how to begin a movie…

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Yup, that works.

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I remember the first time I saw this film and how that introductory scene sucked me in instantly. The first faint, ominous sound of the distant helicopter, perennially presaging slaughter, as we will soon realize. (My first synth, an old Roland D-50, contained just that sound and called it, yes, “Apocalypse Now.”) Willard’s mind, lost, roaming feverishly in the jungle. Morrison’s pitiless voice, singing goodbye to his beautiful friend.

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I love films that promise an open-ended journey of some kind, where the world keeps expanding along the way, becoming ever stranger and more intricate. Vast, and then vaster. That’s partly why I prefer the first of the Lord of the Rings films, before the battles really take over. That sense of warm, comfortable, self-contained Hobbiton slowly opening out into the farther reaches of the Shire. Those first disturbing brushes with the ring-wraiths, and then … Bree, the world of Men.

And then … the big country – approach of mountains, realm of elven sacred space, dwarf-land deep in the earth, wilder and more unpredictable terrain, and finally … we reach the Great River, bordering, essentially, the end of the world. The final chilling scene of Frodo and Sam on the mountain, gazing out at that end, that terrifying unknown, and knowing it is their destination to enter its very heart.

After a bunch of weeks with no time for movies, I’ve been able to fit some in recently, and oddly even this one has a scene echoing that experience, although on a far smaller scale of course.

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The previous time I’d seen The Night of the Hunter I’d been distracted by some of the melodramatic aspects and the at times cheesy 1950s-style acting. This time though I was able to let enough of that go to focus on the film’s mythological quality.

I don’t mean “good vs. evil” so much, or even “the story of love and hate” (told by the utterly deranged and murderous “preacher,” played by Robert Mitchum, with the help of his knuckles). Rather, I think the movie is trying, in part anyway, to evoke the experience of “innocence” somehow, reaching towards some sense of it. It’s the lengthy river scene that most points in this direction. There is no dialogue – just the famous expressionist cinematography carrying the two children … where? They have no idea, no destination. They have suddenly entered a strange, enormous, uninhabited world of earth and sky and stars, with no map and no plan. They only know that forward is the only way to go.

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Rivers so often function this way in stories, as the borderland between safety and danger, known and unknown. The depths of the jungle where Kurtz rules, too, is another world – no ordinary civilization holds sway there. And the eerie, mirage-like river journey that takes us there has a spiritual quality. An old track from the Aloof samples it (and the great lama Trungpa Rinpoche said much the same thing): “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way.”

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Mint Restaurant

About a year ago I discovered Mint Restaurant in Waitsfield, a lovely village in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. It’s about a 45 minute drive for me but I try and make it down whenever I can. (The drive is beautiful too.) Savitri and Iliyan are the creators, and do it all! They came to Vermont from the opposite corner of the US in just about every way (LA), and before that from Hungary and Bulgaria respectively. And they bring a love of inventive, richly and complexly flavorful, and healthy dishes inspired by cuisines from all over the world.

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(photos from the Mint website except where noted)

What makes for a truly special restaurant? I think you have to start with environment. It’s true that I’ve occasionally had great food in “hole-in-the-walls” – remembering a South Indian restaurant in South London which was a few formica tables stuck in what felt like a 1950s kitchen, harsh lighting, mostly bare white walls, but whose food was out of this world.

But an uplifting, restful, warm environent raises a meal to a whole other level. And I appreciate spaces in which all the details – materials, colors, design, lighting, music – are carefully chosen and thought through. When I step into such a room, something inside instantly relaxes and feels it is at home. I actually feel more nourished, and definitely more cheerful and peaceful, after such a meal.

