Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Tao of Coffee

Ok, I like coffee. I mean, really like it. Especially small, intense coffee drink with a dollop of whipped cream. But I'm not a coffee snob. Well, sort of not and sort am. I like real coffee, not the stuff long advertised on television and sold in cans in grocery stores. I haven't bought that kind of coffee in, say, nearly 30 years. And while I will drink regular restaurant coffee, I usually try to find a cafe with a barista.

Not the person who follows instructions to use the giant espresso machine on the counter behind the cash register with the row of flavorings on the shelf above the machine, but a real barista who has the experience and interest to make your cup of coffee. And yes, making a cup of coffee can be mundane and routine, but sometimes it's really personal for you, because they always, deep down inside, love their job and work.

Anyway, coffee has Tao?

Well, not coffee per se, not just the cup of coffee, but then again it could have Tao. It's also the whole universe around that one cup of coffee sitting in front of you. From the coffee plants, the collection and processing of the beans, the transportation of the sacks, to the cafe where the beans are ground and made into the cup of liquid in your cup. You relish in the moment that is the end of the road. And if you don't relish it, then you're missing the whole of the experience.

Because it's all about getting in to the making of the cup and the enjoyment of it. After that it's the grounds into the waste, hopefully to be recycled, but often dumped into a landfill, and the cup to be washed and set in the stack for the next customer, or the cardboard cup discarded in the nearest trash receptical. The sad irony of existence, enjoyed for a moment then discarded as we move on in life.

It's the human condition in the world today. It's global, and everything is just a commodity, even people as cargo to travel or sadly too often as the product of human traffikers for the human slave or sex trade or coyotes for illegal immigrants. But that's another topic. Here's it's coffee. Just those small beans which people spend lifetimes in the growing and production, in the evaluation and trade for companies, in the consumer production of the coffee and the many flavored drinks, and in the drinker.

And I've wandered, but then that's what a good cup of coffee does, offer a rich substance to let you sit and wonder, ponder and wander in thought. It's been the drink of people in cafes for centuries or longer in homes with friends and loved ones. It greets our day when we walk into the kitchen, graces our meals, sits idly on our desks, and enriches our moments of leisure and conversation.

While you can argue the health risk of excess of anything, including coffee, it's shown to be good for us. It either helps wake us up or keeps us awake. It can heighten our thinking and senses. And on and on, in moderation, it's always helful and rarely harmful. It comes in so many flavors on where it was grown in the world. It adapts to many flavorings to make a host of hot and cold drinks. Or it can be made in its simpliest form, an espresso.

How many people do you see in line at the cafe, all too often in the US a Starbucks, citing their favorite version of it with milk and maybe some flavor(s) and with a snack, put a lid on the top and either stuff a straw in the hole for sipping or just sip it through the hole? Do you know you're missing the best part of coffee?

It's the aroma. Much of our sense of food or drink is the aroma, it heightens the taste and touch in our mouth. And all the while people miss most of the greatness of coffee, the aroma rising from the top into the air and your olfactory senses. It's why the coffee tasters stuff their noses into the cup, to get a whiff of the finess of the aroma, the sense of its true flavor. Why do they describe the taste and smell of the types of coffee? For you to miss it?

So, when you order your coffee drink, at least the first time, take the lid off and stick your nose close to the liquid and smell the aromas. What's not to enjoy what you ordered? And if you're really brave and want real coffee, order an espesso, plain or with whipped creeam. A Doppio Con Panna, and find out what's to like about a simple and good cup of coffee.

And then wonder the universe behind the one small cup of coffee in your hand and the universe of your world at that moment.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Reading the Tao Te Ching

Well, a venture today was to find a bookstore with a good selection of translations of the Tao Te Ching. The local Borders had about dozen of so translations, so I sat down with them. I discovered in reading about the Tao Te Ching, besides being stories over the years told and meant to be obscure, vague and whatever description you want to use for open to a lot of interpretation in language, context and meaning, it's been translated almost as often as the Bible.

So after a Mocha, a table and comparing selected verses, I chose the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Vintage Publishing, 1972. It's a straight-forward, small paper back with an introduction by Jacob Needleham and just the verses. The rest is up to you. All for $10, and I suspect you can find it cheaper at used bookstores as it's an older translation. The introduction explains the history and background to the text. And it is different from the Bible in one respect.

Where the Bible is a book to a good and moral life, and as interpreted by many to be specific about what you should or or even think, the Tao Te Ching gives you a guide through ideas and leaves the rest to you to discover the truth and answer between you and the universe. It's a guide to a good and moral life, but in stories where the interpretation is up to you. You are your own guide. It knows the world and universe is constantly changing and rigid rules don't work, but a good person knows the Tao (way or path).

Some might think it's more like putting someone in Cairo, Egypt and told to traverse the breadth of the Sahari Desert to Dakar Senegal without a map or compass (ok, GPS too). With the Tao all you have is your moral compass and your innate sense of being good. And with study, practice and observation of the world, you will know what is good and right. It will both think and feel right without thinking or feeling. You will know but can't describe. It will be.

