son’s desire for chocolate chip cookies. But I will ask you this: Do you really know how much I long for those cookies? Or in what way – why I love them so much? Yes, my passion is my music. Yes, my dedication to the development of my craft is evidence of that. But are you not merely a forensic scientist examining her evidence and making indirect, objective conclusions based on them? Or do you truly know?

You know, I wouldn’t doubt the latter. You’re that perceptive.

But, if not, then I wouldn’t doubt that either. My passion is life. I love my well-being more than my music or my writing. those exist to serve life. Not the other way around. If my music or writing functions to drive me to utter loneliness or insanity or even death, then I consider every note I play moot, and every word I’ve ever written worthless, because they ended up killing me. To leave me be so I may pursue these passions by myself is laudable, I agree, but i would rather not. Every time I draw my bow across the strings of my bass would be like dragging it across drying mud; every word that I write with my pen is drenched in delirium and pointless gravitas. And yes, i am ashamed to think this – and am ashamed of my own shame – but I still believe that art, throughout the ages and still – is a poor substitute for real satisfaction in each artists’ life.

In any case, this whole “letter” is meant to serve as a metaphor. I’m sorry if it offends you, if you ever read it. Like I said, matters of the heart, especially for me, take time, tremendous amounts of time.

Take care, and good luck finishing school,

Miles

From the Top – But Have They ‘Gone Under?’

From the Top – Webpage

The inverse of From the Top…this would be something interesting, would it not?

What if an audience of younger people, teenagers and children, were to see the great masters play music for them, the musicians over fifty, instead of the other way around? Wouldn’t that be something? Why must the young inspire the old, who are on their way out, rather than the old inpiring the young, the latter having their whole lives ahead of them?

I don’t know. Another mystery of life that could be figured out eventually (but figuring it out depletes one’s entire life, as Gustav Mahler realized too late after his death). I mean, these kids are great players, I get it. They deserve attention, yes. Am I jealous that they are coddled and pampered and treated verily like royalty on that show? Yes. And the old masters of music and art are ignored and forgotten as their bodies slide slowly into decrepitude. I may be wrong about that, but that’s the way it seems. This is why I enjoy stories of struggle a whole lot, and From the Top doesn’t seem redeeming in any way, shape, or form because what kinds of struggles besides working a lot and maybe having less raucous social lives have these kids had? They know how to be alone. But do they know the utter loneliness of Nietzche, his concept of struggle with your inner chaos? Or that Schumann was severely mentally ill, suffering from psychosis and depression? Or that Ravel never married because he hadn’t the nerves to tell the women he loved throughout his life the way he felt about them? Or of Peter Tchaikovsky, the gay composer of Czarist Russia who could never tell people that he was attracted to men because the consequence was pain of exile or death? What that struggle, of perpetual silence and restraint, might have felt like?  Of the philosophical neurosis of Gustav Mahler, of the mute cries of the deaf Beethoven, who failed over and over at life in general, and yet triumphed in his search for the sublime in art?

THIS IS WHAT MAKES ART, ART.

Not skill. Not virtuosity. Not mere flair with the audience and stage, and most definitely not the cutesy sort of naive innocence and trite, cliche words that some of those young musicians say on their interviews. True virtuosity is transparent expression and expressivity of your feelings, how one chooses to do it is merely the means, the vehicle. The end result is what makes the audience cry and cheer in jubilation.

Not to say they are bad people, nor are they spoiled brats. No, most of them have done a lot for the world of classical music, or are on their way. They are none like a Kim Kardashian or a Donald Trump. They try to be philanthropic and often succeed, and yes, they deserve the attention they receive. This is a systemic problem, as everything usually is. It is, in the end, the adult that teaches the kid how to behave, and not the other way around. Christopher O’ Riley, in my view, babies these young kids. You can hear it in his words and his tone of voice. He tells them what they want to hear, first and foremost, and then does not criticize them, does not question them, feeds them things that obviously they’ve heard thousands of times before from friends and family. Their stories are told briefly on the show. As far as I can tell, everyone suffers at least somewhat. But all of this is rendered invisible on the show. Everything about these young musicians seems immaculate, perfect in every way; they are shy but have achieved much; down to earth, and yet they can play in circles around the less talented ones in music; they have parents that have given them the world and more. It seems like they have everything. I know most of them have a vague idea of what the men who have written the music they now play have had to endure in order to even conceive the ideas of their compositions, and the solitude they’ve had to cultivate, they definitely are aware of and even know something about. They need to have at least cultivated solitude, because becoming a virtuoso demands that. The practice room is a familiar place to all serious musicians, whether they like that or not. It is their safe haven, their Dojo, and their cave.

