Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bandon T'ai-Chi Retreat

Walking the beach

I just got back from my annual trip to Bandon on the Oregon Coast where my teacher Andy Dale holds a T'ai-Chi retreat. This year the events were organized by Ken Wright who did a great job coordinating the various instructors and scheduling the classes. It's a pretty informal affair with 6 or 7 classes offered each day. Students pay $10 per class directly to the instructor. The "dojo" is the beach. This year Ken set up a blog to help publicize things as well.

I taught 3 classes: Healthy Knees, Guiding Your Own Practice, and one on T'ai-Chi Troubleshooting where I invited people to bring their problem movements to see if I could help. This last class was my least attended but most enjoyable. I'm thinking of just offering 3 Troubleshooting classes next year.

To me, this annual retreat isn't really about making money. I'm lucky if I can pay for one night's motel room. It's really about hanging out with Andy, bringing a few of my students, taking classes, seeing how my work resonates with people, how the other teacher's work resonates with me, and mostly, it's about walking the beach each evening with my old friend Joel Hartshorne. He started studying T'ai-Chi with Andy around the same time I did 25 years ago, (although BaGua has always been his favorite art).

For the past 3 years we've had a tradition of walking 4-7 miles each night along the beach in front of the Sunset Motel where we all stay. (The Sunset is great by the way, not too expensive, friendly help, lots of different types of accommodations.) We know this beach really well by now and can practically walk it blindfolded.

If you haven't been to Bandon, it's got an amazing beach. There are these huge monolithic rocks in and out of the water. Some are huge, others small, but all of them are beautiful and very cool at night. And it's never crowded! And I mean never.

This year there was almost no moon so the stars were truly awesome. The tide rolls in and out and we sometimes hang out and practice as it comes in and see if we can stay just out of the incoming surf's reach. But mainly we just walk and talk and see the nighttime sites. And amazingly, there's almost always no one else out there.

At one point I wondered out loud if we were imprisoned on this beach and would not be released until we had walked the equivalent of the distance to the nearest star, how long would it take us? How many circuits from one end of our beach walk to the other? Of course neither of us could do the math in our heads and we...uh...gave up pretty quickly.

But here's the actual math: Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. There are 31,536,000 seconds in a year (60 X 60 X 24 X 365). So, forgetting about leap years, that means light travels 5,865,696,000,000 in a year (31,536,000 X 186,000). The nearest stars, according to our latest wisdom, are around 4 light years away which would be 23,462,784,000,000 miles (5,865,696,000,000 X 4). Since our beach walk round trip is about 4 miles, we divide 23,462,784,000,000 by 4 which gives us a total of 5,865,696,000,000 trips up and down the beach!

The average walking speed of human beings is around 3 miles per hour; but since we stop and practice, take our time, and are walking on sand, I'm thinking it's more like 2 mph. Since each round trip would take us two hours (4 miles divided by 2), we take our trip total (5,865,696,000,000) and multiply by 2 and we get 11,731,392,000,000 hours of walking. We take that total and divide by 24 to get the total number of days: 488,808,000,000. Divide that total by 365 and we get the total number of years we'd have to walk to win our freedom: 1,339,200,000. Only about 1-1/3 billion years of beach walking! That's only a bit more than a third the age of the Earth...(Special thanks to

I was thinking as I walked this year that there are some things I'm really glad to have done in my life. Things that make me feel OK about dying.

I'm glad I got to record, perform, and write so many songs. I wanted to be James Taylor when I was young and while that level of success is beyond me now, what I've really enjoyed most is just sorting out so many things in my life and expressing them musically.

I'm also really glad that I learned to practice and teach T'ai-Chi. I became fascinated with Chinese philosophy and martial arts back in high school when I first say the TV show "Kung Fu". I wanted to be sage/bad-ass like David Carradine's character and while I've let go of the whole combat side of that dream, I feel I do have some things to offer people about health, balance, self-defense and living less forcefully. And I do it for a living which is really amazing to me.

I'm also really glad to have been married for 15 years to my wife Samarra. I always wanted to be in an intimate relationship where my partner and I could both really be ourselves and be accepted and loved that way.

I'm glad I found a way to live in a small town and make a living. I dreamed of living close to Nature for many, many years and now it's my life.

