Goodbye, Phil

I did hear back from Brian Plante after sending him feedback on the GVW Chronicles. I’m pleased to say that he was very pleasant and civil, and that he addressed some of my concerns about the anonymity of the group to my satisfaction. I still have some issues with the moral implications of what he’s doing, but I told him I would keep reading the chronicles based on the reply he gave me.

Yesterday, I sat down to write the review of Zen Guitar and got some shocking news about its author. Evidently Phil Sudo died while I was in the process of reading his book.

When I read a book, I get a sense that I’m sharing something personal with the writer. That was especially the case in this book, since it was written in the framework of a martial arts dojo. I felt like Phil was teaching me while I was reading. When I found out that he had died of cancer in June, I experienced a stillness in my thoughts. I felt as if I had been conversing with a ghost for the last month without realizing it.

I wish Phil’s family the best, and I want them to know that Zen Guitar gave me focus in my playing, and the book will stay by my bedside and in my gig bag for some time to come.

Plante’s in the Garden

When I checked Brian Plante’s Chronicles of the Garden Variety Writers today, he had posted a new entry for the July 3rd session. He started the entry by acknowledging that he had received feedback from people stating that he was being unfair to the writers in the group, so I was encouraged. Unfortunately, he then went on to say the following:

“I’ve already stated these chronicles will contain, by necessity, a lot of my personal opinions, so maybe you should just take things with a grain of salt. You’ve been warned. I am mostly at peace with what I am doing.”


At this point, I decided I should send him an e-mail. I resisted doing that when I posted about this blog in my June 27th creativity journal entry. It will be interesting to see if he responds.

When it comes right down to it, he has the right to cover any topics he wants in his weblog. That’s part of what blogging is all about. But I’m concerned that he may have crossed the line in terms of this writing group, and his portrayal of some of the members as “tourists,” who don’t do anything to further the productivity of the group in his eyes. I’m also concerned that he posted the group’s charter online without their permission.

Moving on.

(Later in the day.)

No, I’m not moving on. I thought about this some more, and it struck me that I’m not having a problem reading the logs of some people who are attending Clarion East and Clarion West right now. Essentially, they are journaling in much more detail about the events in their workshops than Brian is. So why is it bothering me that he’s journaling about a small group in … oops, I almost gave away the secret location of the Garden Variety Writers group.

I think it has to do with the deception. Bluejack and Dierdre, above, are writing their online journals with the full knowledge of the other participants. Also, they are not pretending to be something they aren’t in order to gain access to their groups. (In fact, they paid a hefty entry fee to get in. It’s a great deal for six weeks of intensive writer training, but it’s still hefty!) Not only is Brian intentionally withholding his publishing history, he hasn’t disclosed anything to them about the fact that he’s archiving their activities.

How is that different from what I’m doing? First, I’m not a professional (or semi-pro, even) writer. Second, I have announced at all of my writing groups that I’m keeping an online creativity journal and invited all of them to look at it. I haven’t specifically said that I mention the groups in this log, but since they are directly related to my creativity, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to find references to them here. Third, I’m not making negative judgments about the people in those groups.

I guess there is a difference. Now I need to figure out why I’m picking this battle, I think. It’s really none of my business what Brian says about people in the Garden Variety Writer’s group, despite the fact that he is posting the information in a public forum. And I certainly don’t think it’s my responsibility to try and protect these people who don’t even know what’s happening to them (and might not care.) So why am I getting so vocal about this?

I guess I can say this much about Brian Plante’s Chronicles: they have pushed an emotional button in me, and to that end, they are worthwhile. Whether that button is a valid one or a sensationalist one ….

Hold the phone.

I think I realize part of the lack of appeal. This is like the seedy side of television’s reality programming. I abhor reality programming because in it the tragic portions of people’s lives become nothing more than network TV entertainment. That’s part of what’s unsettling me. To be fair, I don’t think Brian is intentionally trying to emulate reality programming, but the fact that the participants in the group are not aware of what’s happening makes it feel like a sting operation.

And for me, that’s a good reason not to watch any more, no matter how much I want to see what happens when the group finds out about it.

Okay, really, moving on now.

Zen Guitar

Zen Guitar

By:  Philip Toshio Sudo

Type:  Extended inspirational metaphor

Setting:  The Zen Guitar Dojo


Using Zen teachings interspersed with quotes and examples from famous musicians, Phil Sudo guides us on a tour through the Zen Guitar Dojo.  The dojo is a virtual practice studio; one can enter the studio anywhere, at any time, because it is more a state of mind than a physical reality.  Focus and dedication are the keys to this dojo; a beginner’s mind and openness to the teaching allow growth to occur.

