Friday, June 25, 2010


Argentinian-born sports commentator, Andrés Cantor

We watch the World Cup in Spanish at home.  I understand very little of it.  My Costan Rican brother-in-law claims that in the US, sixty percent of Americans tune in to the World Cup in Spanish, while thirty percent prefer the British commentary, and a mere ten percent choose the American version.  I am still looking for Nielsen rating statistics that will confirm his scholarship, but in the meanwhile, I think I can understand why.

Take for example the following truncated transcript from Spanish-language TV of last Wednesday's USA vs. Algeria game, in which the USA won in the third minute of the very last four minutes of overtime, concluding a frustratingly flat zero-zero tie: 

"Those idiots!  So close, inconceivable!!  How can they call that soccer?  Every goal they miss has gotten worse!  A disgrace to their country!  Dempsey, what an embarrassment, what a disappointment, oh, su madre, su madre...  Will his mother be able to face her son?  Wait, now the USA has the ball!  The counterattack is moving, moving forward, Donovan, Altidore, oh!  Algeria on the ground... Dono–! [short pause for inhale] GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAL!" 

And after the playbacks have been repeated, the jumping up and down:

"The passion!  The innovation!  The creativity of the winning team!  The American spirit!  The excitement, I almost couldn't watch!  The United States, saved from the death-grip of elimination in the final minutes of the game, in the final minute!" 

On the other hand, take the UK commentators reporting that same decisive goal: 

"So, we are here watching the game in Pretoria, the score is currently zero to zero.  The United States in the white jerseys is tied with Algeria in the green jerseys.  They have moved into overtime, yes, overtime.  There are less than two minutes remaining in this game.  Donovan kicks the ball.  The score is now one to zero.  Rather late in the game, I dare say.  The game is now over.  We will return after a short message from our sponsors, Bud Light and Nissan." 

I don't know, it must be in their blood to stay cool.  Who knows, maybe sports commentators from the United Kingdom are among those who let loose off the job and wreak havoc on a Greek island like their fellow landsmen. 


The universal siren-call of victory, which brings in billions in advertising dollars annually and is cemented into the psyches of futbol fans worldwide, has a surprisingly short history.  It was first used in Italy at the 1990 FIFA World Cup by the Argentinian-born sportscaster, Andrés Cantor, who was announcing for the US Hispanic viewers of Univison.  However, the call didn't enter cosmic consciousness until the 1994 FIFA World Cup, which was hosted by the United States and to this day holds the record for World Cup attendance at 3.9 million.  That was the year when Cantor's extended yell was catapulted into cult status.  He was invited to appear on Late Night with David Letterman during the FIFA 1994 and 1998 (broadcasting for Late Night in Paris), and his yell was used in a widely-viewed Volkswagen commercial at the World Cup in 1998.  The call is now being sold as a ringtone on Telemundo's website. 

"We will be returning shortly to our regular programing Healing, Health, and Art.  Thank you for joining us at the Standard Gravity Blog.  Have a pleasant day."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Healing Touch Therapy

Here's a chapter from my Skeptic's Book.  It's about my experience with a technique called Healing Touch Therapy from a healer (and cellist!) colleague of mine, Sarah Fiene.  

My father was a professor for computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, for thirty years, and so I was pretty much steeped in the brain stew of scientific thinking from early on, even if it doesn't make for the most warm-and-fuzzy environment for children.  I remember amusing myself for hours as a child by folding those manila-colored punch cards into fantastical shapes.  And I would take my crayons and draw on those ubiquitous cards, always slightly frustrated that my artwork was dotted by the Iowa Test-shaped slots that were punched in meticulous rows.  I went on to earn degrees myself, and for all the nay-sayers in this economy who claim that an expensive college education isn't worth the life-sentence of student debt, I give my two cents by saying that I will be forever grateful for the rigors of critical thinking which higher education offers.  So, to be succinct, I'm nerd-blooded.  And I am a skeptic.

Enough about me.  Now, returning to San Francisco, I was introduced to Sarah Fiene by a mutual acquaintance who knew that we were both cellists and healers ("Why don't you two talk about, you know, cello-healing stuff?").  With the volume of people I have met in my life, I'm not usually optimistic about such introductions.  But I do my best to remain open.  

