Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Make it

I like to encourage people to invest in their own ideas. After all, ideas are much the same kind of stuff as beliefs, and beliefs are the heart's divine integration of thoughts and feelings. What better way to honor all that makes you tick, with the gift of your own heart's divinity? While there are many ways to create a more fully realized sense of self, manifesting something personally meaningful from scratch often yields the greatest rewards. The trick, of course, is to release expectations of outcome, abandon fear and jump in will all cylinders firing.

I could speak of this in almost any context, art, writing, love, gardening, business, music, etc. But today, I really want to write about creating software, because now is the best time ever to extend dreams into the real world, through technology.

Years ago, concepts like wide access to 3D printing and creating your own mass-appeal software were a mere blip on the horizon. Only an elite few even knew where to begin, much less become "producers" themselves. Now, practically everyone in the world has an easy online portal to develop new technology ideas. The creation interface has been simplified to accommodate even grade school level enthusiasts, production costs have decreased exponentially, and distribution can be as easy as a five-minute upload. And if an idea provides a solution that makes sense to you, it will likely make sense to others as well. Technology, more than any other force, is what shapes culture into being. And times they are-a-changing', fast. There's never been a better time to participate in the construction of reality, as we collectively dance on the burning edge of its creation.

Nothing could be more true when it comes to game development. When I started many years ago, it was phenomenally difficult and expensive to make a video game. Today, what might have taken a team of 10 people a full year to create, can be handled by just a few, or even one, at a fraction of the time and cost. Currently, there are over 100 game apps a day being released, made possible by a technology infrastructure designed to give tremendous creative power to the individual "Maker". That's what we are called these days, Makers…I love it.

It took a long time to get to this point however, and looking back, the journey was more difficult than most people realize (I was going to split this blog into two posts, but I think whole story needs to seen at once).

My history of developing video game software goes all the way back to the late nineties, aka, the "ancient days" of the first great polygon-pusher, the Sony Playstation.  While I was always amazed at the collective production horsepower of every team I was ever involved with, work life back then was, to put it mildly, less than supportive of our creative talents. Basically, we spent most of our long days doing the "trial and error" slam dance of engineering gymnastics, as the team's code-warriors toiled over fundamentals of how the damn thing worked. Creative input was kept to a bare, pragmatic minimum and just getting the basics accomplished was a sort of minor miracle back then. Not exactly the building blocks of excellence, I'm afraid. Personally, being a manager responsible in part for keeping the haggard troops alive and motivated, I did not protest, but instead worked ridiculously hard to "set the right example", at one point never putting in less than 80 hours a week, nor grabbing a day off (weekends, holidays, bleeding out my eyeballs, whatever) for almost a full year. Regardless of procuring a fairly reasonable paycheck, this was not a very good living. The conditions were just too rough, people got sick, went crazy, lost their husbands, wives…it was bad.

I'd also like to be clear: I am grateful for the relationships that were created during that time, and give thanks to the many of you who still know me today as your friend. Namaste!

Sadly, the company I was working for at the time adopted this "scorched employee" mentality as the new normal for production, as did many others, setting a dangerous precedent whose effects reverberated throughout my career. And as a result, some of the final products I worked on reflected the lack of care, creativity and completion needed to be great, and, in fact, were just barely profitable. Always overdue and over budget, every game company I worked for from that point on seemed to fall to the dark side, devolving into factories designed to push out sequels, ports and derivative titles. Being surrounded by game professionals, the lack of insight as to what creates a great game experience was truly bewildering, even as companies like Nintendo routinely attributed their massive success to treating the process like creating a work of art. And that's just it…to me it seemed that two distinctly different camps had formed within the industry, those focused on creating an artistic monument to the current state of technology, and those that focused solely on getting something out the door with the least amount of effort. Most of the latter (several of which I worked for) are now out of business, while the former have grown to dominate an industry that now generates more annual revenue than Hollywood.

But before I get lost in the woe-was-me-ness, it was under these difficult circumstances that I became motivated to change things. While Nintendo had clearly established its presence as a creative fountainhead, with little exception, most other companies were suspiciously vacant of the vital creative energy so many people associate with making great video games. Now, that's a huge accusation considering the volumes and volumes of work produced since then. I could get on the phone right now and immediately engage in some pretty heated tit-for-tat with a number of respected and seasoned pros, who would deem that statement to be absolutely ludicrous. But that's just it, the problem with many video game developers is they think they are being creative, even when they are simply reiterating the same small number of concepts using a different skin. Which, is most of the time….different package, same contents. If you do a search for video games that should be considered "works of art" the list is quite small (One of my favorites, btw, is a gem known as Ico! ). The list of great games that genuinely educate, elevate consciousness or attempt anything in the way of breaking through established philosophical boundaries is even smaller. What I found myself immersed in, all those years ago, was a brilliant industry that had convinced itself that it was so smart, that it didn't need to take risks.

So I did. Or at least, I tried to. In the last days of one particular company, I'd somehow convinced our entire production team to mutiny against the dominant paradigm (on it's last dying breath, btw) to focus on a game design I created involving Jim Woodring's impossible-to-describe universe of Frank. The protagonist, a hinduism inspired cat-like creature who never learns anything, would have to find ways to die in order to be reincarnated to the next, more fabulous/horrible plane of existence. We got all of two weeks into that project before being shut down. I still want to play this game.