Sudo divides the book into five main parts, each indicating different levels of progression in Zen Guitar.  When a new student enters the dojo, no matter his level of playing ability, he must embrace the beginner’s mind and put on the white belt, and these basics are covered in the first section of the book.

As the student moves through the dojo, his white belt becomes soiled from practice and begins to turn black; practice is the focus of the second section of the book.  When a player has practiced enough to become proficient, his belt may be completely black, and with that comes the responsibility of using what he has learned wisely.  That responsibility is the subject of the third section of the book.  Of course, just because a student has attained the black belt level, that doesn’t mean he is finished.  As in any dojo, a black belt only indicates that the student’s true learning has begun.

As he studies, his belt may begin to fray, and strands of the original white belt will begin to show through.  He will have learned much, and now is confronted with the question of where the music comes from.  Is he playing it, or is it playing him?  The correct answer is mu, the classic transcendent point of Zen philosophy.  The music is neither playing nor being played by the student, and the student will only understand his relationship to it when he drops the need for duality.  This is the subject of the fourth section.

Finally, when the student has played and practiced enough that his belt is once again white, he realizes that it was white all along, and that the way he got to the level he is now is by keeping the beginner’s mind forefront, and by wearing the same white belt.  The final section is a recap of all that the student has learned, and it is all white belt material.


I purchased this book in May of 2001.  I had seen it on the rack at my local magazine store and thought it looked fascinating, and finally I bought it, knowing nothing about the author or, really, what the book was about.  It sat inside my nightstand for a year before I took it out again and started reading.  I read it in small chunks, wanting to chew on each piece slowly, rather than blazing through the book and missing the points.  It was a very easy read; Sudo’s style is crisp, simple, and clean, and he makes even the difficult Zen concepts come across clearly.  I learned valuable information from many sections of the book that deal directly with stumbling points in my playing:  “Mistakes,” “Stages and Plateaus,” “Self-Doubt,” and “Overthinking” are all sections with which I connected directly.  They are all in the “white belt to black belt” section, so I guess I know where I am on the path of Zen Guitar.  I look forward to the day when I find I am connecting better with the sections in the later part of the book.

Some interesting things have happened to my playing since I started reading this book.  I’ve taken more risks, for one thing.  I have also worked on learning a lot of new songs, most of them heavier than I am used to playing.  I tried out for a band that is ready to start gigging, and I played and sang onstage at a local jam without feeling overly self-conscious.  I’m not sure how much of that can be attributed to the book, but I am sure that the book helped me develop the mindset that I needed to be open to these opportunities.

There is another coincidence: a very said one.  When I finished the book, I went to the Zen Guitar website listed in the back of the book.  I wanted to see if there was anything new that Sudo had added to the dojo that would complement this review, and I wanted to let him know that I had enjoyed the book and was going to write the review.  When I arrived at the website, the first thing I noticed was a date range:  Philip Toshio Sudo, October 20th, 1959 – June 9th, 2002.

Evidently Phil had been battling cancer since about the time that I bought the book.  He kept a journal online, and as I read through it, I thought of the same steps that my brother took as he fought cancer.  Phil lived a couple of years longer than my brother did, and from all accounts on the website, he lived live with a joy and presence that comes from viewing the world from within Zen.

I checked my Creativity Journal for June 9th, and I’m happy to say that I was in a Zen Guitar frame of mind that day, working out a song list for my basement band and studying the fret board.  The next day, I noted that I had “read some more Zen Guitar.”  I’m sure Phil would be happy to know that.


Though Zen Guitar is primarily aimed at guitarists, the ideas are universal.  Anyone, whether s/he plays an instrument or not, should be able to find something of worth in these pages if s/he is open enough to look.  At one point in the book, when Sudo is talking about recovering from mistakes, he says, “When things falls apart, make art.  Carry this spirit though to every area of your life.”  I think most of the principles in this book can be extended to all areas of life.  Basically, it’s all about maintaining a beginner’s mind: being open to learning new things, appreciating what we have yet to learn, and using the time we have left wisely, as Phil did.

Thank you, Phil Sudo, for allowing me into your dojo.


