Saturday, December 31, 2011

Clash

Clash is the latest movie by Johnny Tri Nguyen, the star of Force of Five and The Rebel. Or at least it's his latest movie available in the US. Clash has a very different feel than The Rebel, the last Nguyen movie I saw. That movie was a period piece, while this one is a stylish thriller set in the present day.

The plot is pretty straightforward, but the competing interests of the characters and their resulting double crosses of each other lead to enough twists to lift the story in to the better-than-average category for a martial arts movie.

That said, the plot doesn't get in the way much of the action, and the fights are really good. I can't think of any fights that looked like they used wires, which is good given Clash's grittier feel. While there are guns and knives used, the martial arts remain the focus in all the fights. The only downside to the guns is that it's a bit laughable what bad shots the characters must be in order to miss some of their targets!

Nguyen remains a strong performer, with a good deal of screen charisma beyond his skills as a martial artist. Some of his spinning kicks in this movie are especially impressive. Also, both he and costar Thanh Van Ngo (also from The Rebel) engage in more submission moves than I recall from recent martial arts movies. That was cool.

Downsides? There are two big ones. First, the romance between Nguyen and Ngo is extremely forced and, since it takes up a good deal of time in the middle third of the film, that's a problem. I didn't feel any sparks that suggested these two characters could overcome the obvious trust issues enough to fall in love. As a result, the love story is a big minus. It slows the movie down too much, despite some of the additional complications it introduces (no spoilers here).

The other downside is that Le Thanh Son's direction ends up spending a bit too much time on shots of his stars smoking, drinking, and otherwise 'looking tough' and this makes them come off like dorky poseurs. Nguyen is a hot guy; he doesn't need the film to sell him to us. An extended example of this is when Nguyen and Ngo tango in a club. The director's (or scriptwriter) is trying to be stylish, but it just seems out of place. Exactly when does a woman who spent her teens in a brothel, was a mother, and then lived as a mercenary find time to learn tango moves? Plus, the obvious use of a dancing double for Nguyen (who clearly couldn't 'cut a rug' if you gave him scissors) makes the whole thing kind of embarrassing. On the plus side, Le Thanh Son does a good job with the rest of the film.

While these flaws definitely slow the pace of the movie down in places, especially in the middle, Clash is a great ride. I have yet to see Nguyen give a bad performance or dish out a bad film, so here's hoping his star continues to rise.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pre-Dawn Meditation

One of my favorite things is life is to get up before dawn and meditate. I love watching the dawn unfold and to greet the day with a clear mind.


photo: Eric Van Gilder
 Today I indulged in this for the first time in many months. I sat at my Zen table, lit the candles, and calmed my thoughts. It was completely dark. As time passed, I could see the sky becoming lighter. I'd watch but the change was to slow to see. Instead, I just reverted back to breathing and clearing my mind and then - once in a while - I'd look back at the sky. Each time, there was a notable shift in the skies brightness or the color of the clouds, the trees, the stone on my Zen table, or even my skin.

All sorts of images came to me, but the idea they all held was that day-by-day, moment-by-moment, we seem to make so little progress. So many events and days are inconsequential or "more of the same". It can feel pointless or that we're not getting anywhere.  In fact, we are making progress in some direction - intended or not.

If we are right-minded, over time, we are like a bird gliding effortlessly past a traffic jam.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Part One

For me, Atlas Shrugged is one of the ten greatest novels ever written, and I can say that even though I do not necessarily agree with Objectivism. So I went into this flick with high demands but not super high expectations. While this is not a stellar film experience, I must say I was engrossed! For me, an Atlas Shrugged movie would have to do three things really well: convey the philosophy, rock the plot, and get the characters right.

Rand's philosophy gets very little air time here, but I'll give Part 1 a pass because this is a trilogy. The director may be relying on the second or third 'acts' to develop the philosophical angles. Since Rand did her philosophy to death in some portions of her book, a less heavy-handed approach could be a plus.

In terms of distilling Rand's mammoth plot, I think they made some good choices. As opposed to the slow economic decline Rand painted, we start out in the middle of a crisis. This was a brilliant choice as it allowed a good deal of explication to be avoided. We now know what the problem is, so the film can focus on who caused it, who can stop it, and what's in their way. I also like how they drew the crisis into parallel with some of the feelings and issues Americans have today. They also quickly deal with the obvious plot problem: why should the audience care about railroads? This issue is credibly handled in the first minutes of the movie, and it was wise not to dwell on it. The use of blackberrys and texting seems shocking in Rand's speechifying world, but they are a perfect way to telegraph some of the conversations and keep things moving.

On the downside I'm not keen on the early revelation of a man behind the 'disappearances', perhaps because I felt the mystery aspect of the novel was one of the key plot hooks. Even though the way they have the men 'disappear' makes good dramatic use of the visual medium, I still feel they could do more with it. The 'destroyer' could be portrayed in a horror movie, stalker way (he kind of is already with the shadows and waiting for people to be alone). Have some fun with it! I also found the pacing a bit rushed, but I also find Gone With the Wind rushed compared to the book. Perhaps any movie based on a book this big can't help but seem rushed by comparison. No matter, a longer run time (an extra 30 minutes would only take us to 2 hours) is clearly needed. Given the trilogy approach, a longer run time would help with pacing but wouldn't burden the audience too much.

As for the actors inhabiting these larger than life roles, I like the choices they made though there is some wooden acting. The actress who plays Dagny is sometimes a bit stiff (and I'm not sure she knows how to walk in heels), but she definitely 'gets' the character and conveys her aura. Hank Rearden is also well-played, and the actor is physically perfect for the role. The jury is still out on John Galt and Francisco D'Anconia who each get minimal screen time, although the updating of playboy Francisco into a 'playa' is pitch perfect. Likewise, the updating of James Taggart into the typical do-nothing, pampered executive all too common in the business world today is spot on. We'll see how the actor does as his character starts to show his true colors. A big plus is the guy who plays Ellis Wyatt! He totally sinks his teeth into the role and steals the scenes he's in. On the other hand, the woman who plays Lillian Rearden needs more juice. She's playing the vixen-bitch in this philosophical soap opera, and she should camp it up a bit. The actor playing Hugh Akston was able - in one minute of screen time - to repel me. He played Akston with the aura of a surly Walmart check-out clerk rather than a brilliant scholar. Terrible choice and actor.

One surprising note is how the saggier acting moments were more than offset by the benefits of the cast of virtual unknowns (or at least a cast with low recognition quotient). These actors were definitely committed to their roles. Besides, I find it terribly distracting in dramatic movies to have recognizable stars onscreen. It's like when I saw a biopic on Jane Austin starring Anne Hathaway. I never got past the fact that I was watching Anne-Hathaway-playing-Jane-Austin. Of course some of that was her poor performance, but some of it is just the star power. You really have to be as talented as Meryl Streep or Colin Firth to overcome that so that the viewer can forget they're watching a film with a star. I don't think I would have enjoyed this movie as much if Dagny had been played by Julia Roberts or Kate Hudson or whoever, even if they did the job perfectly. Brad Pitt as Hank Reardon? Ick.