I'm also really glad that I got to see a bit of the world. While I'm anything but a "traveler", (I hardly ever leave Ashland), I have lived in New York City, Evanston Illinois, rural Iowa, Seattle and Naples Italy for a year when I was young. I've seen some really amazing wildlife and witnessed many of Nature's little and larger miracles.

And now I add to the list that I'm so glad that I got to walk along one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere with a good friend, talking about our lives, practicing unforced balance, and making each other laugh.

Thank You Bandon!

Thank You Joel!

Thank You Stars!

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Not yet.

Whenever I see someone with several tattoos, which honestly is about 10 times a day around here, I always think of those huge bellbottoms which were such a "must have" in the early 70's. I mean we would not have been caught dead with straight leg jeans. You had to have bells and the bigger the better. What if we had had those suckers tattooed on! Or those big parkas that were all the rage one year. Or mullets.

Today's cool is so easily tomorrow's "D-List". And, for better or worse, these things send distinct messages to people with distinct results. Imagine showing up for a first date or job interview or project meeting dressed in huge bellbottoms, with a mullet, mutton chop sideburns, a tight bright polyester shirt, a puka shell necklace, a big "Peace" medallion, a huge "Keep On Truckin" belt buckle, and platform shoes? It's hard to believe possible but in 30 years (or 30 minutes) tattoos could be exactly like that. And, they'd be under your skin and not too easy to get rid of invisibly.

Take the sacrum tattoo for girls. The first time I saw one, I thought, Oh that's kinda cool. Now it's the radical girls who don't get them. And the tattoos are being called "tramp stamps". And if yours is tattooed on, well...there you go...

I've got nothing against tattoos, if you like 'em, go get 'em, but man, I'd just be too scared to get some trendy thing on there and end up with a "tramp stamp" or something else that actively sends a constant message to the world about me that is no longer accurate. I want flexibility in my relationships with the people and the world and I'm very wary of doing anything that would take any of mine away. I believe it's in my nature to be overly cautious in this way, so I'm not fighting it. I'm just kind of guiding it.

That said, the kind of tattoos I really like are the ones that mark some kind of passage, like when vets have one of the branch of the service they were in. I had a friend once who was doing work in Laos in the jungle and the locals were so happy with the work he'd done for them that they "offered" him their ceremonial tattoo. He felt like saying no would have been in very bad form so he sort of bit the bullet and said, OK...

They let a big fire and he's sitting there shirtless and this guy comes out with a sharp bamboo stick and a little bowl of some kind of jungle ink. My friend is thinking, Oh Jesus, and just closes his eyes and lets him go at it. A couple of hours later the tattoo is done and the fire is out. The guy reaches into the fire and pulls out a big handful of ash, slaps the tattooed area and rubs it in hard. My friend thinks, oh God, I'm going to get every jungle infection known to man. But, it turns out, the ash is sterile and somehow helped the tattoo "set" or heal or whatever. He showed it to me and it was really beautiful. It looked like a Celtic knot or mandala. This a tattoo that reminds him of something incredible that he went through, not something he bought to feel cooler. It's more of a scar than a decoration.

I also really like self-designed stuff that seems in tune with the person or the physical lines of his body. The picture above this post is of a porn star who goes by "Bella Donna". I like the swirling one around her shoulder and breast. I think it really blends into her whole physical self.

It's the sort of randomly added odds and ends approach is my least favorite. But hey, whatever anyone wants to do with their skin is their business. I treat tattooed people pretty much that same as I treat everybody else.

Here's the thing: I have to commit myself in life. I can't not commit. If I say, I won't commit, I'm committed to that. And, when I commit to anything, I'm more vulnerable, my options go down. There's no avoiding it. I can't not commit. So what I like to do is commit consciously, in ways that enhance my life and where I keep as many options open as possible. I think ahead before I commit. I want to be as sure as I can that I don't end up committed to something that I really regret.

I search my mind and heart for what feels most deeply right. And then, if it's a tattoo. Fuck it. I'll get one. But it hasn't happened yet...

Points Of View

I got plenty.

When I see how lazy people can be sometimes; how afraid of risk, how insecure, how wobbly in the face of challenge, I have this strong urge to say:

"Hey, stop dreaming and start doing. Start showing up and heading in the direction of being or becoming whatever you dream of. You can change your mind along the way, but keep moving! Your life will pass you by if you don't. Your Dreams Won't Chase You."

