That’s 1,000 Posts, and I’m Out of Here

This is my 1,000th post on this site, and I’ve finished it just in time to get on a plane and leave the country, rounding out my blogging year with a nice round number. It’s been fun, and I’ll be back in early January to crank it back up.

Here’s a photo of where I’ll be.

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Does That Mean What I Think It Does? No, No It Does Not

Would you like a kick in the crotch with your cupcake?

Would you like a kick in the crotch with your cupcake? (The name reads a bit hostile for an American.)

Cultural idiosyncrasies of language matter. In India on a daily basis I find myself asking, “They don’t mean what I think they mean, do they?” Here’s a few examples.

You mean you're selling clothes, just clothes?

You mean you’re selling clothes, just clothes? (The “Happy Ending” sale just seems a little risqué to me. If the smiley face was winking it would really be suggestive.)

No, Sir, I will not loofah you just because you bought the rice bath!

No, Sir, I will not loofah you just because you ordered the rice bath! (FYI: rice bath is a Karnataka rice dish with lentils.)

Cut my hair? I thought this was a saloon?

Cut my hair? I thought this was a saloon?

"Playing in the Park" is prohibited. Dear Park, What the hell are you good for? Signed Concerned Resident.

“Playing in the Park” is prohibited. Dear Park, What the hell are you good for? Signed Concerned Resident

 

2015 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge

From Goobe's Books, one of my favorite local bookstores in Bangalore

From Goobe’s Books, one of my favorite local bookstores in Bangalore

Recently, a FaceBook friend posted a link for the 2015 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This is a scavenger hunt for readers. There are 24 categories for which one should read at least one book each. For many categories there are also links to posts that will provide some recommendations.

 

While I’m not particularly good at planning out my reading, I thought it would be fun to give it a try.

 

What follows are my choices in each category.

1.) Author was under 25 years old:  The Icarus Girl  by Helen Oyeyemi

or possibly Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

2.) The author was over 65 years old: All That Is by James Salter

3.) A short story collection or anthology: 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense ed. Al Sarrantonia

4.) Indie press published book: I Have Blinded Myself Writing This by Jess Stoner (and, incidentally, SF/LD [Short Flight / Long Drive] Press)

or, alternatively: Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach (published by Akashic Books)

5.) By or about someone who identifies as LGBTQ: Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

6.) A book by someone of the opposite gender: House of Bathory by Linda Lafferty, or The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

7.) Book takes place in Asia: My Boyhood Days by Rabindranath Tagore

or, possibly, Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, or  Underground by Haruki Murakami. I’ll likely read several books in this category.

8.) Author is from Africa: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

9.) Book by or about someone from an aboriginal culture: Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette

10.) A microhistory: Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

or The Emperor of Maladies by Siddartha Mukherjee, or The Pirate Coast by Richard Zacks,

but–most likely– Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton (Which I just realized qualified and I already have queued up to read soon.)

11.) A YA novel: Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

12.) A Sci-fi novel: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, or Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, or Tears in Rain by Rosa Montero, or Under the Empyrian Sky by Chuck Wendig. I’ll likely read several books in this category.

13.) A romance novel: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

14.) A recent winner of the National Book Award, the Man Booker Prize, or a Pulitzer: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (2012 National Book Award) or The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2014 Pulitzer)

15.) A retelling of a classic tale: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (of Hamlet), or Going Bovine by Libba Bray (of Don Quixote.)

16.) An audiobook: (Truth be told, I probably won’t listen to any books this year. I used to get audiobooks all the time when I had a commute, but it’s not so convenient anymore. However, to play the game to its fullest): All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

17.) A collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

18.) A book someone has recommended for you: It may be cheating because I already have it down, but so far the only book I’ve had recommended for me recently (that I haven’t yet read) is Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

If you want to keep me from being a dirty cheat, feel free to make me a recommendation.

19.) A book originally published in another language: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, or Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar

20.) A graphic novel or comic collection: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, or Serenity: Leaves on Wind by Zach Whedon

21.) A guilty pleasure read: Never Go Back by Lee Child, or Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, or Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

22.) A book published before 1850: The Aeneid by Virgil (19 B.C.), or Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes (1605)

23.) A book published in 2014: Station Eleven  by Emily St. John Mandel, or The Martian by Andy Weir

24.) A self-improvement / self-help book: A Conversation with Fear by Mermer Blakeslee, or Golden Cloud, Silver Lining by Ashok Chopra

 

Well, there’s my list. Now I’ve got to go get cracking on doing the reading.

