Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Four Kinds Of Horses

Which One Are You?

Here’s a quote from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “The Marrow of Zen” by Shunryu Suzuki.

“In our scriptures (Samyuktagama Sutra, volume 33), it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best. This is, I think, the usual understanding of this story, and of Zen. You may think that when you sit in zazen you will find out whether you are one of the best horses or one of the worst ones. Here, however, there is a misunderstanding of Zen. If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst one. When you consider the mercy of Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses? He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one.

When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think that sometimes the best horse may be the worst horse, and the worst horse can be the best one.”

From the first time I read this book over 20 years ago, this is the one story I always remember. I think it's a great metaphor and way of thinking. Horses are a lot like our own bodies and we "ride" them from above similarly. They're smart but very kinesthetic, they're sensitive, capable, resistant to control, stubborn, clumsy, graceful, and most of all they have a similar mix of being both wild and civilized. I often tell my T’ai-Chi students to try treating their bodies during training as though they were horses. Will you get the best result from their horse/body by beating it? By bribing it? By fooling it? Or by treating it with an overall respect and a spirit of cooperation that might include, at times, all of the above? I'm sure this metaphor is sturdy and has figured in all kinds of teachings, otherwise it would have been edited out over time...I wonder with more and more people very rarely even seeing a horse if it will continue to be a living metaphor as time goes on...

With regard to lessons in general, I started out as the fourth I think I'm somewhere between a three and a two.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bye Bye Facebook

It Was Fun While It Lasted...

What if you had a tool, like a hammer or a guitar that you used every day, but which started to change into a different, more frustratingly hard to use tool, randomly, frequently and unpredictably. That’s what facebook has become for me, and I’ve finally just become fed up with it. I’m not raging or freaking out here, just tired of watching something I really loved get worse and worse and worse…at least for my purposes.


I’m going to be phasing out social media over the next few weeks. I deleted my fledgling google+ account and I’m going to be scaling way back on facebook. It’s not so much because of what’s it’s done to my life, or facebook’s privacy policies, or how much time I spend on it. It’s because of the endless changes and the way facebook institutes them. I know change is inevitable and I have plenty of it in my life. But to me facebook is not life. Facebook is a tool. And I don’t like tools that keep changing and require time and energy to keep up with their basic use. Sites like youtube and eBay have changed too, but always slowly and always in small and useful ways. Not so with facebook.

For instance several months back facebook instituted a change whereby instead of clicking on “Share” to post a comment on a post, all you had to do was click “enter”, which was supposed to make things easier. Well maybe it did for the largely illiterate two word comment posters, but for those of us who liked to post more thoughtful multi-paragraph comments, it was a huge pain in the butt. Every time you hit the enter key to separate paragraphs, the comment was instantly posted. You can get around this by hitting the shift and enter key together, in which case you get what you used to get by just hitting the enter key: a new paragraph.

But this is different from every site on the internet as well as Microsoft Word. So you have to pay extra attention, on facebook only, to not reflexively hit the enter key for a new paragraph. You can do so as usual with every other place you type. You can also hit the little “X” next to the posted comment within a few seconds and you’ll be back in edit mode. The trouble with this is that everyone on that thread will still get a notification that you’ve posted a comment, and an email if they’ve opted to receive emails when someone comments on a post they’re following. I’ve received many, many partial posts via email while people struggle with this most basic of functions. And all for what? To make posting a comment just a tiny, tiny bit easier. It’s been months and I still accidentally hit that enter key and post incomplete comments.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, the “new facebook”, which no one requested and which “improves” something no one was complaining about, is yet another pile of useless changes and looks to me to be just awful.

If someone wants to create a facebook like site for people over 50 where all you can do is post comments, pictures and links and never changes. I’ll be the first to sign-up. Call it fartbook. I’m there.

But as it is now, I'm already moving my pictures to my new Flickr page and posting much less on facebook. I think I'm going to maintain a very low profile there. Basically, I'm going to strip my profile down to the essentials, participate in this martial arts group which I'm really enjoying, I'm going to create a few musical "events", I'll continue to accept friend requests and I'll occasionally post something along the lines of: "Hey friends, I don't use fb much anymore. If you're interested in me, check out my blog, website, Flicker page, or youtube channel. Or just send your email address to" And then I'll provide links to those.

This feels really good folks, very empowering. I’ve felt helpless in the face of one dumb, frustrating and top down change after another. I feel like I’m breaking up with an abusive lover whose redeeming qualities have been steadily diminishing.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I'm A Folk Artist

I'll Take What I Can Get.

As I see it, folk music has always existed outside the mainstream economies of the world, certainly outside the monied elites of history. Don't get me wrong, I love Mozart and The Beatles, but I'm not anything like them. While all those royal patrons were deciding which wigged genius to back, ordinary people were playing music in pubs and markets for whatever the people would toss their way, or were just playing for fun around camp fires and front porches.

That's the tradition I come from. Even though I was raised by academics in semi-suburbia, I was raised with folk music and in the folk music ethic. When I was young, I abandoned that ethic and tried to fit into the pop music world which was very different. It never felt right and no matter how hard I tried, I always felt terrible in that world.

