Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Legend Of...

The Black Gerbil

Whenever I would play around sparring with my friend's kids, usually little boys, I would adopt the Kung-fu name "The Black Gerbil". I would say things like "No one defeats the Black Gerbil!", "The Black Gerbil always triumphs!", "Come to my Exercise Wheel of Death!" and stuff like that. Being "The Black Gerbil" was sort of an alter ego of mine with these kids.

Then, about two years ago, I was giving a T'ai-Chi lesson out at the Lithia Park Bandshell in Ashland where I teach, and for some reason I just felt the urge to turn around and there, right behind me on the bandshell, was an actual little black gerbil! I couldn't believe my eyes. I've had gerbils for pets since the very first ones that were imported from Asia back in the late 60's, so I knew right away what he was. I figured, since it was the Tuesday after Easter, that perhaps a kid had brought his pet to the park that Sunday and it had escaped. I still have no idea how long he was out there, what kind of adventures he had, or how old he was at the time.

I tried but couldn't catch him, he was too fast and vanished into a hole in the bandshell building, but soon, with the help of a little Have-a-Heart trap and a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, the black gerbil was my prisoner! We brought him home and set up a little terrarium for him with some of the usual rodent supplies, but very soon my wife's maternal instincts kicked in and before too long the little guy was more her's than mine. We named him "Hay Lao Shoo", which means more or less "The Black Gerbil" in Chinese.

He turned out to be a pretty lucky little gerbil. Not only would he have been almost certainly eaten or worse out in the park, but within months he was living in a huge 55 gallon aquarium with a maze of plastic tubes, cardboard boxes and platforms to play around on and in. He also was fed a gourmet diet of organic seeds, cereals and veggies. Gerbils are generally social animals but introducing a new playmate to a solitary male is a bit tricky as they have a certain scent and they attack new additions with a different scent. The process of acclimating a new gerbil to ours was too time and energy intensive for us to pursue. Plus, he had a kind of ear infection thing that left him more or less blind in one eye and in general a bit on the weak side so we feared what would happen if we got another gerbil who was stronger.

Anyway, he lived his life as a bachelor. In spite of his infirmities, he gave his life everything he had and was really a wonderful pet. Probably my favorite pet ever. He had many delightful quirks and routines that brought us endless laughs and inspiration. Yes, inspiration. He had an amazingly cheerful and curious disposition and loved to work at chewing up things like toilet paper tubes, corn silk and egg cartons. He had a little cardboard platform that he used to sit on. We'd give him a flake of his favorite cereal (organic, nothing but the best!) and he would reach up, grab it quickly and run off to a special place to eat it. Other things he'd just eat where we gave it to him, but for cereal flakes and almonds he felt the need to rush off to a safer place. This would crack us up several times every day. We'd also put him in a plastic exercise ball and let him run around our apartment. He got very good at navigating his way around in that thing.

Occasionally, his ear thing would flair up, sometimes effecting his balance, but he always did his best to work around whatever was wrong and keep on his routine of working and resting and eating. He learned to tip his head to one side in order to see better and adopted many interesting little strategies to compensate for his handicap. It was really inspiring to watch his tiny brain learning to adapt to whatever was going on with his strength and balance. Recently, he began to take a turn for the worse and then suddenly it looked like he might have had a stroke. He was partially paralyzed and we wondered if we'd have to "put him to sleep", but somehow he worked it out to crawl and wiggle around. He even chewed up a tube or two and took a few flakes from our hands which he ate just as zealously as ever.

I half expected him to recover and just go on to yet another phase of his little life, but before long it became obvious that he was not going to make it. He stopped eating and seemed to shrink inwards as his body prepared to shut down. He did not seem to be in any pain so we decided to let Nature take its course. This morning, more than two years after we found him, the Black Gerbil finally passed away, curled up peacefully in his nest.

Rest In Peace little guy. You were a great pet, a lot of fun and you taught us a lot about life, work, rest, play, and how to deal with adversity. Plus, you were incredibly cute.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Science and Religion

What's The Difference?