DAILY PHOTO: Bangalorean Winter Flowers

Taken in Cubbon Park on December 13, 2014

Taken in Cubbon Park on December 13, 2014

The other day I posted a winter photo from Budapest to psyche myself up to experience winter for the first time in a while. Now I’m going the other route. As I pack to travel to a place with winter, I’m posting some of the flowers currently blooming in Cubbon Park.

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Taken in Cubbon Park on December 13, 2014.

Taken in Cubbon Park on December 13, 2014.



Thailand Can NOT Catch a Break: Monk Pimp-Slaps an Expat

No, you didn’t read that sub-title wrong. A Buddhist monk delivered a series of slaps to a farang. It’s not clear whether the slaps were issued because the victim was a grown man wearing capri pants. But seriously though, it’s pretty well established that the slappings were delivered as the result of a communication mishap in which the monk heard one offensive word, but the victim says he said another (non-offensive) word–apparently corroborated by nearby witnesses. The story is here.

 

This is a minor incident, except that… well, it was  Buddhist monk. When men of peace get all slappy people start to wonder if there isn’t some greater underlying anti-farang sentiment. I mean, a monk is the last person you expect to slap the snot out of a person who’s just sitting there, and–if they are the last–that means that all the other Thais have been slapping around foreigners already. For the record I only got pummeled about the head and neck in the Muaythai gym, so it was in context.

 

There’s good reason why Thailand is one of the most beloved tourist destinations in the world. The people are awesome. The food is delectable. It’s easy to get around to see the country’s many impressive sights and serene beaches. It’s laid-back, and, unlike some tourist destinations, it’s a country that’s eager to have you whether you’re a poor backpacker or a wealthy industrialist.

 

However, lately Thailand cannot catch a break on the tourism front. First, the country is under martial law. I can say from experience that there isn’t much evidence of change if you’re a traveler. However, it probably still keeps some people out. Some governments even issued warnings to citizens out of fear that violence might erupt if citizens tire of the situation. “Martial law” doesn’t exactly scream safe travel destination.

 

Then in September (around the time I was last in Thailand) a couple was brutally murdered with a hoe on Koh Tao. This might have been even worse for the tourist trade than the martial law. For one thing, it got a lot of press because the couple was really, really nice looking, making it easy to plaster their faces across every media outlet in the world. For another thing, they were killed with a hoe. Who kills someone with a hoe, really? The only way it could have been worse was if it was murder by Garden Weasel (as seen on TV.) (I’m not saying that if it had been an ugly couple that got shot or stabbed with a knife, that the effect on tourism would have been minimal, but…)

 

As it was, it resulted in the need to put out a new tourism video entitle “I hate Thailand”, that oddly makes Western tourists seems like even bigger pricks than they (we) really are in an effort to attract tourism.

All that said, you should go to Thailand.

Learning to Leap: Why?

IMG_1631Leaping maneuvers are ever-present in martial arts movies and in some martial arts (e.g. Indian Kalaripayattu and some forms of Kung fu). However, these acrobatic techniques are rarely seen–and are even less often successful–in combative encounters (neither in sport nor in the real world–excepting those sports that highly reward such maneuvers and create rules that make them feasible for entertainment value.)

 

Why leaping, spinning wildness is popular in movies is easy. We thrill to see extremely demanding action that draws ooohs and ahhhhs. It’s the same reason one wants to watch a parkour runner vault over a car (presuming it’s not one’s car), even when it would be infinitely more practical to walk around it. It’s why we want to see gymnasts tumbling and flipping through the air even though walking across the floor is both easier on the joints and less hazardous.

 

However, the question of why martial arts that aren’t purely for entertainment practice leaping maneuvers. Even a few of the quintessentially pragmatic Japanese martial arts, which follow the motto “eliminate the extraneous” have some leaping techniques. One of the schools I’ve studied, Kotō-ryū Koppōjutsu has a scroll devoted to leaping techniques, despite the fact that it’s otherwise a grounded system–both literally and figuratively. Muay Thai, which also values tried and true winning basics over snazziness, also has leaping knee strikes in its repertoire, though one doesn’t see them a lot in fights. It’s true that the arts that emphasize practicality but have leaping and spinning techniques tend to have a different approach to them. The Kotō-ryū Hichōjutsu (that school’s leaping techniques) emphasize eliminating big wind-ups, and going straight into the leap from a natural posture. This gives one less air, but is much less obvious. It’s particularly useful if you don’t really want air, but you just want to leap as much as you must.  But why leap at all?

Creating this kind of spring loading of the legs may not fly.