The thing is, though – the problem, I think, is me. You see, I never like to write anymore in order to rant, because usually this leads to propaganda, to rhetorical writing, and everything is said, but nothing is learned from either reader or author. Such rants lack grace and even depth.

At the core of myself, I need – like I need food, love and shelter – affirmation that I am valid. It is like a drug. When I hear music from a suffering loner and it’s honest and from the heart, I can appreciate it more. That affirms me. It is this validation of my ego that makes From the Top contemptible to me. Because I feel that these young  musicians have no deep experiences to draw from in order to put that kind of pathos into their musical instruments, and I feel that any they contrive will be artificial and theoretical at best, not informed by tactile feeling. This isn’t their fault: they are not old enough, they haven’t had the time for reflection and contemplation and rumination, no reason to also. They haven’t had their souls crushed, to have their egos diminished, to have their hopes burned and then finally, have a day at the river to sit and think about the water, how it heals, and it may teach them how to live again. When a person makes music or any kind of expressionistic art, transforming their deep wounds into something to be adored, this is what I love, and what I need.

Friedrich Nietzche, in his Book for None and All, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, speaks of the Overman who longs to “Go Under.” To go underneath it all, all the riff-raff, the bedlam of the multitude, the noise of the herd mentality and look inward to find the original chaos of ourselves. I would argue that Nietzche only did did this (or desired to do this) because he had to, not because it was a casual choice. I mean, if you had a choice – like a choice between buying a croissant or a bagel – a choice between living a lonely life in search of ultimate truth, or living a life of glamor and achievement, I believe any person would choose the last one. Well, at least one man in history chose the first one after experiencing much of the second: his name was Siddhartha Gautama, and he lived around 500 B.C. in India.

And so, yes, in this land of great opportunity called America, many of us have choices we wouldn’t otherwise have.

Then why do some people succeed in music and some don’t?

bozo-paradzik
Bozo Paradzik, the European double bass Virtuoso, one of my favorite bass players of all time, playing Franz Schubert’s “Arpeggione Sonata”

My Dad likes to say: “Just think of how many Edgar Meyers or Bozo Paradziks there are in the world, how many virtuosos to be there are who we don’t know about, that’ll never become virtuosos because they lack the means to buy an instrument, or even go to public school? And all of the Jews massacred under the Nazi Regime? Just think about all the virtuoso musicians and great artists that could have been prominent if that hadn’t happened…”

(My anger needs tempering and soothing. My jealousy needs to be comforted by something. When there is nothing or no one that can help it, I employ the bow and arrow of self – abandonment/vulnerability and then write my musings down, in order to smite the devious demon that is named ‘spite’. What the Buddha calls the ‘afflictive’ emotions. We all need to rant. We all get jealous. Even Donald Trump gets jealous. When one has all the money in the world, they will crave something else, something they don’t have. What he lacks is empathy and emotional intelligence. The grass is always greener on the other pasture, as they say, the one that we cannot see, but know is there.)

So the “systemic problem” that I alluded to before? The inequality of people remains. The systemic economic racism and the racialist attitudes that justify that. It goes beyond race, of course. They are people other than minorities who don’t get attention or resources that they may deserve.

Maybe… all I’m trying to say is “damn, why couldn’t that have been me?” and possibly couldn’t say it in so many words, because I am aware of the fact that reciting a cryptic soliloquy is easier than saying “I love you”, or “I hate you.” The act of being direct is one of the most difficult things to do for me. Perhaps, if I could confront myself like this, I would feel better about From the Top.

This Mahler symphony’s fourth movement is one of the most gorgeous thing ever. They never play this on NPR’s Capital Public Radio’s classical music segment, ever.

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 9, 4th movement, Adagio, Sehr Langsam, Leonard Bernstein and the Concertgebouw

(By the way, I would avoid reading youtube comments. No matter how smart they sound, they are always, always, always myopic and trite, and were written in about 2 seconds. They lack grace and depth, and especially a consideration of the other side. That’s just my opinion, though. Do what you like. The greatest dagger in the heart we can inflict on ourselves -besides a literal dagger in the heart – is to deny our true desires, for pride or for glory or for some other ideal, which is, in the end, all sound and fury, noise and anger, signifying very little to nothing at all. Remember what Marcellus Wallace said, for he said the same thing to Butch in the bar, except more directly and succinctly than I just did).

Gong Fu – What does it mean to me?

sifuspear   This is my Dad’s old Hung Gar teacher, Y.C. Wong.

Gong Fu literally translates to “Skill acquired through effort.” 