I've been thinking lately that Science is really based on how the human mind works naturally. We all use the Scientific Method all the time, even fundamentalists. We develop ideas about the world based on what will best explain the evidence we encounter. The problem, as I see it, is that Science and Religion differ in what they consider "evidence". What Scientists, Mystics and gurus are looking for is some kind of knowledge, some kind of certainty. That certainty being forever elusive, I think we all settle for our favorite brand of counterfeit certainty. My own favorite brand is that nothing is really knowable, all our theories are hopelessly wrong and biased, everything is ultimately a mystery, the Universe is a fucking awesome place, and my best bet for survival and pleasure is to respect the Nature of things, develop a knack for kindness, music, friendship, and balance, flow more~force less, and see if I can enjoy the ride as much as possible, even though I have no idea what it is, who I am, where it's going, how long it will last, where it's been or what its purpose is. That's my best guess, based on the evidence I've encountered so far.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


You Can Have It.

I'm after balance, the unforced kind, the kind that isn't held in place with force or discipline. The kind that flows naturally out of the ongoing balancing act of Nature. Since nothing in this Universe is still, it seems clear that balance too must be a verb not a noun. Something to seek but not to find or hold on to. In fact the act of keeping one's balance, even when simply standing, involves many, many tiny or not so tiny corrections. Better balancing does not mean no more corrections, just smaller ones. Balance is something I'm always losing. Balancing is something I'm always doing.

In my practice of T'ai-Chi, my music, this blog, my marriage, my friendships, I am looking for the unforced balance that includes everything and excludes nothing. I am not after "enlightenment" as some final or permanent state of being beyond the corrections and evolving nature of being. I don't believe in such a state and if it does exist, I don't want any part of it.

I'm not interested in the elimination of the self or the ego, or of what is called evil. In my view these things are all part of life and are impossible to eliminate. What is commonly called "evil" for instance is essentially selfishness. Lust, greed, violence, thievery, etc. are all forms or degrees of selfishness. Selfishness looks to me to be wired into us as human beings. I've never met a person devoid of self interest or devoid of these qualities we call "evil".

Again and again, so called "spiritual" teachers, gurus and the like are shown to be just as self interested as the next person, perhaps even more so. Again and again, "spiritual" teachers sleep with their students, lie about their affairs, or their finances, or their motives. And again and again people "surrender" to these teachers who profess to know how to reach "enlightenment", what our "true nature" is, or how to "transcend" the ego. (Personally, I've found followers of guru's generally to be more self interested that most people, more passive aggressive, more competitive, less trustworthy, and less in touch with their emotions.)

I think that to have an ego is to be human. To be lustful is to be human. To be angry is to be human. To be violent, to be selfish, to be greedy, to be competitive, these are all part of being a human being. So is to be loving, cooperative, compassionate, friendly, kind and generous. To be human is to be all of these things and all of these things are, at times, conducive to survival. The key to me is balance, not the elimination of the "negative" aspects of myself. It seems futile try to exclude or eliminate the "dark" stuff. It only gets darker, sneakier, and more powerful the more I try to exclude it. Instead, I accept all these things called "evil" in me. I accept that they are part of me and always will be. I also accept all the things we call "good". By accepting and including my whole self, I invite unforced balance into my life.

That is why this blog, which is called "The Unforced Life" includes musings on Nature as well as musings about tattoos, and rants about being sick of The Beatles. There are pictures of album covers, pop stars, porn stars, cicadas and things made of teak wood. Nothing that is a part of life, or my life, is excluded from consideration here. Balance includes everything. And everything is tempered by its opposite or will be soon. There is a time for reverence and a time for irreverence, a time for discipline and a time for slack, a time to be "good" and a time to be "bad". Choosing one over the other, or trying to eliminate one or the other is not only impossible, it's incredibly wasteful. Why fight myself? I do my best to let myself be and only step in to interfere with myself when I feel I absolutely have to.

Forceful, willful self-improvement can be productive but it is not what Taoism is about. At least not my Taoism. To me Taoism is not about discipline, or achievement, or about being virtuous or "good". It is about being natural and unforced, and accepting the unknowable mystery at the heart of existence. It means "going with the flow" even though we have no idea where it's going, where it's been, or what its purpose is. It means accepting the contradictions inherent in being human. The whole New Age Puritan obsession with purification is, in my view, doomed to failure.

But what the Hell, everything is doomed to failure. If you want to try and purify yourself, transcend your ego and your separateness, be my guest. I don't think you or anyone else will ever succeed, but if that's your calling, give it your best shot. If, on the other hand, you want to accept your ego, your "evil", and your separateness, as well as your "oneness" with everything and your "goodness", without making an ideology of either; if you want to accept them as different aspects of your reality, to be experienced when they occur and moved on from when they do not, then I invite you to look into the amount of force you use in your life and see if you can use less. My experience is that the less force I use in my life the better my balancing.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Not The Best First Lines Of Songs...

