Archive for February, 2010

But Still…

February 26, 2010

  Now, toward the end of a particularly long and drawn out winter, the thought of spring has entered my mind.  Not because I’m tired of winter really.  I’m not.  I enjoy running in the dark cold icy early am.  There are elements of isolation and adventure that dissipate under the sun. 

  I like all of the seasons and especially look forward to the points of transitions in between.  As one approaches, unformed ideas for new adventure well up in profusion.  As the nature of the new season manifests itself so do new plans.

  In the spring of 1689 Japanese poet Basho set out on a five month journey across north central Honshu to visit to visit landmarks of nature and civilization as well as to spread the form of verse that he transformed from an antiphonal game into something more sophisticated.

  His recording of that journey in prose and poetry is regarded as among the most important in Japanese literature.  The Narrow Road to the Interior begins: “The sun and the moon are eternal travelers.  Even the years wander on.  A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.”

  The travel narrative is articulated by a form of linked verse called renga.  There are three syllabic units: 5-7-5; 7-7; 5-7-5.  Two of the units must relate to each other in sequence, but three cannot – thus regular shifts in flow. 

  The opening unit is called a hokku and sets the tone and place usually invoking some aspect of nature denoting the season.  (Stand alone hokku came to be called haiku.)

  This is probably Basho’s best known haiku:

Into the old pond
A frog suddenly plunges
The sound of water. 

  What really interests me in all this is that some think that Basho was a ninja.  From a low samurai family, he was raised in an area where ninja were recruited and trained.  The funding of the journey remains a mystery and he traveled the considerable distance of this journey so efficiently that secret techniques were suspected.  Finally, at the time of his travels, there was turmoil in the shogunate and such discreet services would likely have been procured.

  The powers of observation and perspicacity of a great poet might have served a spy well.  An artist’s personality would have allowed him to move through a populace with syncopation and quietly productive conviviality.  As opposed to Karate and a Walther PPK.

  Probably this is all fantasy.  Basho had become a Zen monk and the title of the work would have one consider the interinextricability of his inner and outer journeys.  But still…

It’s Lucky He Didn’t Take The Stairs

February 19, 2010

  That’s Jyoti Raj in a series of youtube videos gone viral.  It’s an incredible display of bold athleticism performed upon an interesting bit of topography.  From this point of remove, it is impossible to judge the size of the holds or texture of the stone so as to develop a sense of the difficulty, but the ground would come up pretty fast regardless.

  I’d seen the video some months ago and have thought of the fellow occasionally since.  I wrote an essay in high school about the motivational question behind alpinism and am always interested in new inflections.  “Because it is there” never did much for me.

  I was thus thrilled to find in the January 2010 issue of Climbing Magazine* that someone had tracked the climber down and asked a few questions.  Turns out that the footage was shot at sixteenth century Chitradurga Fort in southern India.

  Mr. Raj was a wild child and ran away from home at age 7 after having been kicked out of school.  He somehow made his way to a larger metro area more than 500 miles away where he found work at a ‘sweet shop’ which he left after five years of abuse. 

  Thence to Chitradurga where a family took him in and for whom he ran errands in turn for his keep.  At about age eighteen he was accused of theft and decided to leap to his death from atop a large cliff.  He made it to a perch about fifty feet up, but decided  to get more air to ensure that impact would do more than break bones.

  To his astonishment, as he continued up, people began to gather and cheer.  Heartened, he also found that he enjoyed the vertiginous kinesthetics and returned the next day to begin his exploration of the  seven story fort walls nearby.

  Had he taken the stairs, his would have been the only and last hurrah.  But just as important as his first applause, the concentration necessary to make the upward progress extirpated the negative cerebrations long enough for his mind to clear and absorb the new view.

  That was three years ago.  Now a local celebrity, he has become reacquainted (if not reunited) with his family and teaches climbing to young people.  Why climbing?

  “It gives meaning to my life.  It’s the only thing I’ve ever enjoyed, because life has otherwise been full of hardship.”  Funny how things sometimes turn out…

*Article on page 28 by Dev. S. Sukumar

Psychic Rewilding

February 12, 2010

  In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine there was an article by Daniel Smith entitled “Is there an Ecological Unconscious?” which addressed the stress and discomfort visited upon the psyche of those subjected to forced dislocation (eg Trail of Tears) or environmental degradation (eg exploitation of newly discovered nearby coal deposits).

