MIDI, Time-Travel, and the Simpsons

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I just had an esoteric experience.

Let’s rewind to 1994.  It was a cool autumn night, or maybe it was summer, who really knows?   As a 16 year old, I was obsessed with orchestration, arrangements, and composition…  you know…  like most other 16 year olds.    I would often sit with a piece of music, and try to hear each instrument and learn each part.  Sure, I could have just gotten the sheet music, but this was more fun. It was a way to train my ear, and see how close I can get to the composer’s original vision.  It taught me a lot about composing, orchestration, as well as song-writing.

Obsessed with The Simpsons, it was only a matter of time, I did the same thing with the hit TV-show’s INFECTIOUS theme music by Danny Elfman.

Well, mission accomplished!  I listened to that song till my ears bled, and figured out as many of those whole-step runs as I possibly could, and saved the results to a MIDI file, to be played with pride on my then brand new Korg X3, which had decent enough orchestra sounds, for 1994.  And MIDI being the resilient format that it is, is still very much relevant 20 years later in 2014, when I found this file and decided to give it some new life.

It was like entering a collaboration with my 16 year old self, negotiating, learning from, and adding to.  And the result is what we have here, same MIDI file, a couple of additions, piped through MachFive+VSL to give it some new life, uploaded to SoundCloud ever immortalized by the inter-webs.

Special thanks to my good buddy Peter Maher, for taking time this Saturday and laying down Lisa’s breaking-out-of-the-school-walls with her heart wrenching solos, (but this time on the alto sax)

This goes out to all the Simpsons fans, musicians, and time travelers.

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Smoker’s Cough and the F Train

It’s one of the warmest months in the Bay Area, and somehow I’ve developed a pretty nasty lung infection. Doctor says it’s “light pneumonia”.  I didn’t know pneumonia came in the “light” variety.   It’s kinda like:

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Kind of fitting, that it falls on the 2-year anniversary of my quit smoking date. Possibly as a stern warning from the universe, of the things that may befall me, if I were ever to go back. I don’t really talk very openly about quitting smoking.  The people in my day to day, knew I was doing it, they saw me go through it, but I never really told most people about the experience both, the inner experience of being a smoker, as well as walking out of it, but I figured, if this might help someone follow the same path, why not get it out there?

In 2006, I had all my closest friends write me a letter, telling me why they wanted me to stop smoking. I used this as motivation, to keep me off cigarettes, when I moved to Kenya, leaving my pack at home. I figured I would to carry the weight of the words, and cumulative time it took to write those words down as a large enough dosage of guilt, I mean… accountability, to keep me from getting that Philip-Morris fix. However within a few months of my return to the USA, a couple of shots of tequila, and a bad day at work, and behold, we’re pack-a-day buddies once again.

I might as well have used their letters as rolling paper… Yeah, I’m really good at this guilt thing. I’m Egyptian!

September 5th 2012, I decided I would smoke my last cigarette. A year before on that same day, I arrived in Oakland, CA, stepping foot into my new home, in the Bay Area, and I certainly did not see that coming. I don’t really talk about why I quit, and how it happened, but maybe it’s the rediscovery of this blog, and the curiosity of whether or not I’m still able to gather my thoughts and put them up on the digital screen, that I find myself here, drinking a medium cup of hibiscus tea, and typing these words out. But I am hungry.

In summary: I quit smoking and gained 30 lbs.  In that exact order.

To truly understand this, and I think smokers and ex-smokers will totally relate when I say, you have to understand the relationship I had with cigarettes. It was the reward, I got, basically for living. Just finished a meal?....Good job, Paul!  Just sat through one of those EXTRA long 2 hour 30 minute movies? Dang, that was some serious movie watchin’, brother!  The way you just sat there and followed that plot, and all those twists and turns!    And don’t get me started on flights.   Yeah, we know BOS to JFK was only 1 hour, but you held your own.  Stored that tray table like a champ!  Oh, shit, TSA took my lighter… 

My favorites were the ones after long jogs, oh even after the 2009 BAA Half Marathon.  Yeah, it was that serious.

