Monday, June 27, 2011

27 Miles and Unseen Frogs/Toads

With this 27 mile ride this past weekend, we're up to 81 miles for the season. I wanted to go 30 miles, but luckily Jim vetoed that. By the time we got back to the car, I was starving. It's no fun at all to finish a ride with your stomach growling.  I'll have to start bringing granola bars or something.

Anyway, no animal stories to share this time, although we heard a lot of things along the path. There's a lot of marshes as you go north from Wheaton and, at one point, we heard loads of frogs or toads or something croaking in the reeds. It sounded like a little engines running off-kilter or something.

It reminded me of last year when I road along the path and saw a big, fat bullfrog about the size of a large grapefruit just sitting on the side of the path sunning himself. Frogs or toads appear every so often on the path, but they are shy and quickly hop away. There was one that had really long legs and was bright green. A high leaper, he was gone almost as quickly as I saw him. Still, his coloring was the purest, brightest green you can imagine.

Not sure there'll be a chance for riding this weekend, as we are facing the Fourth of July. Usually there are too many families wandering the path for it to be any fun at all. They just hog the path and when you call out the friendly warning "passing on your left!", they ignore you or step to the left (???) or get all offended.

I prefer the toads.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Mumonkan, Koan 17: Chu the National Teacher Gives Three Calls

Page from the original Mumonkan
The National Teacher called his attendant three times, and three times the attendant responded. The National Teacher said, "I long feared that I was betraying you, but really it was you who were betraying me."

Chu summons his attendant who always responds. There is an element here akin to what was covered in Koan 16, When the Bell Tolls (see entry: http://zenthrowdown.blogspot.com/2011/05/mumonkan-koan-16-when-bell-tolls.html). This is about how we deal with external stimuli.

Chu is wondering whether he is betraying his attendant by summoning him and placing him in the position of responding to a stimuli just like the bell in koan 16. He is revealing his attendant's response to such stimuli. This is poor training for his attendant.

However Chu realizes that, in fact, it is he who is wrong-minded not his attendant. It is he who is initiating the entire stimulus. We also do not know his reasoning for summoning the attendant, but the fact that he has to do it three times suggests a lack of focus or clarity. Why not summon him one time for what is needed? Why summon him at all? Why have an attendant to summon?

In truth, the attendant's responsiveness betrays Chu by revealing his expectation of a response. The attendant's faithfulness encourages Chu in this reliance, and he initiates it over and over. While an attendant could practice everyday Zen in his duties, the person who summons is unlikely to be in the correct mindset. Rather than practicing everyday Zen or sitting in zazen, they are summoning or interacting or needful of the world around them (i.e., wrong-minded).

After I had my solution, I read Mumon's verse and notes and feel like I reacted to this in somewhat the same way he did. His verse here was:

"He carried an iron yoke with no hole
And left a curse to trouble his descendants
If you want to hold up the gates and doors
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet"

A yoke is obviously a form of imprisonment, but a yoke with no hole would be imprisonment not by prison bars, fetters, or a yoke on your neck. Instead, you are imprisoned by a burden you carry (a wrong way of thinking). If you want to attain enlightenment (line 3), do it yourself. Better to be yoked in fact and labor than to carry a pointless burden to no end. The former allows for the possibility right mindedness, the latter can only be delusion.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Adventures in Sushi: Uni

Back towards the end of last year, I acquired my taste for sushi. Since then, I've tried a whole bunch of different stuff. Rolls of all kinds, which are absolutely fantastic. I've also enjoyed seaweed salad, and of course there are the individual pieces of seafood. I've been able to work with the ginger and a tad - a taaaad - of wasabi. The latter really surprises me, because the first time I tried wasabi I thought it smelled like industrial waste and tasted like chemicals.

I've had - and love - tako (octopus), ika (squid), and fish eggs (forget what that's called). I think I've tried eel too, but not sure. My most adventurous sushi experience was uni - a premium sushi always listed at 'market price'. It's sea urchin...you know those spiny purple brown balls that wash up on the beach?

