Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mini-Rant: Account Overdrawn

'Account Overdrawn' is a phrase coined by controversial author Ayn Rand to denote that at a certain point irrational behavior crashes into reality which says 'enough is enough'. Some recent occurrences that I think may be indicative of 'account overdrawn'. 
  • In Wisconsin, Governor Walker blames unions for the states budget deficit and goes on a union busting spree that's clearly about gaining power for himself. The response: People of various political stripes unite in the biggest protests the US has seen in decades. Recalls are likely.
  • In Illinois, Governor Quinn uses the state's deficit as an excuse for raising the corporate tax rate (and then promptly increases spending by 10%). The response: Caterpillar in effect tells Quinn his fiscal irresponsibility is making other states more attractive and they may take their 23,000 jobs elsewhere.
  • On the Capitol, obstructionist Republicans reject Obama's budget as 'not cutting enough', while proposing their own budget that shaves just a bit more spending (while Republicans like Senator Rob Portman from Ohio defend spending for warplanes the Pentagon says it doesn't need because it creates jobs in their state). The response: In a surprise move, Tea Party Republicans break ranks and say no to the Republican's alternative budget, forcing the Republicans to cave or negotiate with Democrats. 
There's little that organized labor, Caterpillar, and Tea Party Republicans have in common. But I see a thread here: people standing up to irrational government and drawing a line in the sand. In terms of out of control spending by politicians and their unwillingness to deal with the deficit, are Americans ready to say "account overdrawn"?

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Worked Out!!!!

I joined the gym, and today I woke up at 5:30AM and went hit the gym by 6AM. I spent 1.25 hours working out, and even did the treadmill. I'm officially on the road being back in shape, so what did I do to celebrate? Jim and I went to to Red Robin, and I ordered a guacamole bacon burger with fries and a chocolate shake.

My legs ache, my lats are stiff, but I had energy to spare all day long!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Zen Master Dogen (Soto & Rinzai Schools)

As I continue with Zen, I'm coming to some decisions about what is the best way to go about it. One of the struggles is how to communicate, which I am coming to truly understand is not really possible. I think it's part of why I don't talk about it much with people. What's the point really? Of course, then I read texts like these pieces by Zen Master Dogen Zenji and realize it is possible to communicate verbally or in writing. You just have to really knows what you're talking about (i.e., be an enlightened Zen Master).

One of the other issues I've wrestled with has been the role of koans.  Turns out this question has been an issue for about a thousand years (no exaggeration). From what I've been able to gather there was a time when Zen split into five houses or schools of Zen thought. Eventually these houses coalesced into Rinzai and Soto. In very, very broad strokes (my Zen history is sketchy at best), Rinzai relies heavily on koans while Soto stresses sitting in zazen. So my struggle here is not at all uncommon.

My experience with koans has been positive and I find them to be a powerful tool. However, I feel zazen is truly fundamental to Zen. I believe someone can become enlightened without koans, but I do not believe the vast majority of people can be enlightened (and profit from it) without zazen. So I guess I'm leaning towards the Soto school. Of course, as soon as I realized this, I pushed the whole question out of my head! I don't want to get bogged down in details of this kind. While it does provide some insight in a guidepost kind of way to know where I stand on a key question like this, I don't ever want to catch myself thinking: "I don't care what Zen Master ABC says because he's Rinzai" or - and I'm not sure whether this is worse or not - "Zen Master XYZ says such-and-such and he's Soto so I better pay attention"). Blech!

Anyway, figuring out I am reliant on zazen and knowing the Soto school believe the same thing, led me to want to read something by Zen Master Dogen Zenji, who practiced Zen in Japan during the 13th Century. From what I understand, he really established the Soto school in Japan and there is a lot of his texts that have survived to the present. This book - Beyond Thinking - collects some of his texts that speak to zazen into one short volume. Who better to be guided by than one of the great fountainheads of the school, right?