Thinking about this, one has to appreciate Gong fu as a discipline and most certainly as an art form. It is not a crude system of fighting, and not simply a method of defending yourself or a martial tactic. Though that is primary, every single adjunct benefit is as beautiful and as sophisticated as learning and mastering the art of playing lyrical music or writing meaningful literature.

For most people do not know the translation of the Chinese word. Furthermore, many do not know the history of the many-faceted art. In fact, it’s interesting, because my previous claim that Gong Fu was primarily used for self-defense didn’t necessarily used to be true for all time.

Its complicated history starts in paleolithic China, when the prehistoric tigers and bears amongst other dangers in the environment were plentiful. In order to defend themselves, humans developed crude weapons and basic skills to defend themselves. They also fought each other of course: the precursor to wars. Warfare technology was limited to spears and rocks.

In the Before Common Era period, there was an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma (Da Mo, to the Chinese). Many legends have been associated with this man, such as meditating inside a cave for eight years straight until he reached enlightenment and his arms fell off, and the crossing of a river on only a blade of grass. However, what’s important is that he was the first one to develop Shaolin Gong Fu. This is actually also somewhat of a legend, but at least there is some historic primary evidence of this supposition.

This system of self defense was based on Bodhidharma’s observations of animals, such as the tiger, the crane and the snake. He developed it mainly to strengthen the Chinese monks in the buddhist temples, who didn’t have the strength to practice the rigorous rituals and meditation exercises they needed to do on a daily basis.

From there, Gong Fu was developed over the years, starting from the Shaolin Temple and branching out from there. Tai Chi Chuan was allegedly developed by a Shaolin monk who wanted to further develop his Taoist mind and spirit and left the temple to roam the wilderness, exploring and discovering the secrets of the cosmos, and eventually came up with a softer form of martial art we now know as Tai Chi.

Now, what does Gong Fu mean to me? Personally?

I’ve already alluded to some of what it means to me. Firstly, after going to Karate class as a young boy, my Dad heard tell that his old classmate from San Francisco’s Hung Gar school had started giving Hung Gar Gong Fu lessons in Sacramento. He was a Mexican-American man who loved the San Francisco 49ers, and, of course, Gong Fu. I’ll always remember him on his Harley Davidson chopper driving past my house, blasting WAR’s Lowrider, (I lived one block away from the class venue) and whenever he passed my Dad’s duplex, and I was out there reading or playing basketball on the driveway, he would make the classic Hung Gar bridge with his hand and cry, “Hung Gar Gong Fu!!!” and ride on, laughing.

bridgehand

bridgehand
This is the Hung Gar hand bridge, Sifu always did that as he passed by on his motorcycle

I was eight when I started learning Hung Gar from him. I realized when I turned eleven or twelve that this was a much more intricate, certainly older, and more interesting, at any rate, than Karate was as a martial art. It was a more deadly art and was much more complex. I didn’t fully appreciate that complexity nor have a deep understanding or at least deep love for that complexity until now. Though I was fascinated by Gong Fu and I didn’t know why. It was like falling in love with a girl whose name you didn’t know yet.

I studied Hung Gar for about nine years. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t practice that much, but I still acquired a sense of inner calm and muscular strength that is pretty nice. My Dad and I used to frequent William Land Park when I was a kid and practice Tai Chi or the two-man staff form, or else practice the Tiger Crane form and then throw a little frisbee. Good times!

When I started college, I learned Wing Chun from the well-regarded master of Wing Chun, Eddie Chong. This is the time when I actually internalized the true wisdom and power of Gong Fu. He was a great teacher – a little stern perhaps, but what’s life without a little rigor? In any case, his whole concept really taught me that Martial arts is more than learning techniques and drilling them into your head through repetition – it is a lifelong process of self-discovery through repetition. The difference between the two being that one was mindless repetition and the other is repetition utilizing visualization and simply thinking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This philosophy, in turn, improved my bass playing too!

All great arts share this concept in common. The visualization, self-doubt, commitment to success, and more visualization that eventually leads to progress. If one wants to become a basketball player even, they have to do all these things. Randomly  shooting jumpers from random places without focusing on form won’t make you shoot like Steph Curry – practicing while focusing on your technique – on the flick of the wrist, on aim, on the spring of your jump, coordination – all of that coupled with repetition and visualizing an actual situation where your defender is guarding you, and of course, real scrimmage practice, which is akin to sparring in Gong Fu and Karate, will. This is why Gong Fu translates to “skill acquired through effort“, not “fighting“.