The tough part, though, was the guilt.  I went to bed every night knowing that, if I got sick, and by sick I mean…  life and lung damaging illness… that it was my fault.  I would to have to look people in the eye, and take responsibility for the fact that I not only did this to myself, but I gave my tithe to the all-holy tobacco industry to do it.    A book given to me, that took me about 4 years to read, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Alan Carr, was what finally did it.   I’ve tried all things.   Patches, gums, inhalers, hell, I moved to NorCal where a smoker is pretty much a social outcast (except for some reason once I quit smoking, it felt like everyone around me picked up the habit).   This book, may have saved my life.   Why? . All things start in the mind.  Every sandwich you ate, every person you kissed, every shot you drank, every encouragement you gave, started with a thought. How we see the world, will affect how we live in the world.  And this book gave me a new perspective on this habit of mine.

The instructions are:   don’t finish the book until you’re ready to stop…  and don’t stop smoking until you finish the book…  and that’s why it took 4 years.  There is one chapter, where you’re instructed to smoke your last cigarette.   Essentially I did this: I took two days, went into the woods, and read and smoked, and read and smoked, and chewed on each chapter as if it was manna on my tongue, nourishment, wisdom, I was determined to change my mind, and therefore change my habits.   And I would not read that last chapter until I was ready.  I sat in Tilden Park, up in Berkeley, I walked around Lake Temescal in Oakland, and sat at the riverbank, as I smoked that last cigarette, and I kid you not, it was pretty much the most disgusting thing I had every tasted, because if you really allow yourself to let the words of those pages sink in, you become very conscious of what you’re doing.   And that’s what it took for me.  It was a journey of, “no cigarette today” after “no cigarette today” after another…  Until those daily choices to not buy a pack or take a puff, strung into weeks, and then months, until I just stopped thinking about it.

They say that smoking affects the emotion centers of the body.  If you believe in energy centers, they say the heart chakra is most affected.  And it’s not like there’s this magic ball of green energy in the center of your chest, but whether it’s the chemicals, or the habit itself, the symbolism is perfect.  We draw in clouds of smoke into our chest, where our hearts sit.  Making everything in there a little less transparent to others, and even to ourselves.   It’s one of the reasons people are known for being moody, and irritable.  But it’s not just that, it’s also an extreme sensitivity to all emotion: joy, anger, sadness, laughter, etc.   The clouds have cleared away, it’s nothing but flesh: lungs and heart.    Let’s just say, a few weeks after that last cigarette, I was raw, to say the least.   I feel bad for anyone who got on my bad side during that time.   Oh man, that pedestrian who walked too slow in front of my car…    that poor grocery clerk didn’t separate my chicken in a plastic bag…    to you i apologize most of all.

So a few weeks after I quit, I found out the author of the book I had read, had passed away.  Would you believe I reacted as if I had lost my best friend???  I was sitting on my couch just objectively looking at myself and almost laughing at the ridiculousness of the intense disturbance I felt for losing this person I didn’t even know, and not only that, he’d been dead for about 10 years!   Luckily this phase passed, and I can, again, watch The Notebook without flinching.

So there ya have it.  I can’t run as far as I could when I was smoking, but that’s because my ankle has gone to hell over the years.  I probably could have run a marathon before.  But I write this, in case something here, can resonate with someone who’s in those shoes, who might wanna stop smoking, or just pretty much understands what that journey is like.  It was one of those difficult things, that reminded me that with enough focus, perspective, and determination, most things are possible.   So, I’m taking that with me.

And if for some reason you see me with a cigarette in my mouth again, don’t make a big deal of it, you don’t wanna get on my bad side when I stop smoking again.

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An Egyptian American’s Thoughts On…

Egyptian protester

A few years ago, my mom and dad were sitting at home, nervous in the light of the #Jan25 Movement. According to them, the Muslim Brotherhood was sure to take over because they’re the most organized. The youth and the liberals were naive to make a change. They put the hands of the country in the hands of fanatics, and paved the way for fascism, in the same way many revolutions of the past have opened the doors to tyranny and oppression. I remember talking about this very large, very real concern with my friend Mira. Having just been to Egypt, and having spent time with the people, and having caught a whiff of the spirit of the revolution just assured me that the people have learned that they can make a change, and they won’t stand to see their country overrun by oppressive forces. They did it once, they can do it again.

There’s already a lot of stuff out there as to why I believe the events of July 3rd 2013, are justified as a legitimate and democratic act by the people. To me it’s a no brainer, when the ruler of a nation dissolves any accountability, restricts freedom of speech, appoints a terrorist to run a city that their terrorist organization once bombed. Such a no brainer, to me, why the people did what they had to do.

