Saturday, November 24

Running in winter

It has been a while since I last waxed romantic on something. Let us give it another shot.

Winter is bearing down on Munich. Needless to write, this has messed with my running as of late, but not for the reasons you might immediately assume. Yes, temperatures snuck below and dawdled just on the other side of freezing last week, and two weekends back there was even some snowfall that did not immediately melt. However, these have nothing to do with my fewer running outings. Rather, it is the shorter days. It gets quite tricky to find a free hour before the sun sets at 4:30 on those days I have classes. In all truth, the steadily worsening conditions have actually been an incentive to run, alongside my simple need to move. At least I had to walk downtown or between buildings at Gonzaga. Here, I just take the U-Bahn.

But I stray from my original purpose in writing about the ecstasy of running at the same time water molecules are settling into a place in which they feel firm. Certainly there are quantitative benefits (among them, less sweat and the freezing of mud that would otherwise spray across your back), but it is the qualitative that most interests me here. In a very real sense, the world goes still in the winter. Get away from the city and a good mile or two from any roads, and you will understand. The cacophony of the other seasons has gone. There are no leaves to rustle in the wind because they all have fallen. The playing of scrambling squirrels is curtailed by the cold, and those singing birds have long made their way south. In a figurative and oftentimes literal sense, the world has frozen in a moment of complete calm. There is nothing to draw your attention, and the senses strain to pick up the least of anything. Walking through it can be overwhelming, but running is different. With no distractions in the environment, all of your attention is drawn inward. I do not mean this in the sense of some emo teenage poet who bemoans the abyss that is their soul but of a complete awareness of every process going on in the body at that instant. Every step you take, every swing of the arms, every burning breath that you gulp down, you feel them and know that they just happened. All of those cerbellic processes that one never pays attention to otherwise dominate your mind. I have tried Zen meditation. Beginners are told to focus on their breathing. It is amazingly difficult, your mind and thoughts run madly off in all directions and constantly needing to be brought to heel once you actually remember that they are not concerned with breathing. Running in the cold does not suffer this problem. Naturally, all of your thoughts are brought into focus. I do not assume to suggest that running inspires the feeling of transcendence that Zen seeks, but there is a new appreciation for the wonder of the human body when you become aware of all that is normally hidden. It is a beautiful feeling.

To think, I used to ridicule my dad and sister for regularly participating in the Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run.

Sunday, November 18

In consideration of concerts, both alternative and classical

Generally, I think it is a good idea to try and cultivate some taste in those things that culture has given value beyond that of mere survival. Please understand that I do not advocate turning one's nose up at any dish which someone with less training than four years at a French culinary school or constantly complaining that no one will ever again reach the level of Orson Welles or Akira Kurosawa, but I think it is worthwhile to be able to appreciate true talent or an original idea, even if lacks any personal appeal to you. In some things, mostly film and novels, I like to think that I have succeeded in this and at least have a modicum of taste. In other things, most notably music, I really have no experience at all, though visual art in all its forms, opera, dance, theater, food and other things that do not admittedly come to mind would make this list as well, but they do not matter so much to this post. At this point, the less said about them, the better. Sure, I played French Horn for five years and sing in church from the pews, so I can read music. But that's it. I have almost 275 hours of music on my computer, amounting to almost 4000 tracks, and all I can really say is whether I like the song or not. The music thing is especially depressing though because since high school I have always had friends deeply interested and involved in music who can speak very intelligently on the subject and whose opinions I tend to respect on such matters.

Anyway, what inspires this post is my recent attendance of my first two proper concerts, the two taking place on wildly different ends of the spectrum. Last Sunday was Bloc Party in Mannheim. Yesterday was a string chamber orchestra performing pieces by Tigran Mansurian, who was also in attendance for this performance. You want a sense of Bloc Party, their biggest hit is probably "Helicopter" but I suggest "The Prayer" still more, at least until they release a video for "Waiting for the 7.18." Unfortunately, tracking down Mansurian's work is a bit more difficult. You will simply have to imagine a bunch of string instruments, sans harps, playing.