Bottom-line, Atlas Shrugged is technically a low-budget movie, but it looks and functions very well all things considered. I thoroughly enjoyed it and, like I said, my demands were pretty high as I can easily hate adaptations of my favorite novels. Part of the fun here was anticipation: how will they handle the lighting of Wyatt's Torch? What will Wesley Mouch look like? From what I understand, Part 2 is coming in Fall of 2012 and I'm looking forward to it very much!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Truman Capote: "A Christmas Memory"

If you're looking for a great holiday read...this is the place I recommend you go. I love this book! Plain and simple. I always save it for the holiday season though, and I never read it at any other time. It's become a holiday tradition. The three short stories all take place in holiday seasons during the depression and feature the same setting and characters, so they form a nice group for a single volume.

"A Christmas Memory" is really the core of the book for me, and it's my favorite short story ever. I've read it every Christmas for something like ten years now and I have the same powerful, emotional reaction every time...and I'm not given to outbursts of emotional vulnerability. I smile, laugh, cry, and daydream about my own Christmas memories every time I read it. No other story affects me like this one, and I think everyone will see a little of themselves or their childhood somewhere in these pages. The other two stories are very well done. I'd probably rave about them much more if I could value each on its own merits, but they do get lost in the glare of "A Christmas Memory".

While this is excellent as a literary work, what I really value in these stories is their beauty, simplicity, and truth. Highly recommended for a holiday evening with hot chocolate, a lit tree, and Xmas carols playing. For an even better impact, there is a CD out there of Truman Capote reading "A Christmas Memory". Well worth picking up if you want to share this story as a holiday traditional with your family.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays ("Love Makes a Family")

Very sweet video. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Party (Tenth Anniversary)

This was the tenth year running for our Holiday Party! We had family and friends in attendance...some who have been coming the entire ten years! Here's some of the pics from the festivities!  Thanks to everyone who shared this special night with us...love you all!
Jim preparing the spread...
...as the guests start arriving

Old friends and new join in as the Annual Grab Bag Extravaganza begins!
 

Opening presents...



...displaying swag...
...and, of course, the stealing!
A fun night for all...
...and to all a good night!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Two Years Before the Mast

Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882)
While I've been continuing with my readings in transcendentalism (see previous posts), I also have needed a little fiction fix. This is being satisfied by Richard Henry Dana's 1840 novel Two Years Before the Mast. The novel represents Dana's recollections of having served aboard a sailing ship as a young man, new to the life of a sailor.  It became a huge bestseller at the time once the Gold Rush picked up steam, because it described California in those days. I was led to the novel during my Herman Melville kick. I read in Melville's biography that he had read Two Years Before the Mast and I believe it had influenced his own writing. 

The book is apparently out of print, so I trolled ebay looking for an old or antiquarian hard cover edition for my library. I couldn't find anything I liked, so I hopped onto iBooks and found an edition there. For free! Got to love technology!  So far, the novel is a surprisingly easy to read, with very little in the language to mark it as having been written in the 1800s. This is because Dana's style is very crisp and lacks the filigree and ornamentation sometimes found in writers of the era. I've been reading it on planes and during my business travels, and I find that I like reading books this way because I always worry about how traveling with books can damage them.

Dana also seems to have been an interesting person in real life. Aside from his two years at sea, he was a lawyer who defied the people of his social circle to defend fugitive slaves. He was also a supporter of the Free Soil movement, which fought against slavery expanding into new territories as the United States stretched across the continent to the Pacific.

Naturally, I'm not expecting the literary depth (some might say pretensions) of Melville. That was not Dana's point in writing Two Years Before the Mast. What I'm looking forward to (and already enjoying a bit of) is the idea of reading an account of life back then through a first hand eyewitness recounting actual experiences.  This is one of the reasons I find early US literature so fascinating; it is a means of becoming something of a time traveler and seeing what life was like when our country was growing and not even a hundred years old yet.

By the way, the picture at left is a photo of a replica of the ship that Dana sailed in, the Pilgrim, during his travels.  In fact, I believe Dana Point in California got its name from - you guessed it - Richard Henry Dana.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Progress in Piano

Been working and travelling for work a lot, so haven't been blogging much.

I've continued practicing my piano and was very encouraged by how quickly I picked up some of the pieces I used to know, such as Prelude in C Major (Bach), Fur Elise (Beethoven), Valse Sentimentale (Schubert), and some preludes by Chopin. However, I could feel my hands were not managing the pieces with the dexterity they had 10-15 years ago when I was last playing.

Hanon
Since I've stuck with this for a few months, I decided it was okay to buy a new book. A very practical purchase though. The only exercise books I had are the ones from my youth (Fingerpower, Know Your Scales and Arpeggios). The first was just too simplistic for me as an adult learner, and the second - while a good resource - seems more about getting familiar with sharps and flats in each key and the basic chords. So I bought Hanon's The Virtuoso Pianist, which is an exercise book written more than a hundred years ago. Playing these pieces is a time-tested way to improve strength, so I now start my practice sessions working here. Apparently, once you learn all sixty exercises, you can play the whole book in an hour. Lofty goal indeed, but why not? I need practice with the basics!

Getting my strength and fingering back up to par should help me reconquer my old repertoire with more control, plus aid me as I re-learn some other pieces: Sonatina in G Major (Diabelli) and Pachelbel's Canon in D.  And, just to keep things interesting, I felt it was important to learn some completely new pieces: Beethoven's Sonatina in G Major (and then continue to work in the Sonatina album) and "Vittorio, Mio Core" a great Italian art song by Carissimi.

Maybe as I get into the Christmas break, I'll work up enough nerve to post of a video of my playing? Hmmm...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chia Tao Poem

So far this my favorite from the book of Chia Tao's poetry I've been reading. The beauty and isolation depicted here is compelling. And the image of the moon and clouds seems reads to me like a symbol for finding clarity of mind.

Overnight At A Mountain Monastery
(translated by Mike O'Connor)

Masked peaks pierce
the sky's cold colors;
here, the trail junctions
with the temple path.

Shooting stars pass
into sparse-branched trees;
the moon travels one way,
clouds the other.

Few people come
to this mountaintop;
cranes do not flock
in the tall pines.

One Buddhist monk,
eighty years old,
has never heard
of the world's affairs.

In O'Connor's notes, he references a story that floored me so much I have to include it. Apparently, in a book written by someone who spent time meeting with Chinese hermits in the mountains during the 1980s, there was a story about an 85 year old monk who had lived in a mountain cave for 50 years. The monk spoke up at one point during a conversation to ask "who this Chairman Mao was whom I kept mentioning".  Wow!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chai Tao (779-843)

I'm enjoying a compilation of Chia Tao's poetry edited and translated by Mike O'Connor. I had never heard of Chia Tao (or Jia Dao), but I was at a bookstore and was looking through some clearance books that were all around martial arts and spirituality and saw O'Connor's book. It's short, but with this kind of poetry you can't just flip through it quickly and get much out of it.

