Monday, April 30, 2007

Creating Positive Change

His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited us over the weekend to spread his message of peace and compassion. He held teachings for the first two days of his visit, then for the last day (Sunday) gave a talk on the idea of creating positive change. In order to create positive change in the outside world, one must first create positive change in oneself. Sounds pretty basic, right? Then why is it so few of us can manage it?

His Holiness is probably the most content and peaceful human I have ever encountered. He is funny, genuine, jubilant and compassionate. It was amazing to see this 72 year old man, the religious leader of millions of people around the world, a man who is revered by people of all faiths, sit in front of the the thousands of people gathered laughing and telling jokes. It speaks to his contentment, to his ability to see life as a time to actively seek peace and love, and not worry about anything else.

Love and compassion, you will find, are the keys to creating positive change. If each one of us can find it in our hearts to be compassionate to each other, to put away fear and hatred and anxiety, the world will change, because each of us will have changed. When we can all create those changes in ourselves, when at last we are at peace with ourselves, we might be able to find peace in the world. It might just be that simple.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A few quick notes

A brief note on "What is the What?": The title which can give some readers cause for a bit of head scratching comes from a Dinka creation myth told within the pages of the book. Now, I am not ruining anything for you here, so I will relate the cliff notes version of the myth to you. When god created the first man and woman, who were bigger and more beautiful than anything else in creation, he gave them a choice: They can take the gift of cattle, something with which they could knowingly prosper and thrive, a source of nourishment in many different ways, or they can take the What. What is the What you ask? The What is a mystery from god, something he cannot tell the man what it is unless he chooses it. After deliberating, intruigued by the possibility that the What might offer, the beautiful man and woman ultimately settle on taking the cattle, seeing it as the sensible choice for the prosperity of all future generations. The man and woman have chosen wisely, as the What is nothing, a test of their willingness to sacrifice the mysteries of god for the sustinance and longevity of their people. Having made the right decision, the man and woman go off with their cattle to create their new civilization.

Ok, so now you know what the What is, and we can move on. Thursday, a duo came to San Francisco to entertain us with their musical virtuosity. I am speaking, of course, of Rodrigo y Gabriela, the guitar duo from Mexico by way of Dublin, Ireland. Yes, that Dublin, Ireland. I should start by saying that they are not just your average guitar duo, playing old Bossa Nova or Flamenco standards for a new audience. The two started off in Mexico as a part of a Thrash Metal band, covering bands such as Sepultura, Pantera, and of course Metallica. After that endevor failed, they packed up and moved to Ireland, which is where they further developed their sound and also where they learned English. (The mixture makes for a very interesting accent.) R y G play a mixture of traditional sounding guitar pieces mixed with their love for American Heavy Metal, and the results are astounding. I can honestly say that I have never in my life seen anyone's hands move that fast.

Playing with no hard and fast set list, they played whatever came to mind, only a few of which came from their album. Gabriela, with her lightning fast finger strumming, provided the rythem and even the percussion while Rodrigo sold the melody with the fastest finger picking this amateur guitarist has ever witnessed. They even got the whole audience singing when they pulled out a rendition of "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd. (It should be mentioned, I suppose, that they do not sing. At all. Which isn't to be considered a bad thing; the guitars sing for them.)
The highlight of the show was watching them play their version of "Stairway to Heaven" followed by their lone radio hit, "Tamacun". To hear these songs on their album is amazing enough, but to see them do what they do live almost stopped my heart. So here is the bottom line. Go and see Rodrigo y Gabriela. No, first, go buy their album, then go see Rodrigo y Gabriela. Any chance you can possibly get to see this amazing duo perform their craft will change you forever. And as a matter of fact, you may get your chance soon as they should be stopping back through San Francisco in late summer at the end of their tour. Happy Listening.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What is the What?