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Moving on to food, Mint is special in several ways. Firstly, it is actually vegetarian! That exclamation point is there because, as someone who has been a veggie since high school, a vegetarian restaurant in and of itself is a MAJOR EVENT. At least it is here in Vermont (I believe Mint is the only such restaurant in the state). Meat-eaters take for granted that when they pick up a menu they have the choice of the whole thing. Vegetarians take for granted that when they do the same, usually at least 3/4 of it, often more, has to be filtered out immediately in order to focus on the 2 or 3 choices there will be for a main course. And for some reason these will often be fairly unimaginative, alas. So it’s such a luxury to know that literally everything is orderable. To not be a second-class citizen for a change!

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Secondly, the menu changes every week. There is one starter that is a regular feature, the fabulous “Mint salad” (baby spinach, baby arugula, snow pea sprouts, pears, toasted almonds, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and fruit juice sweetened cranberries, tossed in a mint vinaigrette), and one main course (a large bowl of curly kale steamed and braised in tamari, garlic, orange juice, fruit juice sweetened cranberries, steamed broccoli, black turtle beans, brown rice and creamy tofu sauce). Apart from these, four new starters and four new main courses appear each week. So there is always something different to try.

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Ingredients are, of course, at peak freshness, and organic and local whenever possible. But what’s best about dinner at Mint is that every dish has been created, with artistry. Nothing is taken for granted, neither flavors, textures, or colors. The dishes are just consistently delicious, often with deep, rich flavors, and beautiful to look at. Even in the case of more familiar items, there are often one or two touches that surprise me – some idea or ingredient or variety of sauce I hadn’t come across in that context.

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(photo taken by me – though I only had the idea after starting to eat, hence that half stuffed grape leaf…)

And then it’s the sheer range of styles too that’s special. Have a look at a few of their menus from week to week. Only those meat-eaters who feel they simply need to have meat at every meal would miss it at Mint. And even then, if part of that craving is textural, I would recommend checking out what Iliyan can do with tempeh, which involves part-baking (along with marination) and is really special. Or seitan for that matter.

The menu is rounded off with a few desserts – equally distinctively Mint – and an extensive selection of excellent teas. Coffee, beer, and wine are also available.

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Mint survived major flooding damage due to Hurricane Irene in 2011 despite failing to receive any compensation from their insurance company. Savitri and Iliyan reopened a year ago, on New Year’s Eve, and I’m very glad they did. I find a great meal to be such a celebration of life, bringing much good cheer.

So if you live in or visit Vermont, I do recommend stopping by. And to Mint a big thanks for all you do – joyful New Year!

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(my photo)

Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2: the extremes…

I learned this recently, Brahms’ most famous piece for piano. It dates from 1893, near the end of his life. Everybody, it seems, plays it, and there are literally many dozens of recordings on YouTube to sample. I’ve been living with the piece for a couple of months now, thinking through it.

In the process I’ll listen to another recording from time to time and have probably heard 20 or more by now. Oddly, the great majority of these I’m just not crazy about. Partly this has to do with the way the piece is heard as a whole – the role the different sections have.

For example, those 8 bars of slow-moving pianissimo chords about halfway through really seem to me to be the fulcrum of the piece, in a sense. The design is more-or-less A B C D C’ B (abbreviated) A. A, B, and C sections flow throughout with eighth notes, but those eight bars right at the center have full quarter-note chords in each hand. They are, again, pianissimo, and also bear the slowest tempo marking of the piece. They really need to be hushed, startling. And often I find this just doesn’t come through.

Quite a few pianists also tend toward an extreme with this piece tempo-wise. They either go for a faster tempo with, I feel, just a bit too much restraint, or else (more usually) they milk every … single … note…

Here’s one recording I love – from Radu Lupu:

I play this at pretty much exactly 6 minutes, which probably isn’t far from the average. But to give an idea of how great a discrepancy there can be in the interpretation of a piece, consider the fact that Wilhelm Kempff plays it at a near-breathless 4:29, while Ivo Pogorelich clocks in at 8:51. Now that’s one vast difference in view between world-class pianists. But it gets even crazier: there’s a live performance of Pogorelich’s that manages to draw the piece out to a truly symphonic 10:45!