None of these poems are haiku, but they have an austerity in their subject matter and the way they are written that creates the impact that the best haiku should have. There's a solitude and loneliness running through his work, a quiet that recalls the archetypal image of a monk sitting alone in some forgotten mountain monastery, meditating and writing poetry, while the rest of the world continues on.

The translator notates that Tao had been a Zen monk, and this really seems to inform his work. He also comments on the sometimes cold, dry, or lean feel to Tao's poetry, and he's right. Some of the poems are downright unpoetic (perhaps sometimes due to translation and/or untranslatability of certain passages). I lean towards believing in the strength of the translations, however, because O'Connor is a poet himself if I remember correctly and I find it hard to believe any poet would take time to translate works and render them dry if they were actually rich with symbols and description. Not to say there aren't symbols, but they're more the use of a word that stands for something, without embellishment. In terms of imagery, the poetry also often calls to mind very vivid landscape images but very few words are used to do this.

However, I find the austerity of Tao's poetry to be a strength given what he's trying to do and delivering. His verse seems focused on communicating something that is very immediate and 'in the moment' - sometimes almost like a flash of kensho frozen in his lines and preserved. If he were to embellish with a lot of adjectives and imagery, he would destroy that precision and clarity to no real end. The coldness of the poems to me goes hand in hand with a detachment in the tone that conveys a sense of Zen. There were several times reading his poetry that I recalled my Pete Retreat (see other entries in the blog), and that wonderful feeling of being really alone and away by yourself. There's a kind of undemonstrative happiness that comes out of that which I can feel in Tao's poetry sometimes too. There is also a sense of contemplative regret or melancholy breathing through a lot of the pieces (many are about saying goodbye to people). However, this kind of melancholy isn't depressing or a downer; it sweet, calming, and comforting. Like sitting alone by a fire in a blanket while a snowstorm blows outside....if you've felt this you know what I mean!

O'Connor's notes are pretty good. Sometimes they illuminate certain images (his Glossary of Symbols is really useful!) or just indicate where certain physical locations are. The introduction is excellent as insight into the man who wrote these works. Overall, a great collection.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In That Mood...

Days pass
In games of solitaire
I feel
Moments moving through me
Like monthly bill payments

A dead planet
Round a star
Hurtling
To the point
From which I began

O for the solace
Of destruction
The desperate ruins
That urge
And impel

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Autumn Bike Rides

Been getting some good biking in as we get into autumn. Over the last few weeks I've racked up 86 miles either on my own or with Jim. This brings the season total to 319 miles. Still nothing to crow about, but breaking the 300 mile bar makes things a little less sad.

On one of the rides, I saw a praying mantis crossing the path. These are another animal I think of as an 'earth alien'.  Like the octopus and stingray, praying mantises (manti?) are creatures that just look otherworldly. They have a lot of special characteristics that make them unique. For example: some mantis' jaws can puncture skin and they are the only insect that can turn its head on a neck. Then there's that whole business about the females eating their mates while they are mating. And you have to love them because they are one of those voracious predators that eat tons of bad and/or annoying bugs (like dragonflies).  Stopped to take a picture of this one(click to expand). It was about 5 inches long and was doing this weird swaying motion on its legs as I got closer. Maybe this is a behavior designed to make it look even more like a leaf or piece of plant debris? Not sure, but it was kind of funny to watch.

Yesterday, Jim and I were riding together and the fall colors were really getting started, so Jim took some pictures. This is a big picture, so you can really see the beauty of the scenery and colors if you click and expand. With the slanted autumn light, the beginning of fall is just a gorgeous time to be riding the paths!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

October 5th - Bodhidharma Day

ink painting by Sesshu Toyo (1496)
From what I've been able to gather, this is the one Buddhist holiday that is a Zen holiday. The others seem appropriate for Buddhists only. Now, strictly speaking, the whole idea of a holiday or day of commemoration is probably nonsensical from a Zen standpoint. I wonder what Bodhidharma would have to say about 'Bodhidharma Day'. Somehow, I think he would find the whole idea preposterous and mightily disapprove.

My idea of celebrating this day was to stay home and meditate for a while. And this really does suggest a bad mindset. How is sitting in zazen a 'celebration'? Why would I want it to be? Why do I need an excuse to sit in zazen? How is sitting is zazen on this day any different from any other? The real driving force behind me wanting to celebrate this day is not celebrating Bodhidharma at all. It's that I've not sat in zazen for a long time, and I'm deluding myself with the notion of a holiday to get back into it. What a tangled web we weave, huh? Eeeesh.

Once I realized that, I decided that I would still take the day off as a way to start reasserting some control over my work-life balance. And I will meditate as part of that, because I do need to get back into it.  I've lost a good deal of my sense of peace, perspective, and discipline of mind without it.

And whether Bodhidharma would have approved or not, I do like the idea of a day to think about him specifically.  Despite all the mythos around him, Zen did spring from him. So what's wrong with taking a bit of time to think kindly of someone I owe a lot too?  More than the whole Zen thing, he has become a symbol of kind in my life.  As the cartoon below humorously illustrates, he represents the idea that my spirituality, my intellectual life, and my physical self (in terms of activity and fitness) are all part of the same thing and that they should all spring from the same place.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Transcendentalism 101

I've been reading two books this past month. The first is The Transcendentalists by Edith Packer. It's a history of this fascinating philosophical/religious movement that took hold of America in the 1830s and 1840s. The movement interests me because there is something uniquely American in its idealism and energy.  It is also loosely akin to Zen in some ways, almost like it arose through a sort of convergent evolution.

I had started reading Packer's history when I came across the second book: Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists edited by George Hochfield. Hochfield's book assembles key writings by thinkers who led up to Transcendentalism and essays by the actual leaders of the movement as well.  So it's all the cerebral 'wiring' behind the history that Packer's book covers.

Hochfield's book includes material by George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, and many others. A further plus is what the book doesn't include: the really popular pieces from the movement: Walden, Emerson's essays, etc.  Hochfield wisely kept these out since most people likely have access to them through other books or already have them in their library.  This means his book is filled with material you probably would not be able to get and/or are unlikely to own.

As a result, Hochfield's book has almost all the material Packer references in her history, at least in the early chapters that I have read. Once I had Hochfield's book, I decided to start all over with Packer's, only this time as I go through it I'm stopping to read the essays and writings she references. So it's like I'm working my way through the history and actually reading all the thinking and writing that was being done as I go. Very stimulating way to study a movement like this!

I'll re-read some of Emerson's essays (most notably Nature) as I do this exercise. Plus it will spur me to finally read Walden, which I have to admit is something I haven't done. Probably not everyone's idea of fun, but for an Early US Literature fanboy like myself, it's as fun as watching UFC matches!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Back to Piano...still!

A while back, I posted that I had gotten back to playing piano. Well, I have stuck with it! Long ago, I had a fairly decent repertoire for a beginner. Almost all classical music. None of it was super difficult stuff; it's mostly the kinds of pieces "any serious student has in their repertoire" (according to the one of the books of sheet music I have).  I've really enjoyed getting into this again; it activates a whole other part of my brain.