But there’s something very personal about this whole thing. And it’s about Egypt. And Egyptians. And about Egyptians being Egyptians in Egypt. Growing up, we are taught to be proud of our culture. Our history, our ancestors. Our achievements and contributions, as a people, to science, math, technology, language, and religion. Egypt had always been a beacon of progress and intellect but things have changed for Egypt and a cloud descended upon the culture. Egypt has a long history of occupiers, from the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, British, French, all the while, the culture diluted, the language obliterated, the sense of identity and history questioned, and its people divided.

But Egyptians still hang on, and have been hanging tough for a very long time. However, the Muslim Brotherhood, The Ikhwan, if their agenda ever becomes realized, we’re talking an even further obliteration of Egypt… FROM Egypt. Just watch history re-written before your eyes.

All of this married with a culture of fear of authority (political and religious, regardless of religion), and fear of change. If things aren’t working, it’s just too bad. This has always been part of the conversation I’ve witnessed around me my whole life. A fear of authority and the treatment of precedent and institutions as if it always was, and always shall be.

But if you are Egyptian or if you know Egyptians, there are things in Egypt that still persist. I don’t even know how to put it into words, but there are things you just know are Egyptian, that have persisted in spite of the proclamations, laws, and bloodshed that has mired our past. In our language, our music, our humor, our affection, our stubbornness, our dance, devotion, and family. It’s there. You can build a road through a forest, but even the smallest blades of grass can cut through cement and grow into something magnificent again.

The events of July 3rd speak to me as just that. It was an unravelling of this culture of fear. The people had enough evidence during one year, to see the course of history being written, and it was time to say, no more. It was a people taking a stand for their own heritage and destiny. It was a united people, being a beacon of light for the entire world. It was the chipping away of complacency and it was a defeat even if momentarily, to cultural division. This was not just the toppling of a regime that had been in power for a year, this was the beginning of the dissolving of a cultural trend that has bound our people for longer than we could remember.

Of course I want the leaders of the USA to be on the right side of history in regards to this matter. I want folks to look deeper at the nuances of the events of the last several years, and not undermine a word like democracy to be defined by a single moment in the democratic process.

That said, we’ll see what happens. I’m proud of what the people are accomplishing.

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The paradox of human creativity in a twisted society: the musings of an insomniac in south boston.

I’ve been up since 4am.

While doing some reading last night, i realized I spend too much time in front of a computer, when I checked the top of the page, to see what time it was. (were I a PC user, I’d have checked the bottom)

But I digress…I had to put the book down because a question blared in my mind which was sparked by what I was reading…. and this question forced to make a quick 20 second analysis of everything i know about the world and found myself faced with a clear internal contradiction. Because I wouldn’t be able to continue unless I had come to some resolution…

I am totally aware of the lack of decency this world affords, in the mind-fuck of a society we live in, and that the world often operates in a way that is contrary to anything that is fair, righteous, or even healthy. And I don’t mean lack of decency in the Pat Robertson sense of the phrase…. However, the lack of decency I speak of, permits a small percentage of people to control the majority of the world’s resources, that honors slaughter for capital gain, and social manipulation via expensive campaigns “so we can buy shit we don’t need”, and elect people who don’t always have our best interests at heart …. Oh, and I can’t forget the fact that some of the highest paying jobs contribute very little back to society, while educators and civil servants struggle to get by…

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” – Krishnamurti. 

This is inherently true to me. At the same time, I have this unshakable deep rooted belief that this world is inherently good. I feel I have held both “truths” together for a long time, without even looking to them at the same time, let alone ask them to begin speaking to each other. For a moment I put the book on pause as I racked my brain to find a way to settle this discrepancy, when I looked within, I searched for reasons, images, memories that brought me to this conclusion that this world was inherently “good”, which no doubt I have become reacquainted with time and time again in my life, that would remind me of why I had come to that conclusion of the world in the first place. 

For my prior argument, to understand why I believed in the inherent sickness of our society, I wouldn’t have to look past memories from this very day, the news, heck, even myself… however I had to look deeper into my past to remember an even deeper truth that I hold, and in no time, one by one, each memory came flooding back. 