I had it at a team outing, which was good because uni does not look appetizing at all (see the picture). It resembles a hairy, orange tongue.  I'm not sure but - without the peer pressure to eat it after having declared my intention to do so - I might have chickened out. No joke, it was gushy, squishy, and tasted ghastly. But at least I can say I've tried sea urchin.

Perhaps the wasabi sauce would have helped with this particular experience.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

16 miles...and some thoughts on the Urban Stream Research Facility

Jim and I were able to ride today. We did a measly 16 miles, bringing the season total up to 54. Pretty weak.

Our planned route got disrupted twice due to construction closing down paths or making detours that put the path along busy roads. I'm really hoping this is just temporary, as there has already been some shifting of the paths going towards Batavia that now put them along streets as opposed to fields or wooded areas.

About 12-18 months ago, there was some construction started at Blackwell Forest Preserve, and they tore up a section of path and woods to make space for an 'Urban Stream Research Center' (USCR). I was a little irritated that the existing and - apparently unused - parking area was not made the site of construction for this center. Instead they tore up an actual wooded area area to make room for it.

Well, it looks like the building is up. It's a modest sized building, but what I didn't like was the extensive cobblestone driving lanes they have around the facility including a circle drive in front of it with what looks like an intended decorative center and a little retention pond/lake off to the side. Hmmmm. Is all this really necessary, especially considering that there still remains an unused parking lot right there?  I guess I just saw an awful lot of encroachment into the quality of the trails on this trip, and that makes me uneasy about whether responsible decisions are being made about the parks in DuPage County.

The purpose of the USCR - according to the environmental assessment prepared by NOAA - is to "propagate freshwater mussel species to augment the population densities and increase the diversity of native freshwater mussel species and non-game fish species; evaluate the success and impacts of ongoing stream and habitat restoration and remediation in the DuPage River watershed area; improve the success of urban aquatic habitat restoration and enhancement; and provide educational opportunities for the public, conservation groups, and research institutions thereby benefiting fresh water mussel species, other wildlife, habitat areas, and public communities along the West Branch of the DuPage River." Bold is mine.

I'm not seeing how a facility whose construction needlessly reduces the natural environment for showy drives and decorative landscaping is abiding by the 'minimum impact' philosophy that should be central to any project whose alleged aim is to further the environment and/or conduct serious scientific work.  I mean, wouldn't the disruption to the area taint any research they conduct? (Or maybe they're all about the critters in the water and screw the stuff that lives on land?).  I'm not ready to elevate this to a 'mini-rant' entry, write a letter, or call someone to complain because I really know very little about the facility. I downloaded the above referenced NOAA assessment to see what that has to say.

From the little I do know - and from what I have seen - I'm not impressed.

Our Civil Union is Moving Forward

Yikes, I haven't posted in a while! Update: Jim and I have been putting together plans for our civil union ceremony and party. Even with the scaled back approach we're taking there's a lot of planning to do. No wonder the straights plan this stuff out a year in advance.

We finally settled on a date and that we would have a party in the backyard with a brief ceremony to kick things off. Jim and I had some real debates about all this, and I even coined the term Groom Kong to describe us (though it turns out the term is already in Urban Dictionary so I'm not nearly as clever as I thought).

I'm hoping we can make the ceremony really fun, with the 'wedding party' dancing down the aisle or something like that. Then we do the ceremony itself, hopefully with a judge there. And I'm trying to find a poem of some kind to read...preferably one of my own that speaks to our relationship in some way.

We've got the tent and chair rentals taken care of and a caterer to do a pig roast for us. So it should be a great time. The only worry we have is all the rain we've been getting. This crap better clear up before our party!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Haiku Thursdays

Not one of my haiku. This is by one of the great masters (if not the greatest) Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). I picked it because it's a Summer haiku, and it helps usher in Summer in relaxed way.

Skylark
Sings all day,
And day not long enough

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ong-Bak 3

In my prior post I reviewed Ong Bak 2 which, despite its serious drawbacks went on to become Tony Jaa's most successful film yet. To clean up the loose ends left by the disorganized and chaotic production, the studio went ahead and made a third film - Ong Bak 3 - but this movie is no less a hot mess than Ong Bak 2. It's just a different kind of hot mess.

