Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Long And Fond Memory

I don't usually talk about people in my writings, but today i'm going to do just that. Why? Because while updating the Picture Of The Month on the Shikoku Henro web site, i was reminded of two days spent on the henro trail with him in 2008, and couldn't stop chuckling.

When i went back to Shikoku in 2005, Tom sent an email suggesting that we walk together for a few days. I agreed, we did, and we continued that tradition each year i went back after that through the end of my 2nd henro in 2008.

In that last year, my plans were to start by walking to Temple 65 (Sankakuji), then visiting Bangai Temples 13 (Senryūji) and 14 (Jōfukuji), and then heading on to Temple 66 (Unpenji) and points beyond. Tom was going to meet me at Bangai Temple 14 on the afternoon of my first day.

I was at Sankakuji early in the morning. To get to Senryūji from there, you can either go around the mountain on long, quiet, winding roads, or, take the trail up and over the peak and drop down into the temple compound right on the other side. In 1999 i chose the first option; this year i planned to take the trail.

While getting my nōkyōchō stamped, i asked the woman doing the stamping where the trail head was and she told me to go back down the stairs in front of the sanmon and turn to the right. I thanked her and was heading for the door when it dawned on me that doing that put me back on the main road, not the trail head. When i stopped and asked her if she was sure, and explained again what i was looking for, she told me the trail was unusable and that i had to use the road.

Now, i have found that henro have to be careful when asking directions — and take everything they hear with a grain of salt. Sometimes the advice may be true, and sometimes it isn't. In this case, i doubted her advice but she was insistent that the trail was certainly impassable because it had been raining and the footing would be treacherous. I won't say that we argued, per se, but we 'discussed' the issue for about 5 minutes with her telling me no and me telling her i couldn't believe it. Luckily for me, at that point a man walked in and she said we should ask him because he walked that trail all the time. I asked. He said 'Sure you can walk it. Just watch your step.' I thanked him and set out.

While visiting the Hondō and Daishidō at Senryūji, the priest was entertaining a visitor in the small attached sitting room. When i finished my business, i went and stood at the nōkyōjo to get my stamps so that i could then move on. Even though the nōkyōjo is only about 6 feet from where the priest was sitting, he completely ignored me. They continued to chat and sip tea while i stood there, trying to look nonchalant and in no hurry by picking up each and every item for sale on the counter and inspecting it from top to bottom and front and back.

After finishing looking at all of the trinkets, and still being ignored, i started on the left side of the counter and began looking at them all again. Was this a test of wills to see who was going to give in first? Was i going to ask him to come over? Or, was he going to just get up and come over on his own?

We'll never know, because after about 15 minutes, the phone ran. For this, the priest jumped up and ran over to the counter to answer it. I was shocked when, after a minute of back and forth with the person on the other end of the line, he handed the phone to me and i found Tom on the line. Here i am, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and the phone is for me!

Tom was at Jōfukuji already and was trying to figure out where i was and when i would get there. In the end, we agreed that i would leave then and would start walking to Jōfukuji and he would leave there and start walking towards Senryūji, and we would meet somewhere in the middle. With that, i got my stamp and set out.

After only a half hour, i step off the road to let a truck pass, when all of the sudden the truck stops, and there is Tom. He said that while making the phone call from the nōkyōjo at Jōfukuji, a farmer who also happened to be there offered to give him a ride. It was raining that day and he couldn't work out in the fields so he had decided to drive around to a few of the local temples instead.

I wrote this about the rest of the day in my journal after that trip in 2008.

We walked together to Bangai 14, i did my thing, we took a break, and then headed off to find Minshuku Okada, at the base of the trail up to Unpenji (Temple 66). My plan was was to spend the night at Minshuku Okada, walk to Bangai 15 (Hashikuraji) and back to Okada on Tuesday, and then climb up to Unpenji on Wednesday. Somewhere between Bangai 14 and Okada, Tom lost his mind and mine, not wanting to be left alone, followed his.

Tom pointed out to me that back in '99, when i walked this part of the trail, i had done the exact same thing as i was planning to do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Why not, he threw out glibly, do something different this time? Why not leave early Tuesday morning, go to Bangai 15, and then cut diagonally straight over to Unpenji on the same day. Then drop down the back side of the mountain and there is a minshuku right there for us to stay at. I think i told him he was nuts, but don't remember anymore, before he convinced me to get out the maps. After going over those for a while, we went back and forth for a while with him saying we could do it and me saying it looked like a long walk.

In the end, i couldn't say he was wrong because the numbers did seem to add up to a doable walk. Long, but doable. So, i threw in the towel and simply told him "Shindara, komaru, yo," or, "If i die i'll really be upset, but OK, i'm game." With that we found our way to Okada for the night.

Later in the journal, i continued the story the next morning with an entry i called "Attempted Murder on Unpenji Mountain,"

I smelled trouble first thing in the morning when, as soon as we came out for breakfast, the owner told us that there was no way we could get to Bangai 15, up to Unpenji, and then down the back side to our lodging in one day. He didn't say "I've thought about it again..." or "You know, it's really pretty far...," just you can't do it.

Tom and i basically ignored this comment and told him that we would be able to do it, even if it was hard. I probably said something like 'it will be good training.' So, with that, shortly after breakfast we were out the door to take some pictures with the owner, and then off down the road.