For my only previous live music experiences being a Sherri Austin concert at my county fair and some band and choir concerts (though the ones at Gonzaga pleased me very much), these were great introductions to what lies beyond listening to albums on your computer or using YouTube as a highly inefficient, but free!, jukebox, the sort of introductions that do make me want to see and hear still more.

The Bloc Party concert was fun. It was cool. Really, I do not know what other words to apply to it, and, needless to write, a live concert was a completely different beast from listening to their two albums on my computer. There was crowd surfing, a new edge to even their softer songs like "So Here We Are," and a girl was pulled on stage to demonstrate how Kele Okereke wanted to see the audience moving. I got to be astounded by people paying €25 for T-shirts and jump around and pump my arm when Bloc Party came out. Foals, the opening act, did their job well. Their music was raw and pounding, but they bore no comparison or distraction to Bloc Party at all. They lacked the presence. When playing, they looked as though they were seizing on their instruments and always had trouble looking at the audience. Which just made the build-up to the reason for coming to the concert all the better. You knew there was still more. When the lights came on through the fog, which had been pumping for the last five minutes of the break, to shine through on the Bloc Party backdrop, that was amazing and hearing Okereke drag out "I am trying to be heroic" for "Song for Clay [Disappear Here]" was the release. Before they even reached song was ended, I was jumping just to see over those bobbing heads before me. Having spoken with friends who have attended concerts by bands established for decades and whose songs can truly be called radio staples, this merits mention. Bloc Party released its first album in 2005, and its second only earlier this year. There is no obscure library to dig through (I only failed to recognize one song) and no major hits that were the only reason for the audience to come.

But, with regard to the complaint that began this post, it was the Mansurian concert last night that bothered me more. Before the concert proper began, he gave an interview. Of course, his answers were filtered through his native tongue, Armenian I assume, to German and then on through to my English understanding, but I am fairly certain he was talking about the color of his music, apricot with the Armenian flag. Really, that means nothing to me. When he spoke of the emotional forces and how "Testament" was composed just days following his wife's death, I could relate with that in his songs, but what does he mean by color? What color is "Eroica" or "Flux?" Still, I enjoyed the concert. The pieces were beautiful and watching the soloist violinist and cellist play was something special, but it is still frustrating. I feel as though there is so much I am missing from this music because I lack the experience and background.

Friday, November 16

A bend in the road on Beacon Hill

Absolutely one of my favorite pictures in my very limited portfolio. Admittedly, this scan does not adequately capture the tones of the original and I probably ought to give printing it another shot to give the sky a little more depth through burning, but this landscape has the presence, the ability to make me stop flipping through my collection and give it a few moments more off attention, that I have otherwise found lacking in previous pictures. I feel this is because the picture helps you along. You do not have to figure it out on your own. It invites you in through a strong central line that moves through the picture, starting in the lower center with the shadow from the ridge and traveling up the road until it merges with the bottom of the tree line on the horizon. The texture, too, of the gravel road fascinates me. It is just so rich that even the smallest stones cast shadows and gain depth. Even better, the grass along the right side provides the contrast to appreciate the gravel even more.

Kind of a happy accident, this picture. I took this shot shot in a kind of desperation. After an early surge of photographic inspiration upon my arrival at Beacon Hill, nothing could capture my attention. It had probably been a good twenty minutes since my last picture, and I really wanted to finish off the roll and starting biking back to my house before the sun set. There was a brief thought like Lines are an important element in photos, and this turning road has lines, and I shot it. Seriously, despite this minimal amount of though, it is my favorite from that entire excursion. Also, the two hours I spent on the hill were the last ones to see sunlight, which provides the critical shadows here, for well on a week.