Creating this kind of spring loading of the legs may not fly.

This kind of windup would be anathema to schools.

This kind of windup would be anathema to some schools

 

There are a number answers to this question. First, while it’s hard to make aerial techniques work, when they work, they can be devastatingly effective. There are few ways to put more power into a strike than to literally put all of one’s body-weight in motion under the force of gravity. There’s understandably something unsatisfying about this explanation. I think it mostly has to do with the dearth of second chances in combative encounters. Few second chances make one want to have the highest likelihood of success on the first go.

 

Second, while tried-and-true, go-to techniques work because they are hard to defeat and /or they minimize one’s risk of a fight-ending counter, some techniques work because they catch the opponent off-guard. Such techniques work because the opponent can’t believe one is actually trying something so wild on them. However, failing to anticipate the unusual, the opponent hasn’t trained a response into themselves. This answer gets us somewhere in cases where either the situation is dire or one knows something about the opponent.

 

Third–and I would argue most importantly–these techniques produce explosively powerful legs that are beneficial to a martial artist even when he stays on the ground. In other words, maybe they are more important in the role of capacity building than they are as actual techniques to be emulated.

The split kick allows one to kick two opponents at once--as long as they aren't moving and are  perfectly spaced. However, it does require a multidimensional fitness that's beneficial for martial artists. (Which is why I can't do it well.)

The split kick allows one to kick two opponents at once–as long as they aren’t moving and are perfectly spaced. However, it does require a multidimensional fitness that’s beneficial for martial artists. (Which is why I can’t do it well.)

 

Finally, there’s one more reason that is important but was last because I didn’t even learn this lesson until I was reviewing the photos for this post, and that’s that these techniques require a whole new level of bodily awareness and control. I would generally be considered to have pretty good bodily awareness. I’ve been doing martial arts a long time, have practiced various kinds of yoga and chi gong, and have done my share of other physical training. Still, when I looked at my photos I found that I often had body parts jutting every which way. While one may argue that one doesn’t need that brand of bodily awareness if one is not using that kind of motion, I think that it probably helps with one’s awareness at high-speed in general and that many arts don’t adequately prepare one for keeping one’s body under control when there are those extra forces (e.g. centripetal & centrifugal, and gravity) acting upon it.

In my mind this looked completely different. I didn't have my arms out to the side like I was on a cross and my heel standing leg heel was still up near my buttock.

In my mind this looked completely different. I didn’t have my arms out to the side like I was on a cross and my heel standing leg heel was still up near my buttock.

 

One aspect of bodily awareness that is particularly important for these maneuvers is control of the eyes. In the arts I’ve studied, there has always been emphasis on the placement of the eyes. However, given all the little details one had to keep in mind, it was a reality easy aspect to half-ass. However, when one is leaping, and particularly if there is a spinning component, wandering eyes translates to crash and burn.

Entering the spin.

Entering the spin.

Mid spin / mid kick

Mid spin / mid kick. I have no idea why my right index finger is pointed down.

 

I’m not built for leaping. It’s not so much the leaping, but–in the immortal words of Tom Petty–“Coming down is the hardest thing.” I figured that getting to the level of Kalaripayattu training that involves a lot of leaping would be the end of that art for me. As I mentioned, there are some leaping techniques in the martial art I studied, but I was never particularly good at them. When I was young and had the proper body for it, I didn’t have the right mindset, and when I got older I was lacking the physical capacity for them. However, I’ve learned quite a bit about my body through the practice of these techniques, and I’m interested to see what level I can take it to.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Voice of the Silence by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

The Voice of the Silence: Being Extracts from The Book of the Golden PreceptsThe Voice of the Silence: Being Extracts from The Book of the Golden Precepts by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

According to Helena Blavatsky, the three “fragments” that make up The Voice of the Silence are her translations of three tracts from The Book of Golden Precepts, of which there are 90 and she had memorized 39. The Book of Golden Precepts is said to include both Buddhist and pre-Buddhists views on spirituality.

Blavatsky was one of the founding members of the Theosophical Society, an organization that proposed and advanced a certain brand of mysticism. Mystic traditions are those which believe that one must look inward to find the divine, i.e. to know god. The Theosophical approach isn’t without controversy. Blavatsky’s allusion to a secret path to wisdom and the suggestion that most of the world isn’t ready for the high level teachings sits in contradiction to a Siddhartha Buddha who was transparent. Buddhists have been known to claim that in as much as an idea is a teaching of the Buddha, it wasn’t secret, and in as much as a teaching was secret, it wasn’t the work of the Buddha. But there is disagreement. Some believe that what Blavatsky is presenting is high level Mahayana Buddhism, but others think that it’s a hodge-podge of Kabbala, esoteric Buddhism, and yogic teachings.