Dogen is not an easy read, but if I take my time I can fully decode his rather imagistic/symbolic text. The great thing about this book is the glossary in the back that helps you figure out what colorful images are just that and which are actually metaphors for something very specific. Despite the challenge of the text, I'm finding that Dogen is able to put a lot of things I've sensed into words or at least it's about as close to communicating it in words as I'm ever likely to read.  So far, the texts are providing guidelines for practicing zazen and how to discipline your mind. I'm not far into the book yet, but the ideas here are definitely helping me and providing some (probably) much needed guidance.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Who Am I?

It would be hard to imagine any movie being sillier than Who Am I?. Of course, I haven't seen any other Jackie Chan films and my impression is that silly is his forte. Who knows? This might be depressing arthouse for Chan.

Who Am I? doesn't have a single serious frame in its 108 minute length. The plot is inane, the characters ridiculous. It's directed, shot, written, and acted without a shred of style. This movie is sheer cotton candy, and it gleefully embraces its foolishness and slapstick sensibilities. While I think a little Jackie Chan will go a long way for me, I must admit I found this goofy movie fun. Maybe you will too, if you shut off your brain.

There was a low level of martial arts content for my tastes, but the fight between Chan and two adversaries on the roof of a building was inventive, skillful, and comical. Bottom line, yes, I did enjoy this flick. Would I recommend it to anyone? Well.......

Note: This version of the film at 108 minutes is apparently another victim of the hatchet. Reviews I've read on amazon suggest the studios chopped a lot out of this movie for the US release. So beware.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Baby Steps

Okay, maybe I'm not this bad off, but I sure feel like I'm starting from scratch. Started practicing forms again to get back in the saddle, and I got winded rather quickly. Not from lack of air, but from sheer lack of fitness. I also did some push-ups, crunches, and curls.

It's pretty clear to me that I'm starting back into this from a really low place. I can't remember the last time I was this out of shape, and it's clearly going to take a lot of time and effort to even get back to where I was. Jim keeps assuring me I've just lost tone and that I'm not flabby. However, I feel very out of shape. It bums me out big time, but I keep reminding myself that the surgery will have been worth it in the long term.

I went to check out the gym where I work, but there was no one at the front desk. Arrrggh! This what I remember gyms to be like. Impersonal, with marginally intelligent employees whose main qualification is the ability to look good in a pink spandex bra. Okay, I'm being bitter. Just shut up and go back tomorrow.

I've got to do this. I can't go back to martial arts class until I get my cardio fitness back, and I shudder to think what our first bike ride will be like if I don't get active soon. I should probably also stop in to see the master and let him know I haven't fallen off the face of the earth.  Getting back into this is so difficult. Inertia is tough to escape from, but I know I'll feel so much better once I get back on track. Gotta keep my head up and just do it!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My First Follower!

I recently set up this blog up so there can be followers. Today I got my first one. I suppose I shouldn't say a name or anything in a post (I clearly know nothing about this blogging stuff). 

I have a follower! My blog is officially not a self-absorbed waste of time!

Sinus Surgery: 2nd Post-Op Visit

More descabbing! Urk! Ick! Bleah! After seeing the stuff the doctor was prying out of my inner nose, I can't buy into this 'body as a temple' stuff anymore.

It was very uncomfortable, but I feel like my passages are even more open now than ever. Don't have to go back for two months and - best of all - I can work out again! I've already checked out pricing for the health club where I work. After my business trip this week, maybe I'll go in and check the place out.

My voice is still a little more nasal than before, but Jim says it's really not that noticeable.  Things are looking up, and I'm really glad I did this.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Unfrozen (for real) And A Challenge To Myself

The snowdrops opened during the weekend...that means Spring is coming!

I'd written my prior 'Unfrozen' entry just after being promoted but before my sinus surgery, so I didn't realize that I was still going to be a bit frozen. However, breathing has become much easier now. Tomorrow is my second post-op visit with the doctor and, since I can fly (and will be flying soon for business), I'm betting I'll be cleared to start back with the athletic stuff again.

