da bears, da…bluegills?

Soundtrack in my head:  Madness, “Grey Day”

I was surprised to read that Illinois’ state fish, the bluegill, is an aggressive invader species causing all sort of problems in lakes across Japan.  A recent news article said that Japan’s Emperor Akihito claimed responsibility for bringing the bluegill species to Japan in the 1960’s.  Chicago’s late mayor Richard J Daley, (father of the current Chicago mayor) reportedly gave several bluegill to Akihito as a gift when he was still the Crown Prince of Japan.  According to Akihito, the bluegill were intended to be raised for food, but their populations exploded unexpectedly, and have been endangering native Japanese fish species for a long time.

It’s ironic, because the Illinois River has been infested with a different invasive species, the Asian carp, and there is significant worry that they’ll make their way up the river into the Great Lakes, where they could cause great havoc. 

But the irony runs even deeper for me personally.  Illinois and Japan both represent things in my life that I’ve left behind.  I was born and raised in Illinois and lived thirty of my years there.  But my mother first became pregnant with me while my parents were stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War, and for many years I joked that I spent six months in Japan but never set foot there.  That changed in the fall of 2000 when I visited Japan as part of a pilgrimage for Mahikari, a spiritual organization I was involved with at the time.

I remember writing a paper about the bluegill sometime around the sixth or seventh grade–I might have even had to give a speech about it.  I think I also remember doing a color pencil drawing of the bluegill.  I also remember that Lake Biwa, the Japanese lake that the bluegill was first released into, is mentioned in the Mahikari prayer book. 

I left Chicago in 2003 and left Mahikari, the aforementioned Japanese spiritual path, a few weeks ago.  Part of the reason had to do with discomfort with some cultural apsects of each.  So, even though its not funny, I found myself laughing when I read about this strange connection between the two.  

Maybe I’m laughing because I have this image of aggressive and somewhat politically incorrect fish with Chicago accents bullying their way through Japanese lakes, while the bewildered native species try to be polite to these aquatic Monsters of the Midway.  Of course, the reverse is happening in the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

Back in the 1960’s, the devastating impact of invasive species was not as well known as it is now.  Neither the elder Daley nor Akihito knew what they were getting into when the gift was made, so it’s not like either of them can be criticized or made fun of.  Japanese officials have succeeded in cutting the bluegill population in half over the last couple of years, and hopefully similar success can achieved in controlling the Asian carp.  And the younger Daley currently serving as Chicago’s mayor has developed a reputation for being an enviromentally-minded mayor–a reputation that is, at least to some extent, well-deserved. 

Nevertheless, I can imagine my fellow Wisconsinites reading about the bluegill debacle in the paper, thinking, “Those darn Illinoisians, they’re at it again.” 




Soundtrack in my head:  Ituana, "Garota de Ipanema (The Girl From Ipanema)"

Here’s yet another definition of NaBloPoMo–an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  I think being at least somewhat unhinged is a necessity in order for me to have the fortitude to continue posting on my blog each day for the month of November.  Good thing that there’s no shortage of online tests to let me know for sure:


You Are 24% Obsessive

You tend to have a few obsessive thoughts, but you generally have them under control.
Sometimes your worries keep you up at night, though they usually don’t interfere with your life.


pulp diction

Soundtrack:  Sensistar, “Legalize My Life”

Sometimes it’s possible to be so perfectionistic as to be unproductive.  I know I’m capable of holding standards for my writing that are so high, I find myself two or three weeks without posting anything on my blog.  I’m still guilty of doing that on the Madison.com version of this blog.  

Toward that end, NaBloPoMo has been good for me, because it has helped me stop over-censoring myself, and just let my writing flow.  

But on Day 25 of 30 of this effort to post every day for the month of November, I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far in the quantity direction.  

I think my posts for this month have been of pretty high quality.  Of course, it helps to have major life changes while doing this exercise.  I think it’s safe to say that this revolution has been televised.  Perhaps well-televised.  Perhaps to a nauseating level.

I can churn out massive quantities of stuff, but there are limits to which, you, gentle reader, are willing to read it all.  You’re online for your own reasons, and are reading this for your own reasons.  

I think I’m getting to the point where both you and I are reaching saturation.  Which is why this is NaBloPoMo, and not NaBloPoYe (National Blog Posting Year).  Still, I wish the month were a Baha’i month because a month on the Baha’i calendar has only nineteen days.  That seems saner to me now.