It was a beautiful spring day with clear sunny skies and chilly, but warming, temperatures. The walk to Bangai 15 (Hashikuraji) was completely uneventful. We never really hurried but chose to walk at a nice pace and chat the whole way. About 2/3 of the way there, an elderly grandmother (maybe great grandmother) stopped us and wanted to talk. Really she wanted to give us settai and kept talking about tea, which we accepted, but told her we couldn't stay long, if that was OK. She seemed really puzzled, until it sank in what we were saying, and then let us know that she wasn't offering us tea, she wanted to give us ¥1,000 so that we could buy tea somewhere down the road when we wanted a break. We accepted it, thanked her many times, and headed out for the last section to Bangai 15.

We arrived at the base of the mountain around 11:30 and decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant before making the climb up to the top since we both knew that there was nothing up there to eat. We were lucky we made this choice as you'll see later on. We had udon at a restaurant right across the street from the cable car station and relaxed until sometime after 12:00. I used to think that ordering udon was simple — you choose from a half dozen choices on the menu, place your order, then sit back and wait for it to arrive. Not in Kagawa-ken, the home of world famous Kagawa Udon. I think Tom talked to the waitress for about 15 minuted before he figured out just what it was they were offering on their menu. I stayed out of it because if Tom was confused, with my Japanese i would have no chance of understanding.

The menu was on a board on the wall, and it probably listed 2 or 3 dozen different types of udon, and none of them were just "regular udon" like you would get in a normal restaurant. There were different sauces, different styles, different this, different that, and on and on. Then, there were a few glass cabinets with all the shrimp, eggplant, lotus root, etc. that had been deep fried and you bought separately to put in the udon that you did finally agree to buy. So, after about fifteen minutes, Tom had chosen, and i simply said, 'the same thing,' when they looked at me.

With that adventure under our belts, we climbed to the top to pay our respects at Hashikuraji. Knowing by this time that we were fighting time, when we got there i did nothing but get my book stamped. We then took a break for a while while making plans and looking at the maps to see how to get from where we were over to Unpenji. Luckily, we didn't have to go back down the way we came because the map showed a shortcut dropping down the side of the mountain heading in the way we wanted to go. After our break, we found that shortcut and headed down the mountain.

The walk down the back side was fairly easy as we walked on what appeared to be a service road the whole way. The only problem was, at one point we had to choose a turn to the left or the right, and about a half hour after choosing the right, we got to a dead end in someone's driveway and were told that we should have chosen the left. By the time we backtracked (it really was beautiful scenery the whole way, however) and got back on the road we had lost one precious hour, and we didn't have that many to lose with our schedule.

Once we got back to the bottom of the mountain, and to where we now had to recommence the climb back up towards Unpenji, we wondered about our possibilities. It was obviously now going to be late when we did arrive, so should we reevaluate our plans? I suggested considering finding somewhere to stay in this area and making the climb tomorrow morning. Tom didn't like that idea, and since i didn't really either, i agreed. We could walk until it got too dark and then find a cab, then the next morning take a cab back to where it had picked us up and start walking again? Possible, we guessed, but didn't know how we might find a cab. In the end, we just decided to start walking and see where we get.

It was an amazingly beautiful walk that afternoon. It was warm, sunny, we were in the mountains, we walked on small back roads with no traffic and where the very few people we did meet walked in the middle of the road like we did. Everything was perfect. We found one fruit & vegetable stand on the side of the road where we could take a break, but other than that, we passed no stores, no restaurants, no convenience stores, no nothing. We were in the boonies and it was getting late. But, we continued plodding onwards and upwards.

Somewhere after one of our breaks, it was obvious we would be late, so Tom called the minshuku and broke the news to them. He said we'd be there around 6:00. They said fine, and we continued walking. As we got closer still, he called them again and told them that it looked more like 7:00 than 6:00. They said fine and we continued walking. By the time we got to the top and were getting ready to enter Unpenji, we got to see a very beautiful sunset. As we walked under the trees and into the temple, it went dark, dark, dark.

We got to Unpenji at about 7:00 and it was pitch black in the compound. Everything was closed and there wasn't a light to be seen anywhere. When we stopped what appeared to be the last worker heading home for the night and asked him were the trail head was to head down to our lodging, he told us we couldn't walk it in the dark. Impossible. Tom assured him he had a flashlight, and the guy begrudgingly told him where we had to go before hopping back in his truck and driving off.

With that, Tom called the minshuku once more and told them we'd be there at 8:00. They said no way, it would be 9:00, but we didn't believe them and they didn't argue. The map showed a simple 4km down the mountain and it was downhill all the way, so we knew they were wrong. Tom did have two flashlights, but the bulb was broken in one of them, and the batteries weren't fully charged in the other. Just in case we needed it, he had the brilliant idea of taking a picture of the light in the top of a phone booth with his digital camera. When he looked at the picture on the camera's preview screen after that, he had a screen of solid white, which, when held out in front of him, did illuminate the trail a little. That gave us a back up plan in case the batteries in his only flashlight didn't hold up.

And with that, we headed out into the dark to find the trail down the mountain towards our minshuku. It was a beautifully serene night, quiet, calm, and isolated, but i certainly wondered what we were getting into as we headed out.