Since I know I'm sticking around at work, that means I will check out and (hopefully) join the gym in my building. They have a pool, track, and of course weight machines. Joining a gym for the first time in nearly twenty years should really help me take my lifting to a higher level. Plus I'll be able to get back into shape from a cardiovascular standpoint. Maybe I can even start biking to work during the good weather because I can shower before going to the office.  I can practice martial arts at home to get limbered up before going back to class and picking up where I left off. 

All of this made me think the other day that - if I do all this stuff - I should set a goal for myself of not only getting back into shape (I've lost plenty of muscle and flexibility and have a bit of a belly) but getting into the best shape of my life. If I can get the cardiovascular stuff down, as well as lifting, martial arts, and biking...I should be able to make myself into a lean, mean, fighting machine!

Once before, airing on goal on this blog led to me actually achieving something pretty significant. I hope it spurs me to succeed again!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Protests in Wisconsin (Kudos to John and Gretchen!)

Sean Hannity on Fox News referred to the protests in Wisconsin as 'a temper tantrum'. That's very Marie Antoinette of him. The truth is, if anything, the protests in Wisconsin are ramping up and drawing more and more people. Two of my oldest and best friends - John and Gretchen - joined the protests over this past weekend and got to participate in a piece of history. Not to mention they were able to put their money where their mouths are by standing out in the cold for hours and hours to show they care about the direction of our country.

By their estimates, there were at least a 100,000 people at the protests this weekend. Take a look at these pictures. Apparently, there were semis, farmers driving farm equipment, as well as the crowds of people clogging the streets all around the capitol. Pretty amazing! Good work John, Gretchen, and everyone else out there standing up for the people of this country.

Click any of the pictures to make them bigger.

Mini-Rant: The Myth Of Tax Cuts For the Rich

There is this persistent myth that tax cuts for the rich create jobs, and I would like to take a moment to explode this myth with a few common sense points.

1) Not all rich people own businesses. Many inherit their wealth, are investors, or are movie/rock stars. Giving these people a tax break does not stimulate job growth, because they have no businesses with which to create jobs.

2) Rich people already have a surplus of wealth (kind of goes with the territory of being rich). The surplus they have has not stimulated job growth. The Bush tax cuts for the rich have been in effect for years; where are the jobs they were supposed to create? How many times will we subsidize wealthy who already have a surplus of wealth and disposable income before we figure out that this equation doesn't work?

3) Tax incentives may lift business and corporate profits in the short term, but since there is no concurrent increase in the amount of sales or customers or demand to go along with this profit, there is no reason in the world for any company or business to add jobs as a result.

4) When companies feel the economy is expanding and there are new opportunities, that is when they add jobs. It's not because they're nice. They have to do it in order to go after new business opportunities and compete with rival firms. Tax cuts for the rich do not expand the economy enough to cause this because there are too few rich people for their increased spending to make any difference outside of a few minuscule luxury categories.

5) The economy expands when people - lower, middle class, and upper middle class people - buy stuff. When masses of people are buying, companies sell more products and services. When companies sell more products and services, their suppliers sell more supplies. This is how the economy expands to create jobs.

It's not rocket science folks.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chocolate

Chocolate is a very good but rather off-kilter martial arts movie. The hero, Zen, is a 14 year old autistic girl with an uncanny ability to instantly learn martial arts simply by watching. Zen kicks ass to collect money owed to the family so she can pay for her mother's chemotherapy. Meanwhile the mother's ex, a possessive gang lord served by a posse of armed and dangerous transsexuals, is trying to keep her from reconnecting with Zen's father. I'm totally not kidding; that really is the plot.

The set-up of this bizarre plot takes the first 20-30 minutes of the movie but, fear not, what's not off-kilter about this movie are the fight scenes. They absolutely rock! When star Yanin Vismitananda gets going, she displays definite skills. She's not as sharp as Tony Jaa or Jet Li or their kind, but she more than delivers. And once the action starts, the fight scenes come fast and furious. There's even a bit of ick factor thrown in for extra giggles. And despite the fact that I usually find guns disruptive in martial arts films, I felt they actually add to the action here rather than detract.