  Researcher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to describe this condition of “place pathology” leading to the diminution of “one’s heart’s ease”.  The article reminds us that Freud attributed just about everything to sex and how modern psychology is primarily concerned with urban interpersonal interaction, largely ignoring the primal bond between humankind and the rest of nature.

  The premise of echopsychology is that “an imperiled environment creates an imperiled mind” and that there might be a relationship between a resilient environment and a resilient mind.  Research shows that natural settings are far more effective than urban for the enhancement of cognition.  Researcher Peter Kahn calls for a ‘rewilding’ of the psyche.

   Well, yippee ki-yay, I quite agree.  “More and more”, he writes, “the human experience of nature will be mediated by technological systems.  We will, as a matter of mere survival adapt to these changes.  The question is whether our new, nature-reduced lives will be impoverished from the standpoint of human functioning and flourishing.”

  How much of a stretch is it then to ask about the degree to which TV, digital social networking, video games, etc are responsible for global warming?   Well a lot I guess, but you get my point.  How can one have a meaningful sense of self and surroundings without a vigorous dose of the environment from time to time?

  Paradoxically, it dawned on me that an emerging departure from rectiliniarity in architecture enabled by technology might be relatedly salubrious.  I have long been interested in the emotional generosity inherent in good design and wonder if this will prove to be an unexpected and fecund vector.

  Japanese architect Toyo Ito has said that: “I sometimes feel that we are losing an intuitive sense of our own bodies.  Children don’t run around outside as much as they did.  They sit in front of computer games.  Some architects have been trying to find a language for this new generation, with very minimalist spaces.  I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body.”     

  I have only read about and seen photos of Ito’s built work and am eager to one day experience a product of his line of thinking.  New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff calls him an “urban poet”, “someone who has been able to crystallize, through architecture, the tensions that lie buried in the heart of contemporary society.”*

  No two of his projects are alike, maybe not even remotely similar.  Ouroussoff: “By embracing ambiguity, his work forces us to look a the world through a wider lens.  It asks us to choose the slowly unfolding narrative over the instant fix…  A building that seems to have been frozen in a state of metamorphosis”

  The photos are of his stadium in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.  Ouroussoff tells us that it is “a space that manages to maintain the intensity and focus of a grand stadium without that intensity becoming oppressive.”  As opposed to other stadiums, “it seeks to maximize our awareness of (the outside world) while still creating a sense of enclosure.”

  Might such places help relieve solastalgia?  Help rewild a psyche, even?

*NYT 6 12 09

I Promise Not To Pavlov The Guitar

February 5, 2010

  Ok, it’s been four weeks, four lessons, and practice every day now.  Me and the guitar are getting along just fine.  I’ve learned how to play (and read) E, F, and G on the first smallest string.  In case you don’t know, you twang a string over the sound hole with a pick with your right hand while sometimes pressing down in a certain place up on the fretboard (neck) with a finger or fingers on your left hand.

  Similarly, I’ve learned how to play B, C, and D on the second string and G and A on the third.  It is very helpful when the particular bit of music under assault is recognizable.  So far I can conjure up stuff that sounds like Jingle Bells, Au Clair de la Lune, and Love Me Tender.  It’s fun.

  However, last week I started to try and learn a ‘cord’ and it has been frustrating.  To (try to) play a cord you strum several strings in quick succession with the pick while (usually I think) holding down one or more of them with your left hand.  It has proven difficult because I have a tough time positioning one finger to hold down a string without touching those around it. 

  It sounds awful if you don’t get it right.  Terrible.  It’s  like when you’re splitting wood, overshoot, and the axe handle thuds the log. First time in this process for which profanity was required.  Dog got up and hid.  Another beloved (but long departed) canine member of the family was smart and learned to hide whenever I touched my tool belt – confident that f-bombs were sure to follow.  I promise not to Pavlov the guitar.

  Saving grace might be Beethoven.  A few measures (lines) of The ‘Ode to Joy’ from his 9th Symphony was the first music I confronted with this new (to me obviously) technique.  Was reminded of what brought me here in the first place.  What is it in this simple arrangement of a handful of notes that this fat fingered near sexagenarian can work out well enough that his spirits lift and soul rises?

  Ludwig Van was fifty-four when he wrote it and had been deaf for ten years.  At its premier, thus unable to direct, he sat by the stage facing the orchestra counting time.  Upon conclusion of the performance contralto Caroline Unger had to step forward and turn him around so that he could see and accept the wild acclaim.

  What is it about music?  In what dimension can one, unable to hear, strum a heartstring with such pervasive and profound reverberation?