Only in the last 5 years or so have I returned to my folk roots and have done what I would never even have considered doing when I was trying to be a pop star: playing anywhere that feels half way right for whatever pay is available, including just tips, and mostly letting people decide how much they want to pay for my music. I don't make nearly enough at music to do it for a living but I've never enjoyed making music more than I do these days and it's never felt more right.

I'm not "going anywhere" and I know it. I'm 54, I hate traveling, I only know a few chords, I'm incredibly limited musically and I'm kind of a head case lyrically. I know what I do has value, but I'm a doubles hitter not a home run hitter.

I'm grateful for whatever comes back when I play. Hell, I'm grateful for the chance to do it at all. I'll take what comes to me, but my expectations are very low. Most of the good stuff that's happened in the last couple of years has really surprised me. I certainly don't expect it to continue. Just before I got a gig opening for America at our local Britt Festival, which I thought was a major long-shot, I was telling my wife Samarra how grateful and happy I was just to be considered good enough to be in the running for an opening slot at Britt.

People who like or love what I do think I'm either being way too hard on myself, or suspect me of false modesty, but I have to tell you, I play hours and hours and hours of music to people who are barely listening at all. They're hearing me and sometimes tip well just because they like the vibe they're getting but they're not really understanding the song itself or what I'm trying to say. I've played much of last FIVE YEARS to pretty luke warm response overall, so it's hard to get too worked up over myself.

I didn't mind playing semi-background music for 2 hours in a coffeehouse for $20 and tips the morning after I played for 1500 people and made hundreds of dollars. I was happy to have the gig because that's really my bread and butter musically. That's what's mostly available for my kind of music around here and I'll take it. I consider myself a folk artist not a fine artist. I'm proud of what I am, but that's because I'm being true to my nature. I don't judge people who are different kinds of artists. My favorite band is Steely Dan, hardly what you'd call a "folk duo".

I don't consider playing for tips the same as playing for free. I'm happy to play almost anywhere, for free, for tips or for pay. I can't really relate to most of what's been happening to the industry lately. I am not in the pop music business and certainly not in the mainstream pop music industry. There are so many currents of money, marketing, history, politics, manipulation and God knows what else affecting that world. It makes my head spin.

I'm so so glad I'm not young and trying to make a living at pop music, much less trying to become a pop star. The young artists in my tradition are building fan bases by constantly traveling and playing wherever they can for whoever will listen. They are connecting directly to people on a daily basis, they are developing connections with people who feed and house them as they go too. They are living in cars and don't expect to graduate to limos any time soon. They're not courting the industry because the industry isn't interested in them or in art for art's sake. I can't imagine genuine folk music being as popular nationwide as it was briefly in the 1960's. So once again there isn't much money in it, which has been the case for the bulk of human history.

Simple music with a few chords for people who call themselves "folks", music that tells stories about people's lives is not the stuff of pop music star dreams, but it it the stuff of my dreams. I love just casting my net and seeing what comes back. Mostly it's not much but when I can connect to a few people who really listen and like what I'm doing...well that makes it all worthwhile.

For artists like me, the digital revolution is a Godsend. My music will always be a minority taste, but worldwide that minority is not insignificant. For a guy like me to record a video in the local cemetery, post it on youtube, have a guy in Holland that I've never met make a better video out of it that gets over 139,000 views is nothing short of a miracle. For most of my life, getting that many people to hear one of my songs was virtually impossible. My original video is up to 20,000+ views and that amazes me too. This revolution might well be hurting pop music artists and recording companies. It may well have negative effects on the development of popular music. I don't know. But I don't make popular music. I make folk music, so for me, as I say, it's been a Godsend. It's like I'm suddenly in a much larger living room or front porch.

Monday, September 19, 2011


We Don't Need No Stinkin' Sound Gear!

Here's a great video from one of my favorite youtube stars, "Danielle Ate The Sandwich". Please watch it on youtube and read her description of how she saved her own show from cancellation by performing outside a rained out venue. If you're used to playing without gear and playing well, you too can have shows like this. I love gear-less shows myself...both playing and listening to.

I was at The Oregon Country Fair a few years ago and it was pouring rain...the sound was out at this one stage...half the crowd gathered under the bit of shelter the stage afforded... the other half was in the rain...I wondered, "Who's this?"...I worked my way to wear I could see and hear...there was this young woman playing guitar and singing gearless, over not only the rain, the thunder, her own guitar, but two other musicians as well. That woman was Raina Rose and it was one of the best sets of live acoustic music I've ever heard. Here's one of her gear-less videos:

Later in that same rainy day my good friend Jim Page was playing on the same stage. No gear, just him. Again, crowd half in and half out of the rain. He then invited as many people as would fit on the stage itself to share what little dryness there was. Both on stage and off I could hear every word he sang. One time, ‎Jim was playing a show in Taiwan and when the promoters and the police began to fight over whether Jim could finish his set past the time when the sound level rules kicked in, he said, "Hey people. This is an acoustic instrument." and finished his set gear-less in front of the stage. Jim's been playing gearless at the Pike Place Market in Seattle for years so this was no big deal. Here's one of his gear-less videos:

Just this past weekend a local fundraiser, Michelle McAfee and I were scheduled to play at 6. The sound system was not ready. We were on a tight schedule with lots of bands and a hard, end-of-the-night deadline. So we played gear-less in front of the stage and it went great. Here's one of my gear-less videos:

All it takes is practice and some good technique. There are many performers who are lost without their gear, but the basic elements of music for thousands and thousands of years have been the human voice and acoustic instruments. I don't mind sound gear and in some venues it's a must, but I much prefer doing the old-fashioned way.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Time Out!