And with my photography, it's much the same. When it works, I'm not thinking or sensing, but just being and doing. The camera and I are, to borrow a worn out cliche, one. This doesn't mean all the images will be good, that's the reality of photography, it's 99% failure. But the one, or if you're lucky, the few, will be worth it, in your heart and mind.

Or at least I'll tell myself on the way with my camera.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tao Te Ching and me

To quote Wikipedia about the Tao Te Ching:

"There are many possible translations of the book's title, owing to the polysemy of the component Chinese words:

Dào/Tao 道 literally means "way", "road", "path", or "route," but was extended to mean "path ahead", "way forward", "method", "principle", "doctrine", or simply "the Way". This term, which was variously used by other Chinese philosophers (including Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, and Hanfeizi), has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnamable process of the universe.

Dé/Te 德 basically means "virtue" in the sense of "personal character", "inner strength", or "integrity", but was used differently by Confucianists to mean "morality". The semantics of this Chinese word resemble English virtue, which developed from a (now archaic) sense of "inner potency" or "divine power" (as in "healing virtue of a drug") to the modern meaning of "moral excellence" or "goodness". Compare the compound word dàodé (道德 "ethics", "ethical principles", "morals," or "morality").

Jīng/Ching 經 originally meant "norm", "rule", "plan", "warp" (vs. "woof") and was semantically extended to mean "scripture", "canon", "great book", or "classic".

Thus, Tao Te Ching can be translated as "The Scripture/Classic/Canon of the Way/Path and the Power/Virtue", etc.
Note that there is in fact no "its" in the title, either explicitly or implicitly. Therefore, commonly accepted translations of the title such as "The Book of the Way and Its Power" are in fact adding an extra element that takes away from the accuracy."

This says far better than I - "Gee, really, with all those experts contributing to it? Like Duh!" And I'm only a beginner, and I'll admit, a oft lazy student at that. I tend to explore it two ways. The first when I'm im a severe episodes of depression with my Dysthymia, often called double depression and when wander away when I feel better. The second is when do my street photography, walking around looking, seeing and taking photos.

Over the years I've added more ways in the everyday events and activities in my life, such as meeting and talking with people, remembering people I've met occasionally over time, finding humor in the small things in life, enjoying the sheer joy children express, and on and on. Some of my best photography is simply doing, not thinking, but just walking and viewing with the camera.

It's often the times I either get into trouble or forget where I am to find I've lost track of time, place or distance. I only exist as an extension of my camera and, to borrow the worn out saying, the camera and I become one. Trite? Perhaps. But what else is there to explain it? The tool and the hand dissolve into one and the mind and eyes see through the camera to capture what I see. No thinking, just being and doing.

And so I'll continue as I go, and hope I will get better at being a human being and a photographer.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Photo Student of the Tao

I was browsing in a bookstore recently and wandered into the religion section for another reason but ended up looking at books on Eastern religions, namely Taoism, which I've been a student of since 1975 when I read Alan Watt's book "Tao, The Watercourse Way".

Then I was a student in geography and hydrology, not of Taoism or other religions or philosophies. I was preoccupied with getting my bachelors and masters degrees in geography specializing in water resources. Life is like that, it consumes your attention, energy, focus and resources, and when you think you're busy enough something hits you from a direction and with a force you're not ready or prepared. The ole' mental thump on the forehead.

Well, I really didn't understand much of the book except the basic ideas and one visual image that's never left me about life. In the book he describes our being a hollow tube floating on a river. You're not interferring with the flow but moving with the flow. You can't effect the flow but you reflect the flow. You're simply being with the flow and the flow with you. And he writes, if you can understand it, then you can't describe it, and if you can describe it, then you don't understand it.

And so obviously I don't understand it. And thus, like many, I'm simply a simple student of it. And over the years I've understood it also applies to photography. It's not about you, the camera and the subject. It's about you and the flow of life, and you're holding the camera to capture instances in the flow. And the same rule applies, but to this you can add that when you capture it you're simply capturing a moment in time and place.

And in the moment, it's about being in the moment of life and the moment of photography. Bringing you and your camera into, as they say, harmony with life and the flow of life. Kinda' sounds esoteric, don't it? Well, it is philosophical and religious in one sense and on one plane of life when it's really about working. But it's also as the saying goes, it's about "being in the moment" and that moment is the Tao and Tao of photography.

And so, like many other writers on the subject (geez, do a Google search on "Tao of Photography" and you get a ton of links), I'll explore the Tao as it relates to my understanding of the Tao and of life and photography. It's all just personal and a personal exploration to finally reread all the chapters in the "Tao Teh Ching", using Henry Wei's "The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu" and Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro's Tao of Photography.

So it's all relative to those books and me. The rest are my wanderings in throught and images.