I'm currently helping one of my students write a song with just this point of view.

But you know, at the same time, I also have the feeling that my dreams do chase me. Not in the sense of breaks or "dream" opportunities chasing me, but in the sense of constantly reminding me when what I'm doing doesn't feel right for me. In the sense of: My deepest dreams don't die away. They keep after me, advocating for their fullfillment.

I certainly have I have a strong sense of "Your Dreams Don't Chase You" in my life, but I'm working on a song about this other angle as well.

I find it fascintating how apparently oppositional points of view can be held at the same time. It's kind of like seeing an object or movie in 3-D. If I can see something, almost anything, from more than one point of view at the same time, I get a very clear, distinct sensation of added depth in my perceptions. I feel that I'm constantly arriving at an understanding about what I'm looking at. I experience it as something that's alive and changing and mysterious. What I don't feel is a sense of being, or becoming "right".

People seem to be thrusting a lot of opinions around these days. Opinions about what really happened on 9-11, who's really behind the economic collapse, what'sreally the truth about climate change or peak oil or the Middle East War or military spending or the environment...and on and on. Well, it seems to me that if anything is really true about anything, and I have my doubts that it is, it's that WE DON'T KNOW WHAT THE REAL TRUTH IS.

We have ideas, we have guesses, we have theories, we have points of view. I try as much as I can to acknowledge that my point of view is just that, a point of view. When people start talking about what's "really" true, I start to kind of "go away". Literally or in some other way, I start leaving. It's just tiresome being around people who are passionately interested in something that I'm not at all interested in. And I'm not interested in pretending I know what's really going on or in hanging out with people who think they do.

What I'm interested in, and what I get energy from is meeting people who seem to be saying, "This is my current view and here's why I see it that way. What's yours?" I'm not looking for agreement about anything except this: We are talking to each other to learn about each other, not so that one of us can be right. I like arguments, but not as a way of determining who's right. I like arguments as a way to get to know someone and to learn more about what we're arguing about. As I get to know other people and sense into what their points of view are, and hopefully try them on myself, I end up with more depth to my perceptions. I still gravitate to my favorite points of view and I can be as close-minded and "right" as the next person, but I find it easier and easier to expand my "view" and take in more, rather than less, of what's around me.

So, here's one of my points of view about points of view:

I picture the universe like a giant crystal or matrix of energy. It's a huge network with an infinite number of interactions and events all connected and constantly changing, always effortlessly beautiful and in dynamic, perfect balance. What it's made of and why it's here are unknowable mysteries. It just is.

Any point of view to me, is like drawing a little line in the middle of this complex matrix from "Point A" to "Point B". Point A is what I call "me" and Point B is what I'm considering or looking at. Every angle, every point of view, reveals some kind of "truth" to me. But what it reveals is SOME truth, not THE truth. I believe THE truth is out of my reach and always will be. All I have is a point of view within this massively complicated, or elusively simple, dance of energy.

That said, the more points of view I can sample, the more things I look at, the more "truth" or information about this dance I get. I feel more and more in contact with the universe. It's not easy though, and taking on a new point of view can take more energy than I have to spare. But when it feels right and I do it, I always feel the richer for having done so.

Any point of view seems to invite drawing conclusions or forming a "position". I try my best however, to see these conclusions as models or lenses to look at things through, rather than as competing truth candidates.

For instance seeing the human body through the lens of modern Western medicine or science can be very useful to me. So can seeing it through the lens of the Chinese "chi" model. Or through the lens of the Moshe Feldenkrais method. Or though the lens of Alexander Lowen's Bio-Energetic model. Or through the lens of my own subjective experience of my own and other's bodies. I don't think that what I see through any of these lens "is" what the human body is.

The human body, like everything else, is an unknowable mystery. There's no one who can tell you what you are made of in any definitive way. Just keep asking, "And what's that made of? And what's that made of?" and you can turn the world's greatest minds into Beavis and Butthead, because sooner or later you get to....uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. But I find all of these body models useful to me in coming to a better understanding of how bodies operate and behave around me. I feel like I know them better for having looked at them through these various models.

