Wednesday, August 31, 2005

It's the large things too... incredibly fucking noisy election trucks...

...or an absolute lack of irony. In Japan, one of the main delivery companies is called Pelican. This morning, a woman came into my genkan, shouting out, "It's Pelican." Me: "You're no pelican, you're a human being."

(Chirp................... Chirp........................ Chirp..............................)

On the nighttable: A large fucking gun. (Oh, how I wish)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Shared blood spills easiest

Most of the trips I've taken in Asia were based around some sort of spiritual retreat or training. On the other hand, trips to UK, Europe or the States have been "couch tours," moving from one friend to another in search of unadulterated fun.

Imagine my surprise at this past journey having changed me more than any other before. I didn't spent most of my time in uncomfortable postures. I wasn't lacking food or sleep or a comfortable shelter. I wasn't expected to refrain from anything. No, this time, I spent the majority of my time with family. I suppose the reason for my reaction is because family can be the source of love and joy. But in their blasting through our pretenses, reminding us of how well they truly know us, they can also cause a lot of pain in making us aware of how convincingly we can lie to ourselves. It is in this vunerable state that most of the spiritual work is done. (Hardly an original idea of course. Hats off to Mr. Tolstoy.) It's when we are completely raw, when things are reduced to the point where a person is staring directly into their own heart, that we are most human, using our unique mixture of instinct and reason to make sense of the mess. This makes us much more open to new ideas. Here we grow.

When we haven't seen family of friends in awhile, they serve as a barometer for how much we've changed. Their reaction to this change can further serve as a major paradigm shift. But at the time it feels like being in a car skidding on ice.

I'm a different person than the man I was in June. My world is not the same. But I walk it with open eyes and fresh shoes.

On the turntable: "James Brown's Funky People"
On the nighttable: Daniel Mason, "The Piano Tuner"

Monday, August 29, 2005

It's the small things, really...

Ah the joys of returning to Japan after along time away. All those minor annoyances suddenly glaringly magnified...

Unintentional though ignorant racist comments coming from the uninvited saleman at my door

Line of black trucks a convoy of hate

Grease spot on the train window indicating where a salaryman fell asleep

People closing curtains on the bus, blocking out all the beautiful scenery. Like riding in a fuzzy tube. Is this a metaphor for tatemae, or sakoku?

Most depressing is the first time you go food shopping after a lengthly time away. Freedom of choice expressed as twenty types of meat spaghetti sauce. Today, as I was leaving the super, an old guy was staring. I looked away, then back. Still staring. A third time I looked. Still staring. Not only that, but he'd done a complete 180 degree pan with his eyes, as I'd rounded the corner where he was sitting. Welcome back to the countryside, Ted. I think next time I'll wink

On the turntable: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, "Drinking in the Blues"

Friday, August 26, 2005

EC 05

OK, I've calmed down enough to actually write about the event.

(Long pause)

Or maybe not. This is what I feel when I attend something like this, be it a smokin' music festival, longtime immersion in the wild, or some kind of more traditional spiritual training. When you're living a moment fully, there's no room to write, since the observer's role requires distance.

EC was like that. The memories come almost as a laundry list. Arrived just in time to jump into an organized drum circle, with cicada accompanyment. Grabbed a quick bite at the flea market, then climbed up to the castle ruins for the gig. Kodo on fire as usual. Took a bus over to the campsite and set up in the dark. Three days of travel had worn me out, but somehow once again, I beat jet lag.

Saturday morning, woke early for a swim, getting out only after receiving five jellyfish stings. Caught some Fringe stuff at the shrine--Miyake daiko, hula, etc. Stayed out of the sun under cover of the tarp at the Kyoto Journal booth. Besides working the festival, I did double duty as PR for the magazine. Hung out with Ben and Jacob, two amazing guys from Antioch who are spending the summer in Kyoto as interns. It was great fun, rapping with people, or taking solitary walks around to other booths, talking to J-hippies. As is usual with that crew, it was a very mellow, relatively drug-and alcohol-free, asexual scene. In the West, you'd find tripping couples copulating in puddles of technicolor vomit. But not here.