So were does attempted murder fit into this story? You have to remember what i had been doing for two days now. By the time i got to this stage of the walk back in '99, i had about 6 weeks of work under my belt and was in very good shape. This year i was coming straight from my couch in Chicago, unfortunately. When i started my walk on Monday, i immediately began with a climb up to 500 m (1,650 ft) for Temple 65. From there it was a further climb up to 780 m (2,575 ft) at the top of the pass before dropping back down to Bangai 13 at 230 m (760 ft). Then from there i climbed back up to 400 m (1,320 ft) before dropping back down to Bangai 14 and then down to about 240 m (790 ft) for the long walk to Okadaya on Monday night, and then on to Bangai 15 on Tuesday. After getting to the base of Bangai 15, it was a climb up to 500 m (1,650 ft) to the Hondo before dropping back down to 240 m (790 ft) so that we could begin the long slow climb up to Unpenji at 900 m (2,970 ft). For a flat lander on untrained legs, that is a lot of climbing in 2 days.

Given that, by the time we got to the top of Unpenji, i was almost dead, and i wondered if i was going to kill my legs before i found somewhere to sit down for any extended period of time. My legs were exhausted and getting them to move was pure misery and hard work. The further we walked, the slower i got. While walking on flat ground was no problem, each step down was agonizing, and given that we were on a trail going down the back side of Unpenji Mountain, we were taking a lot of steps down. It took everything in me to keep up with Tom as he lead us down the trail, and i had to stop every 10 minutes, or so, for a short break. My quads were like spaghetti, after being boiled for 45 minutes.

Since we only had one flashlight, Tom carried that with him as he lead the way. I followed about 1 m (3 ft) behind him, just close enough that i could see the trail in the little light there was. Let me tell you, though, that when we occasionally saw the lights in the valley below through the trees, it was stunning. If we had had more light, or at least some moonlight above, it would have been a beautiful night for a walk.

Through the first 2km (1 mi) we still thought we would be down in an hour. But, it had been raining so there were may stretches of muddy trail that we couldn't see but had to walk through, and there were section with lots of rocks. In addition, the second half was much steeper than the top so it was more like walking down step by step, rather than a trail. Unfortunately that meant that the minshuku owner's had been right and it would be 9:00 before we got off the mountain.

A little before 9:00, the owner of the minshuku called Tom and asked were we were. When Tom told him, he said we were almost there. Then the flashlight gave out. We were on a semi-flat section of the trail by this time so we walked in the dark for a while, but when the walking started to get tricky again, Tom got out his digital camera. Then, miraculously, we saw lights ahead. The owner of the minshuku had pulled his jeep up onto the bottom of the trail so that the headlights were shining directly up the trail for the last few minutes of the walk. Needless to say, that made the walking much, much easier.

When we got down, the owner, being a henro himself, said he would give us a ride to the minshuku if we wanted, but would understand if we said we wanted to walk it. We opted for the latter, but then found out that that meant that he was going to follow behind and next to us to light the way with his jeep. This guy was just too nice.

To make a long story short, when we got there just after 9:00, the wife asked us to be quiet because everyone else had already gone to bed. But, they still had the bath hot for us, still fed us a full meal, just like all the other guests, and still sat around and chatted with us — all as if we had arrived at 4:00 like most henro do. I can not recommend Minshuku Aozora highly enough. They are wonderful peole, friendly, outgoing, helpful, considerate, and henro through and through. If you can adjust your schedule, stay at Minshuku Aozora.

By the time it was over, we had walked about 45 km (27 mi) and 14½ hours this day. While it had been an unbelievably long and hard day, after a bath, dinner, and a cold beer, it felt good to have completed it. In hindsight, it had been an adventure, even though it had been a mini-nightmare while we were walking it. Hindsight is a marvelous filter, so this day will go in the memory banks as one of those to remember for the rest of my life. The day it felt like i was going to kill myself on Unpenji Mountain.

Two wonderful days on the henro trail with a friend, the memories of which will stay with me forever. To give you another idea of the type of person Tom is ... he's a dentist in Tōkyō and i wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that he had suggested to one of his clients that they try to fill the client's cavity with Tom laying in the chair and the client standing up; just to see if it could be done.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Deirdre Blomfield-Brown

I'd bet that only a very few people who read this will know who this person is, but i have to tell you that i absolutely love this picture of her. It appears in the November issue of the Shambhala Sun magazine.

It's hard for me to explain why i like it so much, but the short and long of it is i know who Deirdre has become in the 40+ years since that picture was taken. No, i've never met her, but like millions and millions of people around the world, have followed her through her books and CDs.

In this picture i see a young, very attractive woman. Married, intelligent (she has a bachelors and masters degree), outgoing, playful, happy, and with a look in her eyes that says she could be, in her mischievous moments, even a bit flirtatious. I see someone who, at one point in her life might have thought she had life by the tail. In this picture she looks like the girl next door, like the woman making copies at the copy machine at the end of the hall, like the woman standing in front of you at the check out counter in the grocery store, with one kid tugging on her sleeve and the other slung over a hip. She just looks like one of us.

But, according to her bio, her life fell apart. After picking up the pieces and putting it back together again, ... it fell apart again.

This time, rather than following the same patterns and rebuilding yet another life with the same drawings and plans, which apparently weren't working anyway, she decided to look inside and see what wasn't working with herself. To see what was broken in here, instead of out there.

