my life

guitar in the shop

Posted on: Tue, 07/26/2011 - 13:16 By: Tom Swiss

So here's the irony: I bought this banged up Ovation ("the Big Coleslaw Container", as Bob Pyle put it -- and no, his song isn't about my specific guitar) back in 1994 or 95 so because I had a sentimental attachment to my Gibson, my uncle's old guitar, and I was reluctant to take it out where it might be damaged. (The Gibson is older than I am, a 68 I believe.)

Photo by Phil Laubner

I then proceeded to take that Ovation out to many parties and open mics and jams with friends, then to paid gigs, then to Japan, as well as to Starwood, FSG, and PDF. I've busked on the streets of Baltimore with it, played it in an improv psychedelic jam in Kyoto and in the "Amemura folk jamboree" in a basement bar in Osaka, wrote several songs on it, and played it in my living room on lonely nights.

And as you might guess, I've developed quite a sentimental attachment to the darned thing.

Last night I noticed something alarming about my old friend: her neck had started to come loose from her body. Thus, this morning she was delivered into the hands of the luthiers at Appalachian Bluegrass in Catonsville. (No, I don't play bluegrass, but they're the best acoustic guitar shop in town.) And it's a curious thing that I actually felt a twinge almost like leaving my dog at the vet.

Getting this fixed may actually end up costing more than I paid for the the guitar, all those years ago. (It also needs to have the bridge re-attached.) From a purely "rational" viewpoint it might make more sense to go buy another guitar. But if we were purely "rational", we wouldn't make and listen to music, would we?

So, yes, the Buddha tells us that attachment is the origin of suffering, and yes, tools can be the subtlest of traps, and yes, there's a samurai maxim that any old weapons and armor are good enough, but screw you, I'm going to pay what it takes to get this ol' axe fixed.

and then there was Starwood...

Posted on: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 21:09 By: Tom Swiss

Slowly settling back in the "real" world now, more than a week after returning from the Starwood Festival. (And the tail end of X Day.)

As I joked several times before and during Starwood, it was nice to go to an event where I was not responsible for anything, in stark contrast to this year's FSG. And I was in this space of self-exploration, taking some time to reflect on life, the universe, and everything, the message I kept finding was, "Time to step up"; that it's time to accept a more prominent role in the communities of which I am a part.

This was, if I've counted on my fingers and toes right, my twelfth Starwood, and my ninth as a presenter. Each year that I've been a presenter, I've done two or three workshops, and maybe ten people on average show up for each one. (Sometimes it's twenty or thirty, and sometimes it's one!) So over the years, on the order of two hundred people have taken classes from me there...meaning, that I'm becoming a familiar face. Ok, fine, but I've always seen myself as sort of "filler" around the "big name" presenters. Not that anyone had ever made me feel "second rate" or anything by the way they treated me, just my own self-assessment.

FSG and the ordeal path

Posted on: Wed, 06/22/2011 - 18:44 By: Tom Swiss

So you may have noticed that the blog has been fairly quiet of late. That's because for the past month or so, much of my energy was taken up preparing for the Free Spirit Gathering. This was my 14th FSG, and I've been working on staff for 13 of them. Even my first year, I ended up working unofficially in the Dancing Tree Cafe, the staff and performers kitchen, in return for being able to eat there.

But what made this that this year I'm President of the Free Spirit Alliance, the organization behind FSG. (Yes, at FSG one can rise from "will work for food" to the Presidency!) Now, the President is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of FSG; that rests with out valiant Festival Coordinators. But under FSA's charter and by-laws, all the financial responsibility rests with the President and the Treasurer, and our fiscal picture has not been rosy of late; so leading up to the Gathering, there was plenty to do.

And during FSG itself, I'd resolved to use whatever gravitas or mana or whatever that the position possesses, to encourage people to join FSA and get more involved. (This year, at the suggestion of others, that included running naked across camp with "Join FSA" written on my butt.) If I had just done that, plus my usual work MCing the concerts and helping out the sound guy, it would have been a busy but enjoyable year.

Instead, I volunteered to serve as Fire Circle Coordinator, a position that had been vacant for several years. That vacancy had lead to a deterioration in the activity that is, to many of us, the heart of the Gathering.

For those who've never been to an event like FSG, a Fire Circle at a Pagan event is part eclectic interfaith magical-religious ritual, part musical/dance improv jam session, and part celebratory revel. I've written a bit about the structure of a Fire Circle before, and if you'd really like to explore what makes them work, you ought to read or listen to Billy Bardo's Fire Circle Rap, a classic of modern Pagan literature. (No, I'm not exaggerating.)