Carlos Nunez's set was wicked mix of Celtic, Spanish and Arabic flavors, though somewhat strangely paced, with a few fast numbers followed by the occasional mellow one. Kodo joined them for part of it. I danced the second half, spinning to the jigs in my unique faux-Riverdance style, stomping my feet to the drums. At the end, the clothes I'd bought earlier in the day were drenched. Wandered the flea market area, but the mellow music brought me down. I caught a bus to the campsite. Some young English girl followed me around awhile, but I wasn't interested and ditched her when I went to my tent to get instruments. My drum had been in the hot tent all day causing the head to stretch and go out of tune. So I took the shakuhachi instead. Unlike the cohesion of the night before, the scene on the beach was segregated into three gaijin groups and only one Japanese, but the latter was the only one playing music so it was there I settled. Not for long. The music didn't really build into anything, and no one was talking, merely pounding their drums or spinning around in an annoyingly narcissitic fashion, looking cool. Hipposers. I went off to bed.

Early the next morning I had to work at the EC shop. Perched behind the CD section, I quickly grew busy, dealing with customers and their money. The cumulative fatigue of the past few days was beginning to hit as I tried to make change. I remembered an old SNL skit where Chevy Chase, as Gerald Ford, is asked an economic question at a press conference. He responds, "I was assured that there would be no math." At lunch, I hung at the KJ booth again, then took part in a Miyake Taiko workshop, squatting in a horse stance, rocking back and forth until my calves screamed, pounding sideways, the sticks stained with the blood pouring from my broken blisters. Pure heaven. Cooled down by taking a swim with Jacob, jumping off spiky volcanic rocks as rain began to fall.

That night's gig was Kodo and Carlos playing together, me dancing and jumping, and yelling out "Yeah!" like a marionette with Tourettes. Watching supurb musicians at the height of their talents is almost religious. With all that dancing, I no longer have an ass to speak of. Afterward, I hung again at the flea market, watching the fire dancers do their exotic thing, balls of flame spinning dangerously close to flowing skirts. Then, I was crammed into the luggage space of a car-load of J-hippies. Despite the yogic contortions, I played my flute as fare.

Awoke soaked. Throughout the night, rain had dripped thru the tent onto my back. I guessed I haven't seam-sealed this puppy in awhile. All the clothes in my pack were damp, but the electronics were unscathed somehow. While I broke camp, the sky opened (naturally), so I stripped down and finished the job in my underwear. Of course, once finished, the sun came out. Spent the morning cleaning up the flea market area. Kodo came down to play for the boat departing at 10:20. As they hit their final note it was echoed by thunder, and then rain came down in biblical proportions. It was a quick storm but everyone was drenched, including the group and a team of documentary filmmakers who lost a camera. A tent from the flea market made a break for freedom, rising and spinning into the air, before it lost momentum and fell into the harbor. (I talked to the owners later who said that losing the tent was a shame, but they were happy to make a home for the fish. Ah, the understanding of hippies.) As I cleaned up, I said farewell to many new friends. One 10 year old followed me around, so I played Tom Sawyer and "let" him help out. And he didn't even get a staff T-shirt.

That afternoon I helped break down the shop. Since I was the biggest guy there, I was of course expected to move all the really heavy stuff, the victim of horrible size-ism. (Hey! You in the back! Keep your smutty thoughts to yourself.) Kodo member and friend Shin-chan gave me a lift in the official Kodo tour truck up to Kodo Village. There was going to be a BBQ for the band and staff. I was a little early and felt guilty for sitting around while the band members prepped food for us. They'd played their asses off for us and here they were cooking for us. Amazing spirit. So I helped Ei-chan built the BBQ pit, both of us cracking jokes and catching up. At seven, the rest of the people began to arrive, namely the band, the staff, and members of the fringe bands. It was a great scene of good food (including sopapillas which they'd learned to make from the Taos drummers who played here a few years ago; I'd never seen any outside New Mexico before) and drink, the best being the blackberry sake made by an Ainu woman, a drink of 70 proof with a kick like a horse. With all the lubrication, even more friends were made. Around two, I felt it was time to go but couldn't find my sandals. There were an identical pair near the door, two sizes two small. No doubt some drunk person had worn mine home. I was given a pair of incredibly small slippers to wear out into the heavy rain. Only the next morning did I see my heels and sheets, streaked with mud.

Since all I owned was soaked, I'd stayed at the hostel. In the morning, headed down to catch my ferry to find Kodo ready to go again. Most of last night's partygoers were on the boat, so the group played us off, okuri-daiko. The best was yet to come. After a three year absence, I'd gone to Sado in the hopes of reconnecting with the Kodo members I knew, hoping to renew friendships. In Tokyo, I got the call. I was being invited to come back next week, for ten days of special training in drumming, dance, and voice. An incredible honor. Crazy how this world turns for me sometimes...

