Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gearhead Talk

I bought a new camera for the travels coming up over the next six weeks or so.  After a little on-line research, I selected the Canon SX-230, both for its portability (it's a little point-and-shoot that easily fits into a pocket or a knapsack) as well as for its 14x optical zoom, its 12.1 megapixels, its built-in flash, and its on-board GPS.

The picture above is my first with the new camera, appropriately of Eliot wondering with what new toy I'm playing.  He always has to be a part of everything that I do, which is a part of the reason that I love him.  

But the main reason I selected the Canon SX-230 is for its light-seeking f 3.1 at wide angle (equivalent to 28 mm).  Most digital cameras perform poorly under low-light conditions, part of the reason that one finds so many grainy, blurry concert pictures on this blog and elsewhere.  I took the above picture in my backyard at around 8:30 pm, when the evening was clearly approaching dark (note lack of shadows), to test out the camera's performance in low light, and I'm happy with the results - happier than I am about that crack in the retaining wall.

Hopefully, this will mean an end to those god-awful treated concert pictures that I've been posting, and to greater clarity in the future.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sherlock's Daughter

Oh look. Our old friends and former Friday Night Video champion, Sherlock's Daughter, have moved their blog over to Tumblr (blogroll to the right updated) and have posted a bunch of new performance videos up on it that are worth checking out.

The band apparently are hard at work on their first album, and continuing their Wednesday night residency at the Manhattan club, Pianos.  I will be very close to Manhattan in a couple of Wednesdays - perhaps I'll have a chance to see them again.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Oh look.  Here's the new video for our old friends and returning Friday Night Video champion Twin Sister's first full-length album, shot at the childhood home of singer Andrea Estella in Patchogue, Long Island, New York, where I once lived for a year or two (Patchogue, not Andrea Estella's childhood home).

For what it's worth, something about this video just makes me very happy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Let's not be too tough on our own ignorance. It's the thing that makes America great. If America weren't incomparably ignorant, how could we have tolerated the last eight years? (Frank Zappa, 1988)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Technology guru Jamon Lanier aptly compares the current social-media culture to Eastern Europe during the Cold War - people tend to put on a "public face" when posting to Facebook or Twitter, and then live their "real life" in a sort of underground, unrecorded and not shared.  

More specifically, when posting something in social media, we're saying in effect, "See how wonderful I am?  See how great my life is?"  We point out our clever insights, how many friends we have and how popular we are, and even hint at - if not boldly proclaim - our sexual attractiveness.

What doesn't get discussed nearly as much are the social failures we experience, the date that went poorly, the dinner party to which no one showed up, the rejections we encounter on a daily basis.  We don't talk about our timidity or our cowardice, about the realization of the increasing deterioration of our bodies as we age.  The closest these things get to ever being discussed are usually in the form of witty, self-depreciating anecdotes, where the humor and wisdom are intended to outweigh the fault being discussed.

In other words, it's all mostly just a charade, a mask worn by people to hide behind, an idealization of how we want to be, but not who we actually are.

This blog is no exception.  It's easy to cut and paste the sayings of the Zen Masters and the patriarchs of the past, as if they have some sort of special meaning to me.  It's easy to blog about an exciting night of live music that I might have observed, and not bother to mention the other evenings spent on the sofa watching television, or mindlessly doodling on the computer.  I can re-tell or re-spin any story I choose here in order to present myself in the best possible light.  The Shokai character that this blog purports to depict, the so-called "typical 50-something single Zen Buddhist living in Atlanta," may not be someone you would recognize if you actually knew me.  

Of course, we can't hide completely.  Even the choice of what charade we choose, which mask we wear, and how we decide to portray our "selves," says a lot about our values. A woman I know "friended" me on Facebook, and her updates, of which she posts quite a few every day, all show her at parties with attractive, younger people, at suburban swimming pools in the strong arms of some hunky guy, or out with a large group of friends at some nightclub or another.  Her life, it would seem, is a big, happy, non-stop party, a real-life episode straight out of Sex and the City.  What doesn't seem to get mentioned is the pain and grief she must have experienced as a result of her recent divorce, her awareness of her own mortality, or any hint of menopausal regret over never having children (or of menopause at all for that matter).  

