Monday, January 30, 2012

Performing at the Chinese New Years Festival

On Sunday the Tucson Sino Martial Arts Group performed at Centennial Hall for the Chinese New Year Festival. TSMA has been together since 2006. This was the fourth time the group has performed for this event. I am the newest member of the group, joining in October of last year, and the only senior citizen among them. Even though I have over thirty years of experience in the Chinese Martial Arts, I have never been part of a performance group.
We were just a small part of the overall performance, our time on stage lasted about seven minutes. Our part of the program was scheduled to begin at 2:30 pm but we arrived at the hall at 10:30 am to get ready. On the sidewalk in front of the hall, we went through our routine a half dozen times. We were joined by Feng, Junjie a Chinese Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Chi master who currently lives and teaches in Phoenix. Just before noon we took our turn on stage to go over the routine one last time. The people running the show made sure all the details and loose ends were taken care of, like where we would stand on stage, the exact placement of our swords, the lighting etc.
We started training for our seven minutes of fame last November, meeting for 2-3 hours of practice at least once every weekend. The routine put together by our Sifu, Zhao, Shuping, contained an entire Chang Chuan sword set, a Tai Chi fan set and a short Chen Tai Chi routine. These three sets were surrounded and embellished by short Tai Chi and Kung Fu movements. It all had to be timed perfectly and set to music. It was apparent to me early on, that I had joined a professional group that knew what they were doing. The broadsword set and Chen Tai chi routine were new to me and I had to learn them from scratch. The Fan routine was performed by the women only. When I joined the group I was Rob & women croppeddelighted to learn that the only other non-Chinese member, Rob, coincidentally had spent years studying and teaching two of the same southern Kung Fu styles that I knew. Sifu Shuping asked us to put together a short group of movements from the Hung Gar style of Kung Fu. We chose to each do a segment from the famous Tiger and Crane form. Simultaneously Rob performed the tiger section while I did the crane part.
The entire New Year’s show lasted well over two hours. There were dancers and singers and musicians. It was quite an extravaganza. I would have liked to have watched it from the audience. The people I know who did, told me it was spectacular and well worth the admission price. I watched as much of it as I could from behind the side curtain on stage. It was exciting being back stage with all the performers.
Feng Junjie & Shi Yi on FluteBesides performing with our group, Master Feng performed a Chen Tai Chi routine accompanied by Shi Yi on the flute. My wife, Katie, who was in the audience said, “It was so beautiful, I cried”. Master Feng also performed a solo routine, a drunken Kung Fu Form. This highlighted his incredible strength and flexibility. His interpretation of the form was both inspiring and humorous.
I am not an experienced performer and have a fair amount of anxiety about it. When I was in the seventh grade I was part of our annual Middle School Christmas Pageant. While standing in the front row singing Christmas Carols with the group, I passed out cold and fell to the floor. When I woke up, all the other kids were standing over me. It was humiliating. Even as an adult, that young boy who fainted in front oIMG_8971f the whole school pops up when I least expect it.
I missed much of the first part of the show just prior to our group performance. I sat by an open door breathing in the cool fresh air and trying to stay calm. We were the sixth act to go on. The women in our group had applied their makeup, put flowers in their hair and I thought they all looked very beautiful. The whole seven minutes of our performance went by in a blur. I have no idea how we did as a group, but I do know I spaced out for a few moments and missed a few moves during the sword form. Others assured me later that it was hardly noticeable. Being in my 60s, I’ll write it off as a senior moment.
While the Centennial Hall show was still going on, the TSMA group walked over to a local Middle School to repeat our performance for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year presentation. The stage was very small. I was on the end and during the performance got tripped up in the electrical cords, lost my place and experienced an even longer senior moment. By this time however, I was so tired I didn’t care and no one seemed to notice anyway. The audience clapped and hollered loudly when we were through. They rewarded us with delicious Vietnamese sandwiches for our efforts. I ate mine with abandon. I realized I had hardly eaten anything all day. Just prior to our performance at Centennial Hall, we were fed us lunch which consisted of pizza and water. I ate one piece of greasy pizza and the fearful little boy inside warned me, not only might I faint on stage, but if I ate another piece of pizza, I might throw up as well.

Performing for the Chinese New Year’s Festival was all in all, a rewarding experience, but I’m relieved it’s over. Now our group can get back to learning and practicing the Chinese Martial Arts that we all love.
To see more pictures from the performance and other pictures by Jack Zhang go to the following link.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Our Tedious Thoughts