I saw a review for Chocolate on Amazon that suggested this movie is a good test of who's really into the genre. The plot for the movie admittedly requires substantial suspension of disbelief if you're going to swallow it (I mean, really???). However, while I feel an inventive plot can be a plus in the genre, the main reason these movies exist is for the martial arts skills being displayed. So if you watch Chocolate and spend your whole review complaining about the weirdness of the plot or the lack of acting chops or the minimal plot development, then you clearly shouldn't even be watching the movie to begin with.

Of course, the premise means that there's very little of the martial arts spirit to be found in Chocolate. That's a loss, but what we ultimately have here is a very well-made martial arts movie full of off-beat elements that set it apart. For example, to cap off the big fight scene inside the restaurant near the finale, Zen faces off against another 'special needs' martial arts prodigy. As I write this, I am fully aware of how totally ridiculous this sounds, but it worked! I recommend this movie.

On a random note, this is the second movie directed by Prachya Pinkaew that makes prominent use of transsexuals as total bad asses (see The Protector). It's certainly interesting to see transsexuals playing characters like this, especially as the movie presents them as if there is no need to explain their presence. I like that, but I still wonder about their prominent presence. Are drag queens and such just more accepted in Thai culture than in the US? I saw other reviews of the movie where the reviewer didn't object to the violence in the movie, but seemed to be wigged out by the transsexuals. This made me laugh. I mean, don't be a wussy. What's the big deal?

PS: All the reviewers on Amazon are touting the 'making of' extra, so I'm going to watch that right now.

5,000 Hits For Zen Throw Down!

I started this blog at the very end of May 2009, so I'm approaching two years of blogging. 5,000 hits in two years is not going to make earn any records, but I have to say I'm so excited that anyone is reading the blog that having that many people stop by feels great! So here's some Zen Throw Down factoids to celebrate 5,000 visits!

Top 10 Postings

Looks like the Mumonkan postings have really taken off in the last couple months to become the main draw of the blog. This pleases me, because the blog is Zen Throw Down, so I guess the key content ought to be about Zen. Of course, I must also have the Throw Down part take care of too. I hope the Mumonkan postings are interesting or useful to people, as I was a bit leery about posting my koan musings at first.

1. Mumonkan, Koan 12: Zuigan Calls His Master (Feb 2011) - 146 pageviews
2. Concrete Poetry (May 2010) - 138 pageviews
3. Mumonkan, Koan 6: The Buddha Holds Out A Flower (Oct 2010) - 76 pageviews
4. Mumonkan, Koan 12 (continued): Loose Marble (Feb 2011) - 66 pageviews
5. Mumonkan, Koan 10: Seizei Is Utterly Destitute (Jan 2011) - 47 pageviews
6. Delayed Halloween Post (Nov 2010) - 23 pageviews
7. DROID X (Aug 2010) - 21 pageviews
8. Sinus Issues Continue (Jan 2011) - 18 pageviews
9. Beset By Owls! (Nov 2010) - 18 pageviews
10. Ip Man (Dec 2010) - 18 pageviews

Audience

Another thing that encourages me is the diversity of people who end up on the site through search results. This makes me think that there's something of value in my ramblings...at least in so far as the topics are things other people are bothering to do Google searches on!  ; )  Here's where visitors are coming from:
  • United States - 3,314 hits
  • France - 340 hits (I'm half French, so welcome!)
  • United Kingdom - 140 hits
  • Canada - 131 hits
  • Brazil - 97 hits
  • Germany - 71 hits
  • Poland - 42 hits (I'm half Polish, so welcome to my visitors from Polska!)
  • Netherlands - 41 hits
  • China - 34 hits
  • India - 34 hits
 Thanks for visiting, even if it's only to read one post!