Ong Bak 3 has a clearer story than its predecessor. But instead of just tying up all the loose ends from Ong Bak 2, the third movie adds more subplots! We learn that there's a curse on...all Thailand? The village? Oh, I don't know! There's a curse. The evil king has captured and is slowly torturing Tien (Jaa) to death while uttering the most cliched Jabba the Hutt bad guy laugh ever - literally: hah hah haaah! hah hah haaah!). However, he's also going nuts because - as we learn from yet another flashback - he poisoned his predecessor to get the throne. Then there's that weird crow fighter. He's back and turns out to be some kind of evil spirit (I think?) who wants to take the throne so that he can...um, I have no idea why this crow-spirit-thing exists or what it's really after. Meanwhile, Tien is rescued deus ex machina by royal decree and carted off to his village to slough off his vengeful nature through meditation. It got to the point where I just didn't care! "Please Ong Bak 3!" I screamed. "Pick a plotline, any plotline, and just get on with it!"

Ong Bak 3 is filmed with a much more appealing style, so the feel of the movie is less oppressive that the first sequel/prequel. We even get some beautiful shots of Thailand, as opposed to the muddy, rainy slopheap Ong Bak 2 seemed determined to portray Thailand as. However, this improvement is undermined as Ong Bak 3 takes on a religious subtext that is truly from outer space. Nothing against a religious subtext, but this stuff is nutty with a capital freak and I couldn't figure out what religion this subtext is supposed to reflect. There's tons of Jesus imagery: the 'chosen one' dies a death of crucifixion level violence, is resurrected, and then provides salvation to his people. Jaa even grows a beard and wears white when fighting the evil crow spirit, and he hurls his wooden staff down to put everyone on alert that he's there to free the slaves. Moses and Jesus all wrapped up in one? Yeesh. The whole thing is so heavy handed that it quickly goes over the line (WAY over the line!) and becomes a messianic ego-trip for Jaa.

There's some Buddhist/Zen Buddhist philosophy rattling around in the script like a loose pebble in a rusty bucket, but it seems more like window dressing than anything seriously presented. But the worst aspect of religious theme is the over the top supernatural aspects. For example, the crow spirit summons an eclipse at one point, and at another sends wicked black smoke at a monk (never did figure out that the heck that smoke was all about). Later, Tien summons white lighting after he dispels the eclipse. What religion does all this hocus-pocus bullcrap come from? Wicca maybe? No, I can't even say that because it'd be insulting to Wiccans. Long story short, a religious subtext has to have some kind of consistent morality or philosophy. Otherwise it's just a whole bunch of crazy.

Worst of all - for all the backstory in these two movies - by the end of Ong Bak 3 I still have little understanding of what and why most of the action in the film took place. Why is killing Tien so important to the evil king? Why did he kill Tien's parents? Why did the king's boss allow Tien to live? How did Tien end up captured by the slavers? Why does the one guy become a monk? What does Tien learn that makes him turn around? And, if he learned it, why does he go from monk to monkey and literally bite a hunk out of a guy's neck in the final fight? What caused the 'instant replay/do over'? It's hard to take Ong Bak 3 seriously or become invested in the characters when there's no clue as to what's driving or at stake for any of them.

At the end of watching these two movies (total running time of three hours), I felt like there was definitely a good Tony Jaa flick buried in there somewhere. However, it's lost in a mix-master script of ridiculous and overwrought plots/subplots and a lack of logical flow that would give the story elements coherence. The movie takes itself far too seriously and, while some of the fight scenes are good, others are sub par and the use of wire-fu is truly disappointing. Despite the obvious potential and panache used to film these movies and the evident potential, they fall far short of being enjoyable on just about any level and come off as pretentious, dull, and ridiculous.

Hopefully this is just a slip-up for Jaa, and his next offering will be tighter and more focused. He's too good of a performer to throw in the towel!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ong-Bak 2

Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3 combine to form a single story that is a prequel to Tony Jaa's wonderful Ong Bak. The story told in these movies takes place 600 years earlier than the modern day Ong Bak and, further, the two stories have nothing in common. So if you like Ong Bak you do not have to see installments 2 & 3. That's good because although this pair of movies tell an epic story with great potential, these movies are what is commonly referred to as 'a hot mess'. I'll start with Ong Bak 2 and then review the third movie in tomorrow's post.