The first “fragment” is also titled “The Voice of the Silence.” This section suggests that there are three stages to one’s journey: ignorance, learning, and wisdom. It states that one must take care to not to be distracted from the path by sensual inclinations or by desire. The path described mirrors the advanced stages of Patanjali’s eight-limbs. In other words, she discusses a progression from pratyahara (not explicitly named, but described as the withdrawal of sensory input), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (liberation.)

The second part is entitled “The Two Paths.” Liberation and renunciation are the two paths in question. The central topic of this chapter is Karma, and the questions of action versus inaction that are also discussed in the Bhagavad-Gita.

The third part is “The Seven Portals.” These seven doors through which one must pass on the way to wisdom are essentially the same as the six paramita of Buddhism with an additional one, Virag, inserted between the third and fourth spot. The portals are Dana (generosity), Shila (a.k.a. Sila, or virtue), Kshanti (patience / perseverance), Virag (illusion conquered), Virya (energy), Dhyana (contemplation), and Prajna (wisdom).

A nice feature is a “glossary” at the end of each of the fragment that explains some of the terminology and concepts. While this is called a glossary, it’s not one in the usual sense, i.e. it’s not in alphabetical order and is not exclusively definitions. It would better be described as chapter notes. The idea is to convey the information that a lay reader may need, but which the author / translator doesn’t want to muddle the text with.

I think this book is worth a read. It’s short, and for a work written in the 19th century it’s quite readable—that doesn’t mean that the message is always clearly conveyed—whether on purpose or accident.

Note: While I read this on Kindle for a nominal price, it’s available on the web free of charge (see here.)

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: Fatehpur Sikri Garden

Taken in the Fall of 2013 at Fatehpur Sikri

Taken in the Fall of 2013 at Fatehpur Sikri

Rewiring the Brain about Pain: All That Isn’t Pleasure Isn’t Pain

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I see people staring at the railing on which they will stretch their hamstrings just like they would look at a side-by-side refrigerator unit that they have to move down a flight of stairs, psyching themselves up for the stretch. Or maybe they are weighing the question of whether they really need to stretch as one might ponder whether it would be better to get an engine overhaul or replace a car altogether. The point is that there seems to be an element of anxiety or dread associated with actions like stretching that aren’t necessarily pleasurable.

 

I have a theory about why this is the case.

First, people falsely equate discomfort with pain.

Second, the entire point of true pain is to tell one how not to move so as to avoid exacerbating an injury.

Third, this results in a desire to avoid pursuits that cause such physical discomfort.

Fourth, people create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they tense muscles in the area of the stretch to counteract the aching stretch, but this just increases the discomfort level.

 

Your body has a clever little device called the myotatic reflex arc (MRA.) That’s when a muscle tenses to avoid injury because the muscle seems to be stretching too fast for comfort. However, that reflex is only relevant to dynamic movement and the fact that it’s a reflex arc means that the signals don’t go through the brain–thus–aren’t consciously controlled. The MRA is different from the tension one holds in a slow and controlled stretch. It’s fun to see people who’ve been encouraged to breath and relax into the stretch realizing that the stretch isn’t as bad as it seems.

 

Of course, many intense physical activities that cause discomfort may also result in a sufficient endorphin (natural painkillers) inflow and adrenaline / cortisol (stress hormones) outflow to result in net feelings of pleasure. While stretching results in endorphin release, the action of holding the muscle stretched may be too much for our natural painkillers to counteract, particularly when one is breathing easily and thus the body is not under the level of whole-body stress that might encourage the big endorphin dumps desired.

 

The problem is that one can’t achieve flexibility without pressing against one’s limits any more than one can make strength gains without lifting more or by employing more repetitions. If one just goes to the point at which one is no longer comfortable, you may be able to prevent losing flexibility, but you’re not going to make gains.

 

Another part of the problem is that people often go into stretching cold, and thus maximize their discomfort. Doing warm-ups and joint articulations before any kind of intense stretching is a good practice. These warm-ups should not test the fullest range of motion, but should move with sufficient quickness to get the muscles and the synovial fluid in the joints warmed up.

 

The problem with seeing stretching as painful is that it discourages it. Some individuals fail to stretch altogether, and others focus only on the major muscle groups (hamstrings and quads) and miss muscles that adduct, abduct, rotate, and generally stabilize and support the primary agonist or antagonist muscle pairing. The most common injury in the Japanese martial art that I study is a knee injury attributable in part to insufficiently flexible external rotators and abductors and the inability to keep the knee in line with the toes–thus putting too much torque on the joint and too much load on the ligaments.