After the bizarre and grizzly world of cadavers, I've moved on to a tale of a world few of us will ever know. "What is the What?", by Dave Eggars, author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is relating the story of Valentino Achek Deng, a Sudanese refugee trying to make a new life for himself in the US. The story is only marginally fictionalized; according to the main character most of what you read in the pages of "What is the What" actually happened to Valentino and the other Lost Boys of Sudan.
Valentino's world in Sudan is so foreign, so alien to most of us that relating to his story seems impossible. Only twenty or so pages in, Valentino has told us of being separated from his parents after escaping from Ethiopian refugee camps, watching his friends gunned down by rebel soldiers, and other boys being eaten by lions in the night. There are good stories, too, showing Valentino as a young boy in his village in Southern Sudan, doing things every little boy loves to do.
The stories are heartbreaking, detailing a world none of us could ever begin to understand. But they do belie something we can all relate to: A desire for peace, for hope and security. We all want to love our families, and have our families love us. Lest we ever forget or lose sight of what is important in life - it is this.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Alas, Poor Yorick

There is something about the thought of leaving our bodies when we die that gives us all the heebee jeebees. We spend so many years getting used to being in them, using them, abusing them, fixing them and figuring out how to work them that the idea of leaving them on Earth to decompose is excrutiatingly difficult to deal with. We all try so hard keep ourselves in our bodies longer, do whatever we can to improve them, adorn them, stitch them together in a futile effort to deny ourselves the fact that our physical presence on Earth is in fact temporary.
But what do we do with ourselves when we die? We have options, certainly. Egyptians used to believe that your physical self along with your belongings went with you into the afterlife, so of course you would want to preserve yourself and your things as long as possible. More modern thoughts on the subject say that we leave our bodies, rendering them useless in the hereafter, but out of respect and a sense of decency we take great care in the laying to rest of our mortal coils. But when you die, is what happens to your body your decision, or should that burden lie on the people who loved you most in life? Some people might try to exert some final level of influence from beyond the grave by demanding unusual and sometimes costly ways of handling their remains. Should you be a burden to your loved ones AFTER you have moved on, or should your family be willing to accept any demands you made regarding your body while you were alive?
We all want to know we were loved and will be remembered when we leave. We all hope and pray to our own individual gods that our passing will mean something to the ones we leave behind and that they will celebrate our lives in their own peculiar way. That is all we can ask for, really. Whether our bodies are laid to rest in the ground, ashes scattered into the ocean, or used by science to help save lives, it is not going to be up to us where we end up. Leave that to those who come after you, and who need those ceremonies, however bizarre, to remember you.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

What exactly is "dropsy"?

Reading this book, "Stiff" by Mary Roach has got me thinking a little bit on what exactly is going to happen to my mortal coil when I have departed. The noble thought of donating my body to science has always been a consideration, but now I am not so sure. There is, of course, the slim chance that as a body donor that the parts I no longer need like my heart or kidneys will be given to someone who can still use them. But there is the equally slim chance that as a cadaver, my head will be removed and used for ballistics testing or that my decaying corpse will be laid down on a grassy knoll to be observed by forensic students as I rot. (Come to think of it, that second one may not be all that bad.)
The point is that the idea of donating your body to "science" is a pretty vague one, and there is no guarantee that it will actually be used for the type of "science" you expected. Seeing as there is no way to know exactly where your corpse will end up, and its not a sure thing that your loved ones will know where it goes, either. Since explaining to a loved on what is going to happen to your body can be somewhat of a PR nightmare, most places tend not to volunteer the information. So if you are ever in the un-enviable position of asking what your loved ones body is being used for, just remember it could be an organ transplant, or it could be a crash test dummy. It could go either way.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Whats going to happen to YOUR body when you die?

So right now I am in the middle of a book called "Stiff" by Mary Roach. The post script to the title is "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers". I have dove head first into this fascinating book, and so far I think I will be a little changed by it. Roach is hysterical, lending a sort of tongue in cheek humor to an otherwise dour and morbid subject. This does not prove any more true than when she gets a forensic scientist to concede that yes, decomposing cadavers do in fact fart. (Not intentionally, of course, but the basic process is still there.)

She certainly does lend her own unique and feminine perspective to this rarely sought after topic, going so far as to tell a ballistic specialist that a hollow point bullet being used in an experiment was "cute". So far, so good, I must say. Ms. Roach has another book, this one called "Spook: Science tackles the afterlife". I wonder if she has a psychiatrist on retainer. If the second novel is anything like "Stiff", it will be a wild and entertaining ride. While I would love to get into more of the juicy details of the book and how it has changed my perspective on a great many things, it is late and I am tired. But not to fear, I am only halfway through the book! Plenty still yet to come. Until we meet again, San Francisco.

