Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Some nice people came and bought my Ninja 650 this afternoon. They got a good deal, given all the stuff that came with it (aftermarket windscreen and seats plus the originals, plus a Givi luggage box on the back, plus rails to keep the saddlebags off the tires [though it seems the Givi box and the saddlebag rails can't coexist, but that's no longer my problem], a cover). It's hard to let go of the bike itself, and of the desire to get just a bit more money for it; but the economy's down and people aren't paying a lot for extras, and I'm moving to Chile and decided I wanted this part of the prep to be over and done with. Given the lack of response at $4000, and the feedback from the SBR readers I think the most I could have gotten would have been $3500...maybe. And who knows how long that would have taken. So $3000 it is, sold to a very nice mechanic and his wife, replacing the wife's identical bike that she traded up from a year or so ago.


You should go look at There, I Fixed It right now, because it's hilarious.

Friday, December 25, 2009

gift cards = bad

Here's a rant.

I would use different language to make the same points, which are all correct.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I've been called many things, but not that

I met Anna and J at Talbot's today (a local toy store that enables kids playing for an hour or two), and she went off to buy some stuff and left him with me, in front of an absolutely engrossing display of radio-controlled construction equipment you could use to pick up plastic balls and move them around to automated conveyor belts. I was having so much fun I had to remember to pay attention to what he was doing.
Eventually he steps back and surveys the scene and says, "Daddy, this all must be really expensive!".
Wait, what? The kid has a very involved father, and the kid and I actually don't see each other that often. There shouldn't be any mixup here.

I mentioned it to Anna, who said, "Oh, yeah, he calls me 'Daddy' all the time. It just means 'adult who's in charge of me'."

All right, then.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

two-way street

This morning it occurred to me that while I will have my hands full adjusting to the behaviors of a foreign culture, the Chileans will have their own wacky experience, if they only know North Americans through popular culture and the news, and then they get me instead.

I told my friend Bob there probably aren't a lot of geeky Zen aikidoists teaching English in South America, and he said, "By the numbers, there aren't a whole lot living in the United States, either."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

elements of style

On ICB today, JWB was talking about how the furnace repairman had exactly the right part for his ancient furnace, right there in his truck, and my friend Eric said:
10:47 <qq> once I was at henry's hunan and mentioned that my bike had a
broken turn signal stalk, and the owner said "be right back!"
and came back with onion pancakes and the correct replacement
I was just thinking this morning about the language I use in expressing myself, how much I rely on often-subtle cultural references, and how to express my personality in language (either English or Spanish) that Spanish speakers will understand clearly enough.

Reading Eric's line, it suddenly dawned on me that part of what makes my social group interesting and more fun is not just that we have stories like that, but that we tell them with a punchline that highlights what's absurd about the story. This style of speech is a subculture all its own, of Monty Python (e.g. the famous Parrot Sketch), the revolutionary TV cartoon The Simpsons, and writer Douglas Adams, whose tangled humor many of us had to read twice to see what he meant:

After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur's mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shell-shocked fragments the previous day had left him with. He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject's metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject's brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The Nutri-Matic was designed and manufactured by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation whose complaints department now covers all the major landmasses of the first three planets in the Sirius Tau Star system.
See the resemblance?

The things I say don't always make immediate sense to other native English speakers, so it's interesting to think of how I can express my personality in less baroque ways.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

why travel

You'll notice the URL to the blog is dusty-lands.blogspot.com. It's a euphonized reference to a quote from Dogen's Fukanzazengi ("Universal Ceremony/Recommendation for Zazen"):
Although it is said that there are as many minds as there are persons, still they all negotiate the way solely in zazen. Why leave behind the seat that exists in your home and go aimlessly off to the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep you go astray from the way directly before you.
and Genjokoan ("Actualizing the Fundamental Point"):
But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this. Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.
Clear as crystal, yeah? (The two quotes are about different things, so don't strain yourself trying to correlate them. I just think they're cool.)

"The seat that exists in your home" is our fundamental nature: we usually outline it with a litany of things it's not, but it's the unimpeded vision of everything in the universe existing as an infinite set of relationships to everything else. We are all capable of seeing this directly, and beyond that, it's our natural state underneath the mess of mind and personality that we think of as being our selves. It's quite different from the usual Western conception of self: in Christianity, we're born flawed by nature, and we need God and Christ to redeem us from our sins both Original and later. In the Buddhist tradition, we are perfect by nature, and rather than gaining anything, we're working to let go of all the cruft obscuring our awakened nature, like seeing that the Sun always shines, even when the clouds hide it from us. So in that first paragraph, Dogen asks why we're looking for answers outside ourselves, why we're working so hard to acquire or find what we already have, what we can only see by ceasing our striving.

The thing is that Dogen did leave his home behind, traveling to China in search of a "true teacher" (Japanese Buddhism was in one of its declines then), and after a few years of training, he came back as one of humanity's greatest religious thinkers.

I'm off traveling, too. There's a laundry list of good reasons to go teach English to South American schoolkids right at this point in my life, but they all have to do with seeing what I can do and how I'll respond to the difficult and unfamiliar, and I'm pretty sure Dogen would have approved.