Just Some Of My Favorites

I don't believe in "good" or "bad" songs or lines in songs. I just think some songs or some lines work or don't work for certain people. Here are some of my favorite first lines of songs, some my own, some from other artists. I'm not saying these are the "best" first lines I've heard, just some of my favorites. I'd love it anyone reading this would comment and add some of your favorite first lines of songs. Or if you're reading this as a result of a Facebook link, you can add your favorites there.

Starting with my all time favorite and then proceeding in no particular order...

"If there's a cure for this, I don't want it"
Love Hangover (Sawyer/Mcleod)

"Hey just between us--I'm an undiscovered genius"
Undiscovered (Gene Burnett)

"You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend"
Positively 4th Street (Bob Dylan)

"Words are flying out like endless rain into a paper cup"
Across The Universe (John Lennon)

"Songs are like tattoos, you know I've been to sea before"
Blue (Joni Mitchell)

"Sunset is an angel weeping, holding out a bloody sword"
Pacing The Cage (Bruce Cockburn)

"Woke up this morning, one of my kidneys was gone"
Beijing Blues (Gene Burnett)

"I woke up this afternoon and both the cars were gone"
Suburban Blues (Martin Mull)

"Everybody's mad, you don't know what it is, you're all covered in glitter like fairy jizz''
Didgeridon't (Gene Burnett)

"I've seen love go by my door, it's never been this close before"
You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Bob Dylan)

"I was raised in Arizona, just outside of Boston, in the heart of the Great Northwest"
Fated (Gene Burnett)

"From this valley they say you are going"
Red River Valley (Traditional)

"Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are"
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (Taylor/Traditional)

"I am blind but I don't care, I take my blindness everywhere"
Jump For Joy (Gene Burnett)

"People will know when they see this show the kind of a guy I am"
One Man Guy (Loudon Wainwright III)

"You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain, too much loving drives a man insane"
Great Balls Of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis)

"I'm too old to expect to feel good every day"
A Good Misunderstanding (Gene Burnett)

"Think I'll pack in and buy a pick-up, take it down to L.A."
Out On The Weekend (Neil Young)

"I would wile away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain"
If I Only Had A Brain (Harburg/Arlen)

"We had the presents under the tree, what Santa didn't bring, we didn't need"
Let's Put The Ass Back In Christmas (Gene Burnett)

"He said you took the blues out of that Dylan song, I said I took the Dylan out of that blues songs"
My Song Now (Gene Burnett)

"I was born in a cross-fire hurricane"
Jumping Jack Flash (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)

"Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball"
Pinball Wizard (Pete Townsend)

"She's a good girl, loves her mama, loves Jesus and America too"
Free Fallin' (Tom Petty)

"Hey Mr. Wall Street on the 50th floor, can't make the payments on your penthouse no more"
Jump You Fuckers (Gene Burnett)

"I've got you under my skin, I've got you deep in the heart of me"
I've Got You Under My Skin (Cole Porter)

"Is there anybody going to listen to my story, all about the girl who came to stay?"
Girl (Lennon/McCartney)

"She would never say where she came from"
Ruby Tuesday (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)

"The first time we made love was bad and worse each time after that"
Ten Good Days (Gene Burnett)

"Hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk with you again"
The Sounds Of Silence (Paul Simon)

"She's back on the pills, she's back on the booze, it might be sad but it sure ain't news"
Watch Her Drown (Gene Burnett)

"Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing"
Up To Me (Bob Dylan)

"T'was in another lifetime, one of toil and blood, when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud"
Shelter From The Storm (Bob Dylan)

"You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack"
Once In A Lifetime (Talking Heads)

"I don't know why I love you like I do, all the changes you put me through"
Take Me To The River (Green/Hodges)

"I met my old lover on the street last night, she seemed so glad to see me I just smiled"
Still Crazy After All These Years (Paul Simon)

"When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me"
Let it Be (Paul McCartney)

"Once I had nothing, now I have less"
Brand New World (Gene Burnett)

"Man, I wish I was jamming with The Stones on a beach in Barbados, and not stuck in Idaho in a stoner band called "The Baked Potatoes"
Ninja (Gene Burnett)

"Couple in the next room, they're bound to win a prize, they've been going at it all night long"
Duncan (Paul Simon)