I fell in love with FSG largely because of the Fire Circle. My first night of my first year there, I found myself dancing naked around the fire until I was exhausted. I knew I'd found something special. When I go to a festival, workshops and concerts and more formal rituals and the like are nice adjuncts; but all I really want and need is a fire, a couple of drummers, and space to dance.

Over the years, the Fire Circle at FSG has waxed and waned. The past few years, it had been largely neglected. We'd left our Fire Crew -- the intrepid folks who build the fire itself and take care of fire safety -- alone down there, with no one to handle the ritual and energetic aspects. That's the stuff I picked up this year.

What this meant was that I was, basically, responsible for setting up and supervising a four to eight hour ritual, some nights involving over 100 or 200 people, each night of the Gathering. Which took things from "Boy, I'm busy but having fun" to "This is an Ordeal."

I don't mean that in the sense of "oh, my life is such an ordeal, wah wah wah." (Ok, maybe a little. :-) ) But rather in the sense of an ordeal ritual, a rite of passage, an initiation, a challenge that pushes one past one's limits.

One of my senpais is found of telling our karate students, "All you have to do is a little bit more than you can do." That was what FSG was about for me this year.

In some ways it was like my black belt promotion test: it was not fun, I was exhausted and sore for days afterward. But it was also exhilarating, in a way that's difficult to explain to someone who's never had a similar experience.

Similarly, when I look back at this year's FSG, there are not a lot of "fun" moments, on a personal level. I don't think I had a single supper that wasn't rushed, I didn't get to take time to play in the pool or sit in the shade and play guitar or any of the other chill time things I usually do at FSG. But what there is, is the memory of making a Fire Circle happen in the rain on Thursday night, against the difficulties, with no "real " drummers, just a bunch of hard-core crazies banging on water coolers and trash cans, a Fire Circle in which a first-time festival goer, a blind man, came out and danced in the rain. There's the satisfaction of putting something back on track, of defying predictions of failure, of creating a space where people can be brilliant and expressive and playful and mindful.

That, will make your heart grow three sizes.

Not to say I did a perfect job, by any means. But I feel I passed the test of this ordeal, no question in my mind.

I know that, because we ended up short-staffed this year, I was not the only one for whom FSG was an ordeal this year. If you know someone who worked the festival this year, give them a hug, they deserve it.

dead squirrel

Posted on: Mon, 04/11/2011 - 23:04 By: Tom Swiss

hey sorry I
didn't see you there

even just a few minutes ago so
you took me by surprise

not as surprised as you, though, I guess

but not a bad way to go
outside on a warm sunny spring day, romping around, then suddenly --

no, not bad at all

the Buddha, I have heard, died cranky
in pain from poison mushrooms, or bad pork, or a blocked mesentery artery

and despite the fact that he got stupas and relics
and you got a hole in my lawn
I think I like your way better

karate instructor as (ugh) role model

Posted on: Wed, 04/06/2011 - 17:26 By: Tom Swiss

I was out for my usual Wednesday run this morning when I passed two women out walking a dog (a Bull Terrier, cousin to Spuds Mackensie). As I passed, one of them said, "Are you Sensei Tom?" I turned around to see that one of them was the mother of one of my students, a boy who started training a few weeks ago. We chatted for a few seconds as I ran in place, and as I took off up the hill I said, "Tell him you saw me out exercising!"

Every once in a while, it's driven home to me that as a karate instructor, I'm in some ways a (horrors!) role model for my students, especially the kids. For example, a few years ago I was at the annual Seido Karate benefit tournament at Hunter College in New York. A tournament like that is hours of waiting around with nervous energy, punctuated by a few minutes of furious effort. At one point, during the hours in between my events, I was walking down a hallway munching on a pear when I walked by a mother and her son, both fairly new students (blue belts, if I recall correctly).

Now, in Seido Karate people of yondan rank and above get to wear slightly fancier gis, with the kanji for Seido and for their title (Renshi, Kyoshi, and so on) embroidered on, rather than a sewn-on patch, so even though I didn't know these people they knew I had a bit of rank in the organization. Usually, that doesn't mean much; I still have some vague discomfort about the whole hierarchical ranking thing. (When I stop and think that I've now reached the same rank as my first instructor, Sensei Neal Pendleton, and compare my skills and exploits with his -- forget it. I should just go put on a white belt. But that's a rant for another time.)