Monday, April 16, 2007

King Dork and Rock & Roll

I just recently finished the Novel "King Dork" by Frank Portman, or Dr. Frank as he is known to fans of his Bay Area band The Mr. T Experience. The book centers around young Tom Henderson, a high school sophomore who is about as low on the adolescent food chain as one can get. He and his only friend, Sam Hellerman, (his alphabetical neighbor all through grade school) have their own rock band, the name of which they change weekly, devising first album names and pseudonyms for each. Their lives are of typical high school zeros: They are picked on, abused, laughed at and generally ignored by all of the "normal" people of their school. But back to the rock and roll. Through the evolution of their band, Hellerman & Henderson finally find a gig playing at their schools "Festival of Lights" their PC version of a battle of the bands.

Their band, Chi-Mo, after Henderson's nickname (meaning child molester. Long story. Read the book.) royally and completely sucks, but what can you expect from a high school band that just learned how to play their instruments? Their big break comes when they sing a song extolling their Vice Principals desire for a sophomore girls back side. After the show, the enterprising Sam Hellerman publishes the lyrics to this song and several others to distribute around the school, and the band gains a sort of cult fame status.

Here's the thing. I am from the same school of rock as Henderson and Hellerman which teaches that if you start a band, no matter how pathetic, you will gain popularity. Mildly. But sometimes it is just enough to get that girl to notice you for the first time or that group of guys to stop picking on you. There is something dramatically exciting when you are a high schooler and you strap on your guitar in front of your piers for the first time and show everyone just how badly you need to practice. But so what? You are the brave soul standing in front of everyone butchering bar chords and dropping the melody, not them. So kids, here is today's lesson: If you are in high school, and your chances of survival are slim, talk your parents into buying you a second hand guitar, practice a few chords, and start a band. Because just for a moment, just for a blink of an eye in the vast high school universe, you will be a Rock & Roll GOD.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Today began with heart-breaking news. Kurt Vonnegut, prolific author, sly social commentator, and one of my own personal heroes died yesterday at the age of 84. Anyone who has read a book or essay by Vonnegut will know what I mean when I say he had an eye for unearthing the minutia of everyday society and turning it inside out, making us all look very silly in the process. Vonnegut's sense of humor and satire made it easy to look at the world a bit differently and maybe learn something about ourselves at the same time.

I never knew Kurt Vonnegut; he was almost sixty years old when I was born, and had already made his footprint on American Literature by the time I discovered his work. Even with that being true, he will always be one of my favorite authors and I will always regret never getting to see him speak. Whether he was writing about the eccentric president of the Rosewater Foundation or a young soldier who has come "Unstuck in time", his funny and sometimes absurd stories taught me something about the world we live in. Strangely enough, even with his world being centered around World War II and mine around the start of the twenty-first century, not much has changed in those intervening years. His words apply just as well now as they did when he first wrote them.

So here's to you, Mr. Vonnegut. We raise our glasses in your honor. Your words will forever teach us how to laugh, how to love, and how to see truth when we cannot find it for ourselves. All of us here on earth hope the Trafalmadorians are taking good care of you. You will be missed. God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Welcome to the Library

Welcome one and all to the Fog City Library, an open discussion of all things literary and bookish. I hope to fill these lines with insights and observations about literature, poetry, art, music and any goings-on around San Francisco that may fall into those four rather cavernous categories. We live in an amazing city, San Francisco. It is a place where rough and gritty fiction can rub elbows with captivating art and rebellious poetry all while listening to a new amazing band at a tiny windowless bar in the Mission, because that is what this city is. We are all at one time rough, tender, antagonistic, eccentric, compassionate, and beautiful. So welcome, San Francisco, and people from all points North, South, East, and West. Don't think of this as your typical library where silence is required. I know people have plenty to say about their favorite book, least favorite poem, or why they think Holden Caufield is an ass, and I expect them to speak up. There is no right or wrong here, only Truth. And silence is strenuously discouraged.