Over the course of the years since that time, Deirdre has become Pema Chodron, one of the most loved and highly respected Buddhist teachers in the world — and, if anything, i am under-exaggerating here.

Like Kūkai a millennium before her, she chose the hard road over the easy, continue life as everyone expects you to, continue to live a "don't rock the boat and you may not sink," "don't open the outhouse door and you won't notice the smell," "just smile a lot and pretend and all will be well" kind of life. And, like Kūkai, she found that the hard road actually awakened her to a better way of life.

Aurobindo, in his Essays On The Gita talks about the "acceptance of the necessity in Nature for such vehement crises." Not the 'possible occurance,' but the 'necessity.' Pema says, in her wonderful book When Things Fall Apart, "We can use a difficult situation to encourage ourselves to take a leap, to step out into that ambiguity. This teaching applies to even the most horrendous situations life can dish out. ... That is why it can be said that whatever occurs can be regarded as the path and that all things, not just some things, are workable. This teaching is a fearless proclamation of what's possible for ordinary people like you and me."

Shunryu Suzuki, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, also tells us, "Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure." And the person who could be my favorite contemporary teacher, Daido Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery, says in one of his talks, "She called [silence] an evasion of truth. In a sense we can say that silence is just one side of the duality of speech and silence. So, how could silence be the entry of the nondual gate? What does non-dual mean, anyway? Is nondual the opposite of dual? That is just another duality. How do we transcend all dualities?"

The way forward isn't silently accepting that life isn't working as is. The way forward isn't to bury our heads in the sand and hope that the good-luck fairies will make everything OK. The way forward isn't to try and sweep every crisis under the rug and hope someone else will come by to clean it up later.

The way forward is to run right up to that gate leading out of our worries and troubles, plant our nose right in the middle of the gate so that we are forced to deal with its existence, and then work very, very hard to see that there really is no gate there at all — we are free to walk through whenever we want; and that process begins when we start with Daido's question, "How do we transcend all dualities?"

And this is why i love the picture so much. Sitting here in Lockport, in that one picture i can see the beginning of the path and the path after it has been walked from here to the horizon, and that gives me hope that if i keep pushing until my nose is raw, maybe someday i can see what Pema has seen.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Another Day At The Offfice

It was another slow day at the "office."

A view of the office.

After looking for 21 miles, i finally ran across this fine dining establishment with great waterside seating where i could eat lunch.

And this is a view of the office building in general.

A good 45 mile day on the bike.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Who's Sitting On Your Zafu?

When I sit, it's a waste of time. When i sit, no waste, no time. Here, see for yourselves:

Teaching Of Zen, Shodo Harada Roshi In America:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Don't Argue, Just Read It

Another sign that i'm apparently supposed to make the time to read "Essays On The Gita" sooner rather than later...

The first sign might have been when i first mentioned that i was thinking about reading it. Immediately after posting that thought, i received comments telling me that i had to, with one commenter even pointing to electronic copies of most of Aurobindo's works. And, given the source of those comments, they were pretty persuasive.

I could have read the pdf version; i could have even read it on my Sony Reader. But, for reasons i can't explain, for me, some books just have to be read in the paper version — so you can touch the words with your hands as your eyes take them in. To that effect, i ordered a used copy of the book on Amazon Sunday night. We all know that it always takes several weeks before these books arrive, so i ordered it now in order to take with me if i do the Grand Illinois Trail ride in just over three weeks. My plan was to spend a few hours with the book each night after riding (plus possibly a few paragraphs sprinkled here and there throughout the day to give me something to ponder while peddling along).

This morning i found an email in my inbox from the book seller. They shipped the book this morning (only 12 hours after the order) and sent it via UPS Ground. I should have it within three days. Apparently the book is in a hurry to get here.

It's hard to argue with necessity.

So, i'll start reading when i get the book this Thursday, and look for why Gandhi said,

"The central teaching of the Gita is detachment — abandonment of the fruit of action. And there would be no room for this abandonment if one were to prefer another's duty to one's own. Therefore one's own duty is said to be better than another's. It is the spirit in which duty is done that matters, and its unattached performance is its own reward.

and why Aurobindo said,

The central interest of the Gita's philosophy and Yoga is its attempt, the idea with which it sets out, continues and closes, to reconcile and even effect a kind of unity between the inner spiritual truth in its most absolute and integral realization and the outer actualities of man’s life and action.

In this hand, detachment and abandonment. In the other, reconciliation and unity. The hands seem separate, but when willingly held together in gassho, realizations can appear.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gourmet Restaurant & Exquisite Food

A restaurant i highly recommend

Rode my bike to Channahon today, had lunch, and rode back home after that to avoid the approaching rain.

While in Channahon, i ate at a gourmet restaurant (above) and sampled some of the local delicacies. Apparently because of the time of day i showed up, i was the only person there so was able to get a seat overlooking the park & gardens. A magnificent view.

As for the food, i started with some delicious beurre de cacahuètes and some savory gelée de fruits spread between two morcels of whole wheat pain, a slice of fromage, and several bottles of water; all followed by a succulent pomme rouge fresh from the garden (section of my local grocery store).