It turns out that Sarah practices something called Healing Touch.  For you gamers out there, it is not the "Restorative Spell" that you can acquire on World of Warcraft.  But I have to admit that the name didn't say much to me, either, so I decided the best way to find out was to experience it myself.

I invited Sarah to my office for a Healing Touch session.  I had a concrete issue that I wanted to have addressed:  stiff neck from the move and from sleeping in a different bed.  Otherwise, I had no expectation whatsoever.  She instructed me to lie on my back on the massage table, fully dressed, and under a blanket.  I closed my eyes to focus more on the subtle sensations as she took her pendulum and swung it several inches above my body around my chakra centers.  Beginning then, it was clear that whatever Sarah was doing was undeniably palpable.  The pendulum at that distance felt like a marble being rolled in circles directly on my skin.  Then, she proceeded to "balance" my chakras.  Much of the time, her hands were moving several feet above me.  Yet it literally felt like she was pushing and pulling sheets of water of varying temperatures around me like a blanket, as if her hands were powerful magnets that could manipulate energy like some Divine Aura Etch-a-Sketch.  

The second thing that stood out to me during the session was how structured it was.  The session seemed to be divided into three sections, which I can only describe as an evaluation, a re-balancing, and a grounding/opening.  I will have to ask her more later.  And within these sections, there was a distinct feeling that she knew exactly what work had to be done, at which level, and on which sides.  I remember thinking to myself that I could almost hear the parts of this session, like the sixteen measure segments of a Mozart quartet!  There was a feeling when a certain part was "done," like a sports massage therapist (or Rolfer for that matter) who works until a knot is released.  But here we were talking energy.

When the session was completed, I sat up and observed what I was feeling.  Restored, yes.  Rested, yes.  Neck pain gone?  Yes!  She did not even work directly on my neck.  I also noticed that my head was clearer, that unbeknownst to me, through the past months, my mind had become a veritable landfill of stress and loose scraps of fear and worry. 

We sat down and talked for a short while afterwards, which I like to do sometimes after a session to help me return to Earth.   I was put at ease by Sarah's maturity, humility and honesty.  She is clearly talented and disciplined, and I sensed that her healing practice is not about her, but about a talent that she makes available to clients.  

A very interesting aside:  Sarah originally came to the Healing Touch technique through her own experience.  She suffered for years from a debilitating disc abnormality which defied all treatment, including surgery.  It was "healed" exclusively with the work of a Healing Touch practitioner within four weeks.

For more information, you can contact Sarah Fiene through her website

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Brazil vs. North Korea: Running Tips for the Supreme Dictatorship

(Dear readers:  Unfortunately, all the World Cup highlights have been removed due to copyright infringement.  The other links below are still working.)

To the North Korean team:  I have contacted your coach via his invisible phone to congratulate him for his team's success, and to share with him my observations that could improve your futbol techniques, based on last Tuesday's World Cup game against Brazil.  But for the less elite citizens of the world who don't have access to such invisible cutting-edge technology, I am writing this blog post.

Brazil's Maicon was biting his knuckles and crying for joy after he scored that first goal in the 54th minute.  Against North Korea.  To no one's great surprise, the world champions claimed victory in the end, although The Mystery Land put up a commendably good fight.  However, I was distracted by something else:  The difference in running technique between top-seeded Brazil and bottom-scrubbers North Korea.  Here's a peek into my thoughts.

Firstly, I didn't know if it was just my bodyworker's eyes that had the feeling that for every step Brazil took, N. Korea had to take five.  Something about the N. Korean team seemed inefficient.  Even when Ji Yun-nam scored the historic goal for his country, he was running like a switchblade.  In the minute-long clip above, you can see a little of what I mean, especially in the instances where the two teams are running side by side.

The most obvious thing that stands out is the beautiful extension in running that the Brazilians display with their longer stride.  But smaller steps doesn't necessarily make Korea a worse team.  Look carefully, and you may get the feeling that the Brazilians seem to be hardly moving as they play.  There is a stillness and agility that North Korea, as valiant as they were, didn't possess.  Specifically it is a stillness in the upper body.  This is because the Brazilians are using their arms to stabilize, whereas the Koreans use their arms to run.  The result of grabbing for speed in the arms, instead of maintaining stability, as I see it, not only wastes energy by encouraging more twist in the trunk, but also sacrifices adaptability by lifting the center of gravity when the elbows are bent.  That means the player has to expend more energy preventing a topple, while dedicating less energy to following the ball.  Furthermore, the player has to brake as he redistributes his center of gravity while transition from running to preparing for a kick.

