Dec 30, 2011

Three Good Memories of 2011

During a recent conversation I was asked to name three personal stand-out memories of 2011. While I could easily talk about two highly inspirational moments, I was a little hesitant about the third. You'll see what I mean as you read.

We were busy in 2011; our Roman holiday, my step-son’s graduation in Los Angeles, a romantic weekend in Seattle, another at a rustic resort on Vancouver Island, a visit with my sick mother in Toronto, the memorable stage productions from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to Wagner’s ring cycle, a modern ballet and a church choir. Then, our disruptive move, my college grades and the memorable small film I produced at the Olympic luge run in Whistler. There were plenty more, but three was the target number. Here are my three:

Memory One
While on a much-needed, two-week, April vacation in Rome, we got to know the city well.  It’s an exceptional city, with antiquity and bustling street life in abundance. But the highlight presented itself during the last half hour of the Vatican tour. We had snaked our way through the fascinating, yet endless museum of religious and Roman artifacts, the delightful and crowded Sistine chapel and we spent lots of time viewing the gigantic main Basilica and Michelangelo’s Pieta. But, as we were about to leave, I noticed a sign outside pointing up. “Cupola.” We looked at our watches and realized we had just enough time left on the Vatican tour before we were closed out, or perhaps locked in.

Running down the alley beside the Basilica, we were stopped at a booth where we had to pay to ascend an old elevator to the top of the building. At the top we entered what, at first, looked like a large room, but it was actually a round balcony that circumnavigated the base of the dome itself, overlooking the main alter of the Basilica many feet below. As we moved toward the railing, spectacular sights unfolded, both up and down. From way above we were looking down onto the high altar where, below the marble floor, the bones of St. Peter lay in a crypt. Here at the alter, a multitude of Popes had reached up to high heaven to pray to their Lord; up to where we were, and above. I looked up at the awesome dome; it was like a giant crown over our heads. Michelangelo had designed, built and worked on this dome until his death in 1564. This was his last masterpiece. It was covered with exquisite paintings of biblical scenes and artwork leading to the top, and into the cupola. We slowly walked around the balcony railing, taking in the vast building, until we were stopped by a door to the outside.

The door opened onto the roof of the Basilica, looking toward the front of the roof, and to the row of Saints who peered down onto St. Peter’s square. We were poised behind them, almost like sneaking backstage to watch performers taking their bow onto the world stage. We were then quickly hustled to a small flight of steps sandwiched between the outside and the inside of the dome, like two domes, one inside the other, separated by a staircase. Here, we ascended, spiraling around the narrow slanted steps that wound up to the cupola.

It’s a massive dome and a good climb up the narrow passageway. Like climbing a claustrophobic, interior mountain, the old worn steps wound up the well trodden staircase that threads around the darkly lit dome. We stopped occasionally at one of the many slanted windows and glanced down on the incomplete panorama of Rome. Here we gained a sense of just how far we had climbed. Then, there was more; marble step after marble step. Some sections were easier to climb, but there was a constant echo of others climbing behind, some catching up and passing, while others were to be passed. At one point, the steps got wider, but then narrowed down to barely a body width. We reached the cupola and were ejected into the light of day.

On the crown of Rome, we reached the peak of Christendom: The cherry on top of the worldwide Catholic church.

Late afternoon cast a gentle glow around the city. We edged our way, shoulder to shoulder, around the small cupola portico. Spectacular panoramic views of Rome lay before us. Surveying Rome was a thrill, but looking down on St. Peter’s and the Vatican gardens, I realized that this was a country in itself; 0.2 square miles of the smallest country on earth.

The thrill, I would imagine, would be like climbing to the top of Mount Everest. There’s a euphoria in having done it. And a special feeling of just being there.

Memory Two
Just before Christmas, we were invited to attend Christchurch Cathedral in Downtown Vancouver to hear the Vancouver Bach Choir singing songs of Christmas. The edifice is small on a world-scale of Cathedrals, but the acoustics are ripe with the refurbished wooden alter, pews and floor, which resonate with musical sounds. The whole church is much like a music box itself.

Over time, the various religions have spurred on some of the greatest art mankind has ever known; sculpture, paintings, frescos, stain-glass, architecture, literature, plays, movies, music and more. And to me, there is nothing that brings better emotions than a choir of beautiful voices singing magical music from the great composers. The religions had their marketing skills aimed at bringing in crowds via an artistic direction, and they did it well. There is one story that tells about Viennese classical composer Franz Schubert, who was noticeably delinquent in his church attendance. They were going to excommunicate him, but he wrote a song that was instrumental in attracting hundreds of new church goers and possible converts. They forgave him, and that piece of music was “Ava Maria,” one of the finest songs ever written. It remains one of the primary songs that every choir uses in their reparatory.

We entered the church that Advent Sunday and sat beside our friends in an area they had saved, at the front side of the main alter. They were not seats we would have chosen, but they turned out the be the best in the house. At one point during the singing, the choir left their benches near the organ and toured the church, enthralling us with madrigals, melodies and a wonderful rendition of “Ava Maria.” Then, they walked toward us, and around the back of where we were seated.  The choir master stopped and set up his music stand immediately in front of us. The baton was raised and the song, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” by Michael Pratorius, sprung from the voices behind. The experience was of revery, of being so totally immersed in this musical art form, the composer, the conductor, the church acoustics and each individual choir member melded into one. Like all arts, music takes on a life of its own, voices become song and song filters through our consciousness and senses to become at one with our imagination and our mind. The music itself hangs in midair and envelops the soul.

I was in musical heaven. This was the perfect harmony of surround-sound in all its glory. Had the choir been in front of us, perhaps the experience wouldn’t have been quite so magical. But from behind, I could hear individual singers, their tones and nuances. My mind floated between meditation and the conductor’s baton as I sailed through a place that had no space and time, but was filled with this beautiful music.

Listen to a wonderful rendition of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”

Memory Three

This memory is difficult to write about because I don't wish my thoughts to be taken as a boast or a brag, but as an inspiration to others.