Balancing On And Off Line Time

The only computer in my life is here at home. No cell, no laptop. When I leave the house, I leave the virtual world behind. I very much like it this way.

I like to balance the cyber and physical worlds. We are adapted to live in the physical world and are just beginning to live in the virtual world. I think people who spend more time on-line and looking at screens, than off-line and out in the physical world, are headed for serious health trouble. Of course we're all headed for serious health trouble sooner or later and everybody's gotta do what they gotta do, but I feel much better when I take extended breaks from virtuality. I’ve recently installed a free computer app that lets me schedule regular breaks when I’m online. Currently I have it set to that every 10 minutes, my screen goes opaque for 30 seconds for a “Time Out”. I use this break to check my posture, maybe get up and stretch, and focus my eyes on something other than the screen. It’s also easy to just skip the break if I’m on a roll or in a hurry. I highly recommend it. (Sorry PC users, it's for Mac only. If anyone knows of a PC version that's similar, please let me know.)

“Virtual means almost but not…”

~A line from a song I wrote called “Virtual”.

If land lines become obsolete someday and I have to get a cell phone, I won’t get a smart phone and I won’t carry a phone with me unless I need it for emergency preparedness, or for some specific reason. I see people all the time who are never off-line, never 100 % focused on their physical surroundings, always with their minds on their cyber identity. They walk down the street looking at their phones, they ride their bikes looking at their phones, they drive looking at their phones. I don’t envy any of them. Not their lives, their bodies, or the look in their eyes. They might still be good people, but I don’t want that life.

I love having extended breaks from my on-line self and world. The more time I spend on-line the more time I need away from it. The way I have it set up now, as soon as I leave my house, I’m off-line and engaged with the physical world. I love being on line too and all the communication, information, and entertainment options it offers, but none of it engages my body in a total way as much as walking does, or riding my bike, or practicing T’ai-Chi, or singing, or teaching, or talking to a friend in person.

I like it best when the virtual world is a like a shadow of the physical world and not the other way around.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Please Sing "Fever".

I don’t know too much about Adele and I haven’t heard all of her music, but I just love her unforced delivery. Every song I’ve listened to so far has struck me as beautiful, unforced, emotional, simple, direct, truthful and authentic.

I love what she doesn’t do with a song. She obviously has the chops to go all “diva” on anything she sings, but unlike so many of today’s singers, she doesn’t over adorn or show off all her vocal pyrotechnics every chance she gets. This is because the most important thing to her is the SONG, not the singer. At least that’s how she seems to me. Her skills are submitted to the song, not the other way around. She seems to be looking for what the song needs, not what her ego needs. This is so refreshing to me. So many singers seem to see a song as simply a structure to lay vocal tricks and emotional gestures over. Almost all pop singing these days leaves me with this “false” feeling, like the only thing the singer wants from me is worship. Adele seems to have something in her heart that won’t sit still, that must be expressed or she will literally start to die inside. I feel like she’s sharing not just taking…

Here's a link to her singing "Make You Feel My Love" on Letterman.

And so, in this spirit I would like to send out a thought request to Adele to please cover the song, “Fever”. I know it’s been covered a million times but they’ve all been self-indulgent miscalculations in my opinion. I only like one version, the original version by Little Willie John.

So many singers that I hear doing “Fever” do not sound to me like they are singing with their own authentic voices. All their quirks and mannerisms, I've already heard ‘em elsewhere, and many, many times. Or they seem to think that the trick is to find a new quirk that no one else is doing, or they try to buy one with the latest technical vocal effect. But to me the key is to do less, not more. Drop the quirks and let your actual voice and feeling come out.

If you don't trust the song, why are you singing the song? You want to know how to sing a great song? Trust the song and just sing it. Only embellish when the emotion you feel for the song makes you do it. Most people are too afraid to sing “Fever” without tarting it up.

I love "Fever", at least as Little Willie John sings it. To me, it's just a simple, heartfelt, "You make me hot. I'm the one for you.", kinda tune. I don't think the song tries to be anything it's not and totally nails what it is does try to express. When I hear modern singers, usually women sing this song, it's like they're the strong one, the hero, and the star of the song. They kind of strut the thing. But this is not really what the song is about. To me this is a song about the power of the other person, not the singer. It's a song of feverish devotion, almost begging, not strutting. For this song to work for me, the singer has to sound like they're singing to someone they want and want bad. It usually sounds to me like they're singing it into a mirror.

So have at it Adele! I can’t think of another singer who could even approach Little Willie John’s version…