Zen Master Dogen said that we should keep our good deeds to ourselves and publicly admit our wrong-doings.  His rationale was that good deeds done for the sake of our own fame and glory aren't really all that "good" - they're self-serving activities to inflate our egos or our reputations.  Meanwhile, if we publicly confess of our wrong-doings, we will repent and soon correct our ways. I admit Dogen's advise is generally not followed here, or in the larger blogosphere in general.

Rather than bring us closer together, it seems, social media has created just another layer of artifice, another mask we present to the world, and behind these masks, I suspect, we're even lonelier than before.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Viva La Coathangers (RIP Amy Winehouse)

Oh, look.  Our old friends The Coathangers, Atlanta's post-punk, post-feminist, post-everything darlings - and former Friday Night Video champions - are continuing their triumphant conquest of the rest of the country.  Having already won over the New York critics earlier this month, they are now the subject of a  Daytrotter session recently recorded over at Austin's Big Orange Studios.

Icelandic singer Bjork once noted, "Musicians don't brainstorm. They eat good food, tell bad jokes, get drunk, and on day four they have a song." As their careers progress, The Coathangers seems like they're taking Bjork's maxim to heart and are simply trying to have as much fun as possible.  Wise choice.  Desire for fame and recognition is just another form of craving, which only leads to suffering.

Today, to the surprise of very few, the troubled, drug-addicted singer Amy Winehouse died.  In 2006, with the release of the popular Back To Black, Winehouse reached a pinnacle of fame at the very young age of 22, a level of celebrity achieved by only a very few (proof: you probably know who I'm talking about). But celebrity soon turned to notoriety and fame didn't seem to provide her any happiness, and by age 27 she died.  My sincerest hope is that while she was alive, she was able to find at least some brief intervals of happiness amid all of the suffering of her too-brief life.

As for yesterday's tragedy in Norway, words can't even express the sorrow that I feel.  Words fail, so I'm forced to just leave it at that. But I can't talk about the death of Amy Winehouse while ignoring that far greater tragedy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

It seems that with every passing year, Brian Eno and I are looking more and more alike.  This is neither a good nor a bad thing, nor even a thing necessarily.  

Anyway, Friday night videos.  Here's the new video for Cults' Go Outside, the official summertime anthem for 2011.

Too soon?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I just got my Spotify "invite" today and I've been playing around with it for the past few hours.  If I'm not mistaken here, this seems to give me the ability to listen to just about anything I want, anytime I want, with uncountable playlist suggestions and recommendations to similar artists.  No relying on what's available at any given moment, no waiting on downloads, and, if you're willing to sit through some short ads between songs, it's all apparently free.  For a nominal monthly charge, even those short ads go away, I'm told.

The challenge is not in finding what you like, it's in trying to restrain yourself from trying to swallow the entire ocean, from trying to listen to everything all at once.  

I'm not quite sure yet, but I think this changes everything . . . 

Meanwhile, the good folks over at Ohm Park finally got around to posting a video from the Animal Collective concert in suburban Alpharetta earlier this month.  Here 'tis in all its psychedelic glory for your viewing pleasure:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Confused by thoughts, we experience duality in life. Unencumbered by ideas, the enlightened see reality. - Huang Po

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart's. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back -- it does not matter which. Because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it." - Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Monday, July 18, 2011

One day in a speech, Dogen instructed,
Students of the Way, you should not cling to your own views. Even if you have some understanding, you should practice self-reflection; there must be something lacking to your understanding and there might be a more profound understanding for you. Visit various teachers far and wide and investigate the sayings of our predecessors. Yet do not cling too firmly even to the words of those of former times. Nevertheless, thinking that your views might be mistaken, even though you believe them to be true, if there is something superior you should follow it. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 4, Chapter1)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Where's Shokai?

Creative Loafing, Atlanta's weekly alternative newspaper, ran a short article on Thursday's gloATL performance at the Lindbergh MARTA station, including a gallery of professional photographs far better than my little cell phone pics.