I recently enrolled in college to learn how to teach and to attain a diploma for instructing adults. This is for my proposed course in creativity and innovation. I attended Vancouver Community College's teaching course which had six, one-week classes. Some of them had another week of extensive homework for each class to complete the assignments. To graduate, a practicum/capstone project must also be completed. This was a difficult course, but fortunately I was able to spread the classes throughout the year.

My focus was not in achieving the highest grades, as I had never been one of the top mark earners at school, those many years ago. My plan was to learn as much as I could by enjoying the process, watching the instructors’ performing abilities and gaining as much knowledge as I could to start my own adult course.

Class One put me in the mindset of how difficult the whole course was going to be. It took in the process and mapped out the road for a curriculum. And while the class studies were quite doable, the assignments were complicated and time consuming.

Each class had its difficulties, some were instructor driven while others were learner driven. The class I liked the best was the second course where I had to teach three, ten-minute classes. I chose different styles and levels of teaching and learning. For me, it was about performance art and being able to put across a succinct subject. I also learned a great deal about the learner’s capacity and retention.

Other classes were about styles of learning and styles of teaching, and the last class was an instructor-driven, fascinating and funny lecture about the way the brain works and learns. With each course the homework assignments were extensive. However, this last class was the easiest for me. The assignments demanded simple answers to simple questions. But, I tried to make each answer creatively different.

A college grade of 100% is just about unattainable, but somehow I managed to touch gold. All my classes scores were good but it was the last class that got me an A+ (100%).

Telling this story is not about gloating in the arrogance of winning. As with the course I intend to teach, it’s about inspiring the many who, like me, may not have excelled at school. School takes dedication to learn, comprehend and concentrate, and if you can’t grasp what the instructor is teaching, you must ASK and persist, until you learn. Many learners are shy and afraid of being ridiculed, but teachers are there to help, and will help when asked. One thing that helped me, I was fascinated with the subject and I spent much more time on home-work than usual. I really wanted to learn and I made sure I did.

Joy in learning and curiosity is a wonderful way of gaining the knowledge of the world. And that puts us on a path to wisdom.

I have written about just three memories but there are so many more. Yet, we tend to forget them. Write them down in a diary, a notebook or a journal to help you remember, then share and inspire others. Because it is through our memories that knowledge gets passed around the world.

It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us.  A year impairs, a luster obliterates.  There is little distinct left without an effort of memory, then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment - but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?”
 ~Lord Byron

"Our memories are the only paradise from which we can never be expelled."
- Jean Paul Richter

Dec 16, 2011

The Journey to Shangri-La

Once while trekking through the Himalaya Mountains I thought I had found Shangri-La.

It was high in the Mount Everest region of Nepal, at a wonderful lookout called Gokyo Ri, with a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding majestic mountains, including Everest towering high over everything. This truly was the top of the world. And just over those mountains was Tibet.

I was looking down on the largest glacier in Nepal, and a few of the mountain passes that wandered through and around these high monuments to Earth’s great upheaval. On my detailed area map I saw that each mountain pass had the word “la,” a Tibetan word meaning “pass.” One of them, not too far from my location, was called Changra-La. "Sounds like Shangri-La," I thought. "Wonder if this could be ... ?" I asked one of the local guides if there was a village or a green valley situated there. “Sorry,” he said, “just an icy pass over a glacier. No one could live there.”

I’m not sure how author James Hilton found the name Shangri-La for the mythical, utopian valley in his novel and film Lost Horizon, but these mountains were teaming with la’s. Through the years, many people have contemplated where his inspiration came from. Some say that he was working with the Tibetan word Shambhala, meaning “pure land” and a utopian legend of a society of worldly wisdom set in Tibet. He was also said to have been inspired by the National Geographic travels of Australian/American explorer Joseph Rock who wrote of the peaceful Buddhist monasteries set in lush, green valleys among high, snow-caped mountains.

Whatever the origin, Lost Horizon and the mythical mountain kingdom of Shangri-La has been a public fantasy for many years. It’s a place of dreams and yearnings, a peaceful place set amongst the snowcapped mountains with a calm civilization of intelligent disposition. A utopian society that has seeped into western culture as an escape from the tense, dangerous, industrialized, polluted world we live in.

The next time Shangri-La came to mind was on a visit to the Ojai Valley in Southern California. Someone told me that the film-makers had used the valley as the location of the mythical Shangri-La in the 1937 film, Lost Horizon.

Recently, I watched an episode in the 2005 PBS TV series called, “In Search of Myths and Heros - Shangri-La,” presented by historian Michael Wood. Wood follows in the footsteps of the 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priest and explorer Antonio de Andrade on his search for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. Andrade had heard of this sacred place of peaceful worship and worldly wisdom at the top of the world, and he trekked through treacherous mountain terrain to get there. Wood explained that Shambhala and Shangri-La could be one-and-the-same. The legend of Shambhala tells of
a mythical place where a line of enlightened kings guarded the highest of worldly wisdom. Wood’s hypotheses was that the ancient Western Tibetan kingdom of Guge and its fortress capital city Tsaparang, where Andrade ended up, was Shambhala, and perhaps Shangri-La.

There have been many books written and TV shows produced about the quest for Shangri-La. I would highly recommend reading, "Shangri-La - A Travel Guide to the Himalayan Dream" by Michael Buckley. Here Buckley lays out many paths you could take if you wanted to go trekking and searching for yourself. It's a wonderful read on the subject of Shangri-La, if you go or not. There's also a TV series that I recently found that follows English actress Sue Johnston on her quest to find Shangri-La in China, and there she visits Joseph Rock’s home/museum. Apparently Rock’s idea of a worldly paradise was situated in a lush green valley under the sacred mountain Kawa Karpo in the south-east corner of Tibet next to China’s Yunnan province. “This,” Johnston says, “is her Shangri-La.”