"Poets would be lost, there would be no tides, nothing hanging over this saloon"
Without The Moon (Gene Burnett)

"Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly"
I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams)

"I was alone, I took a ride, I didn't know what I would find there"
Got To Get You Into My Life (Lennon/McCartney)

"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away"
Yesterday (Paul McCartney)

"Don't tell me you don't know what love is when you're old enough to know better"
Everyday I Write The Book (Elvis Costello)

"He thought he was the King of America where they pour Coca-Cola just like vintage wine"
Brilliant Mistake (Elvis Costello)

"You're a born again porn queen who finally found her niche, acting like a schoolgirl with an overwhelming itch"
The Best Deal (Gene Burnett)

"Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone"
Fire And Rain (James Taylor)

"May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold"
May You Never (John Martyn)

"In the morning you go gunning for the man who stole your water"
Do It Again (Fagen/Becker)

"Five name that I can hardly stand to hear, including yours and mine and one more chimp who isn't here"
Bad Sneakers (Fagen/Becker)

"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold and she's buying a stairway to Heaven"
Stairway To Heaven (Led Zeppelin)

"Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street"
Is She Really Going Out With Him? (Joe Jackson)

"Hello, is there anybody in there, just nod if you can hear me, is there anyone at home?"
Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd)

"Fools in love, well are there any other kinds of lovers?"
Fools In Love (Joe Jackson)

"Well I bet you're wonderin' how I knew, 'bout your plans to make me blue"
Heard It Through The Grapevine (Whitfield/Strong)

I could probably go on for hours, these are just some of the first that came to mind. How about you?

Monday, May 3, 2010

My Feel Bad Hit Of The Winter


I wrote a song recently that I really like. It's called "Miserable". It's from a pretty bleak philosophical point of view, a sort of glass half empty, broken and falling off the table kind of song. The music has a kind of climbing and then falling sound that's actually really joyful for me to sing. And even though I can get behind what I'm saying and see literally everyone on earth as being essentially miserable, I have rarely gotten more joy out of singing a song than this one.

Something about the way the melody, rhythm, and lyrics are coming together seems to communicate for me both the inevitable underlying suffering involved in being human, the futility and inevitability of being in denial about this essential misery, and the "in spite of it all life is a miracle, seize whatever part of the day you can and taste it" feeling that is my response to these seemingly inescapable realities.

For me the joy I feel has to include the miserable to be authentic. If it's a counter to, or "transcendence" of the misery, it never feels as true to me. As the joy includes the misery, it starts getting deeper and more beautiful to me. I'm thinking, like, Billie Holiday misery and Billie Holiday beautiful. I'm nowhere near that level of course, but for me it's satisfying to even hold these things together while I'm singing, let alone go deeply into them. I guess I'm after that balance all the time. This is just my latest favorite attempt. It's still a head-case-y song but it's mine and I have to sing it. It's from my latest album, "Brand New World" and is available for downloading free or with a donation at

At the risk of it sounding like crap without the music, here's the lyrics:

Miserable by Gene Burnett (2010)

Some of you can fake it—Some of you can fake it better

But you can’t fool you—Not for a second

You’re miserable

You can stay busy—You can stay high

Open up your heart—But don’t look inside

‘Cause you’re miserable—Miserable

Winners are just slow losers—We all know it

Don’t put that horn down now—Come on and blow it

You’re miserable

It’s unhappiness that drives you forward—And it’s holding you back too

It’s the ground you’re walking on—Why not tell the truth?

You’re miserable—Miserable

To be born is to suffer—Buddha got that part right

Find the nicest way to suffer—That’s my best advice

You’re miserable

When God fights the Devil—They both win every time

They need each other to keep each other alive

‘Cause they’re miserable—Miserable

Stuck to a rock and a dying star

It’s hard to sleep with that knife in your heart

You’re miserable

You got no answers—They all fell apart

You got no horse to put before no cart

You’re miserable—Miserable

Every word’s a lie—Art is just a sham

God is just a story—Money is a scam

You’re miserable—Miserable

So everything sucks—So what?—Let the show go on

Don’t just pretend to have fun—Live a little—Come on

You’re miserable

Pretend you’re writing your part—Pretend you’re writing the whole play

The director doesn’t care what you pretend as long as you play

She’s miserable—Miserable

We’re addicted to our struggles—Whatever they may be

There’s only one solution and that is just to be