Friday, March 11, 2011

My First iBook Experience

As I've noted on this blog, I am a major bibliophile. I purchase old hardcovers that represent lovingly produced editions of my favorite pieces of literature. I love the feel of a good hardcover book, the silk ribbon stitched into the binding, the smell of the book pages when you first open it, and the way it looks sitting on the shelf. Someday, I fantasize about becoming a real book collector (first editions, rare books, etc.).

I have always been wary of iBooks and Kindles, but this has all ended. My company gave every employee an iPad for Christmas. Very nice! And it came loaded with iBooks. I found loads of literature I'm interested in for free: James Fenimore Cooper, Richard Henry Dana, Rafael Sabatini, etc. A lot of this stuff is out of print in any reasonable edition, so to be able to download these obscure literary pieces for free on iBooks is wonderful!

The book I reviewed a few days ago - Working With Koans - is the first book I downloaded and read on iBooks. It was a wonderful experience. iBooks has a bookmark to save your place, a function for highlighting text, another for saving notes in the 'margin' of the text, and the ability to click on any word and get a definition complete with etymology. The text is crisp and easy to read, and the iPad is so light that it's no more cumbersome than a real book...only it can hold dozens of books.

I can definitely see myself migrating to iBooks, although this means that when I purchase actual books it will be the editions that I hope to collect and keep as treasures. So one can be a bibliophile and still drink the iPad/iBooks Kool-Ade. Gotta love technology!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mini-Rant: Wisconsin

The masks have come off and we're getting an unadulterated view of the Obama Era Republican Party. It's a view stripped of cutesy Sarah Palin soundbytes, unadulterated by alluringly simplistic patriotism, and free of the fog of Fox News propaganda.

Having briefly worked in a UAW shop, I've seen the negative impact unions can have when they are out of control. As a result, I'm middle-right in my attitudes about their value to our economy. If Walker and his policies are repulsive to people like me, he is in major trouble.

I'm very heartened to see that Americans are still able to kick ass, and I'm waiting for the recalls to begin.  I hope this marks the beginning of the end for the radical right, and that the real Republican Party can emerge from the wreckage of anti-intellectualism and fear-mongering Bush Republicans have been using to senselessly polarize this country for a decade.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mumonkan, Koan 13: Tokusan Holds His Bowls

One day Tokusan went down toward the dining room, holding his bowls. Seppo met him and asked, "Where are you off to with your bowls? The bell has not rung, and the drum has not sounded." Tokusan turned and went back to his room. Seppo mentioned this to Ganto, who remarked, "Tokusan is renowned, but he does not know the last word." Tokusan heard about this remark and sent his attendant to fetch Ganto. "You do not approve of me?" he asked. Ganto whispered his meaning.

Tokusan said nothing at the time, but the next day he ascended the rostrum, and behold! he was very different from usual! Ganto going towards the front of the hall, clapped his hands and laughed loudly, saying, "Congratulations! Our old man has got holds of the last word! From now on, nobody in this whole country can outdo him!"

My interpretation differs from Sekida's, though I seem somewhat aligned with Mumon's comments. He refers to Tokusan and Ganto as 'puppets on a shelf' who have 'never dreamed' of the last word.

I sensed a thread in this koan relating to responding or being baited. Tokusan is chastised for doing something before 'the bell has rung' or 'the drum has sounded'. After being chastised, Tokusan returns to his room. He is also sensitive to Ganto's criticism, responds to it, and is influenced enough by it so that 'he is very different from usual'. However, the gossipy tone of the characters in the koan does not suggest to me that the criticism is something that should be taken seriously. It's more envious (he's famous, but he's not so great).

Tokusan's reactions to all these stimuli and his subsequent concern about Ganto's approval demonstrate a tendency to be controlled by the actions of others or to be pulled and pushed by the currents of the world. Ganto's final comment sounds like sarcasm to me. Tokusan may have achieved a last word as in 'having the last word', but he is not enlightened in his behavior. He will only be right-minded when he is free of the influences around him. The 'no one can outdo him' seems to be an ironic comment. You can win the battle and lose the war.