Years later I got the thumbs up from legendary the pop-surrealist Tim Biskup to create a prototype 3D stacking game based on his wildly successful "Stack Pack" creature series. Not surprisingly, even though the demo was seamless and just screams Work of Art! a financial backer did not appear and the project was shelved (sniff, sorry Tim).

By the mid 2000's my whole perspective was beginning to change. I was sick of all trivial games, even the one's with artistic merit. Basically, I was no longer interested in working on anything but software that somehow contributes the greater good of humanity. My last project, before taking a very long break, was the Inner Active Health Project, a 501 c3 non-profit that used video game technology to bridge the mind-body gap, which I eventually handed over to the Center for Transformational Neurophysiology. They continue to run IAHP to this day.

This past year, I independently released my first science education game, Isopod, to rave reviews. It's the first action game ever, I believe, that uses real critters, in real environments, interacting as they would in real life backed by real science, written by real scientists. Whew! The game is 100% my own vision, with no investors, no bosses and, most importantly, none of the structural limitations that, prior to this time, could have prevented it coming in to being. It's in schools all over the world now, and I look forward to the life changing shifts that will happen as a result. What a ride. What I've learned is this: There has never been a better, easier or more relevant time to put your own ideas to the test. Invest in yourself. Your heart demands it!




Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sing


Coinciding with Sony's latest over-hyped PS4 press release, I had planned to come in today and spend a few minutes ranting about the lousy state of the video game world, and how desperately it needs me to help fix some major problems that continue to be "unsolvable", after decades of promoting the same myopic vision, continually falling short of anything discernibly meaningful. Instead, I'm just going to leave it to that one long sentence for now…I need to process and connect with some real-life gratitude. I need to talk about singing. More specifically, Karaoke.

I've always loved to sing. My "big break" came in 3rd grade when I was singled out by my chorus teacher and asked if I would take the lead vocalist role in our school's upcoming Christmas play, "The Candy Cane Kid" (see above photo, with my brother Bryan). I did it, and despite my natural shyness (Meyers- Briggs pegs me as an Introvert, with Extroverted tendencies) my young soul was honored and moved by the experience. In fact, from that point on, I had a legit desire to keep singing close to my heart, as means to both creatively express and, perhaps more importantly, a way to decompress.

Grade school chorus gave way to high school rock bands, then college punk bands, experimental studio projects, and finally, the apex of my path to musical sophistication: Karaoke. Yep, this is were my throat chakra expansions landed, self-respect be damned. Like writing or dancing, I certainly don't kid myself that I have raw talent as a singer, but boy do I have fun, and having easy access to a little fun in life is kind of a big deal.

Ten years ago I would have called myself a full-on Karaoke junkie, and for good reason. Less than two miles from my home there were several great venues to choose from, and a show every night if I would travel a just bit farther. On weekends I would literally spend the whole day signing at the local flea market, and then later in the evening meet up with the same crew of amazing talent that I got to know like family. A few of them were better than just good singers, they were great. Watching a very young James Durbin belt out classic metal songs like a seasoned pro was a sight/sound to behold, even back then. Lisa Leuschner (who would later sing at Karen's and my wedding) became another American Idol alumni, and to this day is probably the most underrated performer in that show's history. But even the less-inclined vocalists, and those who only showed up to watch and offer support, all came to know each other in this clean, fun and safe space where everyone was loved as an equal. We were all there for a common purpose after all, to leave our troubles behind for a moment, and to celebrate life with our little three minute offerings of a heart's best musical rendition. This was a meaningful time in my personal history, as never before or since have I been around a social group whose complete lack of judgement supported such a wide continuum of skill and talent, the opportunity to be safely vulnerable, and in that moment, to be completely real. I could compare it to dancing, which I also love dearly, but there is something strangely healing about being on stage as the center of everyone's attention, just long enough to feel the fire, but short enough not to care. Those were good times.

Inevitably though, times change, people move on, get married, get divorced etc. The flea market closed down, and even though I worked hard with a small group of local activists to get it reopened, karaoke did not return. And when my favorite evening venue shuttered it's doors (the best gay-friendly restaurant/bar this town has ever seen), it really felt like the end of an era. I don't go out singing anymore, or very rarely at best. And today, only one of my original karaoke pals remains in my very small but mighty inner circle. But it's because of him, all these years later, I am still getting a regular dose of karaoke's goofy magic. Today I am expressing some gratitude to Spirit for keeping Max-A-Million in my life for more than a decade now.

By the way, that's not his real name. But as all veterans of the karaoke scene know quite well, every "serious" practitioner must adopt a stage name to achieve the full faux-star effect. Mine was actually given to me, not chosen. Before you ask, the origins of "Mikey High-Note" shall never be disclosed, save for your required physical attendance to be arranged at a karaoke bar nearest you, where I will happily demonstrate the how/what/why this name came to see the light of day.

Max-A-Million has been my most trusted long-term friend since I moved to Santa Cruz. He's a zen master, cultural philosopher, brilliant cook, and damn good singer. Back in the day, he and I would send shock waves through the karaoke community with our ground-breaking duets, singing many songs people didn't realize could be performed as a duet, redefining the possibilities while having the time of our lives. Max is actually an extremely talented performer, and made his living singing the Rat-Pack standards in restaurants, cruise ships and casinos for many years, until he finally decided that singing is more fun when you do it just for fun. About three years ago, he set up a permanent karaoke bar in his living room. While this is not even a remote possibility for most of us, Max, a lover of all things karaoke, is not married and has no kids, so…why not?

