Friday, June 24, 2011

Music & Technology

Lately, I've been living in a world of music. Awhile back, there was a great Neil Young concert at Massey Hall. In a couple of weeks we take in The Black Keys. And tonight – opening night of the Toronto Jazz Festival – the Queen herself, Aretha Franklin, is delivering a free concert to the masses on an outdoor stage. Yes, there's music everywhere. But it's not primarily the live acts that have me feeling music in my bones. What's done that is a couple of pieces of wondrous technology that has brought new life to the collection of vinyl albums I started when I was a kid way back in the mid-sixties.

They are: the iPod and the EZ Vinyl Converter turntable and software. Last Christmas I received the perfect kind of gift: something I really wanted, but felt it would be indulgent to get for myself: a massive, 160 gb iPod classic. I really wanted one because I figure that it will hold the entire content of my approximately 1,200 vinyl albums! With room to spare!

Now I've hoarded vinyl lps since I first bought The Supremes Greatest Hits and Up Pops Ramsey way back in junior high school. Those are the very first albums I ever put down money for, the first with my big brother, Rhett, and the second all by myself, after my father's introduction to Ramsey Lewis's instrumental, pop-jazz version of Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" generated a taste for more. I'd been buying 45rpm singles for years – James Brown, Kool & the Gang, the Isley brothers…, but buying albums felt way more serious, and from the start, my albums were my treasures. Other early purchases were Coltrane's My Favorite Things, a remembered favorite from among my parents' albums, that I'd used to put on when I was going to bed, so I'd fall asleep to it; Otis Redding's Dock of the Bay, The World of Jazz, a 'various artists' compilation that first introduced me to a later favorite, Horace Silver, and the breakout Blood, Sweat & Tears album that I heard for the first time while hanging out at Sam Goody's in downtown New York.. Albums were even more valuable to me than books, which after reading, I was glad to leave behind at that early stage in my life.

Over the years, as I went away to prep school, then college, then did a series of jumps from city to city, I always carried my lps with me, or had someone hold then send them to me once I got settled. And my tastes were expanding all the while, as new friends introduced their favorites and I made discoveries in second hand record shops.

I stopped buying new music for a few years when vinyl made it's big disappearance in the early seventies, but continued to fill gaps in my collection at garage sales and occasionally when friends gave up on their turntables for cassettes and then cds.

Vinyl not only takes up a fair amount of space, but it's heavy as hell, and once I got above the 500 album mark, moving the stuff was enough to have me reconsider any casual relocations. So the idea of fitting all that music on one tiny, lightweight digital device is still a mind-boggler for me. The EZ Vinyl Converter provided the last piece. Sure, there'd been ways for a number of years that I might have converted my collection, but they were too complex, elaborate or low quality for me to ever bother with. The converter is simply a turntable that plugs into a USB port on my laptop. It sends the music directly into iTunes, and from there it's one drag away from my iPod.

So, the marvel that I've been experiencing these last weeks is to be playing music while at work, while in the car, while riding my bike, while out of town, while walking, shopping, even while sleeping, that I've never, ever in my life heard outside of my living room or bedroom. Much of this is music that still can't be found on iTunes and other sites. And it's only been available to me when I've been willing to slip the album from it's alphabetically arranged shelf, clean it (yes, I eventually learned that if I didn't take care of the vinyl, the sound quality would go fast), and play it in 15-20 minute segments, after which, if I wanted more, I had to repeat those actions. No, that's not much of a barrier – it used to not be a barrier at all. But now, I push one button and the iPod will shuffle and play the music endlessly, like my own personal radio station, playing only the music I love!

The only constraint I face is that the music can only be converted in real time. I have to play the albums to record them. But that's a beauty of a constraint. So lately, while house-work, manuscript editing, socializing and even blogging get shoved aside, I'm sitting happily in the living room, pulling albums off of shelves and recording them. I've probably recorded close to a hundred, so far. Along with the several dozens of cds, which I loaded in no time at all, the accumulated kilobites barely registers on my iPod. I have hundreds and hundreds of albums to go.

