Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Truth Whispers

As I've mentioned before, I tend to surround myself with music at just about every waking moment. In the car, while I'm working, while I'm exercising, and so forth. If I'm doing anything that doesn't involve listening carefully to someone speaking (such as while watching a film, receiving instruction during class, etc.) then I tend to have music playing. Sometimes this is to provide a sort of background noise of familiarity to mask out more chaotic sounds: such is the case in my office, right now. My cube-mate, a salesperson who works from our home office every couple of weeks but is otherwise typically working from his home in North Carolina or is on the road somewhere, is notorious for a) talking on the phone continuously while b) using an astonishingly loud speaking voice. Headphones and loud music enable me to almost completely block him out and to get work done. Other times it's just to provide a distraction that helps pass the time while I'm doing other things: driving, working out, etc. This morning I realized that sometimes this distraction can really be a detriment, though.

I'm trying my best to get myself back on a reasonable gym regimen. I used to hit the gym at least 3 or 4 times a week, heading straight there when the kids went to school and working out for about an hour before showering and heading to my office. However, when I was out of work this summer I kind of fell out of my more strict gym routine, and once I began working again and Christine started substitute teaching my gym attendance fell off to maybe once or twice a week, tops. some weeks I've been unable to go at all, owing as much to native lack of motivation as to lack of opportunity. So I realized last week I needed to kick myself in the ass and just start going 2 times a week, then up it to 3 or 4 times a week once I get back in the habit.

So, this morning I headed over at about a quarter past seven or so. Once i arrived in the parking lot, I began to dig through my gym bag, grabbing my membership card out of my wallet and pulling together the various parts of my iPod so I could get my music going. However, I quickly realized I'd screwed up and forgotten to put my headphones back in my car. So, no headphones, and therefore no music.

Ugh. Half an hour on an elliptical runner with no music. I felt a stir of dread in my chest. Oh well, nothing to be done at this point, so i headed on inside, dropped my stuff at the locker room, and hit a machine that was poistioned directly below one of the gym's PA speakers, ensuring that I'd at least have music of some volume to listen to while doing cardio. All in all, it wasn't so bad.

Then I moved onto stretching -- a big part of my exercise regimen for the past two years has been 15-20 minutes of stretching 4-5 mornings each week in order to increase my flexibility and it's paid off tremendously. I can kick comfortable over my head and rarely get strained muscles in my legs or hips anymore, so keeping up the stretching routine is important. But stretching without music is borrrrrrring. But, again, I just sort of plodded through it.

Now, this left me with about 20 minutes of time to fill in before I had to hit the showers. I used to spend this time on doing weights, but as my training has become more advanced and demanding in the past year I've instead used it for additional time working on forms or one-steps. Usually this is when I most crave music, as I can use the music as a sort of pacing mechanism, ensuring that I maintain a certain rhythm when performing forms. But today it was just me in an echo-ey studio, with the sound of standard health club dance music seeping through the glass walls. At first I was a bit distracted by this: the sound wasn't clear enough to really identify easily, so part of my brain kept trying to figure out what song was playing, sort of the way your mind automatically will try to piece together half-heard conversations when you're walking through a crowded store. But after a bit I began to just filter the sound out altogether.

And then, something fairly unexpected happened. I realized, quickly, while working on forms, that I was paying far more attention to the details of my form, to the finer poitns of movement: hand and foot placement, the angle at which I had my hips turned, my breathing, and so forth. I suppose this shouldn't be too much of a shock, really: I mean, I know that listening to music while doing things that demand attention and focus, like forms, will have something of a negative effect. but I just hadn't realized how much of my attention was being sapped away by a little background noise. I was so much more able to critique my own performance, to judge where my strengths and weaknesses in my pyang ahn o dan, chil sung ill rho, and bassai were and to adjust, compensate, and improve on the fly.

It reminded me of something I once heard -- I'm not really sure where, but I'm sure it came up in a conversation I had years ago, long before I began training in tang soo do. The gist of it was that one of the ways you can tell that someone isn't telling you the whole truth is they tend to yell more. The idea is that people know when they're not telling you the whole truth, and they know that if they don't bowl you over a bit you might start asking too many questions, so they use force and volume to drive their point in. Conversely, people who are telling the truth and who are confident in the rightness of their words or ideas whisper. The idea would be that the power of truth ensures that it will be heard and believed, but the irony is that liars tend to drown it out with volume. Thus, people who want to glimpse truth need to learn to listen, carefully, to small things, while learning to ignore all the racket of lies and half-truths around them.