It just so happens that the only break I get all week, a two hour "layover" between work and gamelan practice, lands me downtown, right on Max's doorstep. We have been singing, almost every week now for a good long time. I dig 80's new wave and punk tunes, he loves Sinatra and vintage country. Occasionally, it even turns into a little party where other singers show up to do the same. We dim the lights, fire up the disco ball and never have to wait very long before we get our own turn. It's not nearly the same thing as being in a public place, but it doesn't matter. Like giving it all you got in the car, or the shower, are wherever you are most yourself, what's important about singing is becoming the voice for a story you already know and love. It helps us take care of ourselves, and each other.

Yesterday I needed to sing a few specific songs. Some happy, some sad. Max has about 100k to choose from, so I figure whatever mood I'm in, I'll always get to the place I need to be. God bless him, and God bless karaoke.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Calm the Storm

This past year, my body started over from scratch. I am a Bikram yogi.

Two weeks ago I had one of the worst sessions of yoga in a long time. On a normal day, my goal is to keep the struggle on the inside, at least hold a straight face, and perhaps even strive for the most difficult of all advanced maneuvers, pushing up the corners of my mouth. Not giving away your inner turmoil, to "calm the storm" is the path a true yogi, as I am told. I guess this means I'm handling my Facebook profile like a boss? Well…another blog post, some other time.

No, this was a crappy day and I got completely wrecked, inside and out. I was able to push through the standing poses holding a modicum of yogic form, but by the time I hit the floor for the final half-hour of spine stretching, I was a melted, gasping mess of a human puddle. Seemed like no rhyme or reason to it either, just a random (karmic?) side-swipe that left me emotional and dazed for hours after class, wondering if perhaps Bikram Yoga is just too flippin' hard. Of course, I know that it isn't, and as I tell my friend, instructor, and owner of "Bikram Yoga Aptos" Nicole Duke, I'm on the 20 year plan to take over her job. But on that day, "Nicole's Torture Chamber" as she calls it, completely lived up to it's name, and the moment class was over I was out the door to sit on the concrete, mostly naked, in the ridiculously cold (but OMG so refreshing) winter wind, savasana be damned.

I need to give myself a little more credit actually. It's been less than a year adopting Bikram Yoga as regular practice, and there is no comparing even my worst day now with how I began. Decades of bad posture, desk jobs and unattended scoliosis had all contributed to a noticable decline in my structural integrity. My initial practice reflected this damage in a big way, and I almost quit after the first week because it really was so damn hard. Months passed before I could claim predictable success of just getting through both sets of all 26 postures, and even more months on top of that before I would actually look forward to Nicole's difficult classes, as hers have a well-earned reputation for being the hardest and hottest. After all, she has invested in the most state-of-the-art heating/humidity equipment, a world-class studio, and is herself a Bikram yoga national champion. My wife and I joke about the other studios we tried while traveling, and how "vacation Bikram" was such a nice break by comparison, even if it didn't have near the impact. To be honest, a little more vacation yoga in our routine would really be awesome… hint hint, Universe.

Nicole's Torture Chamber is no vacation and she let's you know it. I would describe it as the most physically challenging 90 minutes of mental AND physical exercise any person could ever imagine. But over time I've come to accept this hard work as normal, and I feel incredibly grateful for the magic she creates in that room. Her intention is to bring us to the edge of our own personal best, and then to provide us with tools to "calm the storm" so that we might soon surpass our own limits. I appreciate that so much, now. Was it always my choice to participate in her 115 degree, squeeze-every-fiber-in-my-being-to-the-point-of-breaking routine? Oh hell no. I wanted to run anytime I heard she was teaching a class. Other instructors with a lighter touch, and more liberal use of the all so important water/fresh air breaks were definitely my preference. But as it turns out, child care is only provided during Nicole's classes, which allows my wife and I to practice together. This is a big deal. Karen has become an inspiration, and I can't imagine doing yoga without her now, in and outside of the studio. Yoga has helped us to evolve as a couple, and after nearly nine years of being together, this time feels like a both blessing and a new beginning.

Today, with all the amazing benefits received from Nicole's Torture Chamber, I feel as if I have grown a year younger verses a year older. What price can a "pushing-50" father of a 4-year old put on that?? And, I feel closer to my wife than I have in years, as we have found a common place to mindfully and vitally engage with each other in daily practice. When I say "Thank you" to Nicole Duke, as I do every time after class, I really mean it.

Some stories have a point, or a moral, and some don't. That's just life. But this story actually does. That really lousy day? The one that totally kicked my ass and sent my head and heart spinning around and bouncing all over the place? Well, it was followed by one of my best Bikram yoga sessions ever. It was a breakdown, preceding a breakthrough. And as insignificant or massive as they may be, when these minor miracles happen, I pay attention. This is the voice of Spirit, talking loud and clear.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Mr. Bugs Had Cancer (again)

While the day may eventually come to take a break, I have kept cats and dogs around the house for at least a quarter century. I admit that I am particularly fond of cats, in all their beautiful and mysterious ways, and one gorgeous marmalade girl in particular I have no hesitation in saying was genuinely extraordinary. She was brilliant, articulate and convincingly telepathic, proof in my eyes anyway, that while most creatures are created more or less equal, occasionally there is one created outside-the-box that is truly special. Losing my most beloved feline friend a few years back was nearly as difficult for me as any biped I'd ever been close to. But she was 23 years old, quite elderly in kitty years, and her well-loved life was pretty wonderful from start finish. She had a long, healthy run, as it should be.