Not that I’m at the point where I am ready to post the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as I once did when confronted with a similar dilemma in the third grade.  No sirree, not I.

“Mary had a, um…well, you know.  Ah, forget it.”

baha’i bar-hopping

Soundtrack in my head:  Capsule, “Idol Fancy”

So I got home from my first Baha’i Feast  last night and was greeted by a housemate asking me if I wanted to go bar-hopping.

Now this is sort of a complicated question for a Baha’i.  Part of the spiritual practice of a Baha’i is avoiding alcohol and narcotic drugs.  I had a problem accepting this when I considered the Faith nearly two decades ago, but it’s not much of a stretch for me now.  As years have gone by, I’ve enjoyed alcohol less and less, and have observed the negative impacts it has on my body more and more.  For someone like me who is sensitive to grains and refined sugar, alcohol is like throwing gasoline on a fire.  I’ve often found myself feeling hung over after just one drink.  So this time around, it really wasn’t much to ask me refrain from drinking.

Nevertheless, my initial reaction to the offer was “Ummmm…” when I was first asked.  I was also kind of tired, too.  But I decided to go, because my housemates and I don’t do as much together as I would like. Being a Baha’i was not going to be the end of my social life—I see it, in fact, as being quite the opposite.  But for a moment, there was a part of me that had these cozy images of Irish pubs and an image of a distant ancestor with a Scottish accent saying, “Steven, wot? You noht drinking any mahr?”

I brushed those thoughts aside, and walked to Amy’s Café with my housemates.  They ordered beers, and I ordered a club soda with a lime.  I was shocked to discover that there was no charge for the club soda.  I realized that I could get used to this lifestyle.

I told my housemates of my Baha’i declaration and the impact that it would have on my drinking, and they were supportive.  One housemate thought it was really cool, and talked about how he found himself less interested in alcohol than before.  

As we were talking, I was noticing how much I was enjoying myself.  A lot of things that I associate with bar life—the music, the atmosphere, the conversation under the glow of the neon lights—all of that was still there, and did not require alcohol to make it fun.  Indeed, I found it easier to focus on the conversation at hand than before.  Maybe it was the particular company I was with that night, but I found myself enjoying myself more than usual.  I think that often, the drink has been a distraction from the socializing at hand.

I’ve known recovering alcoholics who have pointed out that so much of the culture of socializing gets attached to alcohol when it doesn’t need to be.  I’m grateful that alcoholism is not an addiction I’ve had to overcome.  

We left Amy’s and went to a bar in the basement of Porta Bella’s Restaurant.   I’d known about the restaurant but had never been there because for me, Italian restaurants = pasta = death by gluten.  But they have this beautiful little bar in the basement that sort of has a brick catacombs feel to it.  I ordered a Diet Pepsi and kept getting free refills.  At one point I accidentally knocked over my Pepsi, which led to jokes about my alleged tipsiness.  My housemates ordered these really thick stouts, but rather than feel jealous, I looked at the thick brew in their frosted mugs, and I thought to myself “Liquid gut-bomb.” I was glad that was not going into my stomach.  

Total bar tab for a night on the town:  $4.00, including tips. 

The resulting happiness over being able to stick to my spiritual principles, and save googles of money at the same time?  Priceless.


Soundtrack in my head: Kiltarten Road, “Carol of the Field Mice”

It was an unusually warm day for a November 19th in Wisconsin. It was up in the 50’s and foggy. I could barely focus on the dinner conversation at the co-op house. After dinner, I ventured outside. I had a lot on my mind as I walked toward the Wisconsin Union on the edge of Lake Mendota.

I walked into the Union and cut through the Rathskellar.  The place seemed unusually noisy, but quiet greeted me as I walked out onto the Union patio. No one was there on the patio—who would be on a November night? I walked past the empty metal tables and chairs and stepped up to the water’s edge. The lake was enshrouded in fog, yet it was remarkably windy and the waves churned.

I’d been here many times before when needing a quiet moment to gather my thoughts.  I often travelled to Madison before I moved here, and it was here that I’d often contemplate moving here and starting a new life here.  One of the reasons I wanted to move up here was to help estabish Mahikari here in the Madison area.  Ironically, I was now here for a different purpose…

I walked out onto a part of the patio that sticks out like a pier, so that I would be surrounded by water on three sides. People were leaving it just as I approached it. I walked to the water’s edge, opened my Baha’i prayer book, and began to read a long prayer. I read it slowly in order to grasp and savor every word.