Monday, December 14, 2009

thanks to the internet: my shodan video

Missed my shodan test? Here's the videos. If you click on them and go to Youtube proper, you can watch them full-screen. (That might be nicer, because the embedding isn't working with Blogspot's stylesheet.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

things I'll be learning

WorldTeach sent me this really great "Living and Teaching in Chile" booklet they've put together over the years. It's got all kinds of stuff on Chile, the dynamics of WorldTeach's involvement there, the education system, the culture, and tons of excellent and helpful quotes from volunteers throughout, including a number of them that contradict what WorldTeach says (which is on purpose: WorldTeach places a really high value on volunteer feedback).

I'm anticipating a lot of challenges with the language. It's sort of how, if you say "fanny pack" to an Australian, you will not get the desired reaction, because fanny is a synonym there for "vulva".

My favorite so far: Pico means "penis" and gallo is "teenager", so pico de gallo (one variety of Mexican salsa) is probably not what you what at that particular restaurant.

This is typical of the comments about winter:

Okay, no matter how much everyone tells you how cold it is, there's still a little part of you thinking, "I'm going to South America, how cold could it be?" And, I'll tell you--VERY cold. Bring sweaters, long underwear, boots, hats, mittens, and hot water bottles...and, be prepared to still be cold. And, I'm from Minnesota.
This all seems a little confusing until you get to the part about how Chilean buildings have neither central heating nor insulation. On top of that, the culture contains some nigh-medieval ideas about how diseases spread, so at one school site, they left the doors and windows open, "because germs spread much more easily in enclosed spaces".

Also, my intuition was right, and I have a lot of clothes shopping to do before I leave: I need some decent sets of actual professional-looking grown-up clothes, like khakis and stuff. I've been meaning to do that for years, so that's okay, and when I get back it will help me when I go back to work.

We're getting into the home stretch before departure. There's a famous Zen koan called "Proceed On from the Top of the Pole" (Gateless Gate Case 46, if you care):
Sekisō Oshō asked, "How can you proceed on further from the top of a hundred-foot pole?" Another eminent teacher of old said, "You, who sit on the top of a hundred-foot pole, although you have entered the Way you are not yet genuine. Proceed on from the top of the pole, and you will show your whole body in the ten directions."
We spend our lives on top of the hundred-foot pole. We don't always realize it, but every day, we can't control what's happening; every day, consciously or not, moment by moment we are letting go and stepping off our pole, into the unknown, making our decisions and hoping the consequences resemble our intention. Most of the time it's a small step, but sometimes, like with me right now, it's a big one. We never know how things will turn out.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

shodan thoughts

I'm really happy to be able to relax a bit, and let aikido be fun and spontaneous again. Before class tonight I watched some people reading the test cards (the lists of techniques for each test), and was overjoyed to realize I'm not taking another test for a very, very long time...probably about three years, since I'll be gone a year.

I'm coming to terms with the hakama, which in practical terms is decidedly a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it adds a certain weight that helps you to stay centered, and it encourages sliding your feet in mindful ways (so you don't step on it), and it makes awesome swooshy noises and I assume it looks cool when I fall, because everyone else's does.

On the other hand, I have to remember it and tie it and fold it properly, and the attention I'm giving to not stepping on the hakama is attention I'm not giving to, say, people punching me. This appears to happen to more experienced aikidoka as well, and no one really talks about it; but I'm adjusting, and that's how things are.

It's strange, and odd, and nice, to feel like a full adult member of the community. I don't know that it's intentional, but as a mudansha (non-black belt, completely unranked in the central Aikikai view), there's a sense that everyone is looking forward to you joining the yudansha ranks; some people invest energy and interest in helping you along, and others just sort of hang out and wait for you to get there. I think it could also be that everyone is really, really happy for me, because they like me, which I'm still not used to. But someday.

I helped out with the kids' class on Monday, and in the dressing room one kid noticed the hakama and new belt, so there was a conversation.

"So do you congratulate now?"

"Congratulate? You mean graduate?"


"There's not really any graduation. It never ends."

"So you can stop whenever you want?"


"But you're not going to stop, are you."

"Nope. I do it because I love it and it's fun and it's important to me, and it helps me help other people."

"You should quit and become a master."


"Yeah, you should quit and get a job as a master and teach the kids' class here."

[There are so many things wrong with that idea that I don't know where to start.]

"Well, teachers who don't practice aren't very good teachers."

My brother asked me what I do now, which sort of confused me...there's nothing else to do, except keep training.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


In May I decided to apply to teach English in Chile for most of 2010. I got laid off in June, about six months earlier than I'd planned to stop working. I've been reading an endless stream of books, tutoring kids at the library, cooking, shopping at farmer's markets, fixing my motorcycle so I can sell it, getting to know my girlfriend (no, she's staying here), and most recently, getting my aikido black belt.

Every now and again, I pop my head up from the mix of what I'm doing, and I think: "Oh yeah. At some point I'm spending nine months teaching English to kids in a foreign country. Forgot about that."

My life is inevitably full of stories, and I want to both document them and share with them as they happen. This way, hopefully, I won't forget them, and I won't have to dump them on everybody all at once when I get back.