But on this occasion as I -- a genuine and authorized Karate Instructor, in a Black Belt with a couple of extra hash marks on it -- walked by eating a piece of fruit, the mother turned to her son and said, "See, I told you, if you eat your fruits and vegetables...!" I had to stifle a laugh.

It's all very well if young students see me exercising and eating right. But, you know, not everything I do is appropriate for kids. Sometimes I wonder about some young student deciding to model my occasionally Dionysian relationship with the grape and the grain, or my unorthodox romantic life. Or there's the craziness I engage in at events like Free Spirit Beltane or FSG or Starwood or PDF.

I'm not ashamed of any of these things, obviously; I'm quite happy and proud that in many ways I don't fit into the usual cultural norms. But it complicates the whole "role model" thing in a way I still haven't resolved.

Maybe the deeper answer is to be a role model in "following your bliss," wherever that may lead. But that's a little more complicated than being seen eating a pear.

saluting the Irish and the Japanese

Posted on: Fri, 03/18/2011 - 02:07 By: Tom Swiss

Four years ago, March 17, 2007, I celebrated Irish Pride Day in a bar in Osaka, Japan. It was part of a three month stay in Japan that changed my life -- my forthcoming book, Why Buddha Touched the Earth, grew out of things I wrote on that trip. (Got my first nibble from a literary agent about that book this week, by the way.) I'd been to Japan for shorter stays twice before that, and visited again in December 2007. And I've longed to return.

I only spent a little time in Tokyo, and never got as far north as the area devastated by the recent tsunami and earthquake. But like everyone who's been fortunate enough to spend time in Japan, my attention has been riveted on the horrible situation over there. While most of the people I met are much further south in the Kansai region, I've also met students and teachers in our Tokyo area Seido karate programs. So far as I've heard, all of them are safe, though I'm sure they're all affected by the difficult situation and it's probable that some have lost family or friends in the disaster.

There's a lot of attention focused on the nuclear disaster; there's good ongoing coverage at Mother Jones's "Blue Marble" blog. And there are certainly long term implications for energy policy there. Even if total disaster is avoided and the health effects are small enough to be lost in the statistical noise -- not at all a sure thing at this point -- the resources that could have been used to aid earthquake and tsunami survivors but had to be diverted to prevent a meltdown, are a stark example of the hazards of fission power.

But the other half of this -- the beautiful half, the half I hope more people see -- is the stories of how the people of Japan are dealing with this disaster. No looting or price gouging. Instead, a sense of community and a quiet resilience and forbearance.

And so tonight, as I do this time every year, as an American of partially Irish decent, I salute my Irish ancestors. But also tonight, as a student of Japanese martial and healing arts, I salute my forebearers in those arts, and all the people of Japan.

Free Spirit Alliance: education and celebration

Posted on: Wed, 03/02/2011 - 23:22 By: Tom Swiss

At the last Free Spirit Alliance meeting, we talked about coming up with a "mission statement" for FSA. We decided that that officers and trustees will discuss this further and come up with a proposal to bring to the membership.

During the original discussion at the meeting, the phrase "education and celebration" popped into my head. I sat down and worked up the following. To some degree it's aspirational rather than representative of what we currently do, but I think that's inherent in the nature of a mission statement. Your comments are welcome.

The Free Spirit Alliance provides opportunities for education and celebration for the Pantheist community.

What does this mean?

FSA presents events that feature expert teachers and presenters on a variety of topics of interest to the community, including ritual and ceremony, deep mythology, spirituality, magic, healing, art and music, and ecology. We also help facilitate communication within the community, so that we can learn from each other. And we promote religious tolerance by serving as an educational resource about Pantheism and Paganism for people outside the community.

FSA's events are celebrations! In our gatherings and rituals and Circles, we celebrate the seasons, we celebrate the world, we celebrate Spirit in all its forms, we celebrate our lives, and we celebrate each other. In the words of noted Pagan bard Billy Bardo, “We're also here to celebrate the best of us in you!”