I'm in Heaven!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Marijuana, Vipassana and Landmark

Various paths to what we call Enlightenment? Maybe so? Pathways to altered states certainly. Potentially, to clearings, to openings and to shifts. I’ve entered onto all these paths and others. I’ve benefitted from them all, if benefit means the gaining of insight, of instructive looks from different perspectives that contribute to understanding.

Marijuana is my ‘mother drug’ to borrow a phrase that’s bounced around in 12-step programs. It’s the substance I encountered relatively early in life that I’ve at times used as a kind of life line, that has raised me out of a narrow, smothered sense of limited self, that pulled me into seeing previously unseen possibilities for myself, for how I might approach the world, deal with problems, reach for what I felt I wanted and needed. I realize that this is a view generally rejected by our society, that’s incompatible with a pervasive mindset in which things like drugs must be viewed as either good or bad, not as both. I’m a marijuana addict. It’s a substance that has ‘taken me over’ for long stretches of my life, that has blocked potential, turned me inward, provided an unhelpful and too easy escape from challenging realities at times. But, it has also been the boon, the blessing, the gift I touch on above, regardless of the fact that I’ve abused it so extravagantly.

Our blessings are our curses, I’ve come to believe. Our gifts are similarly our traps. But curses and traps are generated by our relationship with things – they don’t lie in the thing itself, be that hurricane, poison or false and seductive notion.
Vipassana is the Buddhist meditation practice I was introduced to over eight years ago. Far fewer words well up as I contemplate this practice. Which is appropriate, as Vipassana is such a silent, wordless, non-intellectual gift. Vipassana is a practice that produces a kind of stillness, and simultaneously, a profound energy. It produces clearing, opening, and a paradoxical kind of freedom. Paradoxical in that I can’t explain it, in that it takes everything away, then leaves even more behind, in that it makes no demands whatsoever and involves no imperatives to action – a gift that can leave one feeling profoundly naked in a way. (And, by the way – naked is good!)

Landmark is a corporation that teaches the pathways to freedom. It too is paradoxical, in that it never quite transcends its ‘corporateness’, yet, it exists as a constant invitation, even a challenge, a demand, that you transcend. Landmark is Vipassana intellectualized, then de-intellectualized; it is Vipassana de-mystified, then re-mystified.

While Vipassana hardly uses words at all, Landmark takes you forward with a very concrete and rigid vocabulary, but uses it to break through the illusion of language. And while marijuana invades the brain chemically, temporarily breaking down some otherwise rigid conceptual walls, Landmark works via a penetration of words and concepts that undermines the labyrinth of words and concepts our everyday lives trap us in.

Why this essay? I don’t precisely know. Except that: I’ve determined to once again put marijuana aside. I’m three weeks into an amazing clearing, which followed a kind of farewell binge, which was amazing, beautiful and wondrous in itself. I’ll miss the spark of what a tiny curl of smoke can do, the conceptual explosion of creative insight that can result. It’s not true that the brilliance we come into when we’re high is all illusory and false. It’s just that we can no longer see it when we’re sober again, just as the elaborate figures we see in passing clouds really do exist – it’s only that they exist in our minds, not in the clouds themselves.

And, I’ve just begun a Landmark seminar, which will serve as a context for my living these next three months. There too, the common perceptions break down. It isn’t brain-washing or delusional thinking that’s produced by Landmark and other New Ageist, transformative workshops. The distinctions, the tools, the technology is very real, it’s just that – as any of its trainers will tell you – it’s not True. But it’s invaluable and powerful to imagine yourself an eagle from time to time, and to soar free, even if you aren’t one.

As for Vipassana...well, it’s the bedrock I’m re-turning to. When all is said and done, I am a creature in a moment in time, a fragment of this interlocking, galactic reality. And what is more amazing than that? No words, no herbs, no concepts needed. Not even being is needed – it simply is.