I bring this to your attention only to point out that in the picture above, that very suave-looking but slightly out-of-focus gentleman standing in the background on the leftr right, just behind the trash can, is your humble narrator.

Descartes once said, "I think, therefore I am" (in Zen, we sometimes expend that to say, "I think, there 'I' am my thoughts").  But most modern people now say, "I'm in the media, therefore, I am."

I made the Loaf.  I must exist.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Good times come and go. And bad times do the same. Still, we spend much of our time and energy trying to get the good times back. We fail to notice that the good time arrives of its own. Likewise the bad times appear even though we spend much time and energy trying to keep it at bay.

-Steve Hagen, Buddhism Plain & Simple

Friday, July 15, 2011

David Lynch and Interpol

When is a Friday Night Video not a video?  Apparently, when auteur and TM affectionado David Lynch is involved.  Lynch created an animated character called The Red Button Man, and the band Interpol showed it during a live performance of their song Lights, which they usually perform under red lights.  It seemed to somehow all fit together, so they made a short clip of the two together.  The band points out, however, that this is not a video for the song. Whatevs.

Meanwhile, Atlanta post-punk favorite and former Friday Night Video champions the Coathangers are winning New York City over.

Their June 24 set at Brooklyn's 285 Kent was recently presented by NYTaper, who noted,
"If there’s a really an identifiable punk/garage 'ethic', the Coathangers do it right. The band plays their instruments with abandon, writes songs that tell it straight, and at their wild live shows, they don’t hold anything back or pull any punches. At their most recent NYC show a couple of weeks back at DIY venue 285 Kent, the Coathangers played a beyond-punk-length set that was extraordinarily entertaining for all the right reasons. Their energy, sense of humor, and apparent disregard for convention was evident from the outset — Johnny is a screaming punk song that set the tone that continued throughout songs like Gettin Mad and Pumpin Iron, Nestle in My Boobies and early 7″ release Shake Shake. In between, the band performed much of their brand new release Larceny & Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze). As they were faced with an opening set deadline, the band continued to play through house music and ultimately when the microphone power was cut, performed the last song completely off-mic. It didn’t seem to matter though, as the massive crowd participation propelled the Coathangers to the finish."
The Journal of Record also covered the show and featured a very hot photo of drummer Stephanie Luke in their review.  The review stated:
The Coathangers, four women from Atlanta, play frenzied, lighthearted and sometimes thrilling punk, full of carousing and snotty attitude. Larceny & Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze), the group’s third album, bashes on for a scratchy 30 minutes, with most of the songs building to a quick swell, and staying there, loudly. There are a couple of breaks in mood, like the bluesy Well Alright, and Go Away, one of the album’s sweeter, more wistful tracks . . . The group’s energy was just cresting when its allotted time was up, so the band members squeezed out a few more songs, switching instruments and places on stage four times, and spraying the crowd with beer. At the end Meredith Franco, the bass player, who’d been the quietest until that point, jumped out into the crowd and sang while barreling around. It was rowdy, but routine.
Way to go, ladies.  Nice work.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dancing With MARTA

Atlanta, Georgia, the middle of July: At the Lindbergh MARTA station, the daily mob of wage slaves heads off to their jobs to face the unrelenting tedium of another day of work.

The monotony of the routine is relieved only by the tender embrace of a loved one.

More relief is sometimes found in the tender embraces of many new-found loved ones.

The instant intimacy elevates the crowd, lifting them above the drudgery and despair of their daily lives.

But, wait! - What fresh relief is this heading our way?

Oh look, it's those dancers from the gloATL company, last seen at their May Day performance at the Goat Farm, putting on a free performance today out in the public realm.

The talented gloATL dancers mixed choreographed moves with improvisation, incorporating the ever-changing parameters of the public space and the crowd around them into an original, one-of-a-kind, spontaneous expression of sheer artistry.