Then I sat down and meditated on my life since the day I was introduced to the Baha’i Faith nineteen years ago this month. I thought about what was happening with me then and what has happened since. Just as I was concluding my meditation, a friendly fisherman came up to me and asked me if it was okay for him to fish there. I told him it was fine and we chatted for a few minutes. Then I told him I was getting chilly and I walked down the shoreline a bit and found another place to sit.

Then I offered more prayers. I decided to recite “Allah-u-Abha” ninety-five times, a standard Baha’i practice.  As I recited the phrase, it began to feel like a countdown was proceeding, with each recitation of the Greatest Name brining me a step closer to the magical moment of declaration.  When I finished, I pulled out of my shirt pocket a 3 x 5 index card with blue printing on it. Someone gave me this card three months ago when I first showed up at the Baha’i Center here in Madison. On the top of the card, the words “Baha’i Declaration” were printed. I filled in my name and address, birth date, phone number, and signed and dated the card.

There’s so much more I could say, and so much more I will say, but I’m getting tired and sleepy. It’s been a long but exciting day. 

So for now, just mark the time at 7:52 p.m., November 19, 2007.  At that very moment,  I declared myself a Baha’i.

the masters of their craft

Soundtrack in my head: Cocteau Twins, “Pearly Dewdrops-Drops”

Sometimes, a good way to tell how meaningful a musical artist is to a listener is to count the number of CD’s of the artist that s/he owns. So, in looking at my CD collection, one could surmise that the Grateful Dead (seven CD’s), John Coltrane (six CD’s), Miles Davis and Bill Evans (five CD’s each), Love, Lush and LTJ Bukem (four CD’s each) and The Church, Ride, The Boo Radleys, and The Charlatans UK, (three CD’s each) mean a lot to me as musicians.

Sometimes an artist’s music may so resonate with a listener that it’s “off the charts”—no other musical act even comes close. The listener is so touched by the music that he wants to get his hands on everything they’ve ever released. For me, that musical group is the Cocteau Twins. Off the charts? Yes. I own thirteen of their CD’s (sixteen if you consider the fact that many of the CD’s are two EP’s put together) and they have been my favorite band for 23 years. That’s a long run at “Number One.”

In 1984, I regularly listened to a radio show Friday nights on WXRT-Chicago called “The Big Beat.” At that time it was difficult to for me find the music I liked on commercial radio and “The Big Beat” was how I kept myself up to date on groups like The Smiths, Cabaret Voltaire, The Church, Echo and the Bunnymen, and others. It was while listening to this show that I heard something quite different from anything I’d heard before.

A song opened with the sound of bells and chimes and a vibrating sound that sounded sort of like a guitar yet different. The sound was powerful like a riff of a heavy metal guitar, yet at the same time subdued, sounding a little like the sympathetic drone strings on a sitar–except even more richly textured. And beautiful. I had this image of this sound echoing through every corner of a canyon as if nature itself were singing, and it was powerful enough of a sound to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. Then came the crashing of cymbals, and the crisp and simple sound of a drum. And then a female voice completely unlike any previously heard in rock ‘n’ roll or New Wave or any other genre. The words were unintelligible—they sounded like English, but yet not understandable. But it didn’t matter because this female singer sounded like she had classical voice training. Sometimes she sounded like a fluttering bird and other times she’d make a sudden and dramatic leap to a high note and hit it perfectly.

Intrigued, I pressed the “Record” button on my tape player and listened. At the end of the song, the announcer said that the name of the band was the “Cocteau Twins.” I thought it was a funny name, especially considering at the that there was a well-known pop/new wave band at the time known as the “Thompson Twins.”  The song I heard was entitled “Lorelei.”

Then, a few weeks later, I heard another song by the Cocteau Twins, “Ivo” which opened with what sounded like the strumming of an acoustic guitar seemingly materializing out of nowhere in a foggy night. Once again, this guitar had layers of sound added to it which made it sound richly textured. And once again, this beautiful voice was doing vocal acrobatics through this alien yet unbelievably beautiful world.

