Joel Riggs teaches Aikido, plays piano, enjoys California, and reads voraciously.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Apples In Stereo

Tonight just before turning in, I clicked over to YouTube to see what was at the top of their recommended list, and imagine my surprise to find The Apples In Stereo's latest video being featured! Growing up in Ruston, LA, I knew Robert Schneider and his family through the little Ruston Church of God. They had recently arrived from South Africa, and Peter Schneider, Robert's dad, taught architecture at Louisiana Tech.

I am a little over six years older than Robert, and I remember hanging out at his house, my kid sister playing with his kid sister, and our moms visiting in the living room. He might have been about 10 or 11 and I was probably a senior in high school. He was learning to play the guitar, and I remember showing him a chord or two. Nothing fancy. Probably a barred minor (like F#minor) or something. I remember he was endlessly enthusiastic about learning a new thing, and we might have talked about Beatles too. John Lennon had died a year or two before, and I had started listening to everything of his I could get my hands on.

We knew even then that Robert was a little different. Off the charts brilliant, not the best behaved child in the church, and totally unconcerned with what other people thought of him. That is how you go far. Now I have several Apples In Stereo albums which I have worn out the grooves on (you can not really wear out the grooves on a CD that has been ripped to an iPod, but you get the idea). He writes a perfect pop tune. Catchy, under three minutes, and rockin'.

I did not know it at the time, but when Apples played (March 25, 1998) in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall on the same bill as the High Llamas, two of my soon-to-be-favorite bands were in the same place at the same time!

Congrats, Robert. Keep the great tunes coming. Nice showing on Colbert Report, too. Best wishes for continued success.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Is it ever OK for news sites to delete information?

A response to an essay in today's

As many have said in arguments about hate speech, the answer to the problem of unwanted speech is not censorship, but more speech.

It is ok with me for there to be "negative" news or commentary about me in the public record, if there is an equal opportunity for me to rebut or to tell my own story, presenting myself in the way I would like to be viewed by others.

At the same time, though, there is a closely related issue: too many pundits and ordinary people tend to see others one dimensionally. It is possible for a sex offender to also be a good tax accountant, for a white collar thief to be a good mother and soccer coach, or for a dominatrix to be an excellent kindergarten teacher. Until we can hold others as multi-faceted and we can repress the urge to judge others based on a single action or quality, ignoring all others, we will continue to suffer unwarranted character assassination in the public sphere.

Yes, a photo of me picking my nose may appear on the web, but it is not the only thing I do all day. Until the public is intelligent enough to know that I am more robust a person than that without being told, there will be a valid desire to have content removed from the public record. It is a mistake, however, to think that removing so-called negative information will solve anything.

Wake up! We all have negative qualities. They are what make us interesting. Embrace them. Even if you do manage to squelch a negative image of or sentence about yourself, I will still know that you are not perfect.

Playing at Church

Yesterday, after 35 years of playing and practicing piano, I had my first paid gig as a chuch musician. I filled in for the regular pianist at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael. I got this gig through the grapevine: apparently they had called six or seven musicians trying to find a replacement, including my friend Wendy Fitz of Fairfax. She gave me the number for the church, and within a week I had practiced and was at the church ready to play.

Things do not always go as planned, however. After hours of preparation, learning new songs, establishing the proper key signature for them, and even reharmonizing some of them, as I sat down to play in the early service, a guitar player walked up, introduced himself, and promptly took over leadership of the music! I had not been told that anyone else would be playing.

In an instant I knew that this would be a perfect opportunity to practice my aikido, to go with the flow. A ten-minute rehearsal let me know that all my preparations had to be thrown out the window and that I would just be along for the ride as an accompanist as he played and sang and led all the music in the service. All the arrangements and new harmonies were forgotten. Rather than being ticked off, though, I decided to let him carry the weight and I could just relax into the role of backup. In the end it was a much easier gig for me!

(I was able to try out my own ideas in the second service, where I played solo.)

At the service I saw my friend and old business partner Liz Chiarolla, and I met quite a few other welcoming and warm parishoners. I was younger than the average by about thirty years, I think. I will probably forever be known as 'that nice young man who played the piano.'