The point is that we must avoid being swayed and deluded by the actions and words of others. Only by disciplining our minds so that we are not pushed and pulled by random stimuli can we be in control and be free.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

'Working With Koans' - Albert Low

This short book (42 pages on my iPad) is a concisely written set of insights into how to approach koans. After reading it, I feel it will provide useful assistance and that it would make a great intro too. Plus, there are some wonderfully worded jewels about basic Zen philosophy strewn throughout. Mr. Low apparently runs a center for Zen Studies in Montreal, but I know nothing about him or his center so this post is only my response to his book. Naturally, my positive reaction likely stems in part from the fact that I agree with many of the statements he make in the book. That said, I definitely feel I learned something from his text and that it has helped guide some of my more unformed views.

The book starts out with an excellent explanation about why we need koans. Low provides one of his concise insights in describing the difficulty of using words to transmit Zen knowledge:

"When we use words...truth slips through the cracks. Words freeze experience into solid blocks. We try to fit the locks together with reason and seal them together with logic, but they fit badly, and we cannot help leaving gaps through which the vitality of a situation leaks away."

While trying to write about my work with the Mumonkan on this blog, I have encountered this problem again and again.  Low's wording above perfectly encapsulates the impossibility of effectively communicating Zen wisdom through verbal or written communication and why Zen must be transmitted wordlessly. Low also likens the knowledge we find in koans to striking a gong and listening to the sound that comes from it. Another good metaphor.

Low's text is straightforward and largely devoid of the new age mumbo-jumbo that often soils modern writing about Zen - and meditation, in particular. He rejects the idea that an 'elevated mental state' is needed to reach samadhi or solve koans. In contrast, what we learn from koans - and more broadly from Zen - is what we already possess. 'Ordinary mind is the way'. Amen.  He also points out what I have learned in my work with koans over the last few months: we cannot use koans to 'attain' or to 'progress'. That is not their purpose, and we cultivate the wrong mindset by coming at them this way. Working With Koans additionally offers some loose categories of koans and suggests different ways to think about them, questions to ask of them, ways to move around them.  These are all good tools, and I hope to make use of them as I continue studying the Mumonkan

While Working With Koans is just over 40 pages long, the latter half of the book focuses on Low's interpretation of a couple koans.  I did not find this half of the book very compelling. Either: 1) I'm not adept enough with koans to appreciate his approach, 2) my assessment of his approach as being a bit too distanced from the koan is correct, or - and most likely the correct reason - 3) it's just not possible to read what someone else got out of a koan and have it resonate very much. Based on what I have learned so far, what we get from koans has more to do with what we bring to them and where we are in our Zen studies than in any specific content they inherently possess. As a result, reading someone else's solution to a koan is a bit like gnawing on someone's discarded apple core rather than getting a fresh apple.

At the very least, Working With Koans was a good read because of some of the well-worded concepts Low shares around how koans work and about Zen mindset in general. I think it helped me, and I have a hard time imagining someone interested in this topic who would regret the purchase.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Haiku Thursdays

cold moon through branches
casting shadows on deep snow
silent solitude

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

First Post-Surgery Visit

Yeeeeeeesh! This surgery and recovery does have its little moments. I've been doing pretty well for the last two days, though I still get kind of sleepy from the anesthesia still. 

Today as my first visit with the doctor after the surgery. I thought it was going to be a sinus flush to clean out my cavity. Nope! They deadened my nose up, and then he went up there with this thin metal tool to pull off scabs from the surgery. Urgggh!

It's not that it hurt (well not much), but it was creeping me out! He's sticking this thin metal thing way up my nose and then it feels like he's pushing a needle into the tissue up there. At one point, he pulled out this long, absolutely hideous piece of gelatinous sludge out of my nostril. So gross!

I'm good to fly in about a week. Still need to hold off on weights and martial arts, and I may have a little bit more bleeding. But, hey, life is good because I can blow my nose now. That's sure to be entertaining.  And the doctor assured me that once my swelling is down (a few more weeks on that) that I will definitely have an easier time breathing.

Next post-surgery visit is in two weeks.