Friday, August 29, 2014

Thought of the Day, August 29, 2014: Oscar Wilde on Happiness

“With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?”

— Oscar Wilde

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thought of the Day, August 28, 2014: Nic Pizzolatto on "Bad Men"

"Regarding bad men being necessary to stop the other bad men, that’s probably more true than I’d like it to be, but the point exists outside of gender: You need physically capable, courageous, and potentially violent people to deal with the violent, dangerous people."

— Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Dark and Stormy: A Drink for Summer's End

Looking through my cupboards a while back, I discovered I had a half-full bottle (or was it half empty) of Myer's Dark Rum. I'd forgotten it was there, so it was like a mini-Christmas surprise.

I wanted to make something other than the standard, boring Rum & Cola, even though those are delicious. I decided to try something new. Since I love a good ginger beer, I opted for a Dark & Stormy.

I headed across the street to my local Whole Foods and picked-up a Reed's Ginger Beer, one of the true princes among soft drinks. I got home, turned on some bossa nova (Myer's is a Jamaican rum, so reggae or ska would have arguably been more appropriate, but hey... blame it on the bossa nova!), and proceeded to make my concoction. I filled a highball glass with a bunch of ice, added a generous 2 oz. shot of rum, poured in the ginger beer, and topped with a big squeeze of lime.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes: Quiller

There are two extremes of espionage fiction. On one hand, there is the glamorous, exciting, yet totally unrealistic world of Ian Fleming and James Bond. On the other, there is the believable, realistic, but occasionally dull realm of John LeCarré. Straddling the middle is Adam Hall (pen name for Elleston Trevor) and his flawed, vaguely neurotic spy Quiller.

Quiller a fascinating character. His creator describes him as "In his forties, he is as fit as an alley cat and his whole makeup is tense, edgy and bitten-eared." Unlike James Bond, he doesn't drink or smoke, nor does he engage in relentless womanizing. In fact, Quiller is quite respectful of women. In the words of Adam Hall...

Nor is he macho, and this may explain why more than half the people who write me are women. In Murmansk, where Liz is applying Tiger Balm to our bruised and bloodied espion, she asks him if he doesn't find it irksome to have his wounds licked for him by a mere woman. He scarcely understands her. "Where else would a man go, but to the earth mother?"
And while Quiller had few possessions and little wealth, anything he had was to go to a shelter for battered women should he die on a mission. This was a cause close to the author's heart as well. According to Elleston Trevor's obitituary, "Late in life he took up the cause of battered women, campaigned vigorously for that, and was generous with money."

Quiller hardly every uses a gun, preferring to use his wits or martial arts skills. (The author of the series was well-versed in both Shotokan Karate and Aikido.) Quiller is also the type of individual who relies on herbs and traditional Asian massage to deal with injury and illness. At one point he even mentions he once traveled to Tibet to meditate.

Often referring to himself as a ferret, Quiller had an affinity for animals. To again quote Adam Hall...
Quiller is at home with wild animals. He feels a brother to them and knows their ways, their fears. What he calls "mission feel"— the sixth sense of the working executive — is closely related to the instincts of the animal. "Mission feel is never wrong," he says. "It's the instinct we develop as we go forward into the dark like an old fox sniffing the wind and catching the scent of things it has smelled before and learned to distrust. The forefoot is sensitive, poised and held still above the patch of unknown ground where the next flicker of a nerve can spring a trap."
Quiller seems to have a particular fondness for cats. (So do I, though in my case "particular fondness' is a massive understatement.) In one of the novels, he pauses in the middle of a mission to feed a stray kitten. Quiller contemplates adopting the kitten and taking it back to England. However, he realized that having a cat would spell the end of his spying career, as he would just want to stay home with the kitty. It's a melancholy moment, and one that shows the depths of Quiller's character.

So with Quiller you essentially have a tough, capable yet sensitive secret agent with some rather hippy-trippy, New Age tendencies. And that's exactly what makes him such an inspirational character to me. By far, he is the literary series spy I most relate to. I am way more Quiller-like than Bond-like.

A word of advice: It's best to read at least two or three of the books before passing judgement on the series. Hall has a very distinctive writing style, and the novels have a stream-of-consciousness quality that takes getting used to. Many people don't take to them at first, but come to love them.

You can learn more about this great series here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Self-Hypnosis and Zen Breathing

My mom taught me many valuable things (such as standing up for myself, which helped save me from a would-be child molester). One of the the particularly useful skills she taught me when I was a child was self-hypnosis. 

It may sound like I'm about to veer into Derek Flint territory, but there isn't anything particularly weird or mysterious about simple self-hypnosis, at least not the method I use. 

Here are the basics:

  1. Lie down or sit comfortably.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Begin concentrating on your toes. Think about them. Then imagine them falling asleep. almost as if they are disconnecting from the rest of your body.
  4. Once you are done with your toes, move on to your feet, your legs, etc.

That's it. Often, you are either deeply relaxed or asleep before you ever make it to your face and head.