Chopin
One of my favorite composers to play (that sounds pretty presumptuous since I haven't got scads of composers that I play!) is Chopin. He was born in Poland, so he's a countryman. His stuff is really emotional, and there's a somberness to some of his pieces that I really love. I'm re-learning a couple of his preludes and a waltz. Some of the pieces are really short so they are quick learns. But some of the chords this guy has in his music! It's like you have to stretch your thumb and pinky as far as possible in opposite directions and it's still almost impossible. I think I read somewhere that he had a very wide reach with his hands. Must be true, because the sheet music offers alternate ways to play some of the chords so that you lose one of the outside notes. And that's good, because there's a few chords that I physically cannot do!

I'm also relearning a sonatina by Diabelli that I used to be able to play all the way through. Much longer piece with different sections/movements/whatever you call them.  Diabelli is much more light and happy in tone. He's a good antidote to all the Chopin. 

The best part of this is the mental break it offers. I come home for lunch, eat, and zip through a couple pieces. After I'm done it's like I've taken a mental bath. My mind feels clearer and I'm more relaxed and in a happier state of mind. I think it's because I have to focus so much on my playing that my mind just ejects any extra baggage sloshing around in my skull.

One thing I've never done is play in front of anyone. Jim hears me sometimes, but he's not really listening, and I really try to practice as much as possible when I'm alone.  In fact, I'm not sure I could play in front of someone. Maybe when I get a better handle on some of these pieces. For now, though, this is a very private thing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Work Stress or Lack of Discipline?

I'm back! After not posting for a while. A lot of hours at work and just being very busy left me little time for blogging.

However, while these last several months have been really crazy, I feel as though I've managed it well. I had a few moments where I wigged out, but I found myself able to take hold of myself and quickly regain control over myself. I kept my thoughts calm and even and did not allow myself to go off the deep end. Summoning this impacted me within seconds, and I noticed it sometimes telegraphed itself to others and 'destressed' them as well. Not saying I'm perfect by any means. I'm a very strong personality, and I did have a few 'moments' where I was just panicked. However, I know I dealt with these last few months far better than in times before my Zen training.

As things are slowing down, a thought occurred to me that work stress isn't all from external sources (i.e., our job, boss, coworkers). Much of it is self-inflicted, and much of it is created by undisciplined reactions to external sources. That means a lot of work stress is self-inflicted and I can just decide to shrug it off. A few things I noticed:
  • Deadlines that aren't deadlines. I say I'm going to do something by [date], and then I - admirably - feel obligated to deliver. However, no one wants on-time - but subpar - results. We create stress by assuming everyone is inflexible (and/or that we always have to submit to that inflexibility).
  • Other people's stress. When someone else gets worried, I find myself becoming worried. Empathy is good, but it must be controlled. It's best to sit back, dettach, and think: "Is this really a problem or are they freaking out?" Not letting others determine our mindstate avoids stress.
  • We gotta do X. Sometimes, we have to examine what we're doing and get to essentials. This takes a lot of discipline because we tend to think everything we do is critical...and it's not. The difference between 'good enough' and perfection is often too slender for all the extra stress it causes.
  • Dropping the ball. People request stuff and then forget about it when something more critical comes along. If you ask about the task, they tell you to deliver (because they are stressed). But if you say nothing...it just goes away. If/when it comes back, everyone says: "Yeah, let's do that now. I know we had to put it on the backburner." Naturally, this takes some wisdom in using it.
  • Summon the right mindstate. When I feel stressed, for a few seconds I think about the smooth stone on my zen table or a moment of enlightenment I had while in zazen. My breathing notably becomes deeper, my tension level plummets, I feel my shoulders relax, and my thinking becomes much cleaner and logical. This is really helpful in conflict situations or when someone is wigging out because I become detached emotionally and my stance and tone are much calmer when I reengage. I had a client who was literally exploding (swearing and all). I did this and - within seconds after I reenaged - he calmed down and even apologized for his outburst. We solved the problem within seconds after the dynamic shifted.
All these observations have one theme in common that is a hallmark of Zen: taking control. Stress comes from being undisciplined mentally: feeling like we're out of control or have no control. Zen trains you to understand that you always have control over yourself: how you think, how you respond, what you feel - and what you choose not to feel, etc. By maintaining this discipline, I got rid of a lot of unnecessary stress. Or perhaps the stress that is bred from stress. I learned quite a bit from this situation, and I was happy to see my Zen training validated in such a concrete way.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Another Bike Ride

I have got to get the odometer fixed on my bike. Until then I'll continue using the blog to track miles. Did another 17 miles yesterday. So we're up to 233 miles for the season.  Should have time for another ride this weekend.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Obama the Appeaser

Obama has just scrapped a smog bill due to Republican and business resistance. While I do not know the details of the bill or whether I would have agreed with it, I've become put off by Obama's repeated inability to stand up to Republicans in any strong or consistent way. It's not that I think standing up to Republicans is in itself a good thing, but their often unjustified and willfully counterproductive stance during the last seven years has really turned me off. A week or so ago, I read this article in Newsweek and I think the writer makes very smart observations about what's wrong with Obama's presidency. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/08/14/barack-obama-as-neville-chamberlain-portraits-in-appeasement.html

The piece hits the nail right on the head and puts into words what I thought but could not express. There have been several times during Obama's presidency that the Republicans took stands against the people of this nation to protect their wealthy financial backers. In doing so, they stood in the way of measures Obama had proposed that would keep America afloat. And despite all the Tea Party rhetoric, it is justifiable to keep pointing out that it was Bush and the Republicans who got us into this mess because it is a fact. They ran headlong into two massively expensive wars we could not afford while cutting revenue by giving tax cuts to the rich so as to deliver continued economic growth and job creation.

Where did it get us? The wars were pointless (Iraq) or drawn-out debacles (Afghanistan), we're trillions of dollars in the hole as a result of them, and there has been no economic growth or jobs after nearly a decade of 'tax cuts for the rich'. And let's not also forget that the Bush administration literally did nothing at the end of its regime as the banking crisis sent the US economy skidding towards a catastrophic meltdown. They were too busy financing a new branch of big government called the Department of Homeland Security (which spends billions so we can hear airport announcements that "the security level is orange"). It was left to Obama to push the stimulus needed to halt the imminent crash. Which it did. After all that, the Republicans have had the nerve to make it a policy to stand in Obama's way by defending tax cuts to the rich, low regulation on banks, government subsidies on big oil, while at the same time claiming to represent small government and the financial high road of tightening our belts (by cutting unemployment benefits to the 10% of Americans who were out of jobs). Then they grouse that the stimulus wasn't a magic wand that returned America to economic stability and, suddenly holding deficit spending as anathema, precipitate an economic slow down by refusing to raise the debt ceiling without an embarrassing display of bickering that caused America's debt rating to be downgraded.