Friday, November 9


In my excited descriptions of my first opera experience and other recent posts, I have revealed that I am currently studying in Munich. For this post to be properly understood, more context, specifically of a temporal nature, is necessary. I arrived in Germany at the end of August, a little more than two weeks before my study-abroad program started, so my grandparents and I could visit those relatives who did not immigrate to North America (i.e. all of them). I return to the United States at the end of January in order to enroll in the spring semester at my university. Roughly, that amounts to five months abroad. Keep that in mind. Not necessary to keep in mind but fun to share, being in Germany this long requires a residency permit, and I like to think it brings some flair to my passport, certainly more than those barely visible Frankfurt/Main stamps.

It has been an exhilarating time. My hometown had a population around 1,400, and though I still maintain that Spokane is a good-sized city, it really does not compare to Munich on most fronts. Merely having a choice between movie theaters is kind of a big deal for me. Not only having a choice in that regard but also in museums, galleries, theaters, opera houses and more still is a bit much, but I have enjoyed them at every chance. The idea has been a different museum and church every Sunday and at least one live performance every week.

What is more exciting still is that though I would be quite content to solely remain in Munich for my entire European stay, that is simply impossible when all these other cities of renown and all their culture are only a short flight or train ride away and the chances of an opportunity like this ever appearing again are so slight, there is simply too much. I have been to Dresden, Salzburg and Cork. Paris, London and Istanbul are all on the schedule, and should the finances still look solid after making all arrangements for travel over the Christmas vacation, hopefully Prague or Lausanne, Switzerland can be added to that list as well.

When I bother to step back and give this a little thought, I find myself a little surprised at myself, especially in consideration of how quickly I found my habits and schedule back in Spokane and refused to break with them. In the United States, it would not be uncommon for me to decline any number of offers to shake it up a little, opting for an afternoon of reading over a canoe trip with my dad or preferring to do homework instead most any other idea that might get kicked around by my friends at Gonzaga, but that has shifted now. The question is no longer whether something might fit my schedule, but how I am going to deal with my regular schedule to make this special occasion or trip possible. More bluntly and aphoristically, to just bloody do it and work out the details later. Sure, I may have to stay up a little later to finish the assigned reading or whatever, but it is not worth missing a whole freaking city over.

Really, this is no great revelation. The imperative to "live everyday as if it were your last, without regrets of missed opportunities" has finally been grasped during since my arrival in Munich, but it has taken on a great immediacy here too. I still do not know when I will die, but I do know when I will leave Europe. For the remaining two and a half months, I intend to not regret a single missed opportunity. And this is what has been so electrifying about my time here and has been a greater lesson still than the history of Germany since 1945 or all my language work. More than anything else, it is this concept that I want to take back with me and keep with me for the rest of my life.

But how? Admittedly, this is a unique time, one might not strain themselves to call it a frivolous one in spite of the classes I am taking. Those admittedly minor responsibilities I have gathered back at Gonzaga will kick in again when I return. Eventually more serious responsibilities, like family, will be mine. Through substantial gifts, especially from my grandparents, money has not been such an obstruction to my pursuits either. I will need a job someday and support myself too. It is not so easy to mold these around every passing opportunity.

For now, I think, the simple awareness of the need to take advantage when the situation presents itself is enough. Too long have I lived without it, at least in any practiced sense. The rest will be dealt with as it arises.

Considering "Le Corsaire"

The plan to become appropriately cultured that I may someday, without trepidation, move among the types of people that attract trophy spouses is proceeding admirably well, even if timely considerations of them have been slow in coming (I sit down to write this nearly one and a half weeks after taking in the performance). To follow up my first and second operas, I finally made my first ballet. It has been a long time in coming. Never gave a thought to ballet before last fall when a bought of thinking along the lines of "Wouldn't that be cool?" prompted me to try for a Dance minor and take a class in ballet without ever before seeing a performance, much less go to a high school dance, whatever those might count for. Coming on a year since being not good enough to advance to the second ballet class, I finally took in my first professional performance.