There are many places claiming to be Shangri-La, but the real place is still an enigma. Many claim to know, but all are different. Even author James Hilton was coy as to where his Shangri-La was located: Probably in his own imagination. However, whether Shangri-La is a real place or not, it’s a place that is now set deep within all our imaginations. Could it be that we just love the adventurous thought of a Shangri-La? Somewhere where we have to trek across the world to the farthest reaches of humanity, into the highest mountains to find an exotic and hidden value of everything good.

Sue Johnston’s TV program was not just about the physical journey, it was about a mental/spiritual journey of transformation; a search for inner peace. And that, I think, is the essence of our yearnings to find Shangri-La. Shangri-La is more of a concept than a real place, a utopia within our own hearts and grasp. If we could only make the journey inward to find it.

What are we are looking for? What makes the myth and the magic of something like Shangri-La call to us? How do we know that when we arrive we will be happy? Do happy endings only happen in stories? What will make us inspired? These questions have been asked for thousands of years. Even the Buddha and Jesus tried to answer them by advising us to look inside ourselves to find true happiness.

If it’s heaven we’re looking for, most of us have a vastly different concept of what heaven is. For some, heaven is reclining on a cloud listening to harp music played by angels. Others may like a dark, gothic existence filled with black leather, gratuitous sex and heavy metal music. The concept of heaven on earth could be conceived, but perhaps we have it already?

The myth of Shangri-La is supposed to be an elusive place of worldly wisdom, good government, tranquility, green pastures and flowers. So from a practical sense, this can be found in most countries today. I live in Vancouver, Canada, and what could be more like Shangri-La than Vancouver? It is situated on a beautiful ocean inlet and sheltered from the wild Pacific by Vancouver Island. It is beside snow-capped mountains and fertile, lush, green fields. Good food is plentiful. There is peace, relatively good government and worldly wisdom that can be found in abundance in libraries, the Internet and a multitude of intellectual, secular and religious pursuits. There is also a wealth of spiritual wisdom from the local indigenous people and a total connection with the profound beauty of nature. What more could one ask? There is even a semblance of sentience and reason. Is this heaven on earth?

Other cities have great attributes too; parks, theatres, waterfronts, downtown living, good shopping, abundant food choices, libraries, art  galleries, etc. And many of these places we can visit to see for ourselves; San Francisco, Paris, Copenhagen, Sydney, Hong Kong. But while it seems that in this time of civilization we have so much on our doorsteps, we are still not satisfied. Which makes me wonder, perhaps it’s the great intention for some members of the human race never to be satisfied. While we all search for happiness, we seem to have an almost maniacal addiction to unhappiness. And if a place like Shangri-La was ever found, would people really be happy to see it? Perhaps it would have become too run down and dirty, or maybe a tourist trap like Disneyland or surrounded with airports and superhighways, thus compelling some people to retreat in total dissatisfaction and more unhappiness.

At the moment, for some, Shangri-La is still an enigma. It’s a pie in the sky, an untouchable dream. And that’s good.

For the many who dream of greater communities, few will actually travel to the ends of the earth in a search of an earthly paradise or treasure. Some may find their treasure nearer to their home. There is a wonderful novel called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, where a young man from Spain goes on a long trek through many countries in North Africa to find treasure in Egypt. The story is about the wonderful adventures he has along the way, but the treasure he is looking for remains illusive. He eventually finds his treasure in his own back yard in Spain. The question is, could he have found it if he hadn’t experienced the journey and the adventure of the trek? This book was the number one best seller in the world, so it seems that even reading about an adventure is the adventure.

How many understand that the journey itself is the goal? In someways we learn so much more from getting there than we do from arriving. For me, a world without travel and journey would be a human tragedy. There’s a great quote from an ancient who said, “Those who travel, know.” So, is the discomfort of climbing over the objects on our way to our goal the real learning?

What is life but a series of moments and journeys, sometime difficult, that we must learn to enjoy. And that’s the key. We must learn to enjoy the things that get in our way and discomfort us. The last place on earth I ever wanted to visit was India. I had seen the poverty on TV and read about it. I just didn’t want to experience it. But in hindsight, India was one of the richest experiences of my life. It thrilled me, but it also humbled me. It beat me down. But the experience helped me to become more alive. I saw the poverty firsthand and I said to myself, if these people could experience such terrible poverty, then who am I to find discomfort in the rain, in the cold, in the heat, in the crowded shopping malls, in a misspoken word?

“When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. When I stopped being who I am, I found myself.” 
- Paulo Coelho.

How we experience the thrill and the magic of life is our own business. But so many lose the magic and the thrill by only seeing the discomfort. So when the distraction and the myth of Shangri-La is presented, we jump at it. Just like the comfort and the intimacy of a religion.

We live in two worlds. The world of perceived reality: the now, the body, science, time, space, things, the five senses, pain, consciousness, philosophy, facts, patterns, math, reason. We also live in the world of the spirit where time and space does not exist. i.e. dreams, thoughts of yesterday, hopes of tomorrow, meaning, purpose, intuition, creativity, knowing, sub-consciousness thoughts, ideas, love, hate, understanding, the psyche, spirituality, sentience.

There are plenty of ways to find our true selves, yet so many of us spend our lives searching, yearning for something other than that which is within. Outside we continue with our misadventures, moods swings, anger at the little things our egos and selfishness destroy. The world doesn’t seem to matter outside of our own perceived discomfort and disconnect. We hate the rain, the cold, the jackhammer down the street; we find discontent in many things that are good. We pollute and contribute to the great degradation of the planet that gives us life.  Still, we dream of a utopia.

If we found the real Shangri-La, would we look after it?  The answer is “no.” The one and best Shangri-La we all have is the Garden of Eden we live on: Planet Earth. How have we looked after it? Yes, I mean us; you and me. We are all in this together. We all have a voice. Yet, who among us speaks for Earth? Our utopia.

Very few.

Surely we can all put our minds together to stop the polluters and the people who desecrate our very own Shangri-La in such a devastating way. It is time for us to wake up and clean the planet, the Earth, our home, or soon the Earth is going to wipe us off its face with a shudder, forever.