They engaged the crowd, not through confrontation or pandering for applause but through eye contact, holding your gaze while they danced until you first looked away.  At one point during their performance, I locked eyes with one dancer and we stayed there for at least five minutes, her going through the same moves over and over, and me, still, quiet, and unmoving, both looking directly into each other's eyes.  We were less than a foot apart, and I could hear her panting breath.  This sudden and unexpected intimacy might have been uncomfortable in other situations, but I was moved both by the fearlessness and the commitment of the dancer.  I finally realized that she wasn't going to re-join the dance troupe, who were dancing on without her, until I broke the stare, and it wasn't fair to her as the odds were all in my favor (never get in a stare-down contest with a Zen Buddhist), so I finally broke the gaze and she danced away.

Anyway, it's wonderful that this city still has an artistic community willing to take creative chances and to put  on performances like this.  I took many more pictures, but to the relief and delight of my patient readers, don't have the time to treat them all tonight, so here's some of the rest in their raw form for your viewing pleasure.

Apparently, today's gloATL performance was part of a series called Liquid Culture, a 15-day "physical installation of 5 Utopia Stations in four Atlanta locations."  A previous performance was held on North Highland Ave., and upcoming performances are scheduled for Little Five Points and Midtown. I'm not even much of a fan of modern dance (or classical ballet for that matter), but gloATL's creativity is rapidly changing my attitude.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Back Pockets, Dent May & Real Estate, The Earl, Atlanta

Last night, in the stiffling heat and humidity of Atlanta, Georgia, one had the privilege of being able to choose from among at least three worthwhile shows: Knoxville's Royal Bangs at 529, Lower Dens and Cass McCombs at The Drunken Unicorn, and Dent May and Real Estate at The Earl.  As much as I've wanted to see Lower Dens for some time now, I opted instead for the familiarity of The Earl and the pleasant pop sounds of Dent May and Real Estate (and a delicious Earl Burger, the quality of which has been praised by no lesser an authority than The Wall Street Journal) .  

What I was neither expecting nor prepared for in any way were The Back Pockets. Even before they started playing, I thought that I might like them as they took the stage, if for no other reason than because of the two pretty blondes adjusting their microphones, even if one of the two "blondes" was soon revealed when the stage light changed to have green hair (or was it blue?).  I was almost sure that I would like them when I realized the band's instrumentation included an electric violin and a trombone.  Or maybe it was when they threw a drop cloth down in front of the stage and covered it with stuffed animals, or when four or five other performers, beyond the seven already on stage, began writhing around on the floor wearing gauzy costumes and animal heads among the audience.

The Back Pockets are not so much a band in the traditional sense as a performance art and music collective fronted by singer Emily Kempf, who also plays banjo and guitar, but their music does not come at the expense of their theatrics.  The Back Pockets are sort of like an art-damaged Frankenstein amalgam of tUnE-yArDs and the B-52s, brought to life by a winking Kevin Barnes (of Of Montreal).  To triangulate this delightful strangeness, toss in some Freelance Whales instrumentation, the communal spirit of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and a potentially unhealthy obsession with furries. Here are a few video samples, lifted from the Ohm Park website, that collectively might suggest the combination of anarchy and creativity in their performance:

Gay?  Probably, but so what?  Fun? You bet.  By the end of their set, they had the whole audience using drum sticks (thoughtfully provided by the band) to bang on the floor or whatever else we could find.  

Here are my obligatory and largely unloved treated cell phone pictures of their performance:  

The Back Pockets were followed by something completely different - Oxford, Mississippi's Dent May, a former NYU film-school student and apparent Beach Boys devotee, who records on Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label.  That "something completely different" would apply to May both in context of following The Back Pockets but also probably in relation to anything else happening now.  Part Brian Wilson, part Buddy Holly, Dent May performs harmonically rich beach music so sweet and so pure that one wonders if it isn't a relic of some long-forgotten way of life in a distant corner of the Gulf Coast. 

He calls himself and his band Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, although he doesn't play the uke at all (not that there's anything wrong with that), his first album is called The Good Feeling Music Of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, and he looks a little like that guy in the video for Destroyer's Kaput.  Cynics that we are, we might wonder if May's music is part parody or put on.  Can people still be seriously making music like this?  Listen for yourself to hear what I mean:

He's even recorded a Christmas song that's so gentle and sweet, I was able to include it in a holiday mix-tape I made for my Mom, and makes me feel now that it's alright to post Christmas music in July:

Although it was his first-ever performance in Atlanta, he appeared confident on stage and seemed comfortable with both his retro music and his Mississippi roots.  He played a great set of tunes from both The Good Feeling Music and a new album, and left the crowd hungry for more.