I've found self-hypnosis particularly useful on nights I couldn't get to sleep and on long airplane trips.

Where did my mom pick up this offbeat skill? I don't really know. She was an accomplished nurse, and accumulated all sorts of medical knowledge over the years. Self-hypnosis was probably just one of those things she picked up.

Zen breathing is sort of a cousin of self-hypnosis. It's also a rather fancy way of simply referring to the practice counting your breaths. 

I was introduced to the concept in the works of Robert Aitken.  Aitken (1917 - 2010) was the master of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society he founded in Honolulu in 1959. He advocated the counting of breaths to people who were new to sesshin, or intense Zen meditation.
If you are counting your breaths, then count "one" for the inhalation, "two" for the exhalation and so on but let the count do the counting.  In other words, let that point one count one, let that point two count two, let that point three count three and so on up to ten and then repeat.  It's like the musician seeks to let the music play the music but he or she must practice a long time before that can happen.  So you must practice letting the count do the counting.
Let me be honest: I don't meditate as much as I should, and I don't use the exact breath count method Aitken recommends. However, I do find the basic principle useful.

Meditating with a Daruma Cat.
Instead of counting to 10, I use a simple "one-two" method: Inhale ("one"), exhale ("two"), repeat. Since I'm, like, angry at numbers, this system works better for me, as—unlike Nigel Tufnel's amps—this one only goes to two.

I have found this simple meditative technique even more useful than self-hypnosis. I frequently use it to calm my thoughts and emotions. The first (and last and only) time I went skydiving, I counted my breaths to steel myself for the fact I was about to jump out of an airplane. When I had to do seven brutal rounds of sparring to earn my Jeet Kun Do instructor certification, I counted my breaths in between rounds to slow my breathing and control the adrenaline.

I don't claim to be an expert on self-hypnosis, Zen meditation, or breathing methods. However, I have found both of the techniques I discussed above to be very helpful in a variety of circumstances, and to have in general made my life a little bit better. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thought of the Day, February 11, 2014: Mishima on Sun and Steel

"If my self was my dwelling, then my body resembled an orchard that surrounded it. I could either cultivate that orchard to its capacity or leave it for the weeds to run riot in. I was free to choose, but the freedom was not as obvious as it might seem. Many people, indeed, go so far as to refer to the orchards of their dwellings as “destiny.”

One day, it occurred to me to set about cultivating my orchard for all I was worth. For my purpose, I used sun and steel. Unceasing sunlight and implements fashioned of steel became the chief elements in my husbandry. Little by little, the orchard began to bear fruit, and thoughts of the body came to occupy a large part of my consciousness."

—Yukio Mishima

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thomas Covenant, Martial Arts, and the Oath of Peace

Literary genre-wise, this blog has something of a tendency towards thrillers and mysteries. However, I am also a big fantasy fan. In fact, my love of fantasy predated my fondness for spy and detective stuff.

One classic series I never got around to reading until very recently was Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. I tried to read the first one, Lord Foul's Bane, when I was in high school back in the '80s. I wasn't quite ready for it, and quit reading it after a certain infamous scene involving Covenant and and a girl named Lena.

This January, I decided to give the book a second chance. I'm glad I did. I quickly devoured both it and the follow-up, The Illearth War. I am in the middle of reading the final book of the first trilogy, The Power That Preserves.

Leaving aside the trilogy's important contribution to the genre, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant isn't just outstanding fantasy fiction; it's outstanding fiction, period. I really appreciate the complex moral and ethical themes, and the fictional setting of the Land is simply an outstanding and well-developed setting. Due to Donaldson's power of description, I—unlike Covenant—almost believe it is real.

Stephen R. Donaldson
In addition to being a novelist, Stephen R. Donaldson is also a martial
artist, holding a Black Belt in Shotokan Karate. (As a side note, Donaldson didn't start training until he was in his early forties. He wrote a nice essay about "The Aging Student of the Martial Arts" that's worth a read.) I was surprised to learn that he was not a karateka at the time he wrote the first Covenant trilogy, as the books have something of a martial arts sensibility.

For one, there are the Bloodguard. The Bloodguard are a group of elite bodyguards who do not age and do not sleep. They also eschew the use of weapons, preferring to use their hands and feet.

Even more interesting is the Oath of Peace. The Oath is taken by every inhabitant of the Land in an effort to avoid needless violence. It reads as follows:

“Do not hurt where holding is enough;
Do not wound where hurting is enough;
Do not maim where wounding is enough;
and kill not where maiming is enough;
The greatest warrior is he who does not need to kill.”

I think there is much in the Oath for the serious martial artist to ponder. Even though I train a great deal in Kali—which is very much a killing art—I have no desire to actually kill anyone. (Well, not usually!) Heck, one reason I'm a vegetarian is because I don't want to kill animals (or eat dead ones) either. Violence should remain a last resort, especially lethal violence.

I can't help but recall Bruce Lee's line from Enter the Dragon about "fighting without fighting." Hmmm... Bruce Lee as a Bloodguard. I could totally see it!