This holiday season remember where “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill to all” really is.

And do something about it.

Watch Michael Wood's "In Search of Myths and Heros - Shangri La"

“If we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without.” 
- James Hilton

“Who looks outside, dreams; Who looks inside, awakens.”
- Carl Jung

“A horizon is something toward which we move, but it’s also something that moves us along.”
- Hans-George Gadamer  - Truth and Method

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
- Mother Teresa

Dec 1, 2011

The Window Seat

Almost every time I’ve traveled by airplane in the past forty years, which is many, I’ve aimed myself at the window seat. When I board a plane I want to know that I can snuggle away from the madding crowd to a sanctuary of personal freedom, contemplation and inner peace.

The window seat is my heaven. Yet, how many of us who travel take the window for granted? Some have one glance out the window, then they shut the blind so others can’t see out. Some use the space and the light of the sky to read by. Others, like myself, stare endlessly out at the clouds, dreaming, contemplating deep within, of possibilities ... or nothing. Daydreaming. Meditating. At night, when all I can see in the window is a refection of myself, I feel safe in my aloneness.

At one time, to not have the window seat gave me claustrophobia. Now, if I do end up with an isle or the dreaded middle seat on short hops, I have learned to meditate to rest my mind. But the window is still, indeed, very special.

Air travel has only been on the planet for the past century. Imagine if Socrates or Plato had flown in a window seat, what poetry or insights would have emanated? How about Beethoven: what new melodies could he have captured from a trip through the clouds? What if one of the great minds of history, Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci or Buddha, had boarded a 747 and flown in a window seat? What memorable sights would have inspired their creativity? Strangely though, not many artists, thinkers or philosophers who fly today treat us to a book, a composition of music, poetry or a work of art inspired by the bliss of air travel.

While most people detest travel for travel’s sake, I feel totally at home in an airport or at forty thousand feet. I don’t mind the check-in or the security. That’s because I’m fully prepared for it. The wait at the airport gate is fine for people watching or browsing the book stores. Then I board the aircraft where my window is waiting, and it’s a trip through the clouds to who knows where. It becomes my own special time. For me, it’s like floating on cotton wool. It gives me time to dream, to create in my own poetic imagination, to be among the etherial contemplation of the universe and far beyond; to be sailing, soaring, floating above the mind-numbing quagmire, of what seem like ants, on mother earth. For this, I imagine, is how the soul floats.

Some years ago I read the book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. It’s a metaphorical story about flying higher than your wildest dreams. It’s about breaking free from the social complications of cultural structure to find one’s own individuality. An inspiration of earthly dreams. It has also inspired many, not only to fly, but to be at one with flight. It really is the high flying bible. Try reading it while looking down on a sea of clouds.

As well as revery, of course I have seen some of the most spectacular sights from the air. Early one morning when en-route to Los Angeles, one pilot circled the Grand Canyon a couple of times because it was such a clear day. The great gash in the earth’s crust was never so dynamic in the low light. When flying to India, I remember looking down at the beautiful city if Istanbul. Like a great smile, the mosques were shining from one end of the city to the other. Flying along the string of islands in the turquoise South Pacific to reach the jewel of Bora Bora, was a sight to behold. One time when flying from Paris to London on a clear day, I was excited to see both sides of the English Channel through my one window. That small stretch of sea that so many lives had been lost over, seemed so close. Seeing the high glaciers from over Greenland on a flight to Vancouver was an awesome sight. They seem to reach up to greet you. Then there’s the Himalaya Mountains or the Golden Gate Bridge.

Many of us are dreamers, and when faced with a choice between reality or fantasy, we choose fantasy. Call it escapism. Call it the need to recharge. But how many of us are driven by our fantasies? Where do creative people go to regenerate their spark?  We all need to “chill-out”, and we all find it in different ways. One of mine is through flying, drifting, meditating and watching some of the most spectacular sights. Basically, I love having my head in the clouds (metaphorically) while sailing in a boat, riding a horse, watching a fire crackle, being totally absorbed in a beautiful symphony or art, hiking a mountain side, watching the ocean or flying in the clouds. It’s the essence of my regeneration process.

I couldn’t be more thankful that my work, my life and the time in which we live have given me air travel, for what other man-made, technological wonder could be as sweet?

The window seat comes highly recommended. But don’t just take it and not use it’s power. Settle in and let your mind fly along with your soul, contemplate your dreams and your bliss. And remember what magic there may be in observing an early morning sunrise at forty thousand feet.

“My soul is in the sky.”
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

“I pick the prettiest part of the sky and I melt into the wing and then into the air, till I'm just soul on a sunbeam.”
- Richard Bach

“Within all of us is a varying amount of space lint and star dust, the residue from our creation.  Most are too busy to notice it, and it is stronger in some than others.  It is strongest in those of us who fly and is responsible for an unconscious, subtle desire to slip into some wings and try for the elusive boundaries of our origin.”
- K.O. Eckland, "Footprints On Clouds"

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
- Leonardo Da Vinci

“O! for a horse with wings!”
- William Shakespeare, Cymbeline

Nov 20, 2011

Smiley Words

Isn't it interesting, the meaning we put on words, whether for serious conversation or just for fun?

I once worked with a recent German immigrant to Canada who continually repeated the word Tuktoyaktuk. If you’d asked him a question he’d always say Tuktoyaktuk before anything else. Of course he was just showing off his sense of humour; that he loved the sound of this new word.

Tuktoyaktuk is a town or an outpost, a northern settlement in the far north of Canada situated on the Arctic Ocean. The word comes from the Inuit people and it means “resembling a caribou.”  To this day, I don’t really know if he knew what he was saying, as he told everybody he encountered that they resembled a caribou. He just enjoyed the word.

During the 1970s, I was sent on assignment to communist Romania to film Easter festivities in the northern province of Moldavia. Colour, egg-cracking and worship filled the scene as the local people dressed in their traditional costumes and gathered at their historic churches. They also displayed their creative skills by exquisitely hand-painting hard-boiled eggs with various designs. These were wonderful sights, but documentary filming has it’s long hours.

