March 14, 2007

Time to talk about my bike

No self-serving philosophical ramblings today, sorry. Just some self-serving rambling about cycling.

According to my 2006 log at, by this time last year I had already been out for one ride. I'm not necessarily a "serious" rider (my bike log also shows that I only got in a bit more than 1,000 miles last year), but I am seriously passionate about my bike. It's not an expensive one (2006 Specialized Tri-Cross Sport) and though I've customized the components a tad, it's not been with anything top-of-the-line. The bike is, as I recently described it on a cycling forum, my partner in exploration and adventure. I'm not the greatest rider (again, my BikeJournal log attests to this), but I'm hooked on the endorphin-high I get from pedaling.

Last year, thanks to a winter that began more mildly than it ended, I rode until mid-December. By that time, it finally started to get too cold and I was beginning to miss getting out in the woods for hiking, so I figured I'd stable the pony until winter ended. As things turned out, I didn't do much hiking, either. I think I wrote back in January or so that I was spending time in tea and coffee shops instead, going through an "introspective, analytic period". Who the heck was I kidding? I've just been a freaking lazy bum ths winter. I was doing pretty well until Christmas, managing to keep a regular routine of indoor exercise going after the riding stopped. Then the holidays hit. Then we had inventory at work in January, which turned out to be stressful enough to cause a muscle spasm in my right trapezius muscle (where the shoulder meets the base of the neck). The spasm led me to finding a great chiropractor (Dr. Joe. I'll have to write about him some time. He likes to ride motorcycles fast ), but also made it difficult to exercise for several weeks. No raising my arms above my shoulders, no lifting weights, no supporting my own weight on my arms. Translated: No Yoga, no Pilates, no weight lifting. If I were creative, I could certainly have figured out an asana routine or calisthenic exercises to work around those limitations. Instead I allowed myself to get caught up in Spike TV's 5-night-a-week double episodes of CSI and descended into full sloth mode.

And just as the shoulder was getting back to normal at the beginning of this month, I got sick (see last week's scatological post). I was so sick that the doctor advised me not to fly to Florida for a business trip/family visit. He literally said "If you subject yourself to the cabin pressure in a plane while you have gastroenteritis, it could cause your colon to expand and rupture and there is a chance you could die." I chose to take his advice. At this point my stomach's back to normal, but the mild dizzy spells are sticking with me. And, on top of that, the east coast was slapped with one last snow storm, just two days after we had 75° and sunny skies. The day it was 75° was my first day back at work from being sick and I walked around the store whining that "If only I weren't sick, I could be out riding my bike!" My boss was quick to remind me that if I weren't sick then I'd have been in Florida on the business trip that he paid for. What he doesn't understand, though, is that if I were well and in Florida, I'd still be walking around whining "If only I were at home, I could be out riding my bike!"

I broke out of the sloth slump for a short hike today through the snow at Yankauer Nature Preserve, which is located near the town of Scrabble, WV, about 15 minutes from Shep'town. Nice little nature preserve with an overlook along a cliff over the Potomac, across the river from the Big Slackwater area of the C&O Canal. When I've ridden my bike along the C&O towpath up to Big Slackwater in the summer, the parking lot has always been packed. It was strange to see it baldly empty on such a gorgeously sunny day. Gazing across the river at the towpath, I couldn't help but think "If only it were warmer, I could be out riding my bike!"

A new MySpace "friend" who's also into biking has inspired me to try again to read some Ralph Waldo Emerson. Good choice for this time of year. This coming Wednesday, March 21, is the vernal equinox and the first day of spring. Here are a few appropriate words from Ralph:

"In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, --he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me."

Yeah, I'll save you the trouble...


Notwithstanding; in spite of.

March 11, 2007

Unwholesome states of stomach and mind

Warning: This post will include a somewhat graphic discussion of my bodily discharge. If you're not into scatological humor, you won't want to read beyond a certain point.
I recently wrote on anger and how ineffectively I handle my own. As I said in that post, I know of methods, mostly Buddhist, to deal with negative emotions, but I don't yet have the discipline to catch myself before those emotions get blown out of proportion (notice the hopeful quality of the word "yet" in that sentence). I've tried once or twice to begin a sitting meditation practice, but I can't seem to commit to it. Instead, I read Buddhist writings and hope that the teachings will sink in that way. So, in the latest issue of Tricycle magazine (Winter 2006), I found an article titled "Changing Your Mind: Six steps for transforming unwholesome mind states." I've read about unwholesome mind states before. I understand how they work, and that they are, ultimately, delusions constructed by our own grasping and aversion. When I'm able to stop myself and think before I react, I'm able to shake loose those delusions. What I need is to find that space between stimulus and habitual response.

