Monday, June 29, 2009

Enlighten Up - a review

I wouldn't have thought that it would be possible to make a funny, touching documentary about yoga that really got into the heart of what yoga is. Well, apparently it is possible, for it has been done. For those of us who take this practice seriously, but have some curiosity (and perhaps some reservations) about some of those who take it even more seriously, this was a fine, fine film. There were very funny scenes (kundalini = kundalooney!), and there were quite moving scenes as well (eg, when Nick and Kate are in India, and he starts crying when he talks about his mom). The film really confirmed my suspicion that Indian masters are teaching a very different discipline than many of their well known American counterparts (the long and the short of it: it doesn't matter what you're doing; what matters is how you're doing it - this is yoga).

I also found it quite interesting that as Nick (the subject of the documentary) began delving further into yoga, Kate (his friend and documentarian) began getting frustrated with him for not being able to articulate his experience and evolving belief in the terms that she was expecting. At least, this was my take on it. It struck me that perhaps she was looking for a greater understanding for herself about yoga and trying to acquire it vicariously through Nick, the neophyte, though she didn't seem entirely aware of it. But perhaps I'm just projecting.

BKS Iyengar made the poignant observation that you can't start thinking about philosophy until you're in a good state of health. That is what links this physical practice of sticky mats and tank tops to the deeper practices of dharna, dhyana, and samadhi. First prepare the body; then proceed from there. This question comes up so often (what does twisting yourself into a pretzel have to do with the headier philosophies of yoga?), and I'm glad to finally have an easily digestible answer from none other than Sri Iyengar.

So yogis and yoginis - go see this film! You will love it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


I spent last weekend in Massachusetts at the wedding of two dear, dear friends. It was a beautifully idiosyncratic ceremony (the ring bearer was their dog), and a great reception followed. If I ever get married, I too want to have a contra dance (or perhaps a Scottish country dance) afterwards.

Since the wedding, I've been thinking a lot about love. It's never really what you expect when it hits you, is it? And sometimes you don't see it until it's gone. E and K are very lucky to have recognized it in each other. And I am lucky too - for T, for my family, and also for E and K. Friends like these make the world a better place, and they don't appear every day.

Anyway, the title of this post - I was honoured (I can think of no other word to describe the feeling) that E and K asked me to read a poem as part of their ceremony. (I realized afterwards that I was, in fact, the only man with a speaking role in the ceremony.)

The Summer Day - Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

little things

  • Swim update: Swim season at Minnewaska started this past weekend, though I didn't have a chance to get up to the lake until today. I did my mile - half freestyle, quarter side, quarter breast. I love the feeling of shaky exhaustion that I experience at the end of a swim. Oh, also: there are newts and tadpoles in the lake!

  • Robin update: The chicks have left the nest! They were doing little test flights on Saturday, and when I came back from Massachusetts on Sunday, they (and mama bird) were gone. So, two weeks from eggs to flight capable. Pretty amazing, especially when you consider that some humans take 30 or more years to leave the nest.

  • Foodie porn: Summer CSA distributions have begun, so I'm once again up to my ears in greens, peas, cabbage, beets, spring onions, broccoli, &c. I guess I'm not going to have to worry about getting enough roughage for a while. I wonder if any of this would make good ice cream... maybe the basil? Do I dare? Most everybody likes mint ice cream, so it wouldn't be so much of a stretch; basil is in the same family. H'mmm... something to ponder.
  • Friday, June 19, 2009


    Okay, here's an experiment. You can try it at home kids, but make sure you ask your parent's permission.

  • Take a handful of flour, a little bit of salt, and some water. Swirl it around in a bowl, get out your soup spoon, and dig in. Soggy, nasty, mess, right?

  • Now, take some hops, barley, and water, and try the same. Result: grain flavoured water. Mmmm! Tasty!

  • Finally - start with milk, add some salt, and shake it up. What do you get? A salt milkshake. Slightly to moderately disgusting; definitely not inspired haute cuisine.

  • But what happens if you give each of these mixtures a bit of quiet time on their own under the right circumstances (temperature, pressure, micro organisms)? Instead of getting some nasty concoctions that remind you of what the kid who sat next to you in grade seven lunch dared you to eat, you get bread, beer, and cheese, three of the finest foods ever devised. The ingredients are important, but they are not responsible for the alchemy. The magic comes from quality time spent in a dark, still place.