This has not exactly been the case for Mr. Bugs, my current fuzzball pal of over a decade. The vet thinks he's about 15 years old, and although he's a sweet and happy critter, he's been dealing with a number of ongoing health issues for quite some time now. I've often wondered if it was the physical and emotional stress of his early life spent in abandonment that took him down this road of chronic health issues, but I'll never really know I guess. I brought him in as a stray when he was about 3 or 4 years old, after at least 2 years of occasional sightings, assuming he was pretty much fending for himself in the 60-ish green-belt acres surrounding my house. It was the day I noticed him sitting upright but motionless in the freezing rain, looking like the saddest creature on the planet, that I just gave in and added a fourth furry friend to my non-human family circle. That was over 10 years ago, and he's the last standing mi amigo el gato of the original bunch.

While he's not in any immediate danger, Mr. Bugs is on a special diet these days to keep his weight down and his skin from itching. I've also starting mixing slippery elm bark into his food twice a week, which has been shown to stave off the most common cat killer, feline kidney disease. He was showing the first symptoms of kidney distress, and I'm very happy to say they have subsided. But it was Mr. Bug's run in with cancer, twice now, that is really worth talking about.

About five years ago I noticed what looked like a small open wound on the top of Mr. Bug's nose. He's an indoor/outdoor cat and has always been a bit of a scrapper so I didn't think too much about it really, until I noticed that the sore wasn't going away. Actually, it was getting worse. By the time I got him to the vet, it was a quarter inch long lesion that had pretty much turned black and continuously bled….not cool. Even less cool was the diagnosis from the vet: Mr. Bugs has cancer, and will likely require most or all of his nose removed if he was to survive.

I struggled with the decisions that had to be made for Mr. Bugs knowing I didn't have a lot of time to make them. While this can get a person trying to "heal" in big trouble, I started doing net research on "miraculous cancer recoveries", and interestingly enough, a substance that had made it into my hands just few weeks earlier started popping up with some very interesting testimonials. It's called resveratrol, a naturally occurring phytochemical (vegetable compound) that accumulates in certain kinds of tissue when a plant becomes distressed. For instance, when red wine grapes deal with excessive heat, cold or even fungal infection, resveratrol is produced in the skin of the grape as a "preservative", for lack of a better word, that protects the fruit. Now, there has been extensive research on resveratrol for heart health and anti-aging, and not just from anywhere, try Stanford and Harvard, if you require academic validation of how interesting this stuff is. But at that time, a "cancer cure" claim was only being made by distressed dog owners who where willing to try anything to save their pups.

As I read what little info was available, two observations started to take shape. One, that direct resveratrol/cancer cell contact appeared to yield impressive results, and two, similar characteristics have been noticed from another more common and better-known substance, green tea extract…..so, why not mix the two and create a topical skin salve?

And that is exactly what I did. Equal parts resveratrol powder and green tea extract were mixed together in a goopy paste that I applied directly to the lesion on Mr. Bugs battered nose, twice a day. The lesion disappeared, completely, within two weeks. That was five years ago.

Obviously, this is one person's story with not a shred of scientific integrity, controls, measurements etc. But I do not take the experience lightly, Mr. Bugs is the last of my furry family after all. That said, just few weeks ago, the lesion made a comeback after the five years of no trace. I caught it early this time, but there was no mistaking what it was. Once again I used the same ingredients on Mr. Bugs, and once again, it quickly disappeared.

There's no arguing the benefits of well-vetted natural medicine. Aloe, folic acid, turmeric ect., all have proven medical effects that traditional Western doctors are only recently seeing as credible. I honestly think the answers for the biggest medical questions are still waiting to be discovered, out there in the jungles and rivers and perhaps even in our own backyards, ready when we are.


PS: Evan Bluetech, one my favorite modern downtempo composers, wrote this piece after his beloved dog Leilani passed away. Beautiful.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Union

 I thought this would be an appropriate post for Valentines Day.

This extraordinary work of art is entitled "Union". It is my favorite piece from one of my favorite living artists, Andrew Jones.

Andrew is creating art history. Over the span of a decade I've watched this amazing visionary spiral out into global consciousness, obliterating all sorts of digital/fine art barriers as he merges ancient technique with bleeding-edge tools of an emerging future. While academic art institutions tend to gloss over the efforts of digital artists, there will eventually be no question of Andrew's tremendous cultural impact. Check out what he did on the exterior surface of the Sydney Opera House, his "million pixel wide mural" or the collaborative performance art he does with his wife Phaedrana. His work is a product of extreme talent, divinely guided innovation and hardcore traditional artistic discipline. I met him at Burning Man last year (he is the founder and creative juggernaut behind Fractal Nation) and all I can say is that he is as kind and humble as he is model for maximizing human potential. I am truly inspired by his magic, both as a person and as a creative tour-de-force.

Union unfolds to me in many layers, all of which hit deep. The image (painted live during the wedding of a local Bay Area couple) celebrates union of the devine masculine and feminine, the marriage of Sun and Moon. Their are eyes closed, and bodies do not touch, and yet the two are bound by radiant Light between them that centers their exquisite bond in perfect, delicate balance. The impression is the essence of what it means to connect on a level of deep soul Love, two people synchronized in the highest thoughts imaginable, saturated by an omnipresent intimacy that transcends both time and physical contact. Staring at this piece still brings tears. It is magnificent.