Apparently Church of the Redeemer is one of the more liberal and welcoming and inclusive parishes around, even by Bay Area standards. At one point during the prayers, the leader read a list of names of American soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq during the past week. The list was nearly forty names. (As it went on and on, it sank in just what a pointless and confused conflict our inept president has gotten the military into.)

I am a third generation church musician. My mother Marie Smith Riggs (BA in piano and voice, MA in organ) has played church organ for 40 years, and her father Frellsen Fletcher Smith played a portable pedal pump organ at camp meetings led by his father Charles Wilson Smith all across northern Louisiana in the 1920s. Now it is my turn. Funny how all the rhythms and responsibilities of playing church music are in my bones, now. Playing yesterday felt like one of the most natural and easy things I have ever done. Thanks, mom!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Trying to Get My Two Cents Back

This is a story about fairness and justice and a little bit of karma. And about getting even for those little rip-offs that occur every day.

My favorite burrito stand in Marin County is San Jose Taqueria under the freeway overpass on Fourth St. in San Rafael. It is a real dive, and the sanitation in the place leaves a lot to be desired. But the burritos are excellent! Huge and tasty, filling and delicious. And on the bright side, I suppose it builds up my immunity to a wider variety of bacteria than eating in a clean place would.

A 'super chicken' burrito (with sour cream and guacamole) costs $4.25, or $4.58 after tax. Each time I give the register clerk a $5 bill, however, he gives me only forty cents back instead of the forty-two I am owed. No big deal the first time, or the second, but after about 10 visits I realize that these little shortages add up over time.

San Jose Taqueria bustles with energy at lunch time. The line can stretch 15 deep at high noon. The clerks race as fast as they can to take and fill orders, and the register clerk is no exception. At first I understood that pennies can slow down a transaction, but when I noticed that the cumulative effect was always in the house's favor, I decided to 'fight back'. I was going to get my money back one way or another.

I thought of just asking for a twenty-cent refund, but that would have required evidence and an understanding and patient clerk. Not going to happen. So, I decided to play their game. Today I decided that instead of handing over a $5 bill, I would instead count out four dollar bills plus exactly 55 cents in change. That way, instead of paying two cents too much, I would short them three cents. I was very curious whether the clerk would ask me for the additional three pennies. If he did, that would give me the perfect opportunity to mention that I had been shorted ten times in a row and see how he would respond.

I counted out my money and stepped up to the register to order. "Super chicken burrito, for here," I said. "That will be five thirty-six," he told me. In the two days since my last visit, they had raised their prices! All flustered, I had to reach into my pocket for more change, and with a flash of inspiration, I counted out $5.35 (not $5.36) and handed it over. He did not bat an eye as he dropped my money into the cash drawer and gave me my order ticket.

So, I saved one penny instead of two. But I paid eighty cents more than I expected. From my point of view, though, I am now down about nineteen cents in total, and it will take only another three or four months before I break even again.

How is it possible that on the very day I finally figured out their system a little bit, San Jose Taqueria raised their prices for the first time in the five years I have eaten there? Felt like karma, but who knows. I laughed as I walked out the door.

Footnote: after finishing lunch, I stopped by Peet's coffee for a large (with room). Normally it costs $1.85, but for the first time ever, the barrista told me "We are out of coffee for a couple more moments, so if you can wait, we will give it to you no charge." Now that is karma, baby! That is how Peet's earns my loyalty, too.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

RFIDs For All!

I get frustrated whenever I read articles about RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. The list of possible applications is too limited. Every article talks about their uses in grocery stores, in the manufacture of passports, in regulating the circulation of library books, in tracking pets, and the like.

Am I the only one who notices that RFID tags and tiny GIS transponders could be used in far more interesting, nefarious and objectionable ways? If transmitters the size of a grain of rice were readily available, why not put one on your kid's car? in your boss's briefcase? or under the bumper of a police car? It would be fun and satisfying and very profitable to track people without their knowledge, and I'm sure people could come up with even more interesting and probably illegal uses for them.

Illegal, perhaps, but not easy to prevent, discover, or prosecute.

Anonymity and electronic technology are incompatible. As technology evolves and improves, it is going to get easier and easier to spy on each other. Before long, it will be as though the entire world lives in a small one room house; no one will be able to completely disappear.