This is a pretty big concept, I think, something that applies to many aspects of our lives: obvious "big" things like the news media, advertising, religion, and such as well as less obvious things, like the voices we use when we speak with ourselves. We can sometimes expend so much effort drowning ourselves in stimulation and distraction that we simply are unable to hear the voices in our hearts, telling us simple truths. I think sometimes we do this on purpose, intentionally drenching ourselves in stimulation so we can avoid facing facts we'd rather not deal with, but sometimes we can just get so used to the noise and racket that we forget that sometime all we need to do is stop, take a deep breath, and listen to what our minds are saying, quietly, to us.

We know, inside, the truth, or at least what we know of truth, and sometimes we just need to stop for a minute and listen to really hear it. Whether we want to know it or not.

Mood: A bit harried (lots to do this week, and I'm attending my first trade show next week, so there's stress too...)
Now Playing: Nothing

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tool Show, Feeling Beat

Wow, I'm beat. My friend Pennie and I hit the Tool show at the Frank Erwin Center last night -- first concert I've been to in a while. Definitely the loudest I've been to in years. Got in a bit after midnight, had a somewhat crumby night sleep, and made it to the office this morning by 8:00. I think it's gonna be a long day.

Anyhow, the show was great, if a bit different from any other concert I've attended before. I've never seen Tool live but I'd always heard they put on an amazing show, although the band members aren't particularly animated. I'd say that statement sums the show up, although it's both something of an overstatement and an understatement.

The show was really very, very good. The band played flawlessly, and the sound quality was actually pretty darn good for an arena -- damn loud, but only overwhelming at a few moments -- and the light and video design was spectacular. Six video screens in an array around the stage, a very large projection screen above the stage, and several elaborate articulated lighting rigs as well. Here are a few shots to give you an idea of the view from where I sat/stood:

We were seated directly across from the stage, maybe 15-20 feet above stage level -- perfect seats for this kind of show, in my opinion. The entire stage design was about big visual impact -- lots of lighting effects, fog, interesting/bizarre visual imagery, and so forth. My crapola camera phone wasn't up to the task of capturing any pics that showed the video screens with any clarity, but I think you get the idea.

Anyway, musically the show was pretty terrific. As I said Tool played flawlessly, faithfully and meticulously reproducing the sound and feel of their recorded music. A few songs were extended and reworked slightly, with additional solos and jam sections worked well -- mostly: they did make the really irritating choice of having about 6 minutes of extra drum-solo garbage with a guest drummer jammed into the second half of "Lateralus." That's my favorite Tool song, and the drum solo nonsense didn't do anything to improve it. Quite the opposite if anything. Oh well, what can you do? It might have worked better if the guest drummer (Terry Bozzio) had been properly miked so we could actually hear what he was doing. Overall, a dead spot.

Visually the show was mind-blowing. the video imagery that accompanied the songs was programmed and sequenced extremely well, perfectly pacing the changes in the music. Lighting was moody and complex, with fog and laser-style lighting used to excellent effect on many occasions. So, lots to look at and see.

Which is, well, a good thing, because while they may be amazing musicians Tool doesn't seem to know/care about being live entertainers. The lighting and video do all the entertaining for them -- the band mostly acts like a live soundtrack, barely even registering as individuals once they begin playing. They take the stage, take their places evenly distributed in a nice array, and play. They don't interact with each other at all, they don't move around (even Maynard hardly moved from his spot, rarely -- if at all -- engaging in any of the theatrics typical of singers). Almost no dialog with the audience aside from an admonition to not get too drunk too early as "we have a lot of stuff to get through tonight."

Overall, I understand the reason for this: these guys play some very intricate stuff. There aren't a lot of opportunities for the sort of strutting and mugging that most rock bands engage in, and if they were hopping around and goofing off chances are they'd screw up the songs. But I do think it was odd that Maynard would just sort of stand there and tap his foot while gesturing toward the other band members during extended instrumental sections. I don't know if he's got serious stage fright or just doesn't like to interact with audiences or what, but he kept such a distance from the crowd and was so overshadowed by the lighting/video/stage design that he might as well have been singing from offstage.

And this distant quality that the band had, coupled with the spectacular attention to detail in the performance and the incredibly saturated video/lighting design really created an odd effect: I felt like I was at the greatest laser show ever, not at a concert. The show as a whole didn't have a sense of "live-ness" at all. Little spontaneity, only a few brief moments of interaction with the crowd, and visual elements that seemed specifically designed to overshadow, dwarf, even make secondary, the human beings on-stage actually playing the music.

Now, this may be by design -- a lot of musicians are faced with the rather daunting dilemma of not being overly fond of playing front of large crowds but also having to do so for business reasons: choosing to let the lighting do the "large scale" entertaining while you plug away at delivering top quality music is a perfectly valid choice that at least attempts to give the audience what they've paid for. But it was easily the chilliest emotional response I've ever had to a live performance before.