So I did Tokyo by day (two yoga classes; some DVD hang time with Zach and Dana and Eli; lunch with Colleen) and Osaka by night (dinner with Keith at some weird Umeda restaurant filled with religious artifacts and gorgeous women; stouts at the Merseybeat pub in Namba, where I saw a photo of Catherine and Nicki of the 'Nog) and headed home. Here a week, then back to Sado again...

On the turntable: "Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue"
On ther nighttable; Paul Auster, "The Book of Illusions"

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Earth Celebration 2005

Holy Fuckin Shit!

Why haven't I gone before?

Why haven't you?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Slowly I turn...

I had originally intended to spend my last day on the east coast in New York City, wandering the place of my birth. Do a little yoga at Jivamukti. Buy books at Gotham book mart. Drink Brooklyn lagers to live jazz at Village Vanguard. A slice and a canned coke drunk with a straw is of course a given. But I decided it was more important to instead spend the day with Nana. We had a nice quiet lunch on the front patio of her rehab center. When we usually part ways, we both seem to feel that it could be the last time. Today, our poker faces failed us, and with tears in my eyes, I turned and went to catch my shuttle in Waterbury.

I spent the night in a shoddy, noisy hotel near Kennedy. One of the staff gave me a lift to the airport. Wearing a loud shirt unbuttoned to midchest, listening to flashback disco music on the radio, he was doing a mean Tony Manero impression. The flight left early. My seat seemed to be broken. On takeoff, it slipped into what was not a full upright position. I tried to keep my body from being pushed backward, literally doing crunches against nearly a G of pressure. The flight cut straight cross-country. Seeing topography remembered from previous road trips, I could figure out what state I was over. I remembered a conversation I had with a British guy when we'd co-ride-shared a Palm Springs bound car. Driving thru Utah, he said the most amazing thing about the States is that this (indicating the scenery) and the Bronx are in the same country. Today, I was able to see both. I also saw Yosemite, one of my favorite places on Earth. El Cap and Half-Dome unmistakable, as if recognizing the faces of loved ones in a crowd.

Ben-chan met me at SFO, and to the Mission we did go. I did my usual final day ritual, shopping--vitamins at Rainbow to last thru winter, books at Dog-Eared to last the flight. Two films I'd hoped to see--"The Aristocrats" and the latest Bill Murray/Jim Jarmusch thing--were in town but I didn't have time. Instead, we did a class at Yoga Tree, met Emiko at the Phoenix for a couple pints, then a cheap African dinner at Baobab.

Ben helped me tote my pregnant bags back to SFO. A mere 24 hours in San Francisco is too little. Checking in, I didn 't see my flight on the board. Was it cancelled? Plan B was quickly formulated: side trip to L.A., over to Boulder for Folk Fest, then west again to Burning Man. (When you're self-employed, the party needn't stop.) (Un)fortunately, I did indeed have a seat. Ben and I killed time by people watching, laughing at the two cops riding bikes around the terminal. They were wearing helmets. Why? Are they in danger of being run down by errant smart carts? We also howled at the sight of the worst barcode/combover in the history of man. Ben said that the guy must wake up every morning with it stuck to the side of his face. I replied that then he'd look like Wolverine from Xmen. The flight was long but on this post-Obon day, I had a row to myself. I stared out the window, comparing two shades of impossibly perfect blue, and looking for whales. I alternated between dozing and reading, completely ignoring four of the worst films Hollywood put out this year. (Again, how to quantify?) Every flight into Tokyo encounters a bumpy spot about two hours out. A flight attendant was killed here in heavy turbulence in the late 90's. I lay across my three seats, noticing what the pilot was doing to find smooth air; the slight change in the engine's pitch, the subtle adjustment of the wing's angle. Laying prone, it feels like sleeping in the back of a car going over Japanese roads.