The beauty of the art of Gong Fu lies in its history and potential for personalization. Like all great art. The music of Mahler was influenced by the music of Brahms and Wagner, whose music was in turn influenced by the music of Beethoven, who was influenced by Haydn and Mozart, who learned from Bach, and so on. Each knew the tradition, but each expanded on those past masters and improved the art form for their own time periods. In Gong Fu, the same thing happens. Yip Man did it for Wing Chun, and my old teacher did the same for Wing Chun. The comparisons are cool!

Most of all though, Gong Fu improved my life. It gets me through tough times, and increases my inner strength. I would highly recommend Gong Fu to anyone.

 

 

Jazz = Conversation

Ray Brown trio with James Morrison – Honeysuckle Rose

(This is an example of a jazz performance in which all the players are talking with each other. There are countless other examples too, on the Tube of You).

Thelonious Monk on the keys. Ron Carter on the bass. Art Blakey on the drums. John Coltrane on the tenor sax. How about that for a jazz quartet? All giants of jazz from the 50’s on, no doubt about it. But how can such gargantuan figures of jazz music, whose egos must have been pretty large too (and rightfully so) play so well together? You would think that such opinionated musicians from very different musical perspectives and backgrounds wouldn’t jive very well. They would clash, wouldn’t they? Of course, you know they would jive very well, if you know a thing or two about the nature of jazz, because that’s what jazz is: working together.

Yes, you could think of it as working together, perhaps to build a house or as a fantastic quartet of superheroes like the fantastic four, each with his or her own superpower, pooling their abilities to fight the forces of evil; or, you could think of a jazz quartet as an Olympic bobsled team, working together in tandem to race to the finish on the perilous ice track. You could analogize it however you want. I choose to analogize it to a conversation.

Jazz music is so similar to the art of conversation, that I feel it is necessary to write about it. I say, ‘art’ of conversation because that is what conversation is. It is an art form as exciting, as difficult to master, and as refined or nuanced as any. And noone who enjoys or studies music seriously would deny that jazz is an art form as sophisticated as any serious art form out there. It is also an art form as natural and primordial as conversation is to humans!

Take the hypothetical jazz quartet aforementioned. Musicians in such an ensemble will interact and play off each other as they would in a regular conversation, hanging out on the street under the streetlamp with the fellas.

Joe Bataan – Under the Streetlamp (The one and only great pioneer of Salsoul – latin R&B, or boogaloo – Joe Bataan. Love this guy)

They would laugh about the comedy show they saw the other night downtown, or about the young woman one of them met the other day at the park while playing basketball one Saturday afternoon. They would talk, each one in turn, maybe one guy would would banter on and on, and another would interrupt him and call him a jive turkey and call him out that way, and then the garrulous one would assent with an, “oh yeah, you’re right, man.” Perhaps John would suddenly have an inspiration and give a long soliloquy, and then after his long rant ends, the others would comment, gesturing and laughing in assent or disagreement, and the conversation continues with Ron and Art laughing all the while.

In a jazz quartet, comparatively, the same exact interaction would happen, except in a musical sort of language, using only the language of rhythms, timbres, and pitches.

The drummer is the equalizer, the guy who often acts as the moderator of the conversation, the timekeeper, and the one who keeps the rest of the fellas honest and on schedule. The more choleric personality would be the saxophone player or horn, the one who takes all the solos over the changes after the original head tune was played (the ‘head’ being the main subject at hand, the melody being the content of the subject stated by the horn instruments) The bass, of course, is the rock that sticks with his morals and principles with metronomic stolidity. The piano player is the fella who likes to agree with everyone, but still adds his own flavor to the conversation.

These, of course, are the different personalities of the fellas under the streetlamp. Interplay, though, is the most interesting comparison. If you’ve ever seen a jazz ensemble play, they’re always smiling, looking at, even talking to each other while playing music. That’s what makes it fun to watch. If you like to listen to the music more than simply watching the musicians you might hear (and see) them play little motifs that each musician in turn will either imitate or riff off of. A good talker will do the same.

And a good talker will also not try to dominate the entire conversation or else the other fellas in the group will be like: “Yo homie, you trippin’!” and they won’t want to hang out with that guy anymore. Because, in a jazz group, no one likes a domineering hard-ass. However, if he and everyone else in the ensemble is cool and plays what they receive, and each gives only what they take (musically speaking) then not only will the musicians have fun on stage, but the audience will also have a blast, and that is the beautiful positive feedback loop. Make it rain, spontaneous outpour of music-making! And I always enjoy watching a conversation that does the same, believe it or not – one that’s interesting and holds my attention. I might even pay to see it.

miles-davis-quartet

Here is another song by the king of Salsoul! Enjoy!

Joe Bataan – Chicana Lady