To illustrate this more clearly, examine the technique of Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger in the following video (that is, when he is playing, not so much when he's whooping to fans).  I remember back in the 2006 World Cup, when the kid was only 21, he stuck out to me for his unmistakable posture on the field.  It wasn't just his shock of blond hair that was easy to spot, but his arm position when he ran was very low and wide.  Lower the center of gravity and the chest facing forward makes him more agile.  (Please excuse the choice of music!)

Take another world star, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.  There is a reason why they call him "The Antelope" for baffling opposing teams with his footwork, then moving in for a lethal shot.  The following video is someone's 6-minute collage of Ronaldo's obsessive footwork, giving the impression that if Ronaldo ever got cut, he would bleed little soccer balls.  Now, Ronaldo's body build is key to his ease.  Because of his long spine, his weight distribution is naturally lower, since his legs make up less of his height.  And having this longer torso also lends him a more upright posture, even while running, which means maintaining a constant vertical axis around which he can turn.  This leads to more stillness in the upper body, more control, more adaptability to the quickly moving ball.  Once again, you can see how he does not swing his arms to power his run, but keeps them low and relatively still to stabilize the torso. (Again, I apologize for the soundtrack.)

However, we're only looking at the best of the best here, so it may seem like I am splitting hairs as far as technique.  So, as an example of less-than-world-class football, I invite you to watch this clip of Sri Lanka vs. Afghanistan, tied at 2:2 and surely an exhilarating show nevertheless.  Note that on the field, the players look more like they are jogging:  high swing of the arms, strongly bent elbows, and twisting of the torso which means the chest is moving in all different directions.  The play lacks elegance and focus, the movement is messy.  But, the stadium is having a blast, which is what counts.

I'm going to sign off now, must hit the sack early to get up at the crack of dawn for Germany vs. Serbia...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Yoga in San Francisco: When Your Yoga Teacher has Cancer

 When Your Yoga Teacher has Cancer.

This first posting about Yoga in San Francisco is a personal one.  I returned from Berlin last May to the startling news that my favorite Iyengar yoga teacher, Karl Erb, was admitted into the hospital with cancer.  The initial diagnosis was terrifying:  intestinal cancer which had possibly spread to his lungs, a soft-tissue death sentence.  What a cruel dealing of fate for a young, brilliant, and compassionate man who had dedicated his entire life to his spiritual practice and teachings!  But then came a relief during the first week in hospital when his diagnosis was downgraded to an encapsulated tumor and a treatable cancer that would probably be under control by summer's end.  So Karl's survival chances are very high, but as any cancer patient (and companion) knows, even a manageable case is a substantial disruption to a career and personal life. He will continue to receive chemotherapy in cycles of fives full days, followed by two weeks of pause.  For this, he must take a hiatus from his work and will have to give up his home.

There is much to be learned when a venerable teacher gets sick.  Most probably, the first thought that comes to mind is, "But he's a yoga teacher!  Isn't he perfect?  He is not allowed to get sick!"  Indeed, we must have compassion for these thoughts, but then we let them pass through.  Next, we have to toy with the reality that people in the position of teaching, healing, and spiritual authority are human just like all others, and in fact the most insightful among us are often a touch more human than the rest: Many have formidable flaws which propel their evolution as they overcome challenges through meditation, consciousness and discipline; many have unimaginable pasts from which they draw exactly that wisdom which they impart.

Reminding ourselves that perfection is an ideal, not a person, is a surprisingly abstract task when it comes to a figure of authority.  A yoga teacher who smokes a joint once in a while?  That certainly exists.  Is my psychiatrist secretly alcoholic?  Could be.  A spiritual guru whose neglected wife left him for her golf instructor?  Not unheard of.  And yet their services continue to be invaluable.  This is not to say that all teachers have double standards, which most do not, but the take-home message is this:  We have to avoid getting embroiled into a one-dimensional definition of perfection.