Tony Jaa could never be accused of not trying hard enough. His movies are filled to the brim with plot, subplot, characters of all kinds, wicked villains, and exceptional fight scenes. Of course, Jaa's skills as a martial artist are truly amazing and his movies really deliver, so much so that this viewer finds them almost a bit too much! Unfortunately, Ong Bak 2 is too much. It tries to cover too much ground in a single story and ends up delivering well on nothing. There's a complex political backstory, a love story, a coming of age subtext, and lots of fighting. Since none of these pieces of the movie are fully developed, Ong Bak 2 comes off like a victim of multiple personality disorder. All the different plotlines come forward and then vanish, shouting over each other in a confusing train wreck of storytelling.

Part of the reason the movie turned out so badly is that production of Ong Bak 2 - which was really supposed to be a complete film without a sequel - turned into a Francis Ford Coppola-style debacle: out of control cost overruns, power struggles with the studios, and Tony Jaa apparently disappearing in the middle of shooting for two months. This chaos is clearly reflected in the resulting movie: Ong Bak 2 is so confusing with all its flashbacks, time shifting, and patched-up ending that you wind up lost as to what's going on and what the thread of the story is.

Ong Bak 2 is also filmed in a very dark and overly dramatic manner, with self-conscious cinematography, unnecessary slo-mos and cuts, constant surging music, and strange color effects (not sure what the technical term for that is). And - to underline the dire IMPORTANCE of all that is happening - it is raining pretty much non-stop in this movie. Ong Bak 2 spares no expense to look great, but Tony Jaa (playing a nobleman's son named Tien) is another story. He's truly hideous in his rat's nest of long hair and just hard to look at without wincing. There are also scenes where the color and lighting make him look like Michael Jackson. Creepy!

Finally, while Ong Bak 2 has some good fights, several fall flat. This is very surprising for a Jaa film. Slo-mos clearly reveal the weak contact between Jaa and his opponents, undermining the impact of the fights by letting us clearly see that they are - of course - staged for the camera. Elsewhere fast cuts render many of Jaa's moves impossible to follow. Lastly, the film makes use of wire-fu, shocking considering Jaa has always seemed to pride himself on presenting the real deal.

Ong Bak 2 desperately needed its sequel in order to make sense, provide a resolution, or any viewing satisfaction. The third film was an attempt to provide an emergency clean-up effort after this runaway debacle slammed into a brick wall and splattered onto DVD.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Getting 'Civilized'!

The ability for gays and lesbians to have our relationships and families recognized has finally arrived! The first civil unions have been conducted in the state of Illinois! This is a picture of Lakeesha Harris and Janean Watkins, the first couple in Illinois to get 'civilized'!

Jim and I have begun planning our ceremony. It's going to be low key and unpretentious. After all, we've been together nearly 15 years so doing the whole production wedding just doesn't seem necessary. We're planning to have a brief ceremony in the backyard, with friends and family in attendance, and then move right into a fun summer cookout/party!

Picking a date is the first step, and we're thinking sometime in August. That would end up placing it right around our anniversary. I can't wait!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

21 Miles and a Great Plains Rat Snake

We hit the trails again this weekend and did 21 miles. Season total is now up to a 38 miles. Very unimpressive, but it's still very early. Good weather and a nice ride overall.

Just north of the trail head in downtown Wheaton, we came upon a 2.5 long great plains rat snake! I've never seen any snake as big as this one on the paths before. He was huge! He was just lying on the path stretched out and sunning himself. I tried to scare him off the path so he wouldn't get run over or bite an unsuspecting jogger, but he wouldn't budge. He reared up his head like he was getting ready to strike and began wriggling his tail real fast like he was a rattlesnake. From what I've read, when these snakes shake their tails in dry leaves they can create a sound that is very much like a rattlesnake.

Seeing he wouldn't move, we went on. Then Jim reminded me I had my phone (and therefore my camera)! So we scooted back to take a pic but, by then, the snake had had enough of all the humans around and was slithering off into the undergrowth on the side of the trail. Two trips in a row with animal sightings. Looking to be a good cycling season, even if it did get started horribly late.