    Thursday, June 18, 2009

    Saturday, June 13, 2009

    Carl Sagan's Contact (book) - a review

    I've been on a big Carl Sagan kick lately. It started when I realized that all 13 episodes of Cosmos were available on Hulu. Somewhere between laughing at Dr. Sagan's haircut and secretly wondering if I too could get away with wearing a red turtleneck with a corduroy jacket, the beauty and amazement of what he was saying washed over me. He did an incredible job of exploring the complexity and the beauty of science without dumbing it down. Amazingly, even 30 years later, very, very little of Cosmos feels dated.

    As a chaser to my refreshing revisitation of Cosmos, I decided that it was finally time for me to read Contact. It had been on my reading list since the movie came out (10+ years ago). My brother and sister both read it and loved it. And wow! It was amazing, and much more complex than the movie. Curiously, I think the thing I liked most about the book was the startling amount of social commentary that Dr. Sagan packed into it. Our inherent fear of the unknown struggling against our desire to explore; the inertia of entrenched social and political systems; the irony that those of us who yearn for and dream about a much bigger picture sometimes make such a mess of the more intimate details of our lives; the incredible stupidity of some aspects of capitalism; and of course, the relationship between science and religion (and the intersection between the two - the numinous). And unlike any of the characters in the many, many iterations of Star Trek (the comparison is unfortunate but inevitable whenever discussing science fiction), the characters in Contact are complex and nuanced - believable, not like cardboard cutouts or action figures.

    The scientific questions Dr. Sagan raised are nothing to sneeze at either. If there are other civilizations in the universe, how could we find and contact them? Vastly different organisms must use vastly different systems of communication on perhaps vastly different time scales. But the common ground for all of us is the language of physics, which is based on discoverable, testable, provable universal absolutes; so that's the place to look for (or send) a message.

    "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love." This sentence alone is reason enough to read the book. Where else in the annals of science fiction (excepting the excellent film Serenity, of course) can you find a work that speaks so eloquently about love? Or an author who even bothers to try? And without love, what's the point? When you divorce love, emotion, caring from your subject, no matter what it is, it loses all relevance.

    Friday, June 12, 2009

    Robin update

    Man, the kids grow up fast these days:
    There are three chicks in the nest, though I know they're not all immediately apparent in this photo. Up until today, I thought there were only two.

    Thursday, June 11, 2009

    Hudson Quadricentennial Armada

    As part of the quadricentennial celebrations, a motley flotilla of historic recreations - the Clearwater, the Onrust, and the Half Moon - arrived at the Rondout in Kingston last night, accompanied by booming cannons, blaring ship's horns, and posturing local politicians. Unfortunately, I only got a decent shot of the Half Moon.

    Part of me wanted to jump up on the stage, grab the microphone, and propose to the assembled crowd that we board the boats, sail north, and storm Albany, demanding that our idiot elected representatives either do their jobs or resign.

    Sunday, June 7, 2009


    There's a robin's nest in the bush right outside my front door; I noticed her there a few weeks ago, then I looked further and discovered that she had eggs. Really, really bad planning on the robin's part; for a while, every time I left home or came back, she'd fly off. I started being a bit quieter with the door, and she stopped freaking out quite so much every time she saw me. So, we're getting to know each other. She let me take her picture today:

    I've been peeking into the nest every now and then (when she's away) to see how the eggs are doing; well, as of this morning, no more eggs. They've hatched, and now there are fuzzy little proto birds wiggling around in the nest. I'm excited to watch their progression to adulthood.

    It occurred to me a few days ago (when I first thought about writing this post) that if my personal ratio of curiosity to ethics were slightly different, I could be describing the taste of a robin egg omelette right now.

    I spent two and a half hours this afternoon in a didgeridoo workshop. What fun! I wanted to ask the instructor what role the didgeridoo plays in the songlines of aboriginal Australians, but I didn't want to bore everyone else or sound like a know it all. Probably, I should have just asked and let the chips fall where they may.

    One of the things the instructor said towards the end of the class was that the didgeridoo is sometimes used to emulate the sounds of the natural world; so we tried a few Australian bird calls. Now I find myself wondering how well the didgeridoo would handle local bird calls. Mourning dove, loon, osprey; these are the calls I know and love. The anachronism of trying to replicate them on an ancient Australian instrument really appeals to me.