Anyway, the article made me think of one of the women I work with. This particular person is someone I click with, with whom I have a similar background and some vaguely similar interests. We talk at length about situations at work and how to deal with them. I've loaned her the Dalai Lama's Ethics for the New Millenium and we've discussed human interaction from the Buddhist perspective. We trade rants over things that piss us off. In addition to the occasional rant, though, she has a tendency to feed the things that annoy her, looking for examples and not letting go of things. When I rant to her, I usually catch myself at some point and comment that I'm being unskillful and need to let go of the situation. Her response is, invariably, that it's ok, that we need to rant instead of letting things build up inside. As much for my own benefit as hers, I usually reply by explaining the difference between ranting as a form of release, and just plain letting go. I think I need to suggest that she read this article from Tricycle. I'm going to quote at length (bolding is mine for emphasis):

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni made a big deal of the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome states of mind. Most religious and philosophical traditions probably share this point of view to some extent, but the Buddha was unique in offering a detailed way of understanding how and why the mind manifests as it does in any given moment. There are patterns of cause and effect that can be seen in experience and traced over time to explain the dynamics at work shaping each moment of consciousness. The word for this is karma, and it does not mean "fate."

Moreover, the Buddha offered a simple and universal method for transforming mind stated from unwholesome to wholesome. This is important because, as the very first verse of the Dhammapada says, we become what we think. Every thought, emotion, intention, attitude, and aspiration shapes how ensuing experience will unfold. This means that every single moment of consciousness is a moment of practice, whether we like it or not. We are practicing to become ourselves. The critical question, really, is just how much we want to participate in the process.

As I understand his teachings, the Buddha was expounding what we might call a post-Copernican revolution. The world really does revolve around us, insofar as our mind is the instrument for the local construction of meaning. Left unattended, the mind will tend to organize around greed, hatred, and delusion, and will create unwholesome states that "obstruct wisdom and lead away from awakening" (Majjhima Nikaya 19). The solution to the problem, at least according to the earliest strata of Buddhist tradition, is to learn the healthy skill of transforming such mind states.

The author of the article, Andrew Olendzki, then goes on to outline the six steps of transformation as laid out in the Anumana Sutta. Again, these steps are concepts I've read about before, and that I attempt (poorly) to practice. But the points Mr. Olendzki makes leading up to them sum up very well what I've been trying to get across to my work compatriot. What we choose to think, what we choose to brood over, shapes the state of our mind. As the cliché goes, attitude is everything, and our thoughts are what create our attitude. So when I get annoyed repeatedly over those silly, uncaring salespeople downstairs who can't process their sales transactions correctly, leaving me stuck fixing their mistakes, I need to be very careful to not let those thoughts coalesce into an attitude towards those salespeople. Unfortunately, it's too late. I've spent the past several months brooding and building up seriously unwholesome thoughts towards our sales staff. Yes, I do believe that they take us, the administrative staff, for granted. But that doesn't mean I have to respond with seething resentment that spills out and poisons the attitudes of everyone else in the office. And, according to Mr. Olendzki, ranting about it with my office mates is how that poison is spread: "Accepting what is unwholesome out of attachment, or acting it out in an attempt to purge it, will just strengthen that quality of mind… Abandoning involves seeing it for what it is, recognizing the conditions that contribute to clinging to it, and gently releasing one's hold on the unwholesome quality, one moment at a time." Seems easy, huh? I need to tape that onto the wall over my desk. And then, of course, I'd need to read it, too...

So, now we come to the scatological portion of today's musings. Fun word, isn't it? Scatological. I love it when big words are used to describe something incredibly mundane, even gross. So, anyway, if you're easily grossed out, stop reading right now and hope that I don't make a habit of this.

I'm not sure why I feel the need to talk about this, except that, as with everything else, I've tried to find a lesson in it. I got sick last week. Dizzy spells, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. No fever, though, so I wasn't sure what was going on. When it got to the point that I was having trouble walking across the room, I called the doctor. They said it sounded as if I was dehydrated and they recommended a trip to the ER for intravenous fluids. So, as there was no way I was gonna drive in that state, I called a cab and went. The diagnosis ended up being gastroenteritis, which is what contributed to the severe dehydration. I'm still partially on a fluid diet (broth, Jell-O, etc), though I am cheating a bit. I want solid food, dammit. I'm not going to regain strength on broth alone, no matter how my gut rebels. The really fun part of this, though, has been that my doctor wants stool samples so he can determine whether the condition is viral or bacterial.