After a particularly long, difficult day of filming that had started at four in the morning with a church procession, the cameraman, Wally, who I was working with, suddenly felt the compulsion for an ice cream. We were in the north of the country near the Soviet border, staying in a small city called Sucava. It was Easter and most places were closed.

We raced to town in our small rental car and scoured the city, first to find a shop that was open, then to try and translate the word “ice cream” into Romanian. Wally spotted a booth that sold lottery tickets. He ran up to the booth and quickly rimed off the word, ice cream in French: creme glacee, Italian: gelato, Spanish: el helado and German: die eiscreme. Well, the lotto man looked at Wally’s enthusiasm and laughed, then he just smiled as he slowly spoke the word: inghetata.

And the race was on. Inghetata suddenly became the key to our happiness.

We both raced around the town square like fools, going up to strangers and saying the word Inghetata in their faces. Some smiled, others must have thought we were lunatics. Finally, Wally confronted an old lady, “Ah! Inghetata.” she said, and pointed toward the street where we had just driven.

We both ran and probably found the last open ice cream shop in the city that was about to close. On the front, in big letters, was the word: Inghetata. The shopkeeper saw how desperate we were, so he let us in to sample some of the best ice cream I have ever tasted. Wally was happy.

From that time on both Wally and I had a secret word between us, inghetata. And each time we would see each other at events or on film shoots for the next few years, we would mutter the word to each other.

Each language has it's fun words. I love the words: marmalade, umbrella, brouhaha, cantankerous, discombobulated, gobbledygook, rambunctious, mollycoddle, nincompoop.

Inghetata, remains the only word I have ever learned of the Romanian language and I say it each time I meet a Romanian. The times have been numerous, and each time it brings a big smile.


"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."
-Maya Angelou

"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music that words make.
- Truman Capote

"Ice-cream is exquisite - what a pity it isn't illegal."
- Voltaire

Nov 10, 2011


In the 1960s I was a teenager. My hero was James Bond, my sound track was The Beatles and my focus was the arts. I was not a Hippy. Hippies were protesters and many were drug users searching for a path to spiritual enlightenment. I was busy building a life and a career as a photographer.

I didn't do drugs, except for the odd beer. But spirituality had been with me since I was a young child. I would marvel at nature and find the wonders of the universe in everything. I knew the world was a special place, as I awoke to the gift of awareness. I was curious about everything and I searched for my truth, purpose and reason in all. Perhaps this was my partial path to enlightenment.

As a choir boy in church school, I was taught religion. But I soon realized religion wasn’t for me, especially as an all-or-nothing way to god. I rejected the over-riding, controlling forces that tried to indoctrinate me. I also rejected the teachings that preached that god was a jealous or a vindictive god. That was not my way of thinking. This characterization was that of a nasty human, not the universal spirit with which I had come to understand.

Thankfully, I didn’t need organized religion to help me find my spirit. I didn’t have to go to church on Sundays to be a spiritual person. My spirituality was freedom from control, freedom to find my own way of thinking, freedom to wonder at the world, freedom to find me. My doctrine was to be a good person, live with a sense of right and wrong, be aware of all that surrounds.

Where I got this individuality and awareness from, I really don’t know. It could have been from the love, nurturing and challenge of a curious mother. Perhaps it was by being tuned to the colours and the multi-level thoughts that every day life has to offer. Or maybe it was built from snippets of conversation from a combination of people throughout the years. We do things and meet people for a purpose, but we must listen and decipher the meanings to understand if there’s a real message.

Life is not about loud noises. Peace is in silence. Understanding is in creative thought. Learning and knowledge are freedom from ignorance. Wisdom is the understanding that we are all one. Meditation can help the senses discover the spirit. For me, meditation can be the wind breezing through the pinewood trees on a cool fall day, listening to the high ocean surf on a spring beach, watching a winter fire crackle or smelling the aroma of a rose. It’s also in going deep within to find your light, your peace.

Not everyone has the sensibility to catch the nuance of a well-placed remark as being  a message to ponder. Many are lost souls needing to have meanings placed in front of them on giant billboards. While religion does that for many, for me, religion and spirituality are separate. Religion is an organized group of people aiming to mentally indoctrinate others into believing that theirs is the only way to find god and possible salvation. Take it or leave it. Their truth comes by preaching the dogma of their sect, church, synagogue, temple or mosque, and by teaching people to follow, rather than by empowering them to cultivate their awareness, and to use their own intuition to discover themselves in the real world.

I believe that confining and controlling individuals through fear, guilt, intimidation, societal power and stigma goes against the personal freedoms that are truly “god-given”. The great prophets and sons-of-god had wise and wonderful things to say, but many of their great ideas have been corrupted by controlling institutions. So, I have found my own way. Along my path I have discovered much by reading and learning from the teachings of sages, shamans, philosophers and prophets, and many of them, I discovered, lived with the same spirituality that I had found.

Spirituality is the overall belief in a greater force. Call it the Universe. Call it god. Spirituality also has a major component of awareness attached to it. One leads to the other. Spirituality is everywhere and I have found it more times, far away from humanity, in the wilds of nature around the world, than anywhere else. Of course, spirituality is within. The circle always leads us back to our own selves. That is where the journey begins and ends. We find our own happiness. We discover our own soul. We truly are our own beings.

Finding one’s own path to some sort of enlightenment is a personal journey. The universe within is ours to discover, and when we find it, we suddenly realize that we really are all at one with the universe (with god) as we are at one with each other. We were all born of the universe and that is where we will return one day.

Why are we here? I don’t know. Where are we going? Ambiguous. I still have some searching to do. However, I firmly believe that the purpose of life is to make our own purpose. Pursue our own love. Love the things we like to do. Be a good person. Follow our conscience of right and wrong. Be aware of everything.

And Love? Love others for all it’s worth.

How do we do all that? Well, we humans have been given something special. We have been given creativity. Creativity to find or make whatever we want. But how many of us do?