A very good ride, a very good lunch, and a very good day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

GIT Preview

To get an idea of what the Grand Illinois Trail (GIT) trail is going to be like, barring bad weather i'm going to ride my bike from home to Channahon on Sunday. Since the section of the trail heading west from Joliet is the I&M Canal Trail, it is almost certainly the same as the section of the I&M Canal Trail right here across the street from my house, but, by going i kill three birds with one ride: i verify that i'm right, i find the streets i need to pass through in Joliet to get from the north side of town to the trail head on the southwest side, and i get a good ride in for the day.

The trail itself is supposed to be crushed limestone and follow the old canal towpath, which is exactly what it is here between Lockport and Joliet. It's about 8 miles from my house to the trail head, and then 9 more miles to Channahon for an easy round trip total of 34 miles.

Ahhhh... it feels good to be thinking of long bike rides again — i haven't done any since leaving California and going to Africa way back in 1985.

Unspoken Hazard Of Running

It's a little known, and oft unspoken, hazard of running. It's not cheap.

Yes, everyone you talk to says it's basically free — all you need is a pair of shoes, a pair of shorts, and a shirt (and the shirt is technically optional). Occasionally people will mention the money required for energy bars and gels and the energy drinks. What few mention is the increase in the cost of your basic groceries.

My grocery budget used to be $150/month. Over the past 6 months, though, i have watched three things happen: 1) my weekly/monthly running mileage has increased, 2) my weight stabilized at 171 pounds and hasn't budged, and 3) my grocery bill has sky-rocketed.

I was looking at my spending for groceries this morning after paying some bills. What i noticed was:
March: $143
April: $159
May: $162
June: $163
July: $216
August: $244

I have been wondering about this increase all summer. Given my budget, if this is a permanent increase i need to look at the overall budget picture as i add hiking and bicycling back to my life. But, why is it going up? My diet hasn't changed. I haven't "upgraded" to better, more expensive foods. I haven't gone "organic." I only allow myself luxuries like pizza and beer once a month. I buy some of my groceries at Wal-Mart now because some of their prices are less than Jewel's. So why are my expenditures going up so much?

This morning, i was also wondering why, given the mileage that i run and that i ride my bicycle almost every day of the week, using it for all of my errands except when i refill my 3-gallon water bottles, did my weight stabilize at 171 over two months ago and won't drop further?

Then the correlation hit me.
Increased running mileage + Increased bike mileage = Increased appetite
Increased appetite + Eating to the same level of contentment = Increased grocery bills.

If i were to overlay a graph of my monthly running miles on top of a graph of my monthly grocery bill, the two would look exactly the same. I know for you people who are smart this was a no-brainer and obvious, but i'm surprised at the amount of increase.

What got me thinking about it was some reading i've been doing lately. is the web site of a couple that have been bicycling around the world for the past 7 years. They say that as they were making concerted efforts to save money prior to setting out, they were living on 25% of their incomes and saving the rest. The wife was a geologist and the husband a teacher and i don't think either of those occupations are on the high end of the pay scale. They also estimated that they would need $41/day to live on once they started touring.

I'm sure that their 25% was more than my current 100%, but i wonder what they did to cut down on expenses? Where did they save? That led me to once again look at my budget and see where i could cut corners, or at least shave them a little rounder. Because every penny i shave somewhere else can be shifted to letting me go hiking one weekend a month or pay for a trip around the Grand Illinois Trail on my bike.

But first, i need to look at all those groceries i have been buying .....

Monday, September 14, 2009

Taking A Nap For Fitness

There are many days when i wonder if i didn't peak in my training for the marathon in mid-August and am now going backwards. Today was one of the days that show how wrong that is and help keep me focused and on track.

Yesterday morning i still didn't feel 100%, but i knew i had to run so around 9:30 i was out the door to make up the 10 miler that i skipped on Saturday. Much to my surprise, it was a very good run (9:20 pace) and there is little doubt that i could have run it even faster if i had lungs that didn't hurt a little with each breath. Maybe "hurt" isn't the right word, but "bother me" surely is accurate.

After getting home i knew that if i stayed there i would just lay on the floor and read, claiming illness as a reason to do nothing. So, after having an early lunch, and drinking about 45 oz. of water and Gatorade, i loaded a couple of apples, a Cliff Bar, and three bottles of water on my bike, and headed out to a park in Homer Glen on South Bell Road. That's 8 miles from home, and after that, riding around the park, and a long, circuitous route back home i found that i had ridden a total of 20 miles for the day. Not to mention the nice nap on a picnic bench at the park. Is there anything better than a snack, something to drink, and then a nap outdoors????

Because of the unexpected and unplanned bike ride yesterday, i was sort of expecting today's 10 miler to be pretty hard, but found that it wasn't. I admit that i intentionally ran it at a slow 9:45 pace but the perceived effort that i logged for the run was no more than usual. That was good news. If tomorrows 9 miler is as easy, i think i'll be feeling much better about my fitness level as the race approaches.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Good Day For Books

The morning didn't start off all that well. When i got up i had a sore throat, black sunken eyes, and still felt exhausted, so instead of running my 10 miler i ate breakfast and went back to bed. After waking up an hour and a half later, i felt more rested, but still not all that alive so i'll have to run 10 miles tomorrow morning pretty much no matter how i feel. It's much too close to the marathon to slack off now.