PS: Union reminds me a bit of this piece, Return of the Sun, which I made for my then unborn son Icaro as a welcome to his worldly arrival.

PPS: Union might be available for sale on Andrew's site (I say "might" as it could already be sold out).





Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2013



For over a decade now, I've been investing brainspace in what eventually became known to popular culture as "The Mayan Apocalypse", essentially the end date of the Mayan calendar's largest cycle. I traveled to Mexico and spent some time talking to local shaman of the Yucatan, followed the discussions of prominent voices from all different perspectives via the mighty 2012 group on Tribe.net, and kept close tabs on the sensible, scientifically grounded work of my anthropologist friend Dr. John Hoopes. John, by the way, is one of the very few people in the world who has access to the most important of all Mayan artifacts, "The Dresden Codex". To be honest, despite all the hoopla (apologies, John) I had no worries about "end of the world" scenarios unfolding in 2012. Like most big stories in our sensationalism-driven culture, only a small bit a truth remains after they are warped and twisted by relentlessly over-hyped consumer media. It is ironic however, that while TV, theater and radio played up the possibility of some kind of convenient catastrophic event, twenty thousand kids die every day from hunger, or more accurately, from not being able to purchase readily available food. The greatest sins of the world continue to be unseen in a quiet, ongoing daily apocalypse, and I, for one, am glad to wrap up this "end of the world" rubbish and move on to more salient issues.

All of that said, I could not have prepared myself for the massive personal changes in heart, mind, body and soul that took place during the course of this remarkable year. At some point I would like to write about 2012 from each perspective, if for nothing more than to create an archive of thoughts and feelings while they are still very fresh. It's also worth saying that I don't kid myself about my writing skills. In a way I feel like I'm just beginning to find a voice for the first time ever…which falls quite neatly into the idea that 2012 was not a punctuated mass apocalypse of any sort, but it was a opportunity for personal rebirth. I know many friends and associates who feel the same way, and I'd like to think those of us affected are all part of collective upgrade that humanity needed so desperately.

For now, I'd like to just briefly touch on what lies ahead for 2013. It's going to be a big year. In 2012 I started a small one -person software design studio Xylem and Phloem, and released my first educational game ISOPOD to excellent professional reviews, as well as tremendous love and support from Apple itself. ISOPOD was even nominated for the prestigious CYBILS Children's Literary Award, which is quite an honor considering they usually only deal with books. If you have or know a child (10 and up) with an iPad and an interest in science, this is a great app, and one of many more to come.

But the real purpose of making ISOPOD, as I have come to see, was to open doors and create new possibilities. I created ISOPOD essentially by myself, and even though there were moments were I felt I was being pushed beyond my limits, the end result spoke volumes. Vetting the value of one's ideas that can be accomplished "solo", is an absolute necessity to finding the right kind of support for bigger ideas. Basically, big money needs to have big confidence before it will do big things. 

And this next project is just flippin' huge.

Xylem and Phloem (now a small team) is proposing a massive educational software undertaking that will transform every book, website, curriculum, and most importantly, every educational app out there into a "gamified" cooperative classroom learning experience. As I write this, we are in negotiation with one of Silicon Valley's biggest names, and the future is looking quite good, knock on the proverbial wood. That's about all I'm going to say on that, for now.

But hey 2013, what else you got?

I've also become a mentor for UCSC's flagship IDEASS program (Impact Designs: Engineering and Sustainability through Student Service) and I'm excited to help guide a group of talented student engineers as they create their first cross-platform science app, available by the end of this summer. You can be certain that it will gamify concepts of sustainable building practices, facilitating an understanding of fairly complex environmental issues via the exquisite beauty of game theory. I love this kind of work, and I feel like it is something that I'm well prepared to handle.

Another exciting manifestation of ISOPOD's critical success is that I've been asked to be a part of the creative team designing exhibits for an emerging children's discovery museum, here in Santa Cruz. Some of what I'll be doing is contributing to the conceptual development of these exhibits, but a big part will be actually building-visualizing the ideas in 3D. Again, what an amazing gig. A giant, scale-relative Strawberry plant jungle, and all the creatures you might find there may soon be leaping from my head to a physical space near you. How cool is that?

And there's more. "Your Turn Football", a game I helped create with some old colleagues of mine is due to be released in the next few weeks. I'm anticipating a very good response (despite blowing the release date to coincide with Football season…good reasons, I promise) as it is the first turn-based, multi-platform sports game ever made. Think "Words WIth Friends" meets The Superbowl. While I'm not a huge fan of Football, it is the creation of these "first time" experiences really gets me jazzed.

And of course, then there are the projects I can't talk about, even little bit. All I can say is, right now is the most intense burst of creative energy I've had in years, perhaps ever. My heart has been cracked open, and what flows in and through, is the desire to do the Best Work of my life.



Monday, February 11, 2013

Aloha



This is me, Waimoku Falls after a slippery, soggy and exhausting incline hike with my wife and son.

Rain-soaked. Mud-splattered.

Heart open. Happy. 

Shake your Booty

I finally shook that incredible (and incredibly sad) song by Ray Lamontange this weekend, but it took two Disco Parties to pry the thing out of my head. In it's place came an amazing instrumental piece from 2005 that landed on the first "mix tape" I ever gave my wife, STS9's "Tokyo". In a span of less than 6 months now, I've personally met and thanked two of the artists on that tape, one of whom was in line behind me while I ordered coffee at Burning Man, and then this weekend at a local skating rink Disco/Birthday party attended by the entirety of STS9, and their children.