Creativity is the ability to find, try, invent and enjoy something new. This is by far the greatest gift. For creativity will take us to those unknown places about which we dream. It will help us find the meanings that will steer the course of our life journey.

Life is a gift, create it well.

Whether we actually reach an enlightenment before we die, only the individual will know. But being a good person will show us an inner light for peace and love.

The universe is within us all.

Experience more.
Turn off the noise and enjoy the silence.
Live with awareness - be more here and now.
Fall in love with everything.
Live creative.   (


“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
- Max Ehermann - Desiderata

"It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves."
- William Shakespeare

"Every human has four endowments - self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom... The power to choose, to respond, to change."
- Stephen Covey

Oct 4, 2011

Sunrise at Ali-Shan

Like a macabre, supernatural dream, I was surrounded by an undulating, surging mass of humanity. It was dark, cold, 3.30 am and difficult to wake up.

It had been a peaceful afternoon in the gardens of the Ali-Shan Guest House. But now, at this extremely early hour, large crowds were gathered; people, hundreds of them from the area hotels and guest houses. Early morning risers on their pilgrimage to the top of the mountain for a single purpose: Sunrise.

Like an ethereal, moving painting, flashlight beams and lanterns were the only glowing illumination to light our stumble up the steep incline to the old train station, about a quarter of a mile above. Then, the loudest shrill shriek, loud enough to wake the devil, echoed along the hillside. It was a little train calling the faithful as it chugged into the platform, blasting it’s whistle and loaded with visitors from another station further below.

We squeezed into the nearest carriage and like rush-hour in a big city subway, it left many waiting for the next train. Standing room only, but the ride was comfortable. It was an odd sensation being one of only a couple of westerners towering over every other Asian tourist on the train. Many smiled and nodded. Curiosity, I guess, as my normal 5 ft 11 ins gave me a birds-eye view of each excited, yet sleepy passenger.

The little locomotive wound its way up and around the steep mountain-side, over looking a sheer drop through the dark pine woods, tropical rain forests and bamboo trees, down to the many towns that housed this crowded civilization. Around and around we chugged, then up a steep incline and backward, up and forward again like a very slow roller coaster, climbing, climbing the well-traveled route to the top of Ali-Shan (Ali Mountain).

We had become part of the local adventure to go from the bustling metropolis of Taipei to race up Ali-Shan, head for a hotel booked weeks in advance, stay overnight and wait for the early hours. Then join the hordes, en-masse and climb aboard the  junket to the top of the mountain, to one of the most spectacular sites in the world: Sunrise over the highest peak in Taiwan, Yu-Shan (Jade Mountain).

The real journey began the day before, at the foot of Ali-Shan when we boarded a small antique narrow-gauge railway for the 45-mile trip straight up, across 114 bridges, through 49 tunnels, around paddy fields, tea plantations, bamboo forests, pine woods and massive rock outcrops. Stopping every now and again at small villages to pick up or drop off workmen who maintain the mountain park, the forests and the train track. In three full hours the little train wound up the slopes, through dense mountain passes and cloud patches to finally end at the entrance to the village of Ali-Shan.

Now, in this cool mountain morning air, a faint glimmer of light beckoned to the east and the morning star shone brighter. Night’s blanket was lifting over Asia as we reached the top and the end of track. The train doors opened slowly and the race was on for the summit.

Sitting atop Ali-Shan’s Celebration Peak is a tea room, where the lucky few who had the foresight to buy tickets warm themselves from the cool high altitude, sip tea and nibble on biscuits while seated at a table with a most spectacular view. They look toward the east, across a cloud-shrouded, mountain valley to the highest mountain range east of the Himalayas, with the peak of Jade Mountain towering over all, rising toward the heavens.

Others like us, stood outside savouring the fresh mountain air, shivering in the cold by the first light of dawn, waiting. Some with flasks of tea, some with small bottles of booze, others hugging each other for warmth. Hundreds of people mingling, yawning, rubbing their eyes as the tension mounted. All eyes searching the horizon, across the heaven like sea of clouds to find where the light glowed brightest, speculating where the sun would appear.

Anticipation, excitement, adventure, early morning beauty. The earth revolved another few degrees and then, a bolt from the blue, the first glimpse of the great ball of sun reared it’s head like a hungry dragon bursting fiery light toward us, beginning it’s celestial journey across the heavens to light the new day.

The crowd lifted their arms and let out a loud, joyful cheer, a ritual to the Sun God.  A spectacular moment of held breath, joy, squinting brightness and forgotten shivers that stopped time for about a minute.

Then it was over.

They saw what they had come to see. Now the rush was on once more. Down. Down the mountainside for breakfast and home before noon.

Over for them, but not for us. We headed for the vacated tea house and slowly awoke as the day sparkled before us.

“What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?”
- E. M. Forster

“We can only appreciate the miracle of a sunrise if we have waited in the darkness.”
- Author Unknown

On the internet, I found a video of a similar experience at:

Sep 17, 2011

Lucky, or What

How many of us have been confronted by imminent death?

For some of us, we felt it intensely at the moment, while others realized after the fact just how close we were to certain death.

I remember vividly one time in Los Angeles when I was driving to the San Fernando Valley to renew car insurance on a rental car, I was confronted by, what could have been, certain death.

Heading north on the 405 freeway through Santa Monica I was in the second lane from the left. The road was relatively clear except for an old, slow truck blocking the fast lane. Anyone who wanted to pass had to overtake it on the inside. It was one of those yard maintenance trucks that carry lawnmowers, sweepers, brooms, rakes and many other tools to beautify some of the many gardens of Southern California. This truck had metal posts on the corners that reached up to create a roof. On top of the roof sat a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood held on by a couple of bungee cords.

It was a beautiful, sunny day with the white Getty Center shining on the hill in front of me. I was traveling at about 65 miles an hour. 

As I approached within about a hundred feet of the truck, I noticed one of the bungee chords holding the plywood, snap. A gust of wind then lifted the heavy sheet of wood up and it snapped the other bungee. It lifted like a sail to rise up and stand upright on top of the truck. 