Most acts try to at least communicate with their audience a bit, telling a few jokes, making a few comments about the town or current events, or otherwise attempting to acknowledge the audience and make them feel more a part of the performance. Some acts truly excel at this, with the charisma of the musicians somehow making the folks in the back row feel like they're 3 feet from the stage. Bono/U2 and Bruce Springsteen are, in my opinion, the epitome of this -- I've seen them both multiple times, in various sizes of venues, with both good seats and crap seats, and have always been utterly drawn in, emotionally, to the show. There was almost no effort whatsoever on the part of Tool to do this. In terms of feeling any sense of connection to the performers on-stage, this was roughly the equivalent of watching a fairly good concert video. Only without any close-ups.

And then there was the set list. A good set -- about 1:45 of music -- but I think we got shortchanged. By my recollection we got the following:

Forty-Six and 2
Rosetta Stoned (but no Lost Keys/Blame Hoffman)
Wings for Marie/10,000 Days

We also had some extended interlude bits -- instrumental noodling or pure sequenced synth stuff to give the band a few minutes to get some water and stretch out before diving into the next song. But a brief look around the web shows that many other set lists featured all of these songs along with "Right in Two," or "Aenema" (another personal fave), even the occasional inclusions of "Opiate" or "Swamp Song," and also included the "Lost Keys/Blame Hoffman" intro to "Rosetta Stoned." Any of these would have been an amazing addition to the show.

Add to this the fact that once they finished up "Vicarious" Maynard basically waved for about 15 seconds, chucked his water bottles into the audience one at a time, and then walked off-stage about 30-45 seconds before the rest of the band (who at least stood around and waved for a while, although an encore would have been nicer...), and the only impression I get is that a certain lead singer is jut not all that into doing this live performance thing anymore, or is just not that into this band anymore. One thing is certain: he couldn't wait to get this thing done with so he could move along.

So, while I have some mixed feelings about the show overall, I'm really glad I went. Terrific music, great lighting, decent sound design for an arena show, and a mostly A+ experience, if an oddly uninvolving one, emotionally. I'd definitely see them, again, although I'd adjust my expectations a bit -- their live performance style is atypical, I'd say, but they definitely work to create an amazing experience on the whole. But I don't know -- I'm getting the distinct feeling that it may be a long time before I get to see Tool live again.

If ever. The behavior of the band, or more specifically of Maynard, throughout the evening, really seemed to indicate that he's pretty much over this whole thing -- the songs, the other guys in the band, the audiences, the whole enchilada. This is made even more apparent by the fact that this was the first night back on tour after a multi-month break. It's not really a big stretch to expect that they would seem invigorated and recharged -- instead, they seemed polished, clean, flawless, and bored.

Some more pics:

During "Flood," (I think):
During "Wings for Marie/10,000 Days":
During "Lateralus":
End of show:
Mood: Tired, a bit harried (heading out of town for Thanksgiving week tomorrow -- driving from Texas to North Carolina)
Now Playing: Seal, "System"

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Simmerin' Down, Looking Ahead

Halloween has passed, the Hootenanny was a smashing success, and now I can finally settle down and relax a bit for the first time in what seems like months. Seriously. I don't think I've had a weekend or weeknight since my 3rd gup test (back on September 22nd) where I just got to chill out and relax. Actually that extends to several weeks prior to my test, since I was spending all my free time in the few weeks prior to the test getting myself ready.

So, what's that? 3+ months of busy business. Damn. No wonder I feel so shot this week.

So, this weekend I finally have a couple of days with nothing that NEEDS doing. And what do I do? I volunteer to work as a ring coordinator at a Tang Soo Do tournament that is being held by one of the dojangs in my area, as a favor to my instructor.

Now, this may not sound like "taking a day off and relaxing" to most folks, but in my terms it's going easy on myself, as I've chosen not to actually compete in this tournament, just to help keep things running smoothly. I know myself, and I know that if I'd decided to compete I would have killed myself the last few weeks trying to prepare my current "highest level" form, bassai, for competition. I take forms very seriously, and I know that I'm incapable of approaching a tournament performance of a form with anything less than total commitment to preparation. Piling tournament preparation in on top of the final stages of Halloween party prep would have been disastrous.

So, in those terms, just taking a day to go and help coordinate a tournament and hang with friends while they compete is taking it easy! I think it will be fun, and chances are it will be a pretty small tournament and will end fairly early anyhow. And this way I'm actively supporting and participating in organization events without killing myself in the process, which I'd have to say is something of a win/win.