During all this, rather than making the Republicans actually vote down measures that would help the vast majority of Americans and keep us on the road to recovery (and reveal the Republicans as the representatives of the wealthy that they so clearly are), Obama has repeatedly caved into them and let them get away with being obstructionist cry babies, a few of whom are driven merely by fear their 'good ole boy' tactics will be trounced by a black man. The Republicans have several times been glaringly in the wrong on these issues, yet Obama never calls them on it. I think if he had done so early on, they would have backed down under pressure from the people. Then we would likely have had a more constructive dialogue in Washington these past few years since there would have been some incentive for it. Instead, he's encouraged dissension by rewarding their cry baby tactics and giving them whatever they want in order to have - as the writer puts it - 'peace in our time'.

If Obama loses re-election, I don't think it will be because people really embrace the Republicans (Michelle Bachmann? Donald Trump? Rick Perry?). It's too clear that the Republican economic program is about balancing the budget and financing tax cuts for the rich by cutting everything that benefits anyone who make less than $250,000 a year. If Obama loses, it will be because he did not take a tough enough stance against these positions so as to bring life to the change he promised.

Can Obama turn it around? Given the parade of clowns the Republicans are market testing for 2012, I hope so!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Despoiler of the Environment

Jim and I finally had a chance to do another bike ride and we racked up another 24 miles so - at long last - we have broken the 200-mile mark for the season. We're now up to 216. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we usually would be at twice this distance by September in most summers. Not a good season for bike riding!

Sadly, as a result of this bike ride, there is one less chipmunk in the world. As I was riding, I suddenly heard Jim shout something from behind me. I looked back and saw a little chipmunk flipping up and down on the ground on the path behind us. Then it went still.  Apparently, it had darted out and my back wheel ran it over. We checked to make sure it was actually dead, which thankfully it was. I hate to admit being so squeamish but I would have had a real issue having to kill it so that it wouldn't lie there suffering.

Poor little guy!

On another note, I've noticed the orb spiders have begun building their webs and the sunlight is starting to take on that slanted, intense look. I think we're going to have an early autumn this year.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Diamond Planet?

Read the official story (let's hope the media actually has the facts right): http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/25/us-planet-diamond-idUSTRE77O69A20110825

For most of my life I've been fascinated by astronomy and - every so often - I get back into it and read voraciously for a couple years to get back up on what's going on. Not up on the latest now, but naturally this story of a potential 'diamond planet' in a pulsar system caught my eye.

The reason I find this interesting is that - if it is confirmed - it has some interesting implications. The article speaks of the planet being a remnant of a former partner star, but I thought of something else. Theories have been floated in the past that gas giants like Neptune might form diamonds in their high pressure atmospheres that would then 'rain' down to the core of the planet.

Now this planet orbits a pulsar (which is the remnant of a star gone nova) in a very tight orbit so...what if the original planet-star system was akin to a 'hot Jupiter' that we have found to be rather common in our galaxy? (A 'hot Jupiter' is a type of gas giant that orbits its star very tightly, some are closer to their stars than Mercury is to our Sun).

The scenario I'm picturing is that the star went nova with a hot Jupiter close in (or a gas giant relatively far out that then spiraled in). The nova blew off the thick atmosphere of the gas giant (essentially hydrogen and helium with other gases thrown in for spice), leaving the core intact.  If this is the case, then this 'planet' - aside from potentially supporting the theory of 'diamond rain' in gas giant atmospheres - could also be an opportunity to directly observe the core of a gas giant planet which is something we normally would have no means of doing.

Of course, I'm sure the blast would have affected the core in some manner so it's not like looking at the core of an actual gas giant, and we have no way of knowing what the original planet was like in terms of mass and composition. It could have even been a brown dwarf, rather than a partner star or gas giant planet. Still this object could offer some information about what the deep interiors of planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are like.

This is all highly speculative of course, but it's exactly the kind of thing that has always fired my imagination about astronomy!

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Bubble Girlz

Once I got Jim to agree to an actual ceremony, I had to come up with a way to twist the whole thing around and make it fun. The last thing I wanted was a stodgy ceremony with people lighting candles and stepping daintily down the aisle while a string quartet played something. The first thing to go? The flower girls.

Instead, I decided that since it was summer we should have...bubble girlz! We recruited Jim's goddaughter and the daughters of one of his best friend's from work to be the bubble girls. It was their job to kick of the procession by dancing down the 'aisle' with bubble guns, blowing bubbles into the air.

Lia, Paige, and Skyler were thrilled to take part and here they are mugging for the camera prior to the ceremony.  The bubble guns were a bit of a pain. They required batteries and a lot of practice to make them work even marginally well. But I knew whether it worked out or not that there ceremony would get points for creativity!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Civil Union Photos

Been a long time since I posted! And I haven't posted anything from the Civil Union ceremony! Okay, here we go! All the pictures are dumped into my hard drive and there's so many that I'm just not ever going to really organize them so I'm just going to start posting ones that catch my fancy or suggest a story to me.

This is one that my friend Cindy took and I just love it. I only wish I wasn't holding that bottle of beer. Perhaps I can photoshop that out, because I would really like to frame this one. It was taken after the ceremony when Jim and I were beset by people taking photos, which I thought brought such a nice celebratory energy to the post-ceremony party kick-off.

It's still hard for me to believe that this has actually happened. I guess I never really believed that in my lifetime I'd have the chance to see my relationship with Jim recognized like this. Such a long, long way from back in 1990 when I was a college student and rushed to my dorm room one day to write in my journal "I'm being really honest with myself; I think I might be HS." Couldn't even write the world 'homosexual' in my own private journal that I kept locked in my drawer and that no one ever saw.

It really does get better...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Merantau

Merantau is an Indonesian martial arts film featuring Iko Uwais. From what I gather the martial art that he practices is called silat.

Merantau is a pretty good film. Not as fast paced or intense as a Tony Jaa film, but definitely some interesting fight scenes. One thing I liked about the fight scenes is that Uwais' character (Yuda) actually gets knocked around a bit more than the hero is other martial arts films does. He gets hit and in one scene even gets the worse end of a beat down. It added a bit of realism to the movie, especially since Yuda is so young.

While the production is not terribly slick, the colors in the movie are really intense and there are some wonderful shots scattered about. As it turns out, Uwais is a reasonable actor and he invests his character with a positive, likable vibe. That said, there is only the barest of motivations given for why Yuda risks his life for the two orphans he meets, and I was confused as to how he could have been sent to Jakarta to a place that was torn down and no phone number available. Call ahead? Oh well, it's not all about the plot.

Like I said the pacing in Merantau was sometimes a little slow, and perhaps the movie spent a tad too much time advancing its serviceable plot than was needed, but I did enjoy this movie and I look forward to seeing more from Uwais.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

18 Miles and Lots of Birds

Jim and I biked 18 miles yesterday morning, taking advantage of the break in the oppressive heat we've been dealing with here in Illinois. The ride broughtus to within a stone's throw of 200 miles (we're at 192) for the season. The path and roads were pretty wet from rain in the very early morning, so we were quickly coated with water and dirt up our backs. But we didn't care; it was wonderful just to be outside doing something again and not breathing air conditioned air.