You haven't truly lived until you've had to collect your own stool samples. They don't do it at the lab. No, the lab gives you however many little vials the doctor has requested, partially filled with various liquid chemicals. You then get to go home and poop into a clean, dry container. Using the teeny-tiny little scoop included with the vial, you then must fill the vial to a certain level with your poop, stir it a bit, then (tightly!) close the lid and shake to mix your poop with the liquid chemical. It's a perverse little science experiment that would have your average 7-year-old howling with laughter. I kept feeling like I was in one of T00l's early videos, except that my bathroom is too brightly lit to have the right atmosphere. And I feel sorry for the poor lab tech who has to analyze my concoction.

And the lesson? Well, scooping your own poop is a great way to shed delusions. It's humbling, and the absurdity of it really helps to put other things into perspective. And the next time I'm accused of thinking my shit don't stink, I can reply, "Well, as a matter of fact, I happen to know very well that my shit stinks somethin' awful!"

Time to go have tea.


March 4, 2007

Tea and impermanence

My Sunday’s have become fairly predictable this winter. To break the routine, I took the bold step of ordering a tea at Sharazade’s that I’ve never tried before: Smokey Russian Caravan, a blend of China black and Lapsang Souchong teas. When the pot was set in front of me, I poured a cup and let it sit to cool a bit while I waited for my food. Just before my fritatta was served, I became aware of an unusual odor and wondered if they were burning a pig in the kitchen (nothing on the menu would indicate this as a possibility, though). Then I picked up my cup and took a few sips of the tea. The taste was a fairly typical tea flavor, mellow and smooth but with, as the name suggests, a definite smoky element. And then I realized it… The smoky odor I had noticed was coming from my tea. I sat there trying to think of it as the smoky aroma of burning wood, but just kept coming back to that first impression of burning pig flesh, kind of sweet & smoky at the same time. It made for a very weird tea experience, to munch on an English muffin with jam and a sage-sausage fritatta, while occasionally getting whiffs of that perfectly acceptable-tasting tea that smelled vaguely of a charnel ground. Was it perhaps highly appropriate to be drinking and smelling this tea while reading a Buddhist magazine? Didn’t Siddharta Gautama, on his way to Buddha-hood, practice with monks who, inspired by the Hindu god Shiva, meditated in charnel grounds in order to fully grasp the concept of impermanence? Don’t Hindu monks still smear their bodies with cremation ashes as a reminder of the impermanence of all things? (And yes, I realize that I’m blurring the lines between Buddhism and Hinduism. For me, interest in the latter led to studying the former, so they’re inextricably linked in my mind.) I don’t know that I could ever acquire enough of a taste for Smoky Russian Caravan to make it a regular part of my tea repertoire, but it might be a good one to drink every now and again as an alternative to smearing my body with cremation ashes in a charnel ground…

Noticed an ad in the magazine for a book titled The Cosmos in a Carrot: A Zen Guide to Eating Well. The pairing of the words "carrot" and "eating" caused me to grin, seeing as how I’d just the other day been listening to T00l’s "Disgustipated":

And the angel of the lord came unto me, snatching me up from my place of slumber. And took me on high, and higher still until we moved to the spaces betwixt the air itself. And he brought me into a vast farmland of our own Midwest. And as we descended, cries of impending doom rose from the soil. One thousand, nay a million voices full of fear. And terror possessed me then. And I begged, "Angel of the Lord, what are these tortured screams?" And the angel said unto me, "These are the cries of the carrots, the cries of the carrots! You see, Reverend Maynard, tomorrow is harvest day and to them it is the holocaust." And I sprang from my slumber drenched in sweat like the tears of one million terrified brothers and roared, "Hear me now, I have seen the light! They have a consciousness, they have a life, they have a soul! Damn you! Let the rabbits wear glasses! Save our brothers!" Can I get an amen? Can I get a hallelujah? Thank you, Jesus.

You really have to hear the perfect mid-western preacher twang with which Maynard delivers these lines to get the full impact of "Disgustipated." The above is followed by a minute or so of Maynard chanting "This is necessary… Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on…", etc, etc.

I’ve decided that I want a t-shirt that reads "Let the rabbits wear glasses!!"