The evening's headliner was the New Jersey band Real Estate.  It's not easy to find Real Estate on Google - a lot of stuff unrelated to the band comes up first.  But the Real Estate that played last night are led by singer/guitarist Martin Courtney, formerly of Titus Andronicus, and features guitarist Matthew Mondanile (Ducktails) as well as Alex Bleeker on bass.  They'e touring with two new members, drummer Jackson Pollis and keyboardist/guitarist Jonah Maurer.  

Although they've been classified as a "surf pop" band, Dent May defined the genre so precisely that I came to hear Real Estate's music as something else.  I might call it "IBM" (Intelligent Beach Music) or possibly just "pop rock."  Fun fact: their drummer allowed the first two bands to use his drum kit, so that both Back Pockets and Dent May performed in front of a bass drum that read "Real Estate."  In any event, they capped a great night of great bands, and I still get to look forward to seeing Lower Dens some day.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Secret of Happiness

Today ,a neighbor emailed me an entry to her blog talking about happiness, which got me thinking about the topic: does Buddhism, Zen or otherwise, contain the secret to happiness?

The Buddha's great counter-intuitive realization was that happiness is not found in getting what you want, it's in losing the desire. Happiness, then, is not something that's acquired, it's something we always have but that sometimes gets obscured or covered by other emotions and feelings that we ourselves generate, like desire and longing and jealousy, but mostly by clinging.

As long as we picture ourselves as "over here" and happiness as something "over there," we're always going to be missing the mark. Like enlightenment, happiness is already here, at hand, and totally accessible.

Right now, at this very moment, what's shielding you from your happiness? Whatever it is, get rid of it. If it's nothing, then get of that, too.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Difficult Matter

A monk asked,

“My aged mother is still alive. I am her only son. She lives solely by my support. Her love for me is especially deep and my desire to fulfill my filial duties is also deep.  I am somewhat engaged in worldly affairs and have relationships with people; with their help I obtain clothing and food for my mother. If I leave the world and live alone in a hermitage, my mother cannot expect to live for even one day. Yet it is difficult for me to stay in the secular world without being able to enter the Buddha-Way completely because of the necessity of taking care of her. Still, if there is some reason I should abandon her and enter the Way, what might it be?”

Zen Master Dogen instructed,

“This is a difficult matter. No one else can decide for you. After carefully considering it, if you truly aspire to practice the Buddha-Way it would be good for both you and your mother to somehow prepare or find a means to ensure your mother’s livelihood and enter the Buddha-Way. What you earnestly wish for you will definitely attain. If you wish to beat a strong enemy, to gain favor with some noble lady, or to obtain some precious treasure, if your desire is strong enough you will surely find some means to attain your wish. It will certainly be completed with the unseen help of the beneficent deities of Heaven and Earth" (from Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 3, Chapter 14).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chattanooga Zazen

In a white-water raft, everybody on board contributes to the goal of getting the boat safely down the river: the paddlers on the side, the vigilant scouts in the front, and the guide steering in the back.  Everyone's effort comes together for the common purpose.

So it is in a sangha.  Everyone, from the seasoned abbot on down to the newcomer just in off the street, are all contributing to the common purpose of getting the great vehicle to the other shore.  No one is just along for the ride - all have a role.  For example, newcomers are there if for no other reason than to provide a role for the attendants who give first-time meditation instruction.  The tenzo (cook) has an important role, as does the ino, the doshi, the doan, and so on down the line, not to mention the practioners sitting on the cushions.

Today, I fulfilled my role in the Chattanooga sangha by driving up from Atlanta and sharing in their practice.  Today, the Chattanooga sangha provided me the opportunity to drive up  from Atlanta to share my practice.  Today, my practice provided an opportunity to fulfill a role, and today, my role provided an opportunity for sangha practice in Chattanooga.  

We're all in this together, and no one is superfluous.