To put it all out there, without any rising action to the climax, I enjoyed it. Despite some dragging when the girls give the sultan an extended show in the second act, it was big and flashy and wonderfully fun. The sheer athleticism of the ballerinas and danseurs was something else. The speed, the delicacy, the precision, the pirouettes. Gah. Not very much what I expected either. Okay, there was much prancing about en pointe and lifts and so on, the sorts of things anyone with the slightest of idea of ballet would reasonably expect, but I did not, however, expect pirates, slave girls and sword fights. But this works, especially after the operas. Following the plot through the emotion of the voice alone can be a tricky ordeal. Following it through body language is considerably easier, especially when it amounts to: girl who has taken the heart of the pirate captain is sold to the sultan. Girl is kidnapped by the pirate captain in return. Treachery leads to the girl's return to the sultan. Pirate captain stages a daring rescue. The good are rewarded and the wicked punished.

Besides the great milestone of being my first ballet, attendance of Le Corsaire was also notable for being my first time in the Staatsoper. The two operas previous were both presented in the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz, which, by no means a poor place, really does come off looking like a community theater against the magnificence of the Staatsoper. Compare their locations. Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz is found on a round-about where several community grocery stores can be found. Staatsoper runs along Maximilian Straße where stores like Dolce & Gabanna and Louis Vuitton, the sorts of places with dedicated doormen to open the doors to customers and keep riff-raff like me out, are located. The Oper had multiple chandeliers, men to press the button of your floor in the elevator and audience members who, I am fairly certain, had their clotes personally tailored. Despite tucking my own shirt in, I somehow managed to still feel out of place. Maybe ironing it would have helped.

It goes without saying that I want to see another. There is some apprehension though. How much is left? There are only so many moves and so many combinations. Just how long can I expect to enjoy ballets until all there is left to look forward to is the particular carriage of the dancers and their ability to land with poise? My hope? Enough to keep me excited until I leave Munich and still wishing for more. Hear that the Russian National Ballet will be coming through.

Considering "Die Hochzeit des Figaro"

There is absolutely no reason I should have screwed this up again. After all, I thought I had learned my lesson at Carmen the week before, but no, once more I went ahead and attended an opera without first reading the plot. And, for an opera with a plot of Shakespearean complexity, this was a bit to the detriment of my enjoyment of The Marriage of Figaro. In comparison, even if I had not read the plot of Carmen during the intermission, I could have made my way through the fairly simple plot of love, jealousy, revenge. With The Marriage of Figaro, that was not possible. Multiple, intricate relationships and hidden agendas were the norm, and by the time they got to the disguises and mistaken identities in the final act, I was done. Again, the opera had been translated into German, so there were sections I understood, which is better than if it had remained in Italian, but totally missed the meaning of. For example, it turned out the woman in black was Figaro's mother and the man with glasses was his father (Really hard to miss when "Die Mutter? Die Mutter." is repeated several times and accompanied by pointing). No problem following that. She originally intended to marry him because he defaulted on a loan? Did not figure that out until I read the Wikipedia entry the next day. Or, take when the Countess lied to cover for the escape of the effeminate one. Could have figured that out simply through the pantomime, but I would have rather liked to know why he had to escape through the window in the first place (he was supposed to be in the military).

Not that reading the plot late was as useful as it could have been. Now I understood why the various notes and letters being passed around were so important and needed to be kept hidden, but this was, as evidenced by the above picture, a modernized production of the opera. When Figaro was not prancing in a suit, he went about in bib overalls, the Count sported jeans and a sport jacket throughout, and Susanne played her French maid outfit to the extreme. Despite my lack of experience in such operatic matters, I am fairly certain in my assumption that this is not what Mozart and Rossini originally intended. This would not be such a problem, as I normally would assume that only the costumes were updated, were it not for a woman actually playing the role of a male character. Were some of the lines changed for that role to play some new joke? I have no idea. And what was the deal with taking the Count around in a wheelbarrow? Could not afford a proper carriage and found it more stylish than a rickshaw? Merely a clever pun? So many questions remain.