    Odd that I decided to write a whole post about bird related topics. Growing up, there was a starling nest outside my bedroom window, and I loved hearing them (the mother and the little ones) every morning. Later, though, bird song took on a more sinister meaning in my mind - I remember sleepless nights, wrought with anxiety, culminating in the raucous cacophony of song birds just before dawn heralding the arrival of another dreadful day. Bad memories, these. Bad days in Beltsville. For a long, long, long time afterwards, I absolutely detested the sound of song birds. This has lessened a bit in the past few years, thankfully, but I still don't rejoice in bird songs as others (like T) do. At best, it's a neutral stimulus. I'm aware of it, but it does little for me. I'm just glad it doesn't make me horribly anxious anymore. I talked to my therapist about this last week; she agreed that tiny, otherwise innocuous things can become absolutely horrible when we associate them with unrelated circumstances; and it can take a lifetime to get over the connection. So I'm thankful to have come as far as I have. Guess I'll never be much of a birder, though.

    Oh - something else the didgeridoo instructor said - the mind is like a garden; if you don't keep weeding it, it gets out of control almost immediately. I think that's why I like writing so much; it feels like weeding my mind.

    Might also be why I dislike gardening so much.

    Wednesday, June 3, 2009

    Dar Williams' End of the Summer - a review

    I was going to write a long winded intro about nada yoga and the importance of music and creation myths and blah blah blah, but I've decided to skip it and cut right to the chase. Life is short (and I am tired).

    It feels weird writing a review of an album that's over ten years old, but it's still one of my favourites - one I reach for when I need a boost or some sense that someone else understands. My understanding is that she wrote most of these songs to work her way out of a bout of depression, and unlike my own experiences with trying to write my way out of a hole, Dar's work is actually quite beautiful.

  • "Are You Out There" - I know this song is about WBAI, but it makes me think of WFMU. Does that make me a radio snob? "You always play the madmen poets, vinyl visions, grungy bands; you never know who's still awake; you never know who understands." Feeling like every song on corporate radio, every show on TV, every story in the paper is designed to make you feel like less than you are; the sheer terror on the part of the previous generation that its offspring will do a much better job of living up to its ideals; the amazing solace in late night radio - this song hits on a lot of themes that are near and dear to me.

  • "Party Generation" - My favourite part of this song is Nerissa and Katrina Nields singing backup. I had such a crush on Katrina the first time I saw The Nields play (with Moxy Früvous opening!), but then she went and got married before I could figure out a way to sweep her off her feet and for neither the first nor the last time I learned something about disappointment. Anyway, "Party Generation" - not my favourite song on the album, but I do love those Nields harmonies.

  • "If I Wrote You" - It took me a long time to hear the open spaces that Dar describes when she talks about this song, but it finally clicked, and it was worth the wait. It's not the sort of thing that one is accustomed to listening for; the sprawling open landscape in the background, the sounds that are not there. "We drew our arms around the bastard sons; we never would drink to the chosen ones. Well, you know the way I went was not the way I'd planned, but I thought the world needed love and steady hand; so I'm steady now."

  • "What Do You Hear In These Sounds" - A song about therapy. Brilliant, in places familiar, in places obscure, ultimately gorgeous.

  • "The End Of The Summer" - When I was growing up, my parents owned a cottage in Ontario, and my mother, sister, brother, and I would spend all summer there. I lived the rest of the year in anticipation of July and August. The place represented escape, freedom, release - "dream, comfort, memory to spare," as Neil Young put it. Inevitably, though, there came a point at the end of every summer when it was time to pack up and return to the more mundane scholastic concerns of loose leaf binders, yellow school buses, and perceived social hierarchies. This song encapsulates that feeling exactly.

  • "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts" - I wonder if Dar will roll her eyes and wonder what she was thinking when she wrote this song ten years from now when her son is a hell raising teenager?

  • "My Friends" - I have a sticker on my refrigerator that says "My friends kick ass" - I bought it in a tie-dye shop in Eugene, Oregon, with my friend D. This song expresses much the same sentiment in rather more subdued tones; sort of the Buddhist version of the bumper sticker. "I like the whole truth, but there are nights I only need forgiveness."

  • "Bought and Sold" - "I look up to the people who are less bought than I; you can show them what you're selling, and they'll only ask you why."

  • "Road Buddy" - Also on the soundtrack to the film Smoke Signals. I like the image of kids sipping juice boxes and smiling at each other at rest stops; that's a really nice detail to include. Descriptive. Evocative. Painterly, even.

  • "It's A War In There" - I don't even know where to begin. Irreducible complexity. This song is perfect; anything I could write would detract from it.

  • "Better Things" - My friend L was so dismayed when I told her that this is actually a Kinks song (though I like the Dar version better). I should try to learn to keep my mouth shut. I'm thankful that Dar ended this album on such an up-note; there are enough more sullen tracks on this album that she could easily have ended with. I think it says something about her outlook that she chose otherwise.