Photo: Christopher Taylor
For some reason, we saw an awful lot of birds by Lake Whelon this time out. Perhaps because of the rain and the earlier hour, there were less people out (we did seem to run into a lot less traffic). Less people equal more animals. I'm not a bird watcher in general, but while biking I always like to take note of what I see. Have to rely on the web and a bird identification book Jim has in his library. So here's what we saw (click images to get see the pictures enlarged). First, I saw an ovenbird perched in a tree. It's not a spectacular bird, but I knew it was something different and I made a mental note to find out what it is.

Photo: rattlinantler
The first cool this we saw was a literal flock of goldfinches. I've seen these birds around singly and in small groups of two or three, but I'd never seen so many in one spot. They were all in an area thick with wildflowers, which I know draw them. As we road past, easily forty of them flew into the air and some flew parallel to us as if racing with us. That was awesome to see, as they are really very bright and their flight kind of graceful. It's actually probably not correct to describe them as a flock, since I wonder if these birds actively group. They seemed like a flock though, because there were so many of them.

Photo: Bill Thompson III
Next, I finally saw the 'bluebird' Jim has spotted several times on the path. He'd call out to me, but it'd be too late. I really began to wonder if I was ever going to see it because Jim was only seeing one at a time and at wide time intervals between rides/sightings. Yesterday, we saw two of them! And I finally got my view. Looking through photos online, I think this is an indigo bunting. What the phot doesn't capture is the sheer iridescense of their plumage. The dark blue shines almost like the inside of an oyster shell. Small, jewel-like bird.

Lastly, we saw two hawks feeding their young. Of course, we're guessing here. Two hawks flew across a marsh to an big tree well off the path. They both landed in the same spot and then there were a lot of scree!-scree! calls, which we assumed were chicks and that the two birds were feeding them. Lastly, we saw a huge grey egret standing in the DuPage River, probably fishing for a meal.

Overall, a nice relaxing ride and some good sightings.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sites I Love: Laughing Squid

It's been a while since I have touted a specific website on Zen Throw Down. The thing is I don't have tons of links in my favorites, not am I trawling the blogosphere on a regular basis looking for hip new sites to wow my friends and readers with.

But I like this one, I have it in my favorites, and I check it out from time to time. Laughing Squid is a cornucopia of thoroughly random (yet almost always interesting) miscellanea. I'm always sure I'll find something fun or thought-provoking on here each time I log in.

It's in my links on this blog. Check it out! http://laughingsquid.com/

Perhaps 'Sites I Love' should become a new thread on here?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Haiku Thursdays

touch the pool
create no ripples
cool in August heat

Monday, August 1, 2011

Love Unfolds

Since the photos are still being posted, I decided to hold off for a few more days in a sentimental tidal wave of vignettes and photos on the blog. However, I will post the poem I ended up reading at the ceremony. Enough pics have come in so I can post one taken of me actually reading it. Hooray for the magic of facebook!

I wrote this in May 1998, almost two years after Jim and I met and just as we were buying the house. I remember that I was at Jim's duplex. He was working in his garden, and I was on the porch writing. I don't remember laboring over the piece especially. It was one of those that just 'came'. This version is actually a 'remixed version'. As noted in the prior post I felt it worked better than 'Voyager' but the original version seemed not exactly a fit for the ceremony. So I added some extra lines to bring it into line with the event.

Usually, I think this would bother me, but the idea of the poem seems to almost demand that it be re-written or added to as time goes by. I read this after the exchange of the vows and right before the big smooch to seal the deal.

Love Unfolds

I first felt love
as a child
when I planted
an acorn
in my parent’s yard,
carefully patted the earth,
watered it
with a jeweler’s precision,
only to forget it
the next day

Love changed with me
like the day
I saw a man
in the mirror
not a boy
or the day
I discovered who I am
and had the courage
to embrace it

Just as the sound of a breeze
in the leaves
sounds like
the sea upon the beach
sounds like
a spring shower,
love took many forms

But in all these years
I’ve never been able to name it—
anymore than I know the color
of sunbeams scattering
off a garden pond
or can name the day
spring unfolds each year
or map the direction of the road
that’s brought me to where I stand
in this moment

But there are moments of clarity
like now
as I stand with my soul mate
and I think about
the oak I planted as a child
in my parent’s yard,
its branches are arching up now
over above the house,
its trunk is strong
its roots are deep
its alive with birds and nests
squirrels and dragonflies,
and breezes that part the leaves
to reveal acorns
peeking through –
a hundred promises
waiting to be planted.

- Peter Cholewinski


I'm glad I chose the reworked version. It felt perfect in the moment!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Civilized At Last!

Jim and I officially tied the knot yesterday in warm, fun ceremony in our backyard with about 50 friends and family in attendance...and one unfortunate pig that formed the center of the ensuing feast. There wasn't a cloud in the sky (though it was a tad hot) and we had glorious sunshine all day! The pic on the right is the chalk 'welcome mat' spelled out on the driveway for arriving guests.

Since Jim and I have been together for 15 years, we asked that people not bring gifts. Of course, our friends and family were way to generous to want to comply with that. So we asked that instead of gifts people donate to the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetter.org). In total, $1,000 will be going to the charity. I'm proud that we were able to make this ceremony more than just 'about us' and that we can help support something way more important in the grand scheme of things. A couple people who had not heard of the Project before this were in awe at the work being done and the stories being shared on the website.

We had a photographer, plus our friends were taking tons of photos. So I'll be posting all sorts of pics and stories from the ceremony over the next few weeks. Today, we're just going to relax, bask in our new state of civil-ness, and check out all the postings on facebook.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Civil Union Poem - Rejected!

Last launch of space shuttle Discovery
Well that's a little harsh as the poem is not a 'reject' by any means. I was stuck between two poems to read as part of the civil union ceremony. I asked Jim and our closest/oldest friends for an opinion. This one was written for Jim for our first Christmas together, and I thought it would be appropriate to read. However, I felt it was a little too short and not as rich in deeper feeling as I would like (maybe a little too Hallmark?). It was wonderful for its purpose, but it didn't seem to have enough 'gravity' to work in a ceremony.  I still love it and cherish it for its place in me and Jim's lives, so I thought I would post it in anticipation of our upcoming event:

Voyager


Galaxies of planets and stars
in unending space -
a universe of mysteries
where answers have no place.

A yearning to explore it all,
to understand and to know,
but no way to lift off,
to voyage and go.

I can bask in the summer sun
or swim in mountain streams,
but how can such moments
ever outshine impossible dreams?

Yet it happened one moment
I found a true heart -
a place of infinite wonder
with a voyage to start.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Mumonkan, Koan 19: Ordinary Mind Is The Way

Photo: Larry Landolfi
Joshu asked Nansen, "What is the Way?"
"Ordinary mind is the Way," Nansen replied.
"Shall I try to seek after it?" Joshu asked.
"If you try for it, you will become separated from it," responded Nansen.
How can I know the Way unless I try for it?" persisted Joshu.
Nansen said, "The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?"
With those words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.

For me, this dialogue encapsulates everything important to know about rightmindedness. I've written about 'ordinary mind is the way' (what I call Everyday Zen) elsewhere in this blog and I believe that is what Nansen is referring to.