Earlier, I wrote an e-mail to a friend (I hope I can call him that) about the death of Poul Anderson, the great science fiction writer who passed away late on July 31st, 2001.  It’s been many years since I read a Poul Anderson book, but I still have several on my bookshelves.

I described to my friend how, even though I had never met Poul, his passing seemed to weaken the infrastructure of science fiction.  There was suddenly another name on my bookshelf without a body to back it up.  While describing this, I realized that it wasn’t the infrastructure of science fiction that I was worried about, but my infrastructure.

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, starting with Heinlein’s Red Planet and moving on to Bradbury’s R is for Rocket and S is for Space.  I worked through much of the meager science fiction section (at that time, anyway) in the Durango Public Library and started combing the paperback exchange racks for likely books.  I remember one Christmas vacation during which I set a goal to read five of John Norman’s Gor books (yes, I read the schlock, too) and I set up a makeshift tent in my bedroom, complete with beanbag chair, lamp and coaster.  At that time, books were my inspiration.

Now, I have large, double-sided bookshelves in three rooms, filled with all kinds of books, but mostly science fiction.  Though most of them simply sit there, holding each other up, they act as a buttress for my life.  My wife will tell you that I can think of a story or passage, go to a shelf, and pull the book right down.  If I lose track of an important one, I try to keep from panicking until I remember what happened to it or who I loaned it to.  As material items, they are probably not worth much.  As a structure for my life, they are priceless.  As each author passes away, especially from the the Golden Age of science fiction, my world shudders a little.  I still think of the books as my inspiration, but somehow my focus has shifted over the years from the magic in the books to the memory of that magic.  The books themselves are symbols for that memory, and symbols of their authors.

I can’t help but wonder if I’m placing too much importance on these symbols of living people.  My favorite authors will all die someday; a few have come close already, others have already gone.  Should I allow their passing to shake my world so much?

As I think about it, that path leads to despair.  Am I lashing my inspiration to the heartbeats of my favorite authors, using their works as symbols of their lives?  If so, that’s wrong.  An author’s work is a legacy, but it is not the sum total of his or her life, and the work can continue to be inspirational long after the author is gone.  Using their books as  my inspiration for writing is missing the point.

I know that I have more respect for the authors than that, and I know that I can draw inspiration from long dead writers, as I did in my poem “To Keats”, elsewhere on this site.  Yes, the books are important, and I should continue to value them.  But the words are the heart of the matter.  Those books on my shelves are for appreciation, not inspiration.  As I’ve heard “real” writers say, inspiration is everywhere.  I need to get back to focusing on the magic books give me, and look to the world for my ideas.

I guess there’s only one cure for that.  I’d better get to reading again, and I’d better start observing things a little more closely.

Hello … Again

I won’t be ranting much in this installment of the rant archive.  I need to ease back into it.

As I write this, the sky is a menacing, roiling gray, and my neighbor’s roof is already under two inches of water.  My son just informed me that his window ledge is also covered with water, despite his window being closed.  A quick towel does the trick in his bedroom; the neighbor is on his own.

Life has not stood still in the many months that have passed since I updated this site regularly.  I’m working a stable job in a perilous IT career track — perilous only because of the short-sightedness of dot-com startups with no real business plans or revenue streams.  I have rededicated my spare time to family and creative efforts, to the mild disappointment of some of my friends.  I know they are my friends because they have remained supportive, despite my withdrawal.  (Thanks to all of you.)

My family (especially my wife) has been supportive as well, encouraging me to write stories, play music, build a guitar.  And with every finished story draft, they have perched silently on the bed as I read out loud, pausing now and then to make a note when something just didn’t sound right.  They have offered some critical feedback, and they have occasionally offered more praise than the work deserved.  Fortunately, I have been able to get less biased feedback from two writing groups as well.

Over the last three years, a couple of new poems and rants found their way to my old website.  Beyond that, there was not much activity, and it’s time for that to change.  I have procured the domain name, changing the spelling slightly to accommodate the net gods.  I have redesigned the site to reflect my commitment to writing, giving the pages the look of a spiral notebook.  There has always been a lot of information on these pages, so I added a much needed search feature.  The site now has a separate section for special features, like my son’s artwork, and I have added a list of writing-related links.  The site has undergone a critical proofreading, as well, but if you find any mechanical or stylistic problems, or if you just want to tell me you agree or disagree with something I’ve said, please let me know.

It’s time to post this page.  Thanks for listening, and be sure to whack me upside the head if I become lazy again and haven’t updated the site in a while!