The relationship between teacher and student, patient and clinician, healer and healed, of course is dependent upon the education, talent, and experience of the person of authority.  But it is also a contract in which both sides agree to honor an ideal for their mutual benefit, and it is this ideal which is the ultimate teacher, be it the ideal of perfect health, wisdom, information, or a skill.  Both teacher and student are striving for the same ideal, where supposedly the teacher, through natural talent, inclination, and discipline is further along than the student.  And many teachers, like Karl, do a pretty darned good job of it, living and breathing these higher values, day and night, to an extent where it inspires others to do the same.

In this age of self-help and self-determination, the danger arises for some to over-simplistically blame patients for their own ills, and the word "cancer" on its own is a frequent lightening rod for this trend.  Well-meaning relatives and friends, in trying to draw connections, sometimes inflict unnecessary emotional harm with their lay interpretations, yet decades of research have failed to find any conclusive evidence that stress or personality "cause" cancer.  Often as I watch clients, patients, and loved ones grapple for some logic to hold on to, the silent scream in the background pleads:  It is what it is!  What better meditation is there?  The attempt to remain standing on this wave of the unknown is nothing more than a Rorschach test of fears; if we slow down enough to listen to the water, another lesson abounds with the opportunity to re-structure old beliefs.

Coming back to Karl, to put it in plain English, I love thus guy as many people do.  He has spent over twenty years learning, teaching, and building the community which is now stepping in to support him during this jarring time.  Especially in the Bay Area which is the stomping ground for many career spiritualists, Karl is the polished stone, a dedicated purist with a sense of humor, humility, and quality.  He is in a league of his own next to the jungle of yoga experimentalists who may be high in fashion, but low in compassion.

The loving fruits of Karl's practice can be sampled through his blog, which he is maintaining during his chemotherapy.  Fortunately for his followers, he knew exactly how to instruct us while he is away, as always well-thought out and planned.  In his communications to us via email and blog, his first imperative has been consistent and in line with the principle that we are all striving for the same ideal:  Keep practicing Yoga.  Stay dedicated.  The true teacher is not ill.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Because it's hard to ask for one's self, I'll ask on Karl's behalf:
Donate by Paypal via Karl's blog (link in the right column) for his healing sabbatical at Swami Dayananda's Ashram after chemotherapy.  It is still uncertain which expenses will be covered by insurance.  Thank you.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera :: Reflections on Roots

I was generously given a pass to last Sunday's open rehearsal of the SF Opera's Die Walküre, directed by Francesca Zambello, stage design by Michael Yeargan, and conducted by the Berlin-moonlighting maestro himself, Donald Runnicles.   Surprisingly, five hours went by quickly with this very entertaining production where the legend of Valhalla meets Banana Republic aviator chic.  Betrayal, murder, incest, and a freeway overpass... who could ask for more.

Coming from Berlin, where the average resident is notoriously under-paid and over-cultured, I have to say that significant tidbits of quality at the SF Opera were a great relief to my eyes and ears.  The orchestra was polished:  warm, well-rehearsed, and together, which is sometimes too much to ask at the house on Bismarkstraße.  And, as a friend to many a female opera singer on the European market today where "thin-is-in" rules the audition panel ever more, it was a joy to see normal-sized opera singers cast on the stage at the War Memorial.  More importantly, one must be reminded that this musical goliath is carried out on stage almost in its entirety by a mere six singers who belt out scenes upwards of one hour long. The audience was smitten by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek's Sieglinde, with her soaring phrases on the mountain top in the third act.  Mark Delavan's clearly experienced delivery of Wotan was so full of conviction that it certainly exceeded any expectations for an open dress rehearsal, which Sunday was.

I could single out every singer for their admirable performances.  But to bring this posting to the subject of gravity, besides belonging to Wagner's cornerstone of "heavy" music, I want to talk about my personal impression of the production design, and roots.  To date I haven't been disappointed by any stagings at the SF Opera, even during Pamela Rosenberg's experimental period, even in John Adams/Peter Sellers collaboration Doctor Atomic.  Perhaps it is better stated that I have never been "shocked" or "challenged."   However I can't say the same of the track record in various German opera houses, where the public is left sometimes asking if the Inszenierung even qualified as art, or if they had just witnessed the sad results of budget cuts or a backstage political compromise that created a neither-nor decision.  What can be said in defense of the avant garde on stage is the proverbial "But it made you think!" rationale.  Fine, I'm thinking, and I'm blogging. 