If the ability to see where everyone is is distributed evenly across the entire population, then this ability will probably improve our relationships with each other. I.e., if everyone has equal ability to spy on everyone else, then the result should be peace and calm and better behavior. If, on the other hand, the ability to observe everyone else is limited to just a few individuals, whether the government or a few corporations or to law enforcement only, then the result will be increased paranoia and an oppressive, Orwellian future.

Thus the morality of surveillance technology lies not in the technology itself nor even in the use of it, but rather in the distribution of access to it.

Bring on the RFIDs, I say, but make sure I can get my hands on a few for my own use!

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Support Them, Challenge Them, or Leave Them Alone

Through teaching martial arts to children (at Aikido of Marin in Fairfax, CA), I have learned that I form a relationship with each and every kid in every single class. And in each moment, each child needs from me one of three things: support, challenge, or to be left alone.

When a child is struggling, when their attention is drifting, or when they are confused or lost, then I need to support them. Give them a private instruction, guide their hands in the technique we are practicing, or compliment their efforts. When a kid is having difficulty and I give them a little help and then an 'attaboy', I almost always see a smile of accomplishment and new relish for the training sweep over them.

When a child looks a little bit bored or appears to be lazily going through the motions, then I challenge them to try a variation of the technique, to come up with their own style of movement, or to switch partners and play the role of sempai (older student) and help teach one of the beginning students. If I stretch a student's practice even only a little bit, they will almost always return to the class at hand with increased interest and energy.

But my favorite moment of all is when I see a child focused on their practice and their partner, trying new and different ways of completing a technique, and even exploring with their partner exactly what makes a technique work or not work. When I see this kind of attention and engagement in the practice, then I can step back and sit in the corner and let them practice to their heart's content. Today I managed to sit for about 15 minutes straight while our sempai students taught our beginners all the elements of the yellow belt test. I loved it. That is the moment when aikido comes alive in their minds, bodies, and hearts!

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"You Don't Love Me!" - A story of spiritual evolution

My wife Maria told me a story recently that she heard in a workshop led by Dave Richo.

A man had just attended a lecture on dealing with anger, and he had learned that anger -- while ostensibly caused by the actions or attitudes of others -- can often have a personal, internal cause. In fact, the experience of prior hurts or insults can resonate in the present, so much so that we can fly off the handle with anger at the least provocation.

Getting in touch with our own past hurts can free us from reacting with anger in the present moment, and the primary tool for relaxing in the moment of perceived slight is to acknowledge that the love and attention we may desire from others is not forthcoming.

So, this man drove home on the freeway, and when another driver cut him off sharply, he felt his blood begin to boil. He raced to pull up alongside the careless driver, rolled down his window, stuck out his fist, shook it, and yelled, "You don't love me!"


Monday, March 12, 2007

SF Chronicle, Letters to the Editor

I have had two letters to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here they are:

Privacy and Terrorism
Should state monitor e-mail?

Sunday, January 13, 2002

Editor -- You ask whether local and state law enforcement agencies, as proposed by Gov. Gray Davis, should have authority to monitor our e-mail and Internet use, in furtherance of the war on terrorism.

My answer: Yes, to the same degree that the public can monitor law enforcement officers' telephone calls, interrogation rooms and private conversations as part of the war on abuse of civil rights.

San Francisco


June 5, 1995


Editor -- Two articles in your May 30 edition, taken together, remind me just why I love living in San Francisco, even though our town seems to be falling apart on every side: Margaret Chase Smith (obituary on page A3) once said that "if (the) choice (between anarchy and repression) has to be made, the (great center of the) American people . . . will choose repression."

However, as The Chronicle reports ("Assessor's Office Falters -- S. F. Losing Millions") on page 1, we San Franciscans elected Doris Ward to the office of assessor without opposition, where she has "loose controls," is "asleep at the switch," "has no experience whatsoever," and is "basically retired." I am reminded that I moved from Louisiana to the City by the Bay because this is one community that would rather choose anarchy.

San Francisco


Sunday, March 11, 2007

On Training Aikido

At the recommendation of a counselor of mine, I have been training in the martial art of aikido since the fall of 1993. Aikido is a relatively young martial art; it was developed in the 20th century in Japan by expert martial artist Morihei Ueshiba O Sensei. After mastering several arts in the traditional way, Ueshiba transformed the fighting and destruction of the older forms into the harmonizing and loving protection of aikido.