But, just to prove the fact that how you feel is predominantly determined by how you think you feel, the day improved dramatically in early afternoon when i got an email from the library telling me that my copy of Bicycling Coast to Coast: A Complete Route Guide Virginia to Oregon had come in. This definitely put me in a better frame of mind, so even though i'm wearing jeans and a light flannel shirt in 80° weather, without even thinking about it i hopped on my bike and rode down to pick it up. While there, i sat and read the introductory sections at the front of the book and was completely lost in heavenly dreams. I'm slightly worried that the library is going to make me pay for it now because i drooled all over a good many of the pages.

While there, i looked in the catalog to see if there was a book on the Grand Illinois Trail that they could get for me as well, but didn't see anything listed. When i got home, i googled it, and was surprised to see that there is a guidebook specifically about the trail (The Complete Grand Illinois Trail Guidebook: The Midwest's Biggest Outdoor Adventure) and that the Barnes & Noble bookstore here in Joliet had a copy on the shelf. I traded the bike for the car and immediately ran over to buy it.

So here i sit, early in the evening, with two books in front of me, both screaming for attention and both shouting "Me first. Me first. I'm better than he is. You'll regret it." Whichever i choose, though, having both of them has certainly played havoc with the queue of books i had already lined up to work on. Something is now going to have to give.

I thought i could make a decision on where to begin by looking at how the books start, but that just added to the confusion.

The GIT book starts out with:
"There is a joy to being on the trail. You can see it in people's eyes. It is a combination of fresh air and friends, a mix of exercise and relaxation.

"It makes you happy."

Oh, how so very, very true that is. Short, to the point, but unquestionably on the mark; being 'on the trail' just makes you happy, it's that plain and simple, and you can see these experiences in people's eyes.

The cross-country book starts with:
"Stretching from the historic town of Yorktown, Virginia, to the awesome beauty of Oregon's coast, the original TransAmerica Bicycle Trail embraces ten states, a potpourri of small American towns, and a multitude of landscapes.

"Spanning more than 4,100 miles, the route snakes through the ruggedly step hills of Virginia, embraces the rural countryside of Kentucky, roller coasters through the Missouri Ozarks, and bisects the nearly flat plains of Kansas. From there, it greets the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin country of Colorado, follows the path of the pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, and explores the depths of Big Sky Montana. The route continues into Idaho, where it parallels one river after another before emerging into Oregon, where mountain climbs are common and the scenery is both beautiful and intense.

"Heading west like the pioneers, you too can fulfill your dreams of completing a cross-country journey, but without the hardships endured by the immigrants who followed the Oregon Trail. And like those pioneers, you can look forward to the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, to moonlike scenes atop McKenzie Pass in Oregon's Cascade Mountains, and to that thrilling moment when you reach the Pacific Ocean."

(See, didn't i tell you? If you drooled on your monitor and keyboard while reading that, don't blame me.)

"Awesome beauty." "Beautiful and intense." "Grandeur." "Moonlike scenes." "Thrilling." Unless you are brain dead, those words have to cut right to your heart.

So, Mr. Decision Maker, what are you going to do? Dream of 500 miles tonight? Or, dream of 4,100 miles?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Three Intertwined Threads

I was sitting on the front porch this morning drinking a cup of tea and wondering about traveling. I love to travel, love to see, and get lost in, unfamiliar places, love to experience cultures that are different from those here in the US, love to try foods i'm not familiar with, love trying to communicate with people who speak a language i don't speak. I love the uncertainty that comes with being out of your element. I love the ambiguity that is part and parcel of being the foreigner.

The easiest way to sum all that up is to say that i am fascinated with experiencing the unknown. I thrive on being in a position where i know very little about where i am and what is expected of me, and then trying to figure out how to get by in those conditions, how to survive, how to interact, and how to learn about where i am.

These thoughts then led me to wonder why, although i have traveled worldwide, and hope to continue those experiences, when i think about where i would really like to go next, i almost always find myself thinking about Nepal or Shikoku. It's been like this for decades.

That's bizarre. What is the attraction of these two locations? What is it about them that exerts an unseen, yet unrelenting pull on my heart? If someone were to ask me where, in all the world, i felt the most at home, the most comfortable, the most at peace, i could answer in the blink of an eye — Shikoku and Nepal.

So this morning i tried to connect those two threads: the unrelenting passion for, and pull of, the unknown, and an inherent sense of peace in Nepal and Shikoku. The connection seems, obviously, to be the spirituality of both places.

That lead to the next observation: I have been traveling since i was young, but didn't care about such things back then. So when did this spiritual pull start affecting my life. Which took me back to '73 or '74 when i first picked up the Tao Te Ching (i think that's what it was), which led to Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki's introductions to Buddhism, which led to where i am today.

But why did that first book, well over 30 years ago, grab me by the throat and refuse to let go the very first time i read it? Why, as i was reading it, did my brain immediately say "Ah, you're home. Where have you been?"

And when i got to these memories, i remembered an email i sent to a friend several years ago explaining that i can pinpoint exactly when all of this started for me. In that email, i explained:


"For a few short years back when i was in either late Junior High School or early High School, i started having these ... something ... not dreams and not wakeful events ... but 'experiences' while asleep. I would find myself in front of this vast, seemingly infinite maze of twisting and turning passages. Actually i couldn't see inside the passages, i could only see this massive structure that was obviously maze-like. And, i knew, KNEW, without a doubt that i was looking at my brain. Or, more accurately, A brain. Can't tell you how i knew that, but i was certain.