I must admit, I don’t connect very well with Pogorelich here. I made it through each of these once, and tried to keep an open mind. But for me the soul of the piece is lost in places – its flow. The live performance especially doesn’t even sound like Brahms to me. It’s just … painful. Pogorelich is famous for unorthodoxies of various kinds, especially tempi, but this feels a little off the charts. At a couple of points I really thought he might actually just … stop for awhile. (I will try again sometime though.) On the other hand it’s quite possible to go the other way and miss a number of moments of pure exquisiteness through trying to avoid excessive rubato of that kind, as I somehow feel Kempff does.

The piece is very delicate and special, extremely beautiful. And hard to get just right. I took to it somehow and learned it quickly – some pieces just lie under the fingers and others really take their time. But for whatever reason I’m more pleased with the way I play this than with anything I’ve learned in quite awhile. I may even see if I can record it at the recital hall and if so will post.

“big brother” e-textbooks

A story in The Chronicle of Higher Education almost seems like some kind of Onion parody to me, but it’s not.

CourseSmart, a company which sells digital textbooks, has just developed a means to “track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.” Several universities are running pilots of this system next year.

“The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.”

Seriously? It used to be that things like, I don’t know, let’s call them “class participation” and “quizzes,” “papers” and “office hours,” stuff like that, were considered reasonable means for determining where a student might be having difficulty with a class…

I have trouble seeing how the amount of time (supposedly) reading and number of pages (supposedly) viewed could accurately assess such a thing. Some students read more quickly than others because they concentrate better; others might sit with a page open for half an hour because they’re actually watching a movie and only occasionally glancing at the text. Some skim through every page but without comprehension; others have greater background on the subject and are able to put the material into context in a more efficient way than the norm.

As for the number of “notes and highlights” a student makes: ?! Some people don’t make any in books, preferring the taking of notes by hand as a way to absorb and think through material. On the other hand, some students highlight half the lines on a given page in yellow and it doesn’t seem to help.

In the pilot programs, students will be allowed to opt out, and there’s nothing wrong with trying something new of course. I just can’t see this idea going anywhere. Seems like it’s moving away from where we need to be, which has to do with direct personal engagement – not “crunching data into an engagement score.”

climate change: an elemental view

Brendan Kelly, an acupuncturist and herbalist, also writes on Chinese medicine and is completing a book on climate change from this perspective. His approach demonstrates how necessary an elemental/energetic view is in confronting the multi-faceted challenges we face.

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Our culture looks to science-technology to solve more-or-less everything, but the very expectations and attitudes we bring to problem-solving can also contribute to the mess. What Chinese medicine brings is an ancient and deep way of seeing, one which recognizes complete interdependence at all levels of our experience, inner and outer. So normally we think: climate, ah, “outer,” and ask technology to fix all such “external” problems. Isolate something we can improve, and pretty much ignore everything else.

The trouble is that this “everything else” is always, inherently, inseparable from what we’ve extracted from it, and there’s nothing we can do about that. So solving deep-rooted problems means solving them, well, deep-rootedly, and with big vision.

Western medicine, too, has a strong reductionist tendency. It thinks in terms of disease – analyzing down to symptoms deemed treatable (often succeeding in doing so very powerfully). Chinese medicine on the other hand always sees through the lens of health, health as an ever-fluctuating harmony subject to various kinds of imbalance. The body has an innate kind of intelligence, and so do ecosystems. They are always seeking balance, and our intentions and actions can either help or hinder this process.

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So generally speaking Western medicine treats conditions discretely, whereas the Chinese approach is to look for the deeper level of energetic or elemental imbalance which is the true origin. It thus is always relating to causes and conditions as well as symptoms, and treating in such a way as to avoid the creation of further imbalances in the future (the “side effects” that pretty much inherently bedevil Western-style pharmacology).

Brendan’s approach in this article is to look at climate change as a symptom of our collective body in the same way he looks at symptoms of the individual body in the clinic. One of the things he sees, on multiple levels, is heightened yang energy and a depletion of yin. We are overheated internally – individually and collectively – and now our earth too is quite literally overheating.