With two tracks that caught my attention, I realized that I had to get the album, and so I did. The album was called “Treasure,” and many Cocteau Twins fans, including myself, consider it their finest one. The album opened with “Ivo” and “Lorelei and that was followed by eight other tracks.  All the song titles on the album consisted of people’s first names, though “Beatrix,” “Persephone,” “Aloysius,” and “Otterley” aren’t names one would hear every day. The music seemed to range from classical to New Wave to jazz to rock and yet it wasn’t any of these things.

One Saturday afternoon I lay in bed with my headphones and listened and concentrated entirely on the album. I was so deeply moved that afterwards, I walked out into the backyard, lay down in the grass, and stared at the sky for about three hours. At the restless age of seventeen, the notion of staying home rather than going out on a Saturday night was anathema to me, yet, that’s exactly what I did, and indeed, the notion of going out seemed rather trivial after listening to this album.

I collected more of their albums when I went to college.  By that time, the group was being marketed more in the U.S. and the record companies made available The Pink Opaque, a collection of music from earlier EP’s and albums between 1982 and 1985–on which I would discover my favorite by the group, Pearly-Dewdrops Drops (video link here).  I remember that in 1986 and 1987, people were introducing the Cocteau Twins to friends in college dorm rooms across the country. Frequently, it would involve someone encouraging a friend to put on headphones, lie down, close their eyes, and just listen to and absorb the music.  People frequently had the same reactions I did–they were completely blown away by a sound different from anything they’d previously heard.

The band’s song titles were also remarkably distinctive. Examples include, “Tishbite,” “Shallow Then Halo,” “Iceblink Luck,” “The Itcthy Glowbo Blow,” “Glass Candle Grenades,” “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow,” “Oomingmak,” and “How to Bring a Blush to the Snow.”

The group formed in Scotland in 1980 and continued until 1997. Over that period of time they released nine albums and eight EP’s, plus a number of compilation albums. I think what made the group special was the unique genius of Robin Guthrie, a real pioneer in extending the range of sounds possible with a guitar, and Elizabeth Fraser, whose approach to vocals was, and still is unique.

There is significant debate over what period of time marked their best music. I am partial to their releases between 1983 and 1986, which includes the albums Head Over Heels, Treasure, The Pink Opaque, Victorialand, and The Moon and the Melodies, plus a number of EP’s. I think this period showcased their music at the most experimental, dramatic, and beautiful. Others are partial to the period between 1988 and 1996, which includes the releases Blue Bell Knoll, Heaven Or Las Vegas, Four Calendar Café, and Milk and Kisses, a period of time in which their music was less experimental and more accessible, yet also marked a peak in the emotional depth of the lead singer’s lyrics.

I’m not sure how many other people would say this, but I think the Cocteau Twins had an important role in my early spiritual development. I changed as my musical tastes evolved. While I was exposed to significant amounts of classical music as a child, I’ve never really been able to feel a connection with most of it, though I’ve always liked and appreciated some of it. Rock ‘n’ roll was, of course, the music of choice among most of my school-mates, and I liked how it could convey strong emotions and speak to the rebellious side of me–but it also seemed a bit generic and lacking in creativity. The New Wave of the early 80’s appealed to me because of its creativity and the willingness to stretch and redefine previous notions of “cool.” The Cocteau Twins seemed to take a remarkable leap beyond that by reintroducing and redefining beauty and creating previously unknown and surprisingly beautiful musical worlds on their own terms.

Since the breakup of the band ten years ago, band members Robin GuthrieElizabeth Fraser and Simon Raymonde have continued with solo projects and collaborations with other groups. Guthrie has produced a number of albums, and he and Raymonde formed the record label Bella Union right before the Cocteau Twins parted ways. The group has influenced many other musical groups. Though I imagine members of the Cocteau Twins might associate themsleves with the “shoegaze” musical movement that started in the late 80’s and early 90’s, clearly they influenced the genre.  Yet theybut remained quite different—retaining a more ambient sound and generally avoiding the darker and more gothic moods that some shoegaze music gets into.

I can’t think of any other time where I heard music that was so completely different from anything else I’d previously heard. The Cocteau Twins were clearly ahead of their time when they first came out with music in 1982, and twenty-five years later, I still don’t think the rest of the musical world has caught up.

documentary night at the co-op house

Soundtrack in my head: The Moody Blues, “The Voice”

A housemate of mine has decided to start a weekly “documentary night” at the co-op house in an effort to get housemates together and enjoy some good video documentaries.