In the Jack Kornfield book “The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology”, Jack describes the below cartoon. I love Buddhist humor. Katie, my artistic wife, re-created it for this blog post.
Tedious Thoughts
In my Tai Chi classes, the people who have the hardest time learning the movements are those who first process the moves through their minds and then try to translate it to their bodies. As adults, we all have a tendency to do this, some more than others.  Most of  my students these days are older adults and this phenomenon seems to get worse with age. Younger people have less trouble watching and doing. Children very easily imitate what they see without having to think about it.  “Monkey see, monkey do” is not difficult for them. With many older people it becomes “monkey see, monkey think about, monkey ask questions and then monkey get very frustrated and possibly quit”.
When a person sticks with practicing Tai Chi regularly, it gradually becomes easier for them to get out of their heads and simply reside in  body awareness. Getting over the initial frustration that results from this tension between head and body is the hardest.  Abandoning the “thinking step” to learning Tai Chi allows the person to more easily “go with the flow” as we boomers used to say.
The concept of consciousness being separate from our  thoughts is  not  something most people understand.  Buddhism teaches that thinking is the cause of suffering. More accurately, out of attachment to thinking arises suffering. When we are conscious of our thoughts, thoughts then become a tool of consciousness.
We tend to believe what we think about ourselves and the world around us. Our thoughts and beliefs are interpretations of reality, but not reality itself. Thoughts and beliefs give rise to emotions. The alternative to unconsciously riding the waves of thoughts, beliefs and emotions is awareness of an alive stillness within us. Only in the present moment do we find true freedom. Even when there is chaos all around, there is a space within that is calm and still, like the eye of a storm.
Almost everyone has at one time or another experienced a deep sense of peace and joy that arises from totally letting go and being present. Like after a hard days work, when you finally get a chance to sit down and relax.
Practicing Tai Chi is only one way of cultivating the ability to get out of our thoughts and rest in this deep sense of peace, There are many other ways: religious faith, meditation, yoga or just totally accepting one’s self and one’s life.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Quiet New Year’s Eve In Green Valley

I woke up early on New Year’s day, 1 or 2 in the morning, and realized I’d slept through New Year’s Eve. It’s not unusual for Katie and me to go to bed before midnight on New Year’s Eve. What is unusual is not being startled awake by fireworks and people yelling and then having a hard time getting back to sleep because erratic explosions continue on into the wee hours of the morning. In Green Valley, the land of retirees, however, I didn’t hear one firecracker or one person yelling. It was blessedly quiet all evening. One could make the conclusion that New Year’s Eve is a holiday for the young. There was a time when we would at least stay up and watch Dick Clark or someone ring in the New Year on TV. But we’re not even interested in that anymore. Seeing a bunch of inebriated people jumping around and yelling is not my idea of a good time. Last New Year’s Katie and I were in Hawaii, staying at her son’s home. This was by far the noisiest celebration I have ever witnessed in the US. A ban on aerial fireworks was going into effect the next year, so people in Hawaii went nuts. I hated it. It actually started many days before the 31st, building to a crescendo around midnight and then carrying on days later. On New Year’s Eve the smoke from all the explosions was so thick in Nuuanu Valley, we had to close all the windows, because we were all coughing and choking. I remember the very first time I was allowed to participate in the New Year’s Eve craziness. It was in the 1950s in Ferguson, Mo. My parents decided to let my sister Karen and me stay up. Dad told us that when midnight came, we could go outside and make as much noise as we wanted. He gave us each lids from pots and pans and instructed us to hit them together like cymbals and yell at the top of our lungs. I couldn’t believe we would actually be allowed to do that. Our dad was always telling us crazy stuff and invariably mom would put a stop to it. But when I looked over at mom, she just smiled at me in approval and took a sip of wine. Just before midnight, we stepped out onto the front porch. I looked up and down the street and to my surprise our neighbors were all standing out on their front porches too, well almost all of our neighbors anyway. I noticed a few dark houses, like our next door neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Howard, who were in their 70s, and the family down the street who belonged to that strange religion. At 12:00 we all began yelling and knocking our pan lids together. I thought it was great fun and over much too soon. The worst New Year’s Eve of my life and the one that soured me on the holiday from then on was in 1967 in Vietnam. I stayed in my hooch that evening quietly drinking and smoking a joint with one of my buddies. At midnight we stepped out the screen door to watch countless tracer bullets and flares fill the dark sky. The sound was intense, not unlike when we were under attack. I didn’t enjoy it. Someone shot one of our Vietnamese interpreters, Chang, that night. For years I assumed the culprit was our redneck supply sergeant. He was crude and prejudiced. He called all Vietnamese “gooks” and along with our first sergeant was behind the movement to not allow our interpreters to eat in the mess hall. I stopped eating there as well in protest, but nobody cared or even noticed. In just several weeks from that night, we would experience the ’68 TET offensive and be the intended victims of a much bigger and more lethal barrage of aerial ordnance. A few years ago, I attempted to get in touch with anyone from my former unit over the internet. I received one reply from a guy who worked at my base camp at that time. He was in communications and knew many of the same people I knew. He told me he was actually there when Chang was shot. A bunch of them, including Chang, were up by our headquarters hooch and at 12:00 all began to shoot their rifles into the air. One of the sergeants, not the supply sergeant, lost his balance and fell over while firing his rifle. The automatic weapon sprayed the whole area and this guy told me it was lucky they weren’t all killed. However, one of the bullets hit Chang by accident. They immediately arranged for him to be medevac'd to the Division hospital. All these years I thought the evil sergeant did it on purpose. I’m always glad when New Year’s is over. Waking up at 2:00am New Years morning and experiencing the quiet made me thankful I’m at this stage of my life. It seems like a long time ago when I banged those pot lids, yelled like bloody murder and thoroughly enjoyed it.