Still, I do offer the cast, especially Figaro and the Countess, the greatest props for playing so big and keeping it amusing even when the words were lost on at least one particular audience member. I already mentioned it, but the revelation of Figaro's parentage, replete with the disappointment of his discovered father, the excitement of his new mother and the lawyer whose irritating jabber bridged the language barrier better than a Babelfish, was a particular high point.

Not as enjoyable as Carmen as The Marriage of Figaro relied less on emotion, good for someone who has difficulty with the language, and more on plot and lyrical cleverness, less good for me, but not enough to put me off opera. I will just have to be more careful and more prepared in going to the next one.

Thursday, November 8

Kari Practicing the Triple Jump

I want to like this picture. Really, there is nothing that I necessarily dislike about the picture or could pointedly say needs improvement except that the sky needs a little burning. There are even a number of elements I like, the use of lines especially. Moving from the top down we have fairly regular layers starting with the forest against the sky, going to the top of the chain link fence and ending at the long jump lanes. Kari's traversal of them and the unity it introduces I like too. With further consideration of lines, she is also rather nicely placed between what the two jump lines but a little off balance towards the right, thus imparting a little energy and keeping stasis from setting in. I even like the focus in that her right leg is blurred by movement while the rest of her body is caught still.

Against all those things though, this photo still lacks presence. Were it on presentation, I do not think this picture would be strong enough to give me pause between the others competing for attention. This does not bother me so much. I am still very much an amateur and certainly do not expect to be pulling off anything amazing in the near future. What does get me is that I am not sure what I need to be looking to capture to raise the next one over this picture.


It used to bother me when people merely called themselves "spiritual" rather than admitting to an association with some particular sect of Christianity (and I say Christianity rather than organized religion because the passage of my life from northern Minnesota to a Jesuit university in eastern Washington has generally kept me in closest proximity to and contact with people of that religious background). It seemed like a more socially acceptable answer than agnosticism or struck me as an excuse for not regularly attending any organized service. In my more charitable moods, when I was not suspecting the other of implied dishonesty or laziness, spirituality felt like a cop-out, an intentional vagary to avoid insulting anyone. Spirituality, to me, was the refuge of those educated enough to be aware of other religions and not hold them in seething hatred for taking grape juice instead of wine or believing that it was a symbol of Jesus' presence at the service rather than the Blood itself. They were aware of the great diversity even within the Christian tradition alone and did not want to risk causing offense by suggesting in the smallest manner that their tradition was superior, especially differences seem so insignificant.

But I write this because my views have changed. This post is to mark the evolution in my thought, as well as describe it. The more I read, the more I learn, the more I speak with other people on such things, the more I believe that it is perfectly possible to be a truly spiritual person, one who does not believe that any particular tradition exactly captures their experience of that which lies beyond the material world. Questions of religion and spirituality are big deals and should not be decided upon carelessly. If what there is does not work for you, they should be abstained from. If you cannot accept that all dualities are illusions or that all is one, bloody well stay from Buddhism in all its incarnations.

Still, though my tolerance has increased, this seems like an awfully difficult position to maintain. Now spirituality comes across to me as the religion of the academic who has not resorted to agnosticism or atheism. It is the choice of one has read their Lewis, Smith, Tillich, Chesterton and the apologists for every other faith and can not come to a decision as to which one is theirs yet they remain ensconced in the ivory tower. It pains me to write this because I do rather like the rationalism of Descartes and attendant optimism, but reason, and as important as that is to faith, can only take one so far. The experiential needs to be their as well. After every holy writing is read and discussed, religion must be dived into headfirst, too. Religion does not exist merely in the catechism or vedas or whatever other holy writings but in the mitzahs and Hajj as well.

I wrote this only a short paragraph ago, but I must reiterate it. Absolutely, I believe, it is possible to be a good spiritual person (spiritualist?) after having moving outside of the academic faith to the practical and still not finding that connection, but I keep my reservations that spirituality may too often be taken as the easy way out for those too timid to experience what the great faiths of the world have to offer.