While I love it when life reveals sweet tidbits of synchronicity that might somehow support "being on the right path", this weekend was bittersweet as we also said bon voyage to some good friends who have dared to take a road less traveled. Years ago I helped them move in to the house they cleared out Saturday night for one last hurrah, a Disco Party for all to dance and celebrate as they move on to the next big adventure. As I write this, they are boarding a plane to New Zealand where they will live in an RV for at least a year, traveling, living and being together as a family of five.  They are an inspiration, and I have nothing but Love and Respect for them both. I'll miss you guys.

As we shook some booty with good friends, and raised our glasses to courageous adventures, I was once again reminded of how short this trip is. It is a universal truth, I think, that remaining curious keeps us in a state of personal growth. While some might say that taking life-changing risks is irresponsible, the places that fill our hearts with wonder are endless, should we just make the effort to find them.

And still, it's one thing to simply acknowledge, and another thing entirely to actually live it. Hats off to those, like my friends Mahabisa and Zack, who walk the talk. May we all be so wise.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Saddest Song



There is an archetypal beauty I find when connecting with another person's poetic expression of heartbreak. And when wrapped in the building tension and release of a soul-driven musical composition, sad stories become miniaturized, but no-less-than-epic visceral experiences. A well crafted Sad Song draws me in, and for a moment, I can live the intended expressions as if they are running through my own blood. I accept these brief but powerful openings of the heart as gifts.

Perhaps it's therapeutic to anonymously share the grief of an artist, and safely experience their brokenness in the convenience of my own precious time. And in this space, what is shared flows in and through all the ridiculous social boundaries that separate us, leading straight to the core of our collective good, our Empathy.  Loss of a friend. Loss of a Loved one. The ache of Knowing. The despair of not. Sad Songs can honor those things that we cannot bear to speak of, delivering Light to a situation, when that may seem to be an impossibility.

Although I've never been a depressed person (quite the opposite, in fact), Real Life demands a full range of emotions, else we fade into something tragically inauthentic. And while we set our life goals to somehow circumvent heartbreak, it is in these moments that we are asked to become something better than we have been, allowing the heart to feel exactly what it needs to. The heart, after all, has memory cells much like the brain does, and it never forgets, even when forced to temporarily do so. I respond music that reflects the complexity of this experience, the story of being Alive.

But I wonder, can there be such a thing as the "saddest song"? In the same way that we may experience the greatest sorrow of a lifetime, perhaps one could indeed identify a song that sums it all up. Some singer-songwriters get right to the core of the experience, Elizabeth Frasier, Beck, Rob Dickinson, Beth Gibbons, Ken Andrews....all of whom have taken me on their journey with a powerful familiarity.

Right now, the song that hits me the hardest is this one.

"Empty" by Ray Lamontagne

She lifts her skirt up to her knees
Walks through the garden rows with her bare feet, laughing
And I never learned to count my blessings
I choose instead to dwell in my disasters

Walk on down the hill
Through grass grown tall and brown
And still it's hard somehow to let go of my pain
On past the busted back
of that old and rusted Cadillac
That sinks into this field collecting rain

Will I always feel this way ‒
So empty, so estranged?

And of these cut-throat busted sunsets,
these cold and damp white mornings
I have grown weary
If through my cracked and dusted dime-store lips
I spoke these words out loud would no one hear me?
Lay your blouse across the chair,
Let fall the flowers from your hair
And kiss me with that country mouth so plain.
Outside the rain is tapping on the leaves
To me it sounds like they're applauding us,
The quiet love we've made.

Will I always feel this way
So empty, so estranged?

Well, I looked my demons in the eyes
laid bare my chest, said "Do your best, destroy me.
You see, I've been to hell and back so many times,
I must admit you kind of bore me."
There's a lot of things that can kill a man
There's a lot of ways to die
Yes, and some already dead that walk beside me
There's a lot of things I don't understand
Why so many people lie
Well, it's the hurt I hide that fuels the fires inside me

Will I always feel this way
So empty, so estranged

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My Grandfather's Garden


 “The sacred is in the ordinary…to be looking elsewhere for miracles is a sure sign of ignorance…everything is miraculous.” Abraham Maslow

We spent Super Bowl weekend traveling to my paternal Grandparent's house located in my former hometown of many years, Clovis, California. I love how excited my son Icaro (aka, "Ico"), always gets when I tell him we are making the trip; he adores them both, and boy do they adore him. It is in this place, the living heartbeat of our entire family, that the parents, children, Grandchildren and now Great Grandchildren (12 of them!) are all safely Home. To say my Grandparents have always been a fountain of unconditional love in my life would be an understatement, and to be truthful, I credit all that is good in me with their continuous example of how to treat others, both blood family and extended Kin. My Grandmother is, in my eyes, a living Saint. She is the type of person who, throughout most of her 70's and 80's refused to use her husband's handicapped placard to park the car, simply and emphatically because "Someone else needs it more than me". I'm going to blog about my Grandmother more in time, there is much to write about, but for now, this particular entry is more about my Grandfather, James Parisi.