The shimmering sea gave way to Chiba. After a long, emotionally turbulent, thought-provoking trip to the US, everything below me looked especially small. The shadow of a jet flew over geometric shapes, rice fields clean rectangles, golf courses protozoa, then grew larger and larger, until touching my own plane's wheels, creating smoke. Breezed thru the airport, slow dreamy ride into Kichijoji. Casa Daza awaited. A quick pat on Eli's curly head. I hadn't seen him in 6 months but he's official been upgraded from infant to boy. Dashed back out and exchanged books up the street at Bondi Books, the owner putting up with my jet-lag babble. His shop is the only decent place to buy used in Tokyo, and he has a fine blog to boot. (Click the Bondi Books link at left.) Showered off the grime of Tokyo's unbelievable mugginess, Doc Brommer soothing but adding a tingling burn to the nether regions. Had corn and tofu burgers with Zach and Dana, filling them in on the trip, but due to the Joycian density of the tale, unsure where to begin.

And not quite over yet. Tommorow, early Shink and ferry ride to Sado. Earth Celebration awaits.

On the turntable: Beastie Boys, "Ill Communication"
On the nighttable: Monica Ali, "Brick Lane"

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

On the conch: Kurt

I'm in the air, so here's big bro Kurt with a flashback.

Oh Brother, there art Thou!

I had the joy of hosting Ted, as many of you have had, during his epic trip across the states, and the poor boy followed me in and out of the lighter and darker recesses of my life. On Ted's first night in Iowa City I dragged him into the deep haze of the local watering hole, Dave's Foxhead, showing him how writers drink --� not unlike expats I gather --with some sort of competitive edge, trying to evaporate all sense of fear and regret, skirting around the inherent emptiness of language, and Ted right there with us, bantering, playing coyote with the words reveling in the novelty of it all.

In the span of a week we managed to drink a truck load of beer, talk about the wonders, beauties, complexities, and overall surreal quality of the feminine mystique, and load and drive a Penske truck through that laconic sojourn of corn we call Nebraska. Along the way we drank rich Costa Rican coffee with Teresa and Jorge, ate some of that Midwest corn with Sherri and John, tubed the St. Vrain river with Ethan in the morning, watched Alison Krause from his cliffside at night, and did our best to keep it all real.

But the most defining moment came three days after we'd arrived at Boulder. We drove up Boulder Canyon to Clark Warren's house for dinner. It was a long, sinuous drive up Magnolia road, the switchbacks coming on as suddenly as acid flashbacks. Over beers and wine at eight thousand feet, amidst a discussion about the general lackadaisical nature of the modern college student, Clark turned to Ted and I and asked, "So, how'd you two become brothers?"�

Being step-brothers, there are hundreds of ways to tell that story. How my father met his mother, or how at their wedding I flirted with his neighbors as I bartended, or the time I brought a van-load of hippies to our parents' house in New Mexico, or the first time we got drunk together. I know we didn't refer to any of those moments, but I don't recall how we answered the question. There was probably some cool in it, some humor, a touch of affection. I don't think either one of us referred to the dead dog that we left in our wake as we drove out from Iowa City to Boulder, but to me, the answers are in there somewhere.

At five o'clock in the afternoon on July 29th, the day before we were to leave Iowa City, Ted and I took Mason to the Creature Comfort Animal Clinic to have him put down. Before we left for the clinic Mason and I sat in the front yard watching Cardinals flit amongst the black walnut trees. I'd just cut the grass the day before and the clean green scent of it was everywhere. That spring, a chickadee family had taken up residence in the eaves of my house, just above my bedroom, and as we sat there the mother and father brought worms and bugs to the nest. The small pastel-orange triangles of the baby bird's beaks emerged, inhaled the food, and disappeared. The traffic moved with a constant rhythm, motorcycles playing talk radio, pick-ups with young kids driving far too fast. The heat wave that had engulfed Iowa City for two weeks had passed and the afternoon was breezy but warm, the sky as soft as a child's blue blanket.

Ted came up the sidewalk and instead of joining us right away he moved around us, a comfortable kind of ghost, taking pictures I only later learned about, giving Mason and I space. I know he joined us. I also know that he rode to the vet with me, moved with me through that odd, sad, efficient space the decisions about death engenders, but I wasn't fully present. I was dissembling the choice, putting it back together again, trying to understand how I'd found my way to a vet's office to say goodbye to my dog of fifteen years. I know I talked to Ted, both about things of a practical nature and about the things Mason had done in his life--living in Prague chief among them. I was impatient for the vet, upset that the office was busy.� Ted listened, agreeing in that quiet right kind way he has.