So, from this point of view, points of view are also like fishing nets. Each one brings in whatever fish it can catch, but can never bring in all the fish. But I don't mind. I just like fish.

I have other points of view about points of view, but this one is my favorite.

And it makes for some satisfying songwriting.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

New Teachers!

This jpg. came out blue for some reason.
The actual certificate is as red as this text...

It is my pleasure to announce that I recently gave Teaching Certificates to five of my students. They are: my wife Samarra Burnett, Neil Buettner, Benjamin Grunde, John Michael Greer, and John Soares. Samarra, Neil and Ben all live in Ashland and may teach in some capacity around here. John Michael is moving from Ashland to Cumberland, Maryland this Summer and plans to teach there. John Soares lives in Mount Shasta and may teach down there.

Every teacher has to come up with their own criteria for giving people permission or their blessing to teach. Some teachers require that the student know their entire system inside and out, including all the forms within that system. Some require that the student take over some classes and get years of teaching experience under their belts. Some teachers charge quite a bit of money when they issue teaching certificates. There are valid reasons for requiring all of the above and more. But for me the important issues are summed up in what we as a group came up with for the text of the certificate:

This is to certify that


has reached the stage in his/her study of the Symmetrical Old Yang T’ai-Chi Style of Tchoung Ta-Tchen where teaching may become part of that study. He/She has shown consistent and demonstrable understanding of the core T’ai-Chi principle of cultivating unforced balance in action – including the Bone, Muscle, Energy, and Spirit levels of work – and has shown consistency in both the form and content of T’ai-Chi practice. Therefore, I proudly issue this teaching certificate to him/her on this

29th day of July, 2009.

(The certificates also include an approximate lineage and a red yin/yang symbol.)

In my opinion, each of these five students has met the above standards and are indeed ready to include teaching in their study of T'ai-Chi. Some know more of the forms in this system than others, and each of course, has their own strengths and weaknesses, but I'm proud of all of them and wish them well on as much of the teaching journey as they choose to take on.

We met several times as a group to discuss different aspects of teaching and what the contents of the certificates would be. In the spirit of the way I was taught by my teacher Andy Dale, there was no charge for the certification process, nor are teachers "under" me expected or required to send me a percentage of what they earn as teachers.

I am, like Andy, inspired primarily by my love of the art and particularly by the cultivation of "unforced balance in action." Expert masters are wonderful, but what I personally value and encourage most is simply the ability to help people live less forceful lives, lives more in tune with what's going on, in and around them. I sincerely believe that helping people with simple things like having better posture, breathing in a more relaxed way, having more spring in their legs, improving their ability to respond physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually to the world around them is vastly more important and needed than helping people do a jumping high kick, adopt super low stances or punch a hole through a wall.

To sum it up simply: what I love to do most and what I hope these five new teachers will love to do as well, is to help people to flow more and force less.

Congratulations John, John Michael, Samarra, Neil and Ben!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Collections~Part One

Dice World

I've been a collector type person since I was a kid. I've gone through phases where I was a major packrat and had many, many, crazy cluttered collections. I've also tried to not collect things. I've gone on major purges and tried to have almost no possessions. The last time I did this I realized that I was still collecting, I was just collecting space instead of things. The mentality was exactly the same, and it was one pretty boring collection!

So I finally decided to surrender and let myself collect whatever I felt like collecting. I found that fighting my nature and trying to not collect anything was not only futile, but took a lot of energy that was better spent elsewhere. Now, I let this part of me have it's expression and I'm much more free than when I was trying to eliminate it all the time. I find it much easier and productive to guide my nature rather than to change it.

I only have two rules now: When I collect something it has to be something that I actively get pleasure from, and the collection has to be organized and out of my way.

The main things I collect these days are:


Teak Objects

Certain Kinds of Found Photos

The one question I get all the time when people come over is, What's up with the dice?

Well, here's the story...

My sister started collecting dice when we were kids and I always thought it was kind of a cool thing to collect. Years later when I was living and teaching in Seattle, I used to go thrift and junk store shopping with my friend and senior citizen T'ai-Chi student Shirley. One day I saw a nice pair of dice and decided to buy it for my sister. Well, one thing led to another and soon I had several pairs and decided to collect them myself. Before long Shirley decided to collect them too. We'd go all over Seattle looking for games with interesting dice, scouring the antique malls and such. We never wanted to spend a fortune and looking for bargains was part of the fun.