'Seeking after it' as Joshu proposes to do is like when we see a dog chasing its tail. We laugh at how silly it is to pursue something that one already has. Seeking after ordinary mind or samadhi is the same thing. There is no seeking, you simply have to allow yourself to experience it. And then learn not to be pulled away from it. If you actively 'seek' it you will find, like the dog chasing its tail, that it constantly eludes you.

Nansen's answer about 'knowing' is also very good. Ordinary mind is just being in the moment, divorced from knowing or being confused, right or wrong, faith or doubt, better or worse. It's the wind on my face. It's a leaf falling from a tree. It's a child riding a bike down the street. It's a storm rolling in. It's a blade of grass. It's standing in an elevator. Ordinary mind - or the Way - is everywhere and everything. I think that's what Nansen means by 'as vast and boundless as outer space'.

I know the picture is a bit 'cosmic', but the idea of the Way leading to something as vast as the Milky Way definitely captures this koan's meaning for me in a powerfully visual sense.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Haiku Thursdays

my footprints
erased by waves
sunburnt neck

Sunday, July 24, 2011

News Update: Blogodometer, Back to Hapikido?, and More...

The odometer on my bike isn't working, and I've been too busy to fix it. So I'll be using Zen Throw Down to track my bike mileage. No way we're biking today. It has been pouring like crazy all weekend, with only a brief respite yesterday for a cook-out hosted by a couple we know. I drank too much and got a sleepy-buzz.

So the top story here is that last weekend we did another 24 miles and that takes the total up to 174. Far from earth shattering.

Other stories: my Hapkido master called the yesterday wondering where I have been. I explained the whole thing to him and he was good about it but...he pointed out: "if you're good enough to go to the gym then you can do martial arts" and "you know martial arts is better for you than the gym". Jim added: "You could just go to the gym to lift, stop doing treadmill, and have hapkido be your cardiovascular workout". So now I'm rethinking this whole decision to pull back from hapkido. I have to admit that I do miss it, and treadmill isn't anywhere near as much fun.

Civil union planning is all set, and we're ready to get 'civilized' this weekend. My parent will be staying with us and everything.

And we're planning to go back to St. John next year. Details at 10.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ravinia & Rachmaninoff

Last night Jim and I joined his sister Kathy and her husband at Ravinia. There were three pieces by Rachmaninoff: The Bells, Vesna, and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Each had a chorus as part of the full orchestra. The first two included solo vocalists, and the final piece was led by Alexander Romanovsky, a very talented pianist. 

Of course, it was a sweltering night, but I was able to forget about it while the music was going. It was very nice to go back to the Ravinia venue, which I had not been to in twenty years or more. In fact, this is only my second time there. The pavilion seating is surrounded by a lawn with sculpture and tall trees, where extremely well equipped people camp out and listen to the music. They brought chairs, tables, china, wineglasses, candles, cookers, vases with flowers...it was a bit like a gypsy camp really.

Romanovsky was amazing. Really fantastic command of the keyboard. The video screens on either side of the stage sometimes had a shot from above showing his hands moving up and down the keyboard in these forearm-cramping arpeggios and all the wrist and hand flourishes one probably expects from an ace pianist.  However, I have to say I wasn't really taken by Rachmaninoff as a composer. The compositions were pretty bombastic, and the piano piece got too carried away with the pyrotechnics for my taste.

Hopefully it won't be another twenty years before I go again and maybe it'll be better weather!  Even with the heat though, it was fantastic to be outside and able to hear the crickets and feel a breeze while listening to music. Great ambiance!

Haiku Thursdays

April breeze
through tree leaves
thirty days to listen

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Back to Piano!

The creative resurgence continues....

Just the other day, for no specific reason, I just had an urge to sit and play piano...and I could still rattle of the first several bars of Fur Elise by heart. Talk about something being stuck in long term memory! It was utterly effortless and I barely even had to think, my hands just knew where to go.

I've been coming home for lunch each day and getting fifteen minutes of practice in and then maybe a little bit when I get home. I'm picking up some of my old repertoire: a couple preludes I love by Chopin, Valse Sentimentale (Schubert), and a sonatina by Diabelli that I learned all the way through ten years ago. I'm so happy to be back on it. We'll see if this lasts.

Makes me not feel so bad about all the years I wasn't creative...you really can always come back to it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dry Pastels. Better Than Oil.

The oil painting thing just isn't working. I freak out every time I clean my brushes because I have to do it in the kitchen sink. I can so easily see myself doing something really disastrous to the kitchen. Plus it's probably really bad environmentally to be disposing of oils that way. So I was in this quandary. Do I need to pay rent for a studio space to continue? Then all of the sudden it hit me. Why am I stuck on oils? Why not use dry pastel crayons? I still have my supply.

I went on the web and got some ideas about how to work with them and then started on my first piece. So how was it? Well, I really enjoyed it. There is a bit of a painterly feeling to how you use them in terms of laying the colors on. Then again, it really is a different process in how they work because there is also a drawing feel to the experience. And...I really liked blending with my fingers and getting pigment all over my hands! Fun fun fun!

The piece I did was a landscape, but I was mostly just playing with how colors get laid out. Learning by doing. I was happy with the piece when it was done, but I refused to commit on a verdict until I put it away for a few days.  When I did come back, I could see it is not at all good. There's not enough variation in the tonality of the color, which makes the whole thing kind of flat and uninvolving. Also the perspective wasn't what I was after. But that's all fine. The first one or two dozen pieces are not going to be good. That's what happens when you're learning.  However, the fact that this medium works without me having a studio is good in terms of the likelihood of me continuing.

I was also struck - after coming back - that I perhaps I should use some fixative and continue laying down color. Maybe really labor over it. When I first began crafting my poetry rather than just writing them, I'd have work and rework poems, fix them, labor over the words I selected, write multiple drafts, etc. After a while, I developed a strong sense for how to work with poetry so that I didn't need to labor as hard to get what I was after. It's about honing the skill in using the tools you have in the medium.

The same is true with the dry pastels. I have to try to find time to keep doing it and just keep creating stuff and exploring how they work. Every piece I create, whether it's any good or not, will provide me with information on how to function. Kind of exciting and daunting all at once!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Another 26 miles

Yesterday we got another 26 miles in, so we're up to 150 for the season. We found the 'path' that goes off the Lake Whalon to connect to some of the paths going down into Bolingbrook. The paths here weren't that great and they didn't really go anywhere, so it looks like Will County (I think it's Will at that point) has some work to do. We lost the DuPage River Trail at a major street intersection but, according to the map, it's supposed to continue on. Maybe it's along a street until we get to the next park. We'll have to see.

The ComEd Greenway also doesn't seem to really go anywhere. I was hoping it would connect to something that would allow for riding back up towards Greene Valley. It looks like there's a proposed path, but nothing seems to have been built. Of course, we may have missed something so we'll have to keep exploring. If we can connect down to some of the trails to the South, I have a feeling we'll have access to some really long distance biking. Who knows what that could lead to?