The sweat inducing acrobatics of De La Guarda, Byzantine Chant, The harvest celebration of the Luo people, The Vitruvian Man, “Grace” by Jeff Buckley, The performance art of a couple of young women from NYC called Shalom Sahbity…. Every memory that surfaced was one clearly around human creation. Art. Music Dance. Theater. The arts and are the only evidence I have, that I can truly believe in, that we as a race, and as a collective consciousness are inherently beautiful. There’s just something about it.

Every time I witness a piece of art… all the things i consider sick: war, corruption, inequality, religious monopoly and persecution.. if they didn’t make sense before, they just seemed completely irrelevant then. 

“I was the top male-model for an Egyptian line of jeans, and my face and figure were plastered on billboards all over the Middle East… and still the fighting continued… ” -Buddy Cole, Kids In The Hall

When a person, or when people come together to create something of beauty, passion, and truth, there is no room for the corruption of politics money and power, (however the industry of the arts certainly contain all these things)

There’s something to it, and I wanna find out more.

If I look across the globe to the dances, the songs, the paintings, and the performances, every person becomes elevated to a place of great humility as they are just vessels of beauty and were meek enough to accept themselves as such. And I think its in this position as a human vessel for creativity that we do find an inherent goodness among all people. 

I think it may be because the creative process probably brings us closer to the divine, or rather our divine selves.

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Don’t Diss The Pope! Feelings could get hurt.

Pope Innocent with St. John of Matha

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about Harry Knox and his comments against Pope Benedict. He said “The pope is hurting people in the name of Jesus” (something along those lines), mainly because of the pope’s declaration against condom use in Africa. (and I agree with Knox whole heartedly)

I guess what is getting to me about all this, is that people feel that this is an opportunity to “Stand up for Christianity” because there’s this notion that christianity is a threatened religion on the global scene.

Now I do know first hand that in many nations, being a christian (or anything else besides the majority religion) will make a person an object of violence and discrimination, but christianity is hardly the only religion that has or is experiencing these attacks… but on the whole christianity has been, is, and will continue to be the most powerful religion on the planet. And when i say powerful, i mean in terms of political, social and economic power (when it comes to spiritual power, that’s a whole other topic). The evangelical church alone is the religious powerhouse of the USA, and we’re the most powerful country on the planet.

Now what boggles my mind is, that, while large Christian groups and churches contribute to economic and humanitarian aid all over the world in the form of hospitals, food programs, rehabilitation, etc… it does not discount the fact that the church has and continues to make mistakes. Sometimes huge mistakes… As soon as someone criticizes the behavior of the church, people go up in arms because it becomes this big offense to even question the decisions, statements and behavior of a human run organization.

Good works does not equate to immunity. And just because good has been done by someone, or people, or a church, it doesn’t mean they’re perfect and are above scrutiny. We have a tendency as humans, to either worship or vilify, and no human being or group is worthy of either. While we’ve seen people come close to being completely evil and vile, I don’t know or have ever heard of one who’s been close to perfect, and if you know of any, send me their official biography because I’d love to read it.

I believe the pope’s statements are dead wrong, and so does Harry Knox…. and so do the majority of educated people in the realm of public health and science.

Maybe the criticism against the church is an opportunity for the church to take a look at itself and say “Are we doing everything right? Are we really representing the Jesus we are holding on our banners?” But really, in 2,000 years, we’ve only seen progress when people are willing to exam themselves, and we’ve only seen tyranny rise out of human immunity. Read a history book.

I have seen some despicable things done to human beings in the name of Jesus and in the name of Christianity. It happens, and it continues to happen. Turning a blind eye doesn’t really do good for your cause, in fact it starts to discredit it. And when you’re as powerful as the pope, and you have the ears of 1 billion people, you better have your stuff together, because people WILL listen to you and react. The AIDS epidemic in Africa is a way different issue than AIDS in western countries. Blanket moral statements are not responsible.

At the end of the day, I believe this whole thing is a reaction to the power shift in government and a great opportunity for the conservatives in washington to make noise against the administration (which also is not perfect).

But hey, I could be wrong.

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There and back again…

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Looking out the window of this vehicle I see the plains of southern Kenya, mountains, acacia trees, and Masaai herders with their livestock. A week ago I was surrounded by something very different. 