During one of the above mentioned purges of these kind of things, I decided to give up the dice collecting. I gave my whole pile to Shirley and she just picked up the ball and ran with it. When I tell the story I usually just say, She went nuts! She became "the dice lady".

Meanwhile my wife Samarra and I moved to rural Iowa for a couple of years and ended up living where we do now in Ashland, Oregon. Shirley and sold her house in Seattle and moved into a retirement center in Eugene which is where her daughter and son-in-law, Patty and Dennis, live. We were still good friends and all three of them would come down to visit us here in Ashland which is only a few hours away.

When Shirley passed away a few years ago, Patty and Dennis asked me if I wanted the dice back. My first thought was that I'd keep them for a while and then sell them. We had this nice bookcase and decided to just put all the dice in one place.

A few years have passed and I still have them. I may sell them someday but for now I like them. They're kind of cool, they take up very little space, and they're organized and out of my way. I do occasionally add a pair or two to the collection, but I've long stopped actually looking for dice. If they're cool and cheap, I'll pick them up and throw them on the pile!

I've got several thousand now. I have pioneer dice made of stone, metal dice, Vegas dice, bakelite dice, dice with my name on them, wooden dice, dice puzzles, dice games, dice for specific games, art dice, crooked dice, and many more.

As you can see though, from the pictures, the whole thing is pretty concise and easy to take in. Another example of an "unforced" portion of my life and nature...

Collections~Part Two

Teak World

I call my bedroom "Teak World" because I have a lot of teak things in there. People often ask me how I got started with the teak collection so here's the story:

At some point, a few years ago, when I was looking to replace my particle-board table desk with something more solid and cool, I thought first of finding an old library table. I looked high and low for such a thing and couldn't find anything.

One day I was reminded of my Dad's old desk, a big 60's era Danish teak one which I'd always loved, so I started looking around for a teak desk instead of a library table since I couldn't find one of them either. I looked around on line and around here but nothing was right, or if it was, it was thousands of dollars. Many other people like these desks too..

I happened to be looking around in a local antique shop here in Ashland and they had this teak table with fold out leaves that was about the right size. I liked the wood a lot, teak has a really beautiful and distinctive grain, and it certainly reminded me of my Dad's desk. The price was really good so I bought it.

Then, because it was just a table with no drawers, I started looking for, or happened to find, a roll top teak box that matched perfectly. I started looking for more roll tops and, being an obsessive collector type, I wanted them to match what I already had. I started to look on eBay and I found an item that was intriguing. It was a phone from the 60's that was built into a nice teak box. It was an old rotary phone and wouldn't really have suited me, but I liked the phone-in-a-box idea. So, I found a larger roll top teak bread box and figured out a way to get my phone in there.

From there it just expanded out. I found that there was a whole bunch of teak out there. Basically in three categories: Kitchen and household type items from Thailand, nautical shipboard type stuff (teak is naturally close to waterproof), and Danish mid-century modern design type stuff. I have some of all three but I always preferred the mid-century modern stuff, even if it was more expensive and harder to find. At some point I got to buying these teak cheeseboards. I'd throw away the glass cover and just keep the disc. When I had a bunch of them I decided to put them on the wall in kind of a wave pattern around my room. Then I added another row or two and now they're snaking all over the place.

Other items just sort of fell into my lap. My brother inadvertently bought me a teak waste paper basket (I used one of his birthday or Christmas gifts). I found a huge teak armoire at a church rummage sale for like $60.00. It probably sold for over a thousand new. I'd find bowls, little teak animals (some Danish modern and collectible), teak bottle openers, cheese cutters, spoons, trays, larger cutting board type things, and all kinds of misc stuff, including many teak frames that I mostly have Mark Rothko prints or postcards in. I have tons of the bowls!

(Almost all of it by the way, maybe 98%, is used stuff I found at Goodwills and yard sales. I don't support chopping down wild teak forests to make trinkets and almost never buy a new teak item even though I think there's more farmed teak now.)