Funny thing happened after this ride. We were out into the midday and got a bit of sun. Unfortunately, I had been wearing gloves. So now my hands are untanned and my forearms are tan. It looks pretty dorky. No more gloves!

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Invitation Has Been Sent...

...and the catering is scheduled, the judge is booked, the tent is rented, and the necessary paperwork has been completed. We're ready for the civil union to take place!

I'm thinking up all sorts of ideas for making the actual ceremony (brief as it will be) something to remember. Already have 14 confirmed guests so we're well on our way to a nice - but not overly large - group of friends and family to share in our event.

I love Bluntcards, and when I saw this one I just knew that it had to be in our invitation. Which it is (click for a larger view). Since some of the guests have threatened to bring gifts we'll be setting up a donation box for the It Gets Better Project. That's a much better place for the money to go.

Check the project out at: http://www.itgetsbetter.org/

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Fourth of July

Happy Birthday, America!

This weekend has been such a wonderful time spending time with Jim, connecting with friends, and taking it easy. As I mentioned, it kind of started with my dinner with Gretchen, then the team outing where I got a chance to attempt canoeing, and more recently Jim and did a 25 mile bike ride before I had lunch with my good friend Cindy. Cindy's a hoot because she knows me well enough to call me on my bullshit and yet laugh with me about it at the same time. Then it was on to the fireworks for a dazzling show with perfect weather. Nice thing about our location is we have an awesome viewing location and yet it only takes us about five minutes to get home.

This morning, Jim and I did another bike ride. This one was 18 miles, which brings the season total to 124 (so far). This ride was one of those magical things that happen in life; a surprise where you least expect it.

For some time we have biked from our house to a nearby path that leads to a forest preserve and back. Usually this is about a 17-18 mile ride. We were looking forward to it this time because there had been a whole bunch of construction at this busy intersection and the story was that this intersection (getting across it being a major buzz kill to a biker) had been reworked with tunnels going underneath the streets so no need to cross with the cars. We were eager to see what it was like. The work done is phenomenal! It hasn't disrupted the path much either, so they did a great job. We followed the path down to where we normally turn off to get to the forest preserve when - surprise! - the path kept going!

We decided to follow it to see how much longer this path went for. It just kept going and going and going! We ended up biking along the DuPage River, through a forest preserve, past wetlands/marshes and lakes, and finally ended with a big circuit around Lake Whalon (see not so great picture), a gorgeous looking lake in the next county.  Even saw a bird suicide bomb into the lake to snag a fish. It was really a gorgeous ride, and I kept thinking "it's going to end here", but then we'd turn the corner and the trail kept right on going. There's even an indication that the work isn't over.  Apparently, the DuPage River Trail is being extended and connected with existing paths to provide access to a considerable distance. Who would have thought that this morning we would bike from home and within five minutes be on a gorgeous path that we'd never been on before and (apparently) will soon go on and on and on? Fantastic!

I love it when life offers a surprise this!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mumonkan, Koan 18: Tozan's 'Masagin'

A monk asked Tozan, "What is Buddha?"
Tozan replied, "Masagin!*"
* three pounds of flax

I read a version of this koan some time ago and, in that version, the reply was "birdshit!" So either Sekida is a better translator, or he's loathe to use bad language. LOL!

Anyway, Buddha is reality. That includes flax, birdshit, and all mundane objects as well as the beautiful. Direct perception of reality is buddha mind.

Tozan's reply also points to another idea. It is easiest for us to have true perception with something like flax, because our minds attach no real significance to it. True perception occurs before our minds interpret what we see, assign meaning to it, judge it, categorize it, etc. Now if you consider art, a political speech, a religious 'truth', etc. we've programmed our minds with thoughts, right/wrong, beliefs, traditions, mores, feelings, etc. and it is harder to have immediate perception. Instead we let that programming take over.

Zen is about disciplining the mind to remove that clutter and allow direct perception to take place. Only then are we able to grasp truth or reality. It's not that you banish your opinions or feelings altogether, but you learn not to substitute them for perception. They are all responses and, as such, are paths away from buddhamind and towards delusion.

Mumon's verse had a terrific couplet in it that really spoke to me:

"Those who argue about right and wrong
are those enslaved by right and wrong"

The debates of right and wrong, good or evil, remove us from direct perception and keep us locked in our delusional thinking about reality. They require debating opinions about reality, which is already two steps removed from perception. It's arguing about clutter. Politics is a good example. You can tell in a lot of debates on the subject that people are either Republican or Democrat and that they argue the 'party line'. Or with people of different religions who are determined that their view is right and others are wrong.

This kind of debate never has anything to do with truth or right/wrong but in preserving our perceptions of it against a challenge so we do not have to make the difficult effort to escape delusion and reconnect with reality. When someone is in this delusional, cluttered mindset, they are all response. They are not thinking deeply (or at all), just reacting. Ultimately, that may be the point. For religious and political parties to fight their battles and prevail, it is best to have adherents who think as they are 'programmed' to. By creating adversaries to fight (other parties, other religions, other groups), the adherents remain lost in delusion and are easily controlled.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My Dinner With Gretchen

I had a client meeting in the city, and this was a chance for me to connect with my one of my very oldest friends. We met up on Michigan and walked from Monroe up to the the Museum of Contemporary Art for drinks. It was a glorious day, and I had to work off my lunch before I could enjoy a proper dinner.  Of course, the conversation didn't wait and - as usual - we dove right in: careers, relationships (what is an approrpriate term for our 'boyfriends' when we're in our 40s?), religion, art, and of course life updates. We always have a lot of ground to cover.

We decided to go to Firefly on Halsted for dinner but it was closed...boo hoo! So we wandered a bit and, after seeing the menu for Tapas Gitana (used to be Arco), we decided for sure we needed this. We must have been there for two or three hours sitting right by the open french doors and people watching - but mostly carrying the conversation into all areas deep, risque, and dreaming. Our waitress was totally cool and fun, and we ended up getting this fantastic bottle of red Spanish wine that we just killed.

Plus the food was fantastic!!! So I have to give a shout out to Tapas Gitana overall.  Go there!!! It made me remember how much I love tapas. Our experience was so relaxed as we tried many different things:
  • Calamares A La Plancha - My second favorite cephalopod flavored with garlic, lemon and olive oil. Cooked perfectly (i.e., tender to firm but not rubbery)!
  • ChampiƱones Rellenos - Big mushrooms full of spinach, garlic, and cheese. A mouthful of flavor!
  • Montaditos de Cerdo - Pork and caramelized red onions on a sort of bruschetta. Orgasm on a plate!
  • Pechuga de Pato - Duck breast with lentils, couscous, and a mushroom sauce. Mmmmm!
All of the food was delicious, and we also had dessert too. For all that, it was only my crazy high tip that took us over $100. Totally wonderful experience!
 
The ultimate cap was to walk after dinner (one of the things I will never stop missing about city life). We tried to go to Chicago Comics but they were closing (at 9PM on a weekday...how dare they!). The next day was mostly made up of the team event where I went canoeing for the first time (see last post), so this was a great way to ease into my holiday weekend while catching up with Gretchen.