Thoughts raced through my head. Could I speed up or slow down, could I swerve into another lane? I was alone, so I didn’t have nervous passengers with me. Just myself and my wits.

I watched in horror as danger flashed in front my eyes. The sheet of plywood blew off the truck and headed my way. First it flipped and bounced onto one of it’s corners on the roadway, then it rolled on end and was lifted up to head straight, in a flat angle, like a stealth bomber aiming at about five feet above the pavement toward my windscreen, and me. 

I was doomed, but ducked away toward my right into the front passenger seat. Another gust of wind, and the plywood nosed down and pounded head first into the ground. I slowed as I saw it hit at what seemed to be about  three feet in front of my car, then it bounced and jumped over the car. It was above me, flying overhead, about to land on top of the car. I sped up and looked in my rear view mirror to see it land flat on the roadway behind. Thank goodness the car behind was a long way back.

It happened in seconds, and my heart was pounding. I breathed a big sigh of relief. I realized that life is so fleeting. I then sped away from the scene and was so glad to be alive. I opened my mouth and said out loud to the empty spaces in the car, “Whoever is in this car with me, I thank you for  saving my life.”

I was overwhelmed with the joy of being alive. I kept thanking the gods for guiding that sheet of plywood away from me. I could have been cut in half. The car could have been taken out of control to roll into another lane and collide with another car, another life. It could have been a fiery crash, or at least, a needless mess.

When I arrived at the car rental lot to renew my car insurance, they told me that my insurance had run out the previous day. That meant, had the plywood hit me and I survived, I would have had to buy the car.

I felt I got away with much more than my life that day. My soul was renewed. I felt as if my life had been spared. 

Now, how do I fulfill that potential?

"Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives."
- A. Sachs

"It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we're alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are."
- Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

"When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live you life in a manner so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice."
- Native American Proverb

Jul 1, 2011

The Glory that was Rome

As in an artist’s painting, we waited on that rainy, misty morning, alone as the gatekeepers made ready. The gates then swung open and down we walked, back in time to what was once the glory of Rome. And for a brief moment, we had it all to ourselves.

Here were the toppled columns where once stood great temples, marking a wondrous Empire that lasted a thousand years. Here stood the Roman Forum where Julius Caesar’s body was cremated and Mark Antony said those famous words embellished by William Shakespeare:
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.”

It was now all a mess, excavated from hundreds of years of decay. Cleaned up for tourists; for us. Indeed, it was of another day.

As we strolled this lonely grave yard of memories, it was hard to fathom the power that had once ruled the known world. An Empire, the likes the world has not seen since.

It was brutal, mean, deadly and destructive to it’s enemies. A bloodthirsty Empire of mass murders. Yet, it was a civilization that brought us law, art, literature, government, architecture, bricks and mortar, roads, irrigation, sewers, medicine, fresh water, public order and, of course, wine.

By the time the Empire disintegrated in the 5th century, the Roman Catholic religion was building its edifices and it needed building materials, marble, columns, rock, etc. The Roman buildings were scavenged and, what once was an lavish city of great marble building and advanced architecture, ended up as the building blocks of many churches. In time, the idea of the Roman Emperor became the Church of Rome’s Pope, the generals became the bishops and what was left of ancient Rome became buried in time: Forgotten to all except those who wrote about it, painted it, made movies about.

To wander this uncovered ruin of Rome was overwhelming for a history buff like myself. At one end of this ancient city stands the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum where thousands of men, women, children and animals lost their lives in gladiator fights. At the other end sits what is left of the Forum, the Senate and many other identified buildings, open spaces or areas built upon by modern city roads. In between sits the Palatine hill, on top of which stood the Emperor’s palace. The inter-connecting roads hosted the grand parades and displays of pageantry, especially when the Roman armies had just wiped out and looted other civilization. On the opposite side of the Hill, the Emperor’s Palace overlooks the Circus Maximus. Here the blood fest of the chariot races were held.

It’s all long gone, and unlike many other archeological sites I have experienced, this one felt strange. I felt no sense of the glory that was Rome, that is for the imagination to conjure up, and for the history books and artists to expose. I can see Rome in the artistry of a great performance by Marlon Brando playing Mark Antony and speaking Shakespeare’s words, but somehow I couldn’t relate it to this rubble before me. I can see the chariot races in the movie Ben Hur but wandering around the Circus Maximus does not give me the same thrill that the film makers are able to excite in their recreation of the great spectacle. Today the Circus Maximus is just a huge field that is used for Papal ceremonies and perhaps rock concerts.

Napoleon said it well, “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” Yet, it’s the artists that can bring back an age when the world was different. To wander the painting galleries and the sculpture gardens depicting Ancient Rome is where my thrill really lives. To experience a play by Shakespeare, Julius Caesar or Caesar and Cleopatra, or a film like Ben Hur or Spartacus, will bring Rome to life. Art, for me, is more real than the reality of this decrepit site.

Standing among the ruins was overwhelming, but dead. I had to experience the Roman Forum a couple of times before it reality sank in. But I came away with a newly formed respect for the artists who bring it all to life. It is through art, literature, painting, sculpture, theatre and movies etc., that history can be brought alive with stories that help us relate and connect with ancient people just like us.

A note to today’s politicians: Be kind to the artists, for they will live forever.

"In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs forever and ever."
- Oscar Wild

"All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon."
- Voltaire

"Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history."
- Plato

"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it myself."
- Winston Churchill

Jun 25, 2011

One Bag Travel

“Go light,” they said. “Take only one bag.”
How could I use one bag? I’m so used to traveling around the world with a multitude of heavy camera cases and a couple of large personal suitcases. One bag? They’ve gotta be kidding. 

Well, George Clooney's character does it in “Up in the Air.”

There are websites that talk about the virtue of traveling with one bag. New websites are popping up all the time, and they mean one, small, airline-approved carry-on.