There are many stories to tell about my Grandfather. Some are terrifying, like how the core of a man's character will be tested in the bombed foxholes of WW2 New Guinea. Some are just awe-inspiring and miraculous, like how dolphins in the South Pacific pulled his downed-pilot buddies safely to shore. And then there are some that are, well, just kinda' funny. This weekend, I was once again reminded as to why I will never get a tattoo. This is something I really wanted to do, twenty five years ago. I remember quite clearly, the day I showed up at their house feeling energized and empowered to draw on paper the only ink I had ever known growing up, a "heart and thorns" design on my Grandfather's arm. Memories of being by his side, marveling at the mysterious symbol so permanent and resilient, had come to represent what my Grandfather meant to me. Consistency. Truth. Strength. Safety.  How awesome of an idea it was to transfer his ink to my own arm, as way to keep this memory alive and interesting, throughout my life, and maybe even as a gift to my own Grandchildren as well. Nice intention, but….He laughed when I told him my plan, and begged me to look at the design with a bit more focus on the details. Sure enough, the only ink I'd ever admired (heck, even my rock star heroes don't do it) was a cover job hiding some woman's name that was definitely not my Grandmother's. Ah well. In that very moment, my desire to permanently mark myself died a swift and mostly humorous death.

But the story I really want to tell is about my Grandfather's garden. He's almost 93 now and sharp as a tack, capable of carrying on extraordinary (if a bit crotchety) conversations on just about any subject. He's one of those guys who tends to know a lot about a lot. But his true expertise, through a lifetime of practice-makes-perfect, is in the arena of gardening. Gardening for food, specifically. Having been alive through both World Wars and The Great Depression, my Grandfather has spent his entire adult life making sure that, if necessary, he could provide for his family by living off the land. Having only one leg has not slowed him down much either, as he has made his own specialized tools to build and tend his garden from the confines of a wheelchair. Did I mention he is also an expert carpenter and welder? 

This weekend was sunny and temperate (rare for the area) and we all spent a good bit of time outdoors in the garden. While my son and nieces played, I casually inventoried the fruits and vegetable crops harvested every year on my Grandparent's relatively small piece of land. The list was enormous: Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, peaches, apples, pears, zucchini, squash, eggplant, olives, walnuts, almonds, pecans, grapes, figs, tomatoes, kale, onions, various bitter greens, a variety of herbs, and about 3 or 4 different kinds of peppers. Amazing…and I missed a few, I'm sure.

So if you know me personally, here's where the story gets yummy. My Grandparents do a fair amount of processing and canning of their harvest, especially the Italian "staples" like tomatoes, olives and our family's pride and culinary joy, Grandpa Parisi's Italian Bread Salsa. That's what I call it anyway, everyone else just calls them "Grandpa's peppers". Now, I'm not one to brag but lets just say, there are some things far beyond what money can buy, and this particular Italian delicacy is one of them. So good, in fact, that an Italian chef from San Francisco called them, "one of the most delicious appetizers I've ever tasted". If you know La Vie' here in Santa Cruz, you may also know the owner, my yoga buddy Yeyen, who also sang the praises (while fighting for the last bite of what was left). As a family, we have enjoyed this dish during nearly every collective lunch or dinner, and our friends will attest, this is one of the tastiest Mediterranean bread toppings on the planet, so rich and dense with flavor, just one bite fills the senses with OMG, Oooooh and Aaahhhh. There's nothing else like it.

And now, for the first time ever, I am going to reveal the full list of ingredients for all to know, in their entirety. This is a big deal, so hold on tight, here it goes. Seriously folks, this is like winning round-trip tickets to Italy, I swear. Ready? Ok…

Tomatoes. Peppers. Olive oil. Salt.

There you go.  Now you to can enjoy Grandpa Parisi's Italian Bread Salsa.

So, yes I'm teasing a bit, but here's the point: When the intention is clear, and knowledge is integrated with heart, the simplest ingredients create the most beautiful experiences.

Integrity. Passion. Loving care in what you do. Respecting what you have. Giving from the heart. These are the priceless intentions that transform the ordinary into the Extraordinary, and money can't buy a single one of them. These days, so many of us surround ourselves with more and more options, gadgets, toys (guilty!) as a method to expand our horizons, as apposed to refining and perfecting the life we already have. I like to think that maybe, like my Grandfather's garden, which starts with nothing more than dirt, seed and a deep love for family, I might be able to create something amazing in this life, beyond the sum of its parts. The simple trick is to take the time and really see the potential for what is here and now, engage with a full heart, and be patient for the sweet fullness that's waiting to be revealed. The grass is always greener where you water it. This is the legacy of my Grandfather, the real tattoo that I wanted, all those years ago.

This weekend, James Parisi announced that he may not plant his garden come spring. This would be a first, and not one that any of us is looking forward to. He is going blind, becoming increasingly less agile and is more accident prone. It breaks my heart, as I know it breaks his, to finally meet his match in the form of a deeply worn body. He's one of the toughest men I've ever known, and his admission that the garden he loves so much has become too difficult to manage at 93 years old just makes even stronger. This is not an ending however, but hand-written chapter in the autobiography of a life well lived.

It reminds us, his family and the Harvest of His Garden, to step up and step in to the sacredness of our own simple miracles.