Aside from teak itself, I have discovered that I really like a lot of mid-century art, architecture and furnishings. But by now, it's kind of cooled off for me. I only buy something now and then, when I find something really cool and cheap. And small! My room is tiny and there's not much room left. I consider it a kind of art installation that's essentially done. I just tweak it a bit now and then.

Over the years I've had a bunch of crazy rooms. Sometimes plants everywhere, sometimes animals everywhere, or wall collages, or something else that strikes my fancy. I like lining my immediate surroundings with things I like and find comforting. There's an odd kind of art to it and I think it's a form I excel at, for what that's worth.

I like things that are solid, kind of thick, with rounded edges. I've never liked thin or fragile china, glass or household stuff. I always liked big round firm solid, sort of 70's style stuff. Teak fits this bill to a tee. It's super oily and solid, but it isn't very good for fine sculpture or detailed carving. It's usually made into just the kind of shapes and weights that I've always liked. Look around, you'll very rarely see anything made out of teak that you'd say was thin or fragile. There is such a thing but it's nowhere near the norm.

As to why I like stuff like this I'm not sure, but I think it has to do with a certain instability in my nervous system. My nerves, joints and connective tissue have always seemed to me to be kind of soft by nature, kind of tentative and a bit unsteady. I've learned to do all kinds of things that make me appear quite steady, graceful and coordinated, but none of them came easy at all. And they often require huge amounts of my brain's processing powers to execute.

Some of these things I've learned have become second nature, but most are not. The guitar, for instance, is still a real challenge for me. Especially if I try anything fancy at all. My right hand, my rhythm hand, has gotten very steady and solid rhythmically, but if I try to do anything that requires some finer selection of strings, it takes a lot of practice and concentration to do with any consistency at all. And I'm talking about things that most decent guitarists could figure out in 15 minutes and play flawlessly from then on.

So this kind of wobbly quality to my nervous system, I think has something to do with my attraction to very steady round solid objects. Whether this is an inborn trait of mine (my personal belief at the moment) or something that developed because of my early childhood, I do not know.

I think though, that this quality of teak and things teak-y is more responsible for my attraction than anything to do with my Dad per se. Although, I'm sure it's at least connected to my association with that desk and the 60's (a very exciting time where it suddenly seemed like virtually everything in the world was changing dramatically), and other positive things that might have been going on that year.

Like everything else about us, I think it's ultimately a complete mystery. All we have are ideas, guesses, theories, and hopefully a few shreds of evidence. I'm inclined to believe that I have a genetic predisposition to being more obsessive and more of a collector than most people. These are definitely traits that have survival value and I'm pretty confident that most of us have them. It's probable that I'm just cursed (or gifted!) with a greater predisposition.

I also believe that this thing about my nerves is genetic. I've delved into my body and its abilities pretty heavily for decades, so I think I know whereof I speak. People have said, "It's all in your mind." or, "You just need to practice more." But I live in this body all the time and have for over 50 years. I think by now I know more or less what I'm dealing with on the physical level. I know what it takes to do what I can do. I think this genetic unsteadiness underlies everything.

There are other areas where I was shaky, where I think it was more emotionally based, like being afraid to ask clerks for help when I was younger. I've dealt with and shaken off loads and loads of those kinds of patterns in my life. This is different. It has to do with my ability to aim for something and have my body do it. That's where I notice a distinct unsteadiness.

I also have always felt it in my voice. Even with voice training and the ability to sing pretty "big" if I want to, this underlying unsteadiness is always there. I feel it in my cells in a way that does not feel like a software issue at all. It feels hard wired at the factory. To counter this I think I'm attracted to things like Corningware mixing bowls, another thing I've got many of. I love to eat out of them. To me it's a totally satisfying container. But I have no fond or distinct family memories involving mixing bowls.

These are some of the angles I've explored but again I really don't know. I used to think everything was family but now I don't. Of course they have a big effect, but so do peer groups, media inputs, and genetics. I think now that most of our behaviors are a complex mixture of genetics and education, with genetics being generally hardware and education being generally software.

Would a psychoanalyst make something of a connection between my interest in teak and my father's desk? Yes, I think they would make something of the connection since that's what they do. And I can see and agree with that point of view myself. I also think it's at least partly genetic and I think it's also random since I didn't choose my genetics or my family. And I also think it's a totally unknowable mystery, worth considering, but not with a hope of solving.