"I can still very vividly remember standing in front of this maze and knowing that if i went too far in i might never get back out, but also knowing that i had to go in. I can close my eyes right now and picture it and feel the trepidation. But, each time, in i did go. Inside, i would have this feeling of ... infinite consciousness? Infinity? I don't know how to describe it — there just aren't words that don't limit it. The attraction was overpowering and i always went in. Every time. I remember always being slightly nervous and yet anxious to get in. And, as i said, always a little worried that i might go too far and not get back out. Funny, but i have no idea how i got in. One moment i was outside looking in, and the next i was either inside, or, maybe more appropriate, we had merged. (Sounds goofy, i know. That's why
i never talk about it.)

"But, i always did get back out — obviously. :-) Don't know how i knew when to turn around or how i knew the way back out, but i always knew without having to consciously articulate it. Don't even know if 'turn around' is the correct way to look at it. I have no memories of actually following a path, or going anywhere. I was just 'in.' I still to this day, almost 35 years later, wonder about it. Those feelings of infinity (for lack of a better word) will just not go away. And i have always wondered what i did or saw on the inside. Those memories don't exist.

"In the end, they only lasted a few years and then went away. I can get part way there sometimes in meditation, but never, never, even 10% of the way. And even that is rare. Now that i'm older, i wish i could replicate the experiences. Now maybe you see my attraction to a monastery? ;-)

Oh well....... so much for memory lane."

Sure enough, as bizarre as it sounds even to me, i can still, in 2009, visualize, even as i'm typing this (the memories are so strong), lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling, and then seeing the wide opening to 'the maze,' and feel that sense of "Do i dare? Should i go in again?" And, still feel with every pore in my body the thrill i had when i said yes, knowing full well that if i screw up i'll never get back out. But, accepting that sometimes the rewards far outweigh the dangers, even if you can't see them as you take the first steps.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Running From Boredom

It's very hard to believe, but the marathon is quickly approaching. After this week, i only have four weeks of training left. Of that, i'll only actually train for two weeks and then taper for two weeks in the hope that my legs are fresh on the 11th of October.

Unless i change my mind, i'll run 50 miles each of the next two weeks, then 20 easy miles the third week, and finally 10 miles just to keep the legs loose the week leading up to the marathon.

What is going through my mind now, though, isn't so much the race — that is already pretty much trained for — but what do i do when it is over? What do i do to keep myself busy during the day after the need to train is over?

Of course this could change, but right now i'm planning to head out on my bicycle after a week off my feet. I think i'm going to ride the "Grand Illinois Trail," a ride on trails and roads from Chicago, west to the Mississippi, north to the Wisconsin/Illinois border, east to the lake, and then back south to Chicago.

I found information on the League of Illinois Bicyclists (LIB) website. (A little more detailed map is here.) Apparently it is around 535 miles, with 300 of those on packed limestone trails (or similar) and 200 on back country roads.

Since the trail passes through Joliet, i'll start and end there. According to the LIB web site, it is divided into nine sections. But the Maywood --> Chicago and the Chicago --> Joliet sections only total up to 79 miles, so i may combine those into one day simply to avoid having to find somewhere to overnight in Chicago. That means 8 days in the saddle.

Then what?? I'm really toying with the idea of flying to Virginia next April and then doing the TransAmerica ride from there to Oregon. It takes just short of 80 days and passes through some of the most beautiful country in the US.

The problem is trying to justify that in my budget, or, more accurately, trying to figure out where in my budget that kind of money is going to come from. Airfare from IL to VA, 80 days on the road, airfare from OR to IL, new tent, sleeping bag, two extra panniers for the front of my bike, bike tools, maps, and the list probably goes on and on.

Hmmmmm....... more musings from an incredibly bored person....

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lights In The Dark

Clear moments are so short.
There is much more darkness. More
ocean than terra firma. More
shadow than form.

Adam Zagajewski

When Adam Zagajewski wrote this poem, i'm not sure if he was writing specifically about his life or, being a poet, about life in general. What i do know, though, is that he could have been writing specifically about mine.

It's almost not even a poem at all — it much too short and really nothing but a statement of fact. But what is there packs a mighty punch.

Most of us go through our days blindly deceiving ourselves into thinking that all is well; that as long as the paychecks keep coming in, as long as the mortgage is being paid, as long as our car is at least as nice as those owned by all our neighbors, as long as the career ladder is still pointed upwards, ... then life is going well.

Yet, every now and then, someone blinks, and realizes that something isn't right. And it appears that this is what happened with Zagajewski — much as it happened to Kūkai a little over 1,200 years ago. Suddenly, something clicked, the last tumbler dropped into place, and the lock that kept reality out of view sprung open.

Once it does, life is never the same; it's very, very difficult to go back to the way you were. Unfortunately, the first views aren't of how wonderful everything can be, but how messed up everything has been up to this point. This is what Zagajewski saw, and is pointing out to the rest of us.

Clarity, at first, comes in spurts and last that ever briefest of moments. Why? Because of all those thoughts that cycle endlessly around and around and around and around through our minds. Those thoughts of anger, hatred, jealousy, pride, shame, doubt, desire, etc. that cloud our lives and keep us in the dark.