After breakfast, I headed back across the Potomac River for a hike around The Cornfield at Antietam National Battlefield Park. I’ve been coming to this battlefield for years. Surrounding the town of Sharpsburg, MD, it’s a beautiful area of rolling hills between South Mountain and the Potomac River. The driving tour is excellent for bicycling and the hiking trails, while short and easy, make for some great meandering. This history of the place is not nearly so pleasant. The battle of Antietam began at dawn of September 17th, 1862, north of Miller’s cornfield. Over the course of the morning, 15,000 Federal soldiers converged on the cornfield. As they filed through the 6 or so foot tall stalks, they met the Confederate army, approximately 9,200 men, on the other side. Within four hours, roughly 10,000 of all those men were no longer standing. Union General Joseph Hooker later wrote in his official report, "In the time I am writing, every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before." There were two more phases to the fighting at Antietam that day in other areas of the battlefield. By the end of the day, more than 23,000 men had died as a result of the battle. The official website for the battlefield puts it in perspective:

Not only was this the first major Civil War engagement on Northern soil, it was also the bloodiest single day battle in American history.
To view the magnitude of the losses, consider that Antietam resulted in nine times as many Americans killed or wounded (23,000 soldiers) as took place on June 6, 1944--D-day, the so-called "longest day" of World War II. Also consider that more soldiers were killed and wounded at the Battle of Antietam than the deaths of all Americans in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, and Spanish-American War combined.

And that’s not even taking into account the toll this battle took on the citizens of Sharpsburg. Apparently, before, during and after the battle, there were almost 1,000 soldiers in the area per each resident of the town. The day after the battle, Lee’s troops packed up and headed back across the Potomac into Virginia. McClellan’s troops, though, remained in and around the town for two months, in order to "rest the army’s horses", as McClellan put it in a communication to President Lincoln. First, the battle ravages and destroys the majority of the farms in the area, then the town and local homes become a great big field hospital, then 80,000 soldiers take over for two months. It had to be a harrowing experience that left many citizens in ruin and poverty.

I followed up my hike by heading back to Shep’town. I had noticed as I was heading to Sharazade’s that the local movie theater (and we’re talking a real theater here, not any behemoth multi-plex) was showing Pan’s Labyrinth, a movie that I’d been hearing a lot about. If you have the chance to see this film while it’s still in theaters (or multi-plexes, if that’s all you’ve got access to), do so. It’s engrossing and beautiful and gory and disturbing and moving, and it deserves to be seen on a big screen. I’ll probably end up buying the dvd anyway, though, when it comes out, ‘cause it’ll still be good on a small screen. And it was a fitting way to end the afternoon, considering it was yet another exploration of impermanence (though the ending really goes both ways, with impermanence contrasted to everlasting life…).

And now it’s time to once again celebrate impermanence, by ending this post.

March 1, 2007

I'm jealous of Maynard

As part of the MJK kick I've been on lately, I recently sat and read the entire journal section at the website for his winery, Caduceus. Every page left me more and more wistful and envious. First of all, the website itself is freaking gorgeous. Second, (and I really hate to sound so teeny-bopperish) if I didn't have the impression that he'd totally drive me 'round the bend, I could probably really fall for a guy like MJK. His sense of humor, his thoughtfulness (as in, he thinks), his talent, the way he expresses himself... But, as is always the case when one pines after a celebrity, all of that is mere daydream. All I know of the guy, as he himself puts it in "Hooker With a Penis", is what he's sold me. So, any impression I do have of him is probably 90% projection.

What really got to me in reading the journal at Caduceus, though, is how fucking lucky he is to have found not just one passion in life (his music), but two. The way he describes working in the vineyard and developing his wines left me misty-eyed. Working the land, learning the patterns of the weather, watching the vines grow and the grapes mature... It just sounds so pure. He's found something rare in life, something many of us can only dream of because we don't have the opportunity, or the resources, or the balls to obtain it. Or, because we still just plain don't know what it is.

And the joy he seems to derive from life is evident in every word of that journal. The dude's had his share of pain in life (fans who've heard the story behind APC's "Judith" and T00l's "10,000 Days" have a vague idea of what his family's apparently been through), but he sounds like a little kid describing his experiences of the past few years. I especially got a kick out of the 12/20/06 entry (which he also posted at his MySpace Puscifer blog). It's so easy to assume that rock stars are rich, spoiled and blase', but Maynard's excitement over visiting the Great Pyramids of Egypt is touchingly refreshing.

MJK, man, if you ever read this... GIVE ME A JOB PICKING GRAPES!!!!