Indeed, it is known that American opera audiences are more conservative than the European, as seen by the uproar triggered by the Met's Swiss-designed Tosca last year.  Extrapolating this to my general experience of American life, it could be theorized that the American audience, in its yearning for a sorely missing tradition, seeks exactly that sense of past in something as rooted in convention as opera.  In other words, the US has enough of "new."  With the constant deluge of innovation, we are the testing grounds for all things invented yesterday – be it online bill-paying, automated voice-recognition customer service, or "simply" a "Caramel Macchiato made with nonfat milk and sugar-free vanilla syrup" with unknown health repercussions.  Then, to compensate for this inadvertent fast-lane existence, America thus is susceptible to cling to commercial semblances of tradition, as seen by concerns founded in 1997 or 1992 that strive to exude the image of antique. 

The flip side of the coin is what I gleaned from my experience of Germany, working with war survivors, and German apartment hunting.  Bear with me, I will tie this together shortly.  When we think of Europe, undoubtedly it conjures up for even the most ignorant of us some image of classic beauty.  But my belief that this appreciation for the old was universal was dismantled ten years ago during the time of my favorite Gründezeit apartment from the 1870s in Hannover, Germany.  I was so proud of the 1,200 square foot pad with the parquet floor and fifteen-foot ceilings.  Until my German mother-in-law said one day of her generation, "Well, if you ask me, it's a nice apartment but old is not really our thing.  After the war, we just wanted new.  We wanted to move on."  And she as a child of the war was not alone.  Thousands of 19th-century apartments were modernized, the plaster moldings knocked out, the hardwood floors carpeted, the walls covered with wood paneling, and those high ceilings lowered to save heat and make the the living units more "cozy."  Post-war real estate reflected the same, where newly-built houses and buildings commanded higher prices.  They'd had enough of the old, as anyone would after losing a war on your own land.  "Contemporary" in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe as I have come to see it, became an etude in moving on, for better or for worse.

Yet it is also a healthy impulse to be searching for roots, even creating some where none may exist.  And coming back to the opera house in San Francisco, precisely the element which sometimes irritates me about America, namely the penchant for over-romanticizing tradition, even in its modern, was a welcoming sensation in the Opera's Walküre.  Because, for its minimalist, industrial design, there were touches in the costumes and set (riding boots, stuffed deer heads) that grounded the experience in something recognizable and expected.  The music is enough food for thought, and the last thing one would need is to get lost while the main roles instant-message each other next to a male choir dressed up as honey bees in yellow pantyhose.

So, a concluding thought is not necessarily a criticism nor praise, but rather an observation of the swinging pendulum of our roots, with currents so strong that it can literally be seen at the level of the Weltbühne.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Obviously, this handicapped access button was being used by others, too.

At the Stage Entrance to the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, where I went to the open rehearsal of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre last night.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Sometimes it's not clear where you are supposed to go until after wards.

After being submerged in a car-free European urban environment for the last four years, I am gradually re-acquainting myself with commuter life in America.  Even though Berlin is a full seven times larger in area than San Francisco, getting around the City by the Bay is surprisingly slow, complicated and costly.  One small price for Paradise. 

Last month as I was furnishing my office, I found myself driving around parts of town that I don't usually frequent.  And at one point, I spotted the traffic sign pictured above (can you name the intersection?).  The light had just turned green and there was an army of cars behind me, anxious to step on their gas pedals, and all I could think of was how the shapes in the sign resembled those planaria that we studied in eighth-grade science class, the little water-bound creatures that could grow two heads.  However, more importantly was to figure out which of the five lanes would allow me to legally continue straight ahead.  Although I won't tell you how this ended, I can say I certainly relate to that feeling of looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing where one was supposed to go, and wondering how in the world to get there.

That's what it's like to be new in town.  You hesitate, or you stop.  You get into a fender-bender and have to say sorry to the person behind you.  It costs you time and money, and you feel tense, you get pulled out of your center, and you make mistakes.  And often in life, there is pressure from behind to make a decision into the unknown.  This is also why we prefer to stay in our daily routines, because doing new things is clumsy and expensive.  But for all our trouble and misery, for our willingness to tolerate a degree of discomfort, we've learned something, which is quite a lesson in humility.