We value speed, power, novelty, and frenetic activity. We devalue simplicity, stillness, nourishment, contemplation and openness. Our minds and bodies are frantically multitasking and all the media we are immersed in has made it much harder to contact space in our lives.

In Chinese thought when a situation is out of balance too far and for too long there comes a point when it begins to right itself, one way or another. Our choice is whether that way will be directed by us, or imposed upon us.

The aspect here that interests me the most is the understanding that in attempting to reverse our course we cannot rely on the same basic energetic approach that got us here in the first place. We haven’t learned this lesson, however. We still think cleverer technology – one magic bullet after another – can do it all for us, that we won’t have to change our basic orientation to the physical world, the elements, ourselves, each other. But we will. Among other things, we’re really, truly, going to have to learn how to sloooooow … dowwwnnnn…

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the humanities make us human

Over a long period of time now, without even particularly realizing it, our culture has been increasingly devaluing the practice and study of the humanities. Whenever the President gets up and talks about education, the areas he mentions which need greater funding and promotion are always specifically “science and technology.” These areas do, it goes without saying, need sufficient support.

But what we’ve forgotten is that it is in fact the humanities which give value in the first place to everything else, very much including science and technology. The humanities contain the purviews, set the parameters, point to what is needed – and what is not. What is sane and nourishing, and what is not.

Recently I came across Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which paints a sad picture of the state of things now and even more so of the direction everything is going. Her book was written as an urgent warning call, and it’s hard to argue with its basic view.

Our dilemma is that a secular culture still needs a source and foundation of values, of wisdom, and science and technology simply can’t provide these. It is the humanities and the arts which do so.

The study of language, philosophy, and religion teaches us how to think clearly and how to assess what is important, and why.

History is among other things a vast set of teachings on the million ways human beings can deceive themselves and cause unspeakable harm, as well as on how progress too arises in the world.

Literature and the arts open the mind and heart; generate greater empathy and understanding of other people and ourselves; teach us how to see more expansively and profoundly; bring all kinds of beauty and new human possibility into the world; and also … make everything else easier to bear.

But as Nussbaum shows, all over the world we are to varying degrees devaluing these the very sources of value itself. In favor of measurable economic growth, pure instrumentality, efficiency.

In so doing we’re losing our way and losing our soul.

Khandro Rinpoche: last excerpts

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A common thing is that, where we are in buddhism, when we talk about non-duality we have a roomful of people. You talk about something else, fantastic as, you know … oh “the dot” or something like that – you can just come up with anything [laughter]. If you want to really get many people you say “the blazing dot” [laughter] ….

But then if you say “ethics,” two people turn up [laughter]. But it reflects a lot about ourselves…. That usually is not because you don’t like ethics. Everyone likes it, everyone knows it’s important. But we don’t cultivate that. Because it talks about training yourself.

…All the great teachers from our generation, if you look into their lives and say “how come they were able to do it, how come they’re so enlightened, how come their bodhisattva activities are able to benefit so many sentient beings? What is it that we don’t do?” And the main thing is: there is no discrepancy between their view and action. In ourselves, it is there. View: there’s not much of a problem, everyone has quite profound views. But in terms of actions that would enrich your life, to be able to personify that view, that we don’t do. …

For example, living with these great teachers, their one instruction to us was: the door of the house should never be closed, to anyone. My father his Holiness’s principle in life has been: never to say no. To anyone. And so: a sense of opening up to anyone, any moment, whatever way you can be helpful. So when you say: my philosophy, my dharma teaches me to be kind, [then] … period, no more arguing about that.

…If this is dharma, then yes I need to practice genuine kindness, and whatever I can say or do that can be of best use at this moment, then I will do it. No strategy, no planning. Flexible, pliable, and very very much present, at every moment. So that it can evolve as best as it can be taken advantage of by the other person, so that it can benefit the other person.