 

Wrong: knee is not pointing over toes

Wrong: knee is not pointing over toes

 

Martial artists, in particular, need to avoid equating discomfort with pain. When discomfort becomes pain, pain becomes agony, and agony become intolerable. There are many factors that can determine the outcome of a combative event, including technical proficiency, physical fitness, and the ability to persevere. The last one may mean the ability to take a licking and keep on ticking as the Timex people used to say.

 

The good news is that it’s possible to rewire one’s brain to avoid equating the discomfort of stretching with pain.

Step 1: Get a yoga face. In the martial arts, we talk about having a warrior face, which is an expression that conveys one’s intensity and seriousness. For yoga and stretching one should ditch the agony face and replace it with a serene face. My personal recommendation is that you aim to emulate the faces on the Bayon at Angkor.

Yoga face as seen on the Bayon at Angkor

Yoga face as seen on the Bayon at Angkor

 

Step 2: Keep your mind on your breath, and away from the sensation of the stretch. There’s a reason yoga teachers harp on breath, it will help one reduce one’s overall tension.

 

Step 3: Stop using the word pain (in your own mind or when speaking out loud) to refer to the feeling of a stretched muscle. You may not be able to replace the word “pain” with something as euphemistic as “stretch bliss,” but try to avoid giving it a name with a negative connotation. It’s simply the sensation of a stretched muscle

 

Step 4: When you find yourself wearing an agony face and squeezing out the protective muscular tension, ease off the stretch until it’s comfortable. Then ease back into the stretch, keeping the surrounding muscles relaxed and the breath even and deep.  You can visualize expelling the tension with one’s exhalation if that helps.

 

Step 5: When you experience real pain, have no guilt about heeding it and giving that part of the body time to heal. Of course, this requires an ability to differentiate stretch sensation from true pain.

 

Now I’ll segue into a discussion of actual pain. When I was having a lot of problems with my lower back–eventually diagnosed as arthritis–I had a bizarro interaction with my healthcare provider. When I first went to the doctor, I faced this unsubtle wall of suspicion because back injuries are a common fraud device for persons addicted to painkillers. That’s because there are many forms of back injury that are hard to witness externally. However, when they x-rayed my back they could see clear indication that something was wrong. Then they were surprised when they tried to foist painkillers on me, and I wasn’t interested.

 

Here is how I look at painkillers. Imagine the “check-engine” light came on in your car, and you took the vehicle to the mechanic. The mechanic has your car for a brief time and comes back to you with a nominal bill. At first you are thrilled, and then you ask the inevitable question, “So what was the problem?” Your mechanic then says, “Oh, I have no idea, I just disconnected the light. That light won’t be giving you any more trouble.” Needless to say, you are decidedly less thrilled. You wanted the underlying problem fixed.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s no place for pain-killing medication. If one has pain that is so severe that one cannot rest, one’s body won’t be able to heal itself properly.

 

However, if you pop painkillers to do away with bodily aches, you should reconsider. Those aches are what being alive feels like, and if they come from exercise or labor they should be welcomed and not be framed in a negative light. If they are an indication of a postural misalignment or some sort of systemic problem, you should look into fixing the underlying problem.

 

[To be fair to my aforementioned doctor, I think people aren’t conditioned to the notion that they are the key participant in their own healthcare and that fixing problems will often require hard work on their part. So a part of the problem in some places–most notably America–is that healthcare isn’t profitable unless they are pushing surgery or expensive medications. However, another part of the problem is that people just want to go to the doctor and have the expert fix them without requiring the personal effort of fixing postural deficiencies or cutting weight. I can understand why doctors are a bit fed up with suggesting people do the work only to get no response. I saw a statistic recently that only 1 in 8 people threatened with a lethal illness would make a behavioral change recommended by a doctor to reduce the threat of the ailment–e.g. stop smoking, stop drinking, cut weight, etc.]

 

 

 

 

 

DAILY PHOTO: Winter Markets in Budapest

Taken in Budapest in the Winter of 2008.

Taken in Budapest in the Winter of 2008.

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Later in the week I will be traveling to Hungary. I’m posting this to psych myself up to experience winter. For the past year-and-a-half I’ve been living where there are only two seasons–rainy and dry. Before that I was living in Atlanta, where winter is generally a half-hearted affair. So this will be my first real winter in a few years.

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