The word aikido is comprised of three words: Ai - blending or harmony, Ki - spirit or energy, and Do - path or way. So 'aikido' roughly translates as 'The way of the harmonious spirit." Aikido is not a collection of techniques or fighting moves; rather it is a way of being, a way in which all incoming attacks are met fully and openly and in which the attacker is either subdued or thrown without being harmed.

Training in this art has substantially boosted my confidence and my strength and flexibility, and it has allowed me to develop a more upfront and honest personality. Through training and diligent study, the body can learn to transform fear, conflict, and destructive tension into flowing and supportive cooperation, without the possibility for harm or injury. This transformation is ultimately spiritual, improving the connection between oneself and others and giving direction to all the attacker's energy so that no one is hurt, not even the attacker.

I have never used an aikido technique per se on the street. Late one evening when stepping down off a San Francisco Muni bus in the Haight Ashbury, a slightly inebriated, slightly overfriendly older man came staggering down the sidewalk directly toward me from 10 feet away with his arms outstretched and saying loudly "I love you." Instinctively, I stepped off the line of his motion, put one of my hands under one of his, and turned 180 degrees, passing his hand over my head. Instead of hugging me -- I suppose he wanted me to be his new best friend -- he staggered a couple steps past me and hugged another man unfortunate enough to be waiting for the bus in a spot directly in the drunk's path. He got a big and slightly disgusting bear hug.

I had followed the basic aikido principles: step off the line of attack, connect with the attacker, extend my own energy to include and join with the attacker, and safely redirect the attack to somewhere other than directly into my body, thus keeping me safe without hurting him at all. (I had not seen the man waiting for the bus, or else I would have steered the drunk away from him as well.)

Aikido applies to all manner of situations, not just to fighting. In aikido we practice with strikes, punches, grabs, and weapons; but the same principles apply to verbal attacks, to blending with the energy and direction of movement in traffic, or to performing effectively in any sort of business transaction or relationship interaction where there is a high level energy involved. Thus, training all the physical techniques provides a deeply rich metaphor for dealing with all the incoming energies in one's life.

I began my training in 1993 in San Francisco with Robert Nadeau sensei. In 2004, I and two others inherited Aikido of Marin (founded by Richard Moon sensei) in Fairfax, CA, where I currently teach children and adults for a total of about 10 hours a week.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Half My Grandfather's Lifetime

On February 1, 2007, I was exactly half as old as my maternal grandfather was on the day he died. He lived for 84 years, five months and 28 days. On that day I was 42 years, two months and 29 days, and I had lived through 10 leap days. Add it all up, and I was half done, were I to live exactly as long as he.

He was a very strong influence on me, but we have chosen very different paths. More about him soon.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Having a Martial Artist for a Dad

I'm looking forward to being a dad this year, and hope to have as much fun as this guy!


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Happy Monday"

This is a story about the benefits of what I call intentional friendship.

In the fall of 1988, I met a woman who would soon become one of my fast friends. Susan, 31, was nine years older than I was, and married, so there was never any dating or thinking of dating. She was finishing grad school in painting, and looking forward to starting her own children's book illustration business. I was a fresh-out-of-college cartographer, and I wanted to start my own graphic design business.

We met at a temp job at a then-small real estate investment company. Chatting in the office, we discovered our common interests in art and design. Over lunch we shared about our ambitions and dreams and relationships, and we laughed more than usual for newfound acquaintances. Within three months, we had each struck out on our own and opened our own offices a block apart in downtown San Francisco.

So often, promising new friendships just drift away and wither and die. Susan and I would meet by accident on the street every few weeks and would rediscover how much we enjoyed spending time together. So, rather than let time and circumstance take its toll, I proposed to her that we check in with each other once a week by phone or in person. It could be short and sweet, or it could be a long lunch or phone call, but it had to be once a week.