This means there is much more darkness than there is clarity and light. This means you live a life in Plato's cave interacting with shadows instead of real form. This means you live a life floundering in a sea of worries and anxieties, at the mercy of every wave of thought that breaks over your head, instead of crawling onto firm ground where you can stand up and see the path home.

But, darkness does not mean a lack of light, it means a lack of willingness on our part to see the light that is there. Our unwillingness to open the door and let that light into our life. Our unwillingness to look for that door even though it is hidden in plain, unobstructed view, right before our eyes — just between any two of the thoughts that rush by unopposed.

Being in the cave of shadows doesn't mean that you have to be trapped. You can turn around and notice the light, and the real forms that cast those shadows you have taken for reality for years.

Being afloat and buffeted by wave after wave doesn't mean you can't get your head above the water even if it means you can't get your feet on the ground. All you have to do is stop the struggle, and look for the calm between the waves. Ride out the wave, don't waste your energy, and then in the calm between, head for safety, one stroke at a time.

Then, as you get closer to shore there will be a point where you can finally get your feet on the ground, and at that point it is up to you to walk to safety, to walk to that door between your thoughts, and to take your first tentative step through. And when you do, you'll notice that it has never been dark, the shadows have never been real, your feet could have always touched the ground — if you had only taken the time and made the effort to open your eyes.

Zagajewski is right in pointing out that where we are isn't as idyllic as we think it is, but he doesn't go far enough and tell us where we could be if we had the guts to look. I might finish his poem like this:

Clear moments are so short.
There is much more darkness. More
ocean than terra firma. More
shadow than form.

But in those brief moments,
there is a life eternal. More
immense than infinity. Clearer
than certainty. Brighter than
all the suns in all the galaxies
of all the universes.
There is no door, but
you can walk through.
With just one step.

(OK, now back to the man who walked away from dinner. I had an idea about it this morning between waking up and getting up, but......)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

And Sri Aurobindo Says.... "Strike Two!"

I spent the afternoon reading parts of Autobiography Of A Yogi, the autobiography of Paramhansa Yogananda. In one of the footnotes, Yogananda mentions that in his opinion Sri Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita is the best translation and commentary on the Bhagavat Gita.

When someone puts their reputation on the line (especially if that someone has the reputation of Yogananda. Think world's tallest building for a comparison.) and says in print that one particular book is the best in its class, how could anyone not run home and start reading? There may be two or three people in southern North Carolina who could hold back, but for the vast majority of people, it's not possible, i'm certain of that. So, after getting back home, and then leaving again, and then getting back home a second time, and then crying for a few minutes about the mp3 player, i found and opened Essays on the Gita.

603 pages! That's what i found. Where, o where, am i going to fit 603 pages into my schedule? I'm not sure how good anyone's math is, but 603 is a LOT more than 100 pages, which you can reasonably squeeze into any schedule.

So, here's the dilemma: Anything by Sri Aurobindo will make you a better person. Any understanding of the Gita, no matter how minute, will make you a better person. Having just finished reading The Gita According To Ghandi last weekend, this is the perfect time to tackle the Essays — no, to take the time to savor them, to baste each page with my eyes, letting the wisdom slowly sink in.

But six hundred and three pages.....

(Wail. Woe. Weeping. Lamenting.)

Lessons In Impermanance Where the Rubber Meets The Road

Got home this afternoon from running some errands and found, horror of horrors, that my mp3 player was no longer in my pocket. Arrrgggghhhhhh.....

So, there was nothing to do except get back on my bicycle and retrace the 6 miles i had ridden all around town. Could i be lucky enough that it had fallen out of the pocket on one of the more rural stretches of the road so that it wouldn't have been seen and picked up by someone else?

Low and behold, there it was — in the gravel on the side of the road out where no one, or hardly anyone, would have been walking. This is a good sign.

It had obviously been run over, but it appeared to have been only once. The back had a couple of dents in it, but the front, and in particular the screen, didn't have one single scratch. Not one. Oh, how lucky could i be???? I guess immediately apologizing under my breath after unleashing 3 or 4 dozen four letter words (many starting with an 'F') at a guy that had tried to run me off the road, and telling him what i thought of him and his mother... well, i guess the apology had erased all that bad karma. Apparently.

And the news is good. The player still works. All of the songs are still there, playable, and i can see them in Windows Media Player! Yippee!!

Then again, while the screen doesn't have a scratch on it, that doesn't mean i can see anything on it. Nope, the screen is dead. Kaput. I guess it found it too traumatic to watch a 2 ton vehicle approach and run it over, knowing all the while that there was nothing it could do. Apparently it had rolled over to get face down in order to protect itself, but..... I think it couldn't handle that shock and has withdrawn inside.

The questions now is, can i memorize the exact sequence of all the podcasts and audiobooks on it (there's no music) and therefore be able to navigate in the blind and still be able to use it? I mean, this is a good thing isn't it?

I frequently find myself unsure of what i really want to listen to so flip from one book to another, never really settling down and listening to one complete book all in one go. Because of the hassle i'll now experience in navigating, that nasty habit will probably stop. Right? So this is a good thing. I'll be more disciplined. Right?

Ahhhh, another lesson in impermanence and letting go.