When Mason went, after the anaesthia, after we both had said our goodbyes, after he fought Mr. Death, growling his own fuck-you at him, after we both cried, trying to find the tissues in that room adorned with dog breed posters and anti-tick ads, we left out the back door and Ted knew not to let me drive. At home, the first thing we did was grab some beers, dark rich ales, and we drank on the porch, watching the traffic slide by. The blue blanket of sky gave way to smoky turquoise. We lifted the beers, as we did for the rest of the time we were together, and toasted my dog. And that quiet, tactful company is how we continually become the brothers that we are.

Monday, August 15, 2005

CT scan

Here in Connecticut, I've spent about a week speedily moving along narrow roads shaded by the maples which tower over Colonial homes. My family comes from around here, at three points of a triangle that straddles State Highway 8. This is slightly north of the gold coast, those expensive NYC commuter suburbs which include Greenwich, where I'd lived briefly as a boy. A few hills over is where the new money is, in the form of huge houses where entertainment types with names like Spielberg and Hoffman live part time. I'd spent a lot of time here as a kid, mostly at my aunt and uncle's place. Deer sometimes come through the arched bushes and into the yard. The neighbors have a pool where I used to swim, but there are now new people there, whose names I do not know, so I cannot ask for swimming priviledges even with the 100 degree heat. Years ago I marched in an Independence Day parade on the quiet road out front. My grandparents' place the next town over has long been sold, but the home where my grandmother grew up is still in the family, my cousin Matt being the fifth generation to live there. My Nana had told him of the days when she was young, how they'd have to be careful of the noisy third stair when sneaking in late. Recently, when renovating those same stairs, Matt found a crack in the third one, running from wall to post. History will always reveal itself when it is the right time. In Waterbury, the house where my father used to fend off his drunken dad is gone, but my uncle John now lives nearby.

I spent most of the week with him, sparring with our usual topics of college hoops and film. A decade abroad has left me armed to handle only the latter. We watched quite a few together, "Steve Zissou," "Smoke Signals," "American Splendor." On a trip to New Haven we saw "Apres Vous" in the cinema. It was like a refresher for John, a retired high school French teacher. We also wandered Yale a bit, the tall stone halls reminiscent of my recent UK trip. Though thin in stature, John's life also entails dining out a lot. He talks of restaurants in superlatives: Zini's in Litchfield doing the best Italian; Cookhouse in New Milford doing the best ribs; Pepe's in New Haven doing the best pizza; and of course, Frankies doing the best hot dogs. Growing up, I'd often gone to the latter, yet had never noticed their slogan, "Come In and Eat or We'll Both Starve." (This trip I tried their Lobster Roll, which is basically cut-up lobster on a roll. For $12, I'd rather have just the lobster.) I'd always loved hanging out with my uncle, he serving as my sole male role model during the time between my mom's two marriages. Ironically, he has outlived both men. And he shows no sign of slowing down. His sense of humor is still razor sharp, with a cynical wit which may have been contagious. It was hilarious to hang out with him and his friends, like being in an episode of Seinfeld. One morning, we walked four straight flat miles along a long abandoned railway line. I'm told there are now more trees in Connecticut than ever, due to the owners of large estates planting on what was once farmland. This thick wood was bear country, and mountain lions have also been sighted. More prevailant were the horseflies and deer ticks. As we walked, I almost expected to see Ichabod Crane come racing up, the Headless Horseman in hot pursuit. At least the Horseman needn't worry about the ticks.

This trip, I wasn't able to see much of my aunt. She's been busy taking care of my 93-year old Nana, who broke her hip last month. Rehab will last a few more weeks. The care hasn't been bad, but the food is lousy, so she's been having a tough time. When I saw her last Tuesday, I'd been expecting the worst, but Nana's a resiliant old bird, the glow in her eyes undiminished. Here's a woman who survived polio 80 years ago. I visited with her everyday, listening to her tales of her grandparents who left Ireland in 1874. I feel a certain kinship with them since I went in search of their hometown and relatives back in February. Irish blood runs thick in my family, and I heard about it constantly. The West is now the "New World", races mixing as they manifest their destinies. Back East, as I've mentioned before, is still the "Old World," with strong ties to the Older World of Europe and beyond.

Ten years away has made me feel that I'm only a satellite member of the family, one who doesn't have full voter priviledges. Spending a week out here plugged me back in. Saturday night, we had a small party for my Nana. Afterward, my cousins took me out on their pontoon boat. They're much younger than me, and it was the first time we ever got a chance to hang out. It was interesting to hear their take on family politics, coming as it was from a different angle. We floated on the still lake, drinking Sam Adams. A bad cover band was playing at Lake Quasapaug Amusement Park, the sound cutting thru the dark to us. (For awhile we thought it might actually be John Fogarty, until we heard the singer say, "Thanks, we're the Steve Allan Band." Cousin Matt: "Isn't that guy dead?") The park played a major part in my childhood summers. Cara said that the rides probably haven't changed since then, and that without fail, somebody gets killed every year. (Props to my aunt and uncle for risking their lives for my entertainment.) Back on land it was hot and muggy. Matt sped the roads in his new Mustang, a car modelled after its classic 60's ancestors. I'm not a car guy, but I couldn't help but be impressed. It's been a long time since I've been in a car which has real balls. The engine is so powerful that it feels like you're being pushed from behind. This engine growled as it downshifted into turns, frightening the deer off the roads .

On the weekend, I privately celebrated Obon. My aunt has built a small garden for the memory of Ken-chan. I weeded and trimmed the shrubs, then placed flowers behind the small pagoda. Though I'm miles away from my home in the 'Nog, he is here with me. No matter where I am, the air always seems thicker at this time, as if filled with spirits. On the fifteenth, when the ghosts depart, the storms began and the summer night once again turned cool.

On the turntable: Mickey Hart, "Apocalypse Now Sessions"
On the nighttable: Gish Jen, "Who's Irish?"

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Chicago revisited

Last time in town, D took me to have pizza in a famous place not far from where he did med-school, which happens to be the set for ER. This pizza joint borders the Greek part of town, itself the setting for "My Big Fat Overrated Movie." As we walked its streets, I noted the Greek flags, the Greek travel posters. Greek pride is rampant these days, no doubt due in part to the popularity of said film. But with my usual cynicism, I sensed a different motive. In these post 9-11 days, they might as well have hung banners saying, "Greeks. We ain't Muslims."

On the turntable: Carlos Nunez, "Os Amores Libres"
On the nighttable: David Sedaris, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim"

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Brief Home Chicago

On Saturday, Eric and Dave drove me halfway Chicago, to East Lafayette. I'd been here before when I was 21, an age when I thought it important to break up road trips to party in university towns. About twenty minutes after boarding my north-bound bus, we stopped again, probably so some of the thugs in back could get down and smoke a rock. Not that I blame 'em. You need it to deal with the complete absence of any feature on the landscape to draw your attention. Flat flat flat. (But it still beats the shit out of Kansas, where the landscape is so dull [despite William Least Heat-Moon's great book] that I once got ticketed twice in a half hour speeding across it.) Second only to windmills, billboards were the highest things on the horizon, often carrying deep messages about "Abstinance until Marriage," and "Reverse Vasectomy Procedures." Cause and effect and cause and effect. This went on until Gary Indiana, Gary Indiana, when Chicago's southern, poorer satellites began. A lot of billboards here shot through the heart of the black demographic, with ads that D later told me he found racist. He for one, ain't "Lovin' It." But Gary was keeping it real, with nice homes lining quiet suburban streets, flanked at both ends by typical scenes of economic despair. Lotto kiosks and bars were especially prevailant, one of the latter carrying a sign saying that they sold "Gary's coldest beer." How do you quantify that?

D and Braver met me at the bus station and we drove north along the crowded beaches of Lake Michigan. We found ourselves down here again the next day, in front of Lincoln Park, where we wandered awhile, passing dozens of young parents unnecessarily and quite harshly scolding their broods. Cafe Brauer offered great seating from which to watch the varieties of human expression. Who needs "March of the Penguins" anyhow? The beach was another great vantage point. There are an incredible number of nationalities in Chicago, whose varied behaviors no doubt causes most Americans to quickly think, "Other." In Japan, one of those "freaks' would be me.

Saturday night, we went over to DePaul University to meet Braver's 25-year-old cousin, a professional drummer currently playing two shows a night at something like $800/week. (I hid my envy well, I think, breaking none of the lucky fucker's phlanges. {Ooh! Good band name!}) We had subs at Potbelly, then crossed the street to down pints. Heading to the john, I ran into a guy I knew at Univ. of Arizona. Weird. Afterward, D, Braver and I went to a larger bar jammed with college age kids. It was too packed/noisy to talk, so we simply swivelnecked to look at the local talent. This got old for me in about 27 seconds. I was by no means looking for company, but the attitude in that place was ridiculous and unwarranted. (Is this "baby-doll" dress trend nationwide, or only here? It's a terrible look either way, from the Lush Mama line at Victoria's Secret.) In my cups, I got annoyed at the whole thing, and left quickly. (In hindsight, I should've relished the irony of a meat-market in Chicago. Upton Sinclair lives!) I remember why I always hated places like that, even back in college. We caught what turned out to be the last train. After shuffling our feet for a half-hour on a busy platform, we realized we'd missed our connection. Braver spent the time talking hoops to a spacey amateur boxer. When our train didn't come, we decided to walk the last mile home. A really tall girl joined us, no doubt finding safety in our numbers. It turned out she was a 20-year old varsity volleyball player at Northwestern, abandoned by her friends. We talked awhile with her, but as I was tired and it was nearing three, I went up to D's to crash. D and Braver drove her the rest of the way home. Fifteen years or so ago, one of them would've tried to pick her up, but instead, in their latest role as husbands and dads, they lectured her on the dangers of going into the dark with strangers. How times change...

Most of the weekend we spent walking Evanston and the area around Northwestern U. We drank pints at the same Irish pub twice. One night, we watched "Shaun of the Dead," a film that deserves all the hype it has gotten. Brilliant. And Chappelle, plenty of Chappelle. In college, it used to be Playstation, but now we compare some of the more bizarre web sites we've found. And in between these things, we talked, about old times and new, trying to find common ground among three lives now grown up and spinning in different trajectories.

Monday, Braver flew back to Phoenix. That night D and I went to an open-mic near campus. The crowd was mostly teenaged, listening to the high-school balladeers and their guitars, ignoring the old-timers and their overblown poems. Where were the freaks, the flavor? I know it's around, having read about the scene in long dead punk 'zines and in the journals of Aaron Cometbus. Hell, I'd been at shows here myself. But this trip, it was as vanilla as the ice cream in my root beer float. Chicago, despite it's multi-ethnicity, seems devoidedly lacking in multi-culturalism. Like a TV dinner tray, everyone here seems seperated into their own monolingual ghettos, the Irish, Poles, Greeks. I guess I forget that this is how things work in the Midwest and on the East Coast. I've grown accustomed to the jambalaya mix of western cities. Or more appropriately , I thrive on the hunt for foreign flavors while wandering Tokyo or Kyoto neighborhoods, an alternative to the washoku land of the 'Nog.

My last morning in town, I took an early morning swim in the calm waters of Lake Michigan, the latest body of water in a growing list of those which have engulfed me. On the beach I watched the young mother brigade begin to roll their tykes to the water's edge, listened to their varied accents, and looked beyond to the neat, pricy middle-class homes from which they'd come. The face of this country has changed rapidly during the decade I've been away. Myself being caught between two cultures and belonging to neither, I encourage the change, the variety. But I can't help but feel sad about one thing. When you add all the colors of the spectrum together, you tend to wind up with white.

On the turntable: Bonny "Prince" Billy, "Master and Everyone"
On the nighttable: Roy Parvin, "The Loneliest Road in America"

Friday, August 12, 2005

Indiana jonesin'

Back in '96, I went see the film "Twister." There's a scene near the end, where a warm wind begins to blow as the leads stand out on the front lawn of a motel . I remember leaving the air-conditioned theater and stepping back into the hot July night, feeling a slight sense of nostalgia for that summer wind which blows in the Midwest (and in Sinatra songs) but not in muggy Japan. Last Wednesday, not thirty minutes after floating down over the Indy 500 raceway, I stepped out of the airport and for the first time in a decade, felt that same wind on my face. In the state where people seem built for comfort rather than speed, their accents doing terrible things to French words.

Marty and Eriko picked me up. I'd last seen them in September in Tokushima, where I'd done double duty at their wedding, both performing the ceremony and translating the speeches. As way of thanks, they bought me dinner at an Italian joint just off the highway. Marty had picked this place because he liked the way trees were growing from the roof. It was a great time, bouncing our ridiculous conversation around and around the table. In Columbus, I found my brother Eric waiting up. We chatted awhile, pausing occasionally to laugh at John Stewart or Cartman.

The next morning I chilled out, happy to have the first down time in two weeks. I didn't want to squander it, so I watched a DVD of "Dude, Where's My Car?" I also wrote long overdue emails, and tried to catch up on this blog (writing more because I feel I have to and not really want to, resulting in this stilted atrocious prose of late.) I also spent some time talking to Eric and Angie, both exhausted with baby Beck, born five weeks ago this day. So begins this initial phase of "house arrest", the first stage of an eighteen year sentence.

Eric is the track coach of one of the high schools and is currently in charge of a cross-country camp up at Brown County State park. I went up there with him the afternoon. When he set off with the boys for a humid eight mile slog, I jumped on the mountain bike and rode up and around the Park's gentle hills, hesitating at Hesitation Point to ogle Ogle Pond, then followed the mountain bile trails back down. The humidity here isn't quite Japan standards, but I was soaked just the same. Being a huge "Breaking Away" fan, I'd hoped for a swim in one of the local quarries, but was satisfied in finding a small above-ground pool in my brother's backyard. We swam around washing off sweat, talking about the frustrations of being a progressive in a small Midwestern town, the rain beginning to lightly fall from the same clouds I flew out of a day before in Denver.

Maura and Dave came by for dinner. They'd come to visit the 'Nog last fall. I later went back to their place, about a dozen miles out of town. It's quiet out there, isolated, and I'd hoped to hike around their land and startle some deer. It was Dave and I who found ourselves started, by a raccoon(probably) which ran across the roof behind us. We sat on the back deck in the dark, drinking Guinness and talking, mostly about Warrior Codes (inspired by Finn Mac Cool and the Irish beer connection) and their unfortunate absence in today's world. This led to the inevitable bitching about the Jones' and the Status Quo, a topic that comes up nearly every time we're together, carrying us far too late past bedtime.

Spent all day Friday out at Dave and Maura's place. The rain kept me indoors most of day, so I watched old school stuff on DVD, namely the pilot episode of Kung Fu and the always hilarious Reefer Madness. I also sat on the porch in the hammock, reading and watching the rain drive birds closer and closer to the house. Between chapters, I'd squint my eyes and try to align the slats of the deck with the stripes on the lawn, now slightly off-color from recent mowing. A dozen meters or so from my swinging head was the frame of a barn in the midst of construction. It was a shame about the rain because I'd been looking forward to seeing the bearded workmen sing Amish songs as they hammered, and their womenfolk praise God as they whipped up a fine lunch. When the sun came up and the grass dried, I finally made it onto the trails. Dave returned about then, so we drove back to town to pick up pizza. At the drive-up window, I was surprised to see Angie's brother. (Would he be my brother-in-law?) He handed us four pies rather than the two we'd ordered. (Thanks guy!) Back at Eric and Angie's, Eriko and Marty dropped by, and we all ate and drank and watched the remake of "The Italian Job" (There it is again).

On the turntable: Jack Johnson at Bonnaroo '02
On the nighttable: Chang-Rae Lee, "Aloft"

Thursday, August 11, 2005

...and then the Mountains Were Back

When Kurt and I got to his new house we found it locked and no one around. In all fairness, we hadn't let anyone know when we'd be arriving. So we unloaded the truck off the trailer and went to buy a case of Fat Tire. We drank on the front steps, blowing off unpacking even after the keys arrived. After sunset, we went to Sherry and John's place for a BBQ of shrimp and sake and ice cream. As parties do, the whole thing migrated to the kitchen, where we laughed as the dog pounced at shadows on the floor.

Sunday morning, we walked to Vic's for coffee, then over to Masa for brunch. I finally got the blueberry pancakes I'd been craving since my last morning of yoga training. After breakfast, three out of the eight of us were planning to go to a Renaissance Fair. It got me going on about why there aren't any Dark Ages Fairs, where people walk around in rags with dirt on their faces, coughing on one another and living la vida squalid. You could drink lots of mead, then DaVinci would thank you on your way out.

Before our group parted ways, they all helped us unpack the truck, knocking the whole thing off in less than twenty minutes. We lounged most of the day, then headed up to Lyons to Ethan's place. He had a house on a cliff overlooking the site of the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival. The sound up here was clear and clean, and we could see the stage from the patio. The cliff's edge was better seating than I've had at many stadium shows. As the evening progressed, we heard sets by Doc Watson, Tim O'Brien, and Sam Bush, the latter blowing me completely away. After dark, Alison Krause came on, crooning to me as I sat drinking red wine in the hot tub. An incredible night as two dogs flanked a one-ton weathered Buddha aglow by tiki torch; Mars rising in the sky beyond.

Monday was a day of errands, taking a couple hours longer than they should of, in part