Tonight we watched “The Times of Harvey Milk,” a documentary about the first elected openly gay politician in the U.S. I had not known the story about what had happened, since I was only ten or eleven at the time and the only thing I was following in the newspaper at that age was the local sports teams. The thing that I found gripping about the documentary was how unafraid Harvey Milk was in speaking openly about what he believed in, and yet how, at the same time, he was clearly an effective politician and communicator. That may sound cliché, but I think all of us struggle with that. Our top politicians make choices every day between what is politically expedient and what they believe to be right in their heart of hearts.

I’ve come to realize this year that there is another layer to all this—the fact that it is easy to bury–and forget–what we believe in our heart of hearts because we are frightened by the implications of those beliefs. I realize that it is quite possible to fool ourselves into believing in something we honestly don’t believe in. This can happen because the contrast between what we see and what we believe can sometimes be overwhelming. We numb ourselves because we feel we have no other choice.

But sometimes we realize that we have no choice but to face the pain. In doing so, the truth often comes out. I can think of other times in my life that I should have walked into the pain and faced the consequences of the reality that I was trying to bury. As I get older, the more I realize that burying that reality does us no good, and on the other side of the pain is sanity and peace, if only we would strive for it…

rarefied air

Soundtrack: Cocteau Twins, “Essence”

Something happens to the night air when the temperature dips before 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s hard to describe. I noticed it when I walked outside tonight. I was working late and at 6 p.m. I left my office building and walked out onto Broadway on the south side of Madison. I would describe that stretch of Broadway as being about as nondescript as Madison can get.

But I noticed something different tonight. I was immediately struck with how clear the air was. There’s something about the chill that wipes the air clean. The stiletto streetlights were glowing differently—brighter, more luminescent, and it felt like I could see further down the street than before. Broadway began to feel like an empty stretch Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, even though the only things nearby were  a PDQ gas station, the Beltline Highway, and South Towne Mall with its parking lot mostly empty.

I really noticed it when my bus crossed Monona Bay along John Nolen Drive. The Capitol glowed a brighter white than I’d seen in a long time.

In many ways I like November better than October, even though the more beautiful fall colors are in October. I can’t quite explain why. It might be because I like to write. This “dark of the year” is a time that is more reflective and quiet, and writers love to reflect. (Maybe that’s why NaBloPoMo is in November?)

The snow hasn’t fallen yet. Snow is pretty, but it also becomes something you have to step around, make sure you don’t slip, and it becomes gray and dirty slush. But this time of year, the ground is still dry and clean, it’s cold, but not too cold, and there’s a certain clarity, a certain calm that settles in between the Halloween craziness and the holiday rush. I want to close my eyes and savor it…

tonight’s dinner? here’s the kiddie menu

Tonight, a creative housemate of mine decided to have a “kid food” theme for the dinner she was making.  Dinner consisted of macaroni and cheese with little slices of tofu dogs added to it, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (on white bread, of course) cut into little quarters, “ants on a log” which consisted of celery slices filled with peanut butter and little raisins stuck on top, pasta spirals with butter, sliced carrots and celery.   For dessert we had brownies and some kind of vegan whatsit that tasted pretty good.  And apple juice was served as a beverage.

It wasn’t exactly conducive to the gluten free lifestyle I’ve been leading.  But I could NOT resist the notion of mac and cheese.  I don’t know if it was the same Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinner I grew up with (my parents always just called it “Kraft dinner”), but it sure tasted like it.  My stomach was going, “no, no, no,” but my taste buds were being gleefully transported back to 1972 and were not going to miss this opportunity at nostalgia no matter how much my stomach protested.

Ever since childhood, I have had an odd habit of eating the same thing every day.  I probably ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day at school from fourth grade until I graduated from high school.  In college, out of creativity and necessity, I added some interesting twists to the sandwich–what I’d probably refer to today as Mutant Butter & Jelly.  Instead of using two slices of bread, I would use three, and on the insides of two of them I would spread butter.  If jelly wasn’t available, I used either honey, maple syrup or Miracle Whip–whatever was available in the house.  I even tried mayonnaise once, but that didn’t work so well.

I suppose it wouldn’t be that much of a leap to imagine a college-themed dinner here consisting of pizza and ramen noodles.  And more pizza.  And more ramen noodles.  With Bac-Os as a condiment.

You see, things like this wouldn’t happen if I lived in my own apartment.  This is yet another reason to live in a co-op house.

And now it’s time for me to take a nap…