1 quart of Grandpa Parisi's Italian Bread Salsa:

32 ounces of peeled, cored organic tomatoes.
32 ounces of mild chili-peppers (the long skinny ones) cut into halves, ends removed.
Jalapeno peppers as needed for heat, cut into halves, ends removed.
    (note, the larger the Jalapeno, the less heat it will contain)
1 pint of extra virgin organic olive oil.
salt, as needed

Heat a small amount of olive oil (just enough to cover the bottom of the pan) to a simmering boil.
Add halved chilies, and fry like bacon strips…remove when browned on both sides and place on a plate with absorbent towel underneath (to catch excess oil)
Do the same with the Jalapeno peppers, only fry as many as you think you can handle in a quart, but at least one is recommended.
In the same pan, add tomatoes and about half of what's left of the olive oil. Slow simmer to a boil.
Cut peppers into 3-4" sections, and add to tomatoes.
Simmer, stir, and add the remainder of the olive oil in small amounts, for about twenty minutes.
Keep some good sourdough bread nearby and dip to taste….add salt as needed.

Best eaten fresh of course, but Grandpa Parisi's Italian Bread Salsa can be stored in a glass jar and reheated.

Bon App├ętit

Friday, February 1, 2013

Balinese Gamelan, the "Interlock Flow" and resolving the dualistic mind: Pt 1

I am a musician in the Balinese gamelan orchestra, Anak Swarasanti. Though I am nowhere near qualified, I'm extremely fortunate to play alongside one of the best musicians/dancers in the genre, my dear friend Gede Oka Artha Negara. I love the music, and the clarity of mind that comes from performing it.

I can trace my fascination with Balinese culture back to the time I was first allowed to solo-explore a particularly arty book/retail shop, here in my hometown of Santa Cruz. This was waaay back in the 70's, so I'd guess I was about 7 or 8 years old at the time, already relentlessly inquisitive about things no grown-up would dare explain. Bookshops tended to be one of the few places my parents would let me run around unsupervised, as I'm sure they were thinking I couldn't get in too much trouble in such a benign environment….*cough cough*, fully illustrated "Joy of Sex", anyone?

Anyway, wandering around one of the biggest "hippie" bookstores in the country at that time, I eventually discovered, and was mesmerized by, a poster rack full of absolutely dazzling art prints. Given the somewhat psychedelic nature of the business, these images were of course bursting with an energy highly uncommon (and perhaps a bit over the top) to the average western eye. But it was in this collection, which I thoughtfully turned like pages from giant magical tome of enchantments, that I saw my first Alex Grey artwork, my first Buddhist thangkas, and had my first photographic exposure to the incredible artistic works of the Balinese people. I was moved. It was a moment of self-realized art appreciation, a discovery of what was possible for human beings to accomplish, and perhaps my first acknowledgment of what we really are capable of creating when engaged in The Flow.

I paraphrase the wiki entry on Flow as this: Complete absorption in what one does, characterized by feelings of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.

Beautiful.

In the Balinese language, there is no word for Art. Art is simply life, existence, something like the moment to moment experience of simply Being Alive. That said, to visit Bali is one of the most saturating art immersion experiences one could possibly have on this planet. Every citizen is an artist, a sculptor, a painter, a musician, a dancer…and so on. And as a result, art just pours from these beautiful people, as if every exhale produced some priceless treasure of the heart. It is everywhere you look and listen, both magnificent in scale and ubiquitous in presence. Bali Flows with Creation.

While it took 30 years from that point in the book store to physically get to the island, and another 10 to learn how to play traditional Angklung Gamelan, it's taken ALL of this time to reveal why Balinese culture resonates so profoundly within me. It's not just the deep embrace of the Flow. Or, the phenomenal Art that results. There is more. Much more.

I can say it in a word, but ultimately I'll need lifetime's worth of clarification (blogging, yay!) to explain: Interlock. My simplified  version of the meaning of Interlock goes like this: To connect together, so that the individual parts affect each other in motion or operation, creating something beyond the sum of the components.

Beautiful Magic.

Balinese gamelan instruments come in pairs. They are played individually by two different people, but in essence, they are "married" to each other from the very beginning when the metal keys are forged. They appear to be identical, and have the same notes for each key, but one (male) is tuned slightly sharp, and the other (female) is tuned slightly flat. When played correctly, the male and female note struck at the same time create an oscillating waveform, a third "transcendent" presence in the music. At the same time, equal parts of the composition are divided into Polos (up beats) and Sangsi (down beats), again, creating the perceivable effect of a third presence. Imagine your favorite solo piano work broken into two interlocking compositions, meant to be played by two people simultaneously to create the experience of the entire piece, but somehow it sounds distinctly different from the original. It is the Interlock, the intention of connection in deep purpose of creating something beyond its parts, that creates the Magic.


I like to think of the metal keys as the soul of the gamelan instrument. The carved wood/bamboo case that holds the keys, regardless of how ornate or sacred it may be, will deteriorate over time. But the keys will remain. An individual key will keep its tone forever, and alone it may be useful in some way, but never complete in its intended purpose. Paired with its mate, which for various reasons can not be recreated if lost of destroyed, both keys will always contain their individual tones, as well as the third oscillating waveform. And if kept together with all the other married pairs in the group, infinite beauty will patiently reveal itself in layers, throughout the Flow of Time.


Note: I was talking to my friend and fellow co-parent Jeffery Lerner from STS9 about this topic the other day, and learned how he composes his own music from this perspective. Not that I know much at all about music theory, but I suspect this may be the reason why STS9 is one of my favorite bands, and never fails to get me dancing. More of that later, in Pt 2. For now, enjoy some beautiful gamelan!