It worked! We stuck to it. For over seven years--from 1989 to 1996--we spoke together one way or another practically every Monday. The phone would ring, I would say "Hello," and she would say "Happy Monday!" Over the years her business grew and flourished, she moved to the Sierras, her marriage fell apart, and she started dating again. My business grew too, I had several relationships, and started training aikido. Through it all, we both continued to mature and deepen as individuals as we put ourselves out into the world. The support of our weekly phone calls meant the world to me as home, work, and love changed constantly around the both of us. Happy Mondays indeed!

But then, as we moved into more divergent phases of our lives, our contact dwindled ever so slightly, first becoming every other week, then perhaps once a month, and then even less frequent. Still, though, we could immediately drop back into our deep and comfortable place of contact when the phone would ring and I would hear that simple opening phrase, "Happy Monday!" An old friend was back again. All the worries of the world could drop away for a short while. Occasionally we would get together for a visit, usually involving me attending one of her book signings or public presentations in San Francisco, or her inviting me and my friends to visit at her funky but cozy Sierra lodge. In 2004, Maria and I celebrated our honeymoon in the newly-built apartment in her mountain home.

Now, after knowing each other almost 20 years, she has moved to New Mexico, and I have moved to Marin, gotten married, and focused on life here. We are now in touch once or twice a year, but still, every phone call starts with that reassuring phrase, "Happy Monday!"



What if World War II had been fought in an massively multiplayer online role playing game? That would have been so much better!


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Amazing Kreskin

About 1980, when I was a junior in high school, The Amazing Kreskin -- a mentalist and illusionist -- came to the local university to perform. For the grand finale of his show, four people randomly selected from the audience would hide his paycheck (for that evening's performance) somewhere in the room. Then he would find his check with the 'mental' assistance of those four people. The four were selected by a respected member of the community, in this case the Dean of Students at the university.

Out of about 1,000 people in the audience that night, I was one of the four chosen. Since my mother was an organ student in the music department, I knew that there was a gap under the hood of the organ in the orchestra pit. We slipped the check under this hood and set it out of sight on the bottom keyboard. It seemed like the perfect place to hide the check. (By the way, the check was for $3,000; not bad for 90 minutes' work.)

Kreskin returned to the stage, and the audience buzzed with anticipation. In order to "read our minds" and find the check, he would hold one corner of a handkerchief and have a volunteer hold the other corner. I volunteered to go first and took hold of his handkerchief.

Rather than hold the kerchief loosely, he stretched it tight and clamped my fist securely between his elbow and his ribs. Although he asked me to "think hard about the place you hid the check," I quickly discovered that he responded to the very least movement of my hand. If I twitched to the left, he would immediately stride to the left several paces, nearly dragging me along behind him. After a couple of random movements, he reminded me once again to concentrate on the location of the check.

Naturally, I chose to concentrate on some other random place. I decide to focus on the shoe of a student sitting toward the back of the hall. Within 60 seconds, Kreskin had homed in on that shoe. As he got closer and closer, I noticed that the audience watched, but didn't rise out of their seats or show too much interest. (In retrospect, I'm certain Kreskin noticed this as well, but went along to look in the shoe to humor me.) Finally, he had the student take off his shoe. Empty, of course.

The next thing Kreskin said to me was the most startling of all. He still had my hand clasped under his arm, and he said "now you are thinking of nothing." It was true. I was busted. He knew he was being bullshitted, and he was done with me. He took back his handkerchief and asked for the next volunteer. (That must be the reason he has four and not just one.) Within two minutes the next person had led him right to the organ and to the check. And naturally, the closer he got to the check's actual location, the more the audience stood in their seats and hummed with curiosity and eager interest--a dead giveaway to him that he was on the right track.

That night I learned the same thing that Kreskin says about himself: that he has no magical powers. Instead, he depends on heightened sensitivity to motion and to involuntary cues. No doubt anyone could learn to 'read' the mind of another the same way. I left the hall that evening amazed that he could be so sensitive, and gratified that he was not privvy to powers that the rest of us did not have. In fact, I think his skills impressed me even more than his suposed magical powers would have.

That evening Kreskin announced that out of hundreds of shows, he had only failed to find his check twice before. He claimed that if it happened a third time, he would never perform this feat again. 27 years later, a quick check of his article on Wikipedia reports that he has failed to find his check nine times over the years. I guess the trick it is too profitable to pass up!