A number of years ago, a woman began taking in children that were left on her doorstep. As the years went by, the number went from 2 to around 60. This woman was not a wealthy heiress, or a philanthropist who was giving back because she was given so much. No, she was just a woman who lives in the slums of Nairobi. She was a tough lady with years on her face, with a presence that is somewhat intimidating, and in her care were children from the age of 2 to 17. Through the kindness of the neighborhood, and other charities, she is able to put her kids through school. She calls them future doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, musicians, and she’s not joking around. And I was there.

We hung out with these kids for about 5 hours, just hangin out, playing games, being silly, and then some honest conversation with the older ones. In a dog-eat-dog neighborhood, where the task of feeding ones self is a challenge, let alone one’s own family, and confidently this woman seeks to feed 60 children and youth, daily, and for as long as her days will allow her.

Kibera Girls Write Love Songs

After 4 days hanging out in Kibera with my old friends at the Kibera girls soccer academy, I felt somewhat rejuvenated again. I learned some tactics at the orphanage which taught me how to diss someone 5 different ways in Swahili, which was a huge hit at the Academy. Someone would give me a pound (you know, bumping your fists together), and at the last second, retreat my hand, extending my finger and wagging it saying “masaa badu” basically saying “come back later”, would result in screams, giggles, and the occasional threat for retribution.

Seeing Pete walk through Kibera for the first time, reminded me of my first time going through there, and how I was without words because it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. As I walk through the streets which once burned two years ago at the hands of thugs, and violent men and women who were paid by their elected leaders to indulge in ethnic violence and the murdering and displacing of innocent people, and ALSO knowing that as I write this, an arms race is underway to prepare for the 2012 elections, with access to Somalia’s surplus of automatic weapons, I wonder if we can’t learn from very (very) recent history. Kenyans are peaceful, but like most places that struggle in the developing world, many can be easily bought by the wealthy to commit atrocities so that the ruling elite can stay in power. But for now, Kibera is back to normal. It is a place I love. You can’t just see a photo of Kibera and know what is happening there. You have to walk on the streets, and talk to the people, and even then you really don’t know what is happening in this place. Fried fish, grilled corn on the cob, vendors of fruits and vegetables, and the smells of the open market are mixed with the burning garbage and open sewage. There are both smiles, greetings, and suspicious looks on every corner, But through the maze, behind the mosque, and next to the beauty parlor is a haven for education, personal development and equality. And here, the girls of the KGSA are working with my good friend Peter, who is teaching them about singing, and the art of songwriting and it was on thursday that they wrote their first love song.

During one of the lessons, the news came..

“Paul, did you hear, Mercy died.”

I felt the loss of both meanings of the word. Apparently, she was poisoned, but most people believe it was a suicide. Mercy in 2007 was a girl who worried me, I met her, she was pregnant, and was attending the KGSA with plans to drop out. She was depressed, reserved, and couldn’t look me in the eye. In 2008, I was surprised to have seen her so happy. The baby was delivered, and yet, she was still in school! Getting help from relatives, Mercy was confident, happy, and doing great in classes, I told her I was looking forward to congratulate her the following year as a high school graduate.

The news of her death really broke my heart, as she was so close to making it.

There is no time to waste, we have to act while we have the time.

The weekend brought me to the wild, where I spent a few days with Peter, photographing animals as we drove through their natural habitat. It felt great to be there with the “good camera”. The clear night inspired me to ask a hotel manager if they could shut off the lights of one area of the hotel, so I could take a few star photographs, and at first he made it seem like no big deal, and said he would see me the following night at 11pm to make arrangements.

At around 10:30pm, the F&B manager who I spoke with the night before, arrived, but things weren’t as simple as he made it seem the night before. He said he was going to have to call guards because of things that may or may not happen in 4 seconds of darkness, and when I inquired more, the only answer I got was a stern look and the statement “I do not wish to further divulge on this topic.” 

The following conversation with this man, led me to believe that I was dealing with an egomaniacal, but somewhat powerful man, who just made us feel very uncomfortable, making threats about cameras watching me that were bigger than the SLR i had in my hand, and he wouldn’t stop buying us drinks. He went on and on about people with small heads, and dark and shady behavior. He repeated time and time again that he is just a smalltime team player, yet, when he bought a pack of cigarettes, but had his underlings open the pack up for him. It just reminded me too much of Forrest Whittaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin but on a very VERY VERY small scale. I’ve never seen anything like it before. We had a 2 minute break in the conversation when we thanked him and got the hell out of there.

Back in Nairobi… 4 days left. This one flew by.

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