I’ve always been a traveler. I thought nothing of long trips to exotic places around the world while shooting documentary films for television. I’ve traveled with at least 16(sometimes more) large cases filled with rolls of film, batteries, lenses, tripods, lighting kits and, of course, cameras. Then there was the personal luggage. I would travel with two standard suitcases, one large, one small. But even by today’s standards, the small case was huge, and these wonderful suitcases are now sitting in my storage locker.

These days I am no longer traveling with big cameras, lights, lenses or film. The cameras are much smaller and now there’s no film or tape; just a hard drive or perhaps a memory chip. My personal luggage is usually one large cargo-type bag, and another if I need heavy winter clothes. 

However, when it comes to personal travel, I know I need to cut down on baggage. Many airlines now charge for a second bag and they may soon bring in charges for the first bag. The only sanctity left without paying needlessly is the carry-on. Especially if I’ve already scoured the Internet to find the cheapest air fares. But how to pare-down to travel small and light?

Travel guru/writer and broadcaster Rick Steves has been traveling to Europe for many years. For weeks at a time every year he has been writing his travel guides and shooting his TV shows for PBS, all this while carrying one 22x14x9 carry-on suitcase/backpack. And yes, he packs light and washes his socks and underwear when needed.

Before I go any further, I am not suggesting that people should carry luggage on their back if they don’t want to do this. George Clooney's character didn’t. There are a wealth of good roller/wheeled bags that fit most airline restrictions of 22x14x9, including some on Rick Steves website.

There are also many websites that can help the traveler cut out needless luggage. I recently found a site called One Bag This is a well written site by a seasoned traveler who thoroughly researches and extolls the virtue of the carry-on bag. Like Steves, he has been using one bag for years. He’s even designed the perfect bag for a travel company. You’ll see it mentioned on the site. There’s also an excellent site for traveling women: One Bag Girl, Other sites include: or

But how to perform the gymnastics of paring down my “stuff?” Well, change my thinking. I’m willing, able and game to try, and my wife and I planned a two week trip to Rome. So here we go.

It’s not how much you can stuff into a small bag, it’s how light can you can travel. Many of the most seasoned travelers don’t even recommend a roller/wheeled bag but a light bag with backpack conversion straps; light, easy to carry, good for running through airports if need be. Wheels take up space and they add a lot of weight to a small bag.

The MEI Voyager is one of the most recommended suitcase/backpacks on the market (also recommended by One Bag and One Bag Girl). I ordered a black one. It looks more like a suitcase and was delivered within a couple of weeks. You can carry it like a suitcase with or without a shoulder strap. But you can also turn it on it’s back, pull out the back straps and, when needed, carry it on your back. It’s so light; three pounds plus your stuff. That’s five or six pounds lighter than a bag with wheels. Most airline restrictions are 22x14x9 with a weight restriction of 20 pounds or 10 kilos. Those extra pounds could mean that extra sweater.

My wife has a 22x14x9 carry-on, roller/wheeled bag and I now have my 22x14x9 Voyager bag. We also both purchased a Rick Steves shoulder bag; the Velocé.
This bag is the best shoulder travel bag I have ever owned, but perhaps a bit bulky as a day-to-day bag.

To pack our little bags, we employed the use of the EagleCreek “Pack-it” system. One full cube, one double sided cube, two half  size cubes, a small “pack-it” folder for shirts and ties etc. and a “Quick Trip” small toiletry kit. I also have a three bag stuffer set for dirty laundry, shoes or other quick needs.  In the bottom of the bag I carried an extra shopping-style bag for those souvenirs and extras gathered on the trip.

As for clothes, in the full packing cube I was able to roll up two pairs of light trousers and two long-sleeve T-shirts. A couple of black T-shirts and a merino wool, roll-neck sweater. In the double sided cube, I stuffed a swim suit, (never leave home without one), special quick drying socks and underwear ( or and a space for some gifts, etc. In the two half cubes, one was for electrical gear (charging cables for phones and ipod accessories, etc), the other half cube was for a mini first aid kit, a small quick dry towel, a kit comprising laundry soap, a clothes line and a universal sink plug for washing socks and underwear, if needed. When all the Pack-it cubes were filled, there was also enough room in the bag for a carefully folded blazer on the top of the cubes.

One thing I had difficulty with was the concept of taking only one pair of shoes. I had to wear them for everything. They had to be sturdy and they had to look good if we were to dress up in the evening. I took my very comfortable, black Mephisto walking shoes and some shoe polish. Shoes are bulky, so to pack extra shoes you might have to leave other items behind.

In my shoulder bag I carried a small umbrella, a wind breaker/rain shell, a thin down vest that folded into one of its pockets and acted as my airplane pillow, my 3-1-1 bag of liquids, a book and my travel documents, etc. And that was it, except for the traveling clothes on my back.

We took British Airways from Vancouver to London, through Heathrow’s Terminal Five with a connecting flight to Rome. Being herded through Heathrow was no problem and checking our bags on the Rome flight was a cinch. We caught the train from the Rome airport to the downtown Termini Station, then walked to our hotel, about three blocks with my Voyager bag on my back and my wife wheeling her bag. It all was very easy.

Our trip to Rome during Easter week was wonderful and eventful as we discovered the Roman Forum in the morning when no one else was around. It was magical having it all to ourselves. We climbed to the top of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican. Quite the climb, but well worth the view. And we experienced the best gelato in the world. Rome is a very special place and walking the streets for two weeks gives you a real sense of life, history and geography.

Our trek home through London was easy on the day of the Royal Wedding, and our flight over the Canadian Arctic back to Vancouver was thankfully uneventful.

The one bag experiment was successful. I didn’t crave any extra space. I had room for a pair of flip flops I bought and my wife bought me a lovely pair of Mephisto sandals that easily squeezed in the bag. By the way, they are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned.

It was an easy trip and I can imagine a full scenario and schedule of air, train, car and walking travel with this one bag. I’m sure any trip with this would be successful.

If George Clooney's character can do it, and enjoy it, so can I.