As for right now, I'm kind of stuck at home. Miranda's got a cold or bad allergies or something, and Christine had to do a half-day of substitute teaching, so I had to stick around the house this morning and keep an eye on Miranda until her Mom can swing back and pick her up around 11:30 or so. Not a big deal, really -- I can do work email from home, so I'm not a total waste this AM. Unfortunately I don't have access to my design and layout software so I can't get any real honest-to-goodness WORK done, but I should be able to get a bunch accomplished once I get into the office later today. So, for now, I do email. And blog.


So, now that things are back to a manageable level of standard day-to-day insanity, I've finally been able to really start focusing back in on my training and evaluating my progress on my new 3rg gup level techniques. Compared with some previous gup level training transitions, this one doesn't feel as though it is as heavy on curriculum, at least at first. One new hyung (bassai), a few new ho sin sul (wrist and hand grab defense techniques -- 2 "one hand from the side" grabs, using a natural and an unnatural grip, and 2 "both hands grabbed from the back"), a few new il soo sik dae ryun (one step sparring techniques -- numbers 15-18, though I'm pretty sure I only need to know 15 and 16 for my next test...). Plus I'm finally beginning to learn jump spin kicks "for real," meaning that whereas I previously was encourage to give them a try and see how well I could do them when the senior students were training, they are now a required part of my training time in class.

So, progress so far is pretty solid, I'd say. Working on bassai has been a challenge, to say the least. This is a tough and complicated form, gorgeous and fascinating to perform but not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Usually I can get a form memorized (i.e. I know and can perform all the movements in the sequence accurately, if not well) in a week or so, but with bassai it took nearly 3 weeks. Partly this was due to just being over-committed and not having enough time to put in extra time in the dojang and the gym to pin it down, but partly it's simply because it's a complicated form. It took me longer to get all of the basic movements locked into memory than any form previously. But I've been working it pretty regularly and solidly for about 2 weeks now and it's really coming along. I wouldn't call it competition-ready or anything, but I know it well enough to continue working on it.

The wrist grab techniques are also going well, although the two-from-the-back grabs are frustrating -- there's one where I have to sort of pinwheel my arms while turning around where I just can't seem to figure out the right time to transition my grip. Still, it's coming along and isn't presenting any challenges that can't be solved with guidance, repetition, and patience. More or less the same situation I face with my new one-steps: 15 and 16 are a bit complex, but I'm getting them down, and 17 and 18 are presenting some problems with hand placement and whatnot, but nothing I don't feel won't resolve itself with time and attention.

Which leaves the jump spin kicks, which are proving to be a source of much frustration.

Some of them I can do fairly easily, if not with anything resembling style or grace, but I have some serious issues with almost any of the kicks that require me to kick with my left leg while pushing off of the ground with my right. While my right leg kicks tend to actually get me pretty far off the ground, for some reason I am very gun-shy about jumping with my right leg and tend to rarely get more than a few inches of air when doing left-leg jump spin techniques. A big part of it comes from the ongoing referred pain problems I have on that side -- nothing nearly as bad as it was this time last year, but still I have to deal with pain emanating down the inside of my right thigh on a pretty constant basis. I think this pain has an annoying side effect of making me a bit over-aware of potential injury to that leg, and as a result I am prone to over-thinking and hesitating when using techniques that put a lot of pressure on it. This will be something of an ongoing issue, I'm afraid, and something I will probably have to deal with at length over the coming year or so.

One other unexpected challenge I've encountered with my kicks, though, is a frustrating sense of lack of control when performing them with a partner. One thing I've always been good at is maintaining a safe distance when performing techniques with partners. I've got a really good feel for where my hands and feet are in proximity to my partners body, and as a result I tend to just sort of "know" when I'm close but not quite touching them. So, as a result, I've always been able to get my kicks and punches within 3-4 inches of my partners face without hitting them with almost no real difficulty.

But with jump spin kicks this is not the case -- I don't feel any of the sense of control and instinctive understanding of where my hands and feet (feet especially!) are when I've both spun around AND jumped into the air, and as a result I'm often either a) coming dangerously close to kicking my partners in the head or face or b) throwing the technique poorly due to a sense of fear that I will do a).

Happily for everyone involved I haven't actually kicked anyone (yet). I'm fairly good at knowing that I'm too close when I begin to throw the kick and can pull it back in time, blowing the technique but also not hurting anyone. All in all, the better outcome. And last ngiht I felt I made some very good progress on maintaining safe distance from my partner while also managing to fumble my way through the techniques with something approaching adequacy. But of all the things I've learned since testing for 3rd gup I can tell that the jump spin kicks will present the largest ongoing challenge in the next stages of my training.

Hard stuff. But fun. And after all, as Master Reilly is apt to say,"Tang Soo Do isn't supposed to be easy. If it was easy, we'd call it ... Tae Kwan Do!"


Mood: Antsy
Now Playing: Beethoven, "The Complete Piano Sonatas"