FSA's articles of incorporation open our membership up to "self-professed pantheist[s]". What is a Pantheist? Since it is a matter of self-identification, our official stance is carefully mute on the subject: if you say you're a Pantheist, then you are. But here are some non-binding ideas for consideration:

  • "Pantheism is the deep theology of modern paganism." – Paul Harrison, Practice of scientific pantheism
  • "Pantheism is the view that the Universe (Nature) and God are identical. Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal, anthropomorphic or creator god. The word derives from the Greek: πᾶν (pan) meaning 'all' and θεός (theos) meaning 'God'. As such, Pantheism denotes the idea that 'God' is best seen as a way of relating to the Universe. Although there are divergences within Pantheism, the central ideas found in almost all versions are the Cosmos as an all-encompassing unity and the sacredness of Nature." – Wikipedia
  • "Pantheists are persons who derive their fundamental religious experience through their personal relationship with the Universe. They feel that Nature is the ultimate context for human existence, and seek to improve their relationship with the natural world as their fundamental religious responsibility.

    "Religion is seen as a system of reverent behavior toward the Earth rather than subscription to a particular creed. Because Pantheists identify God with Nature rather than an anthropomorphic being, Pantheists oppose the arrogant world-view of anthropocentrism"– Universal Pantheist Society

  • "Pantheism is a metaphysical and religious position. Broadly defined it is the view that (1) 'God is everything and everything is God ... the world is either identical with God or in some way a self-expression of his nature'.... Similarly, it is the view that (2) everything that exists constitutes a 'unity' and this all-inclusive unity is in some sense divine.... A slightly more specific definition ... says ... '“Pantheism” ... signifies the belief that every existing entity is, only one Being; and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it.' Even with these definitions there is dispute as to just how pantheism is to be understood and who is and is not a pantheist. Aside from Spinoza, other possible pantheists include some of the Presocratics; Plato; Lao Tzu; Plotinus; Schelling; Hegel; Bruno, Eriugena and Tillich. Possible pantheists among literary figures include Emerson, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and Robinson Jeffers." – Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • "Pantheism is sexed-up atheism." – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

so maybe Big Brother isn't watching very closely...

Posted on: Tue, 02/22/2011 - 14:30 By: Tom Swiss

It seems that every few days we see another story about employers firing or suspending employees for comments made of Facebook or elsewhere on the web. It's a worrisome trend.

Given that, you might think that if a company finds your resume on-line, before their recruiters call you up they might Google your name + their company's name, and see if you've bad-mouthed them. For example, I'd expect someone from to Google '"Tom Swiss" amazon' before calling me about a job, and see on the first page links to my post, "Amazon must be destroyed", where I write about my loathing for these patent-abusing pro-censorship bastards, and then cross me off their list. (BTW, such a search also finds the MP3 downloads for my tracks for Words on War.)

Apparently not, though, since I just got a call from an recruiter. (I was polite.)

I'm not in the job market right now, and my resume page even has a link explaining this. But since my resume has been at the same URL since, IIRC, the late 90s, I guess it comes up fairly high on Google searches.

a year of Ringo

Posted on: Wed, 02/02/2011 - 21:34 By: Tom Swiss

So it's Imbolc/Candlemas/Groundhog Day/almost Lunar/Chinese New Year, traditionally the tipping point between Winter and Spring. But around here it's also Ringo Day -- one year since this pit bull / boxer mix (or so the vet guessed) moved in.

Of course, living with a dog too tough for Texas has its interesting moments. He is of a breed labeled, by the Kong company, "a known extreme chewer"; several pairs of shoes have been sacrificed, as well as one book and a bunch of magazines and other papers. And two dog harnesses. And several small rugs. And he's left a few of my more delicate friends bruised with his enthusiastic love.

Still, all in all, I guess he can stay.

(Click on the thumbnails for large photos.)

Texas proposal to kill all pit bulls

Posted on: Sun, 01/16/2011 - 12:22 By: Tom Swiss

Texas is supposed to be a tough, rugged state. But apparently someone like me might be just too tough for Texas. Why? Because I live with a pit bull mix, while Texas Senator Kevin Eltife and Representative Chuck Hopson are set to sponsor a bill pushed by attorney and former state district judge Cynthia Stevens Kent to make "ownership" of pit bull type dogs a felony -- meaning, basically, "kill all pits".

Of course any fatal dog bite is a tragic thing. But according to an oft-miscited study by the the Centers for Disease Control, "Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs. Many practical alternatives to breed-specific ordinances exist and hold promise for prevention of dog bites." The push for breed-specific laws is based on several selection biases -- people who want viscous dogs are more likely to select certain breeds, leading other to become paranoid that these breeds are inherently vicious. Over the years German Shepards, Dobermans, and Rottweilers have been the target of this phenomenon.

If you live in Texas, please write your representatives in opposition to this attempt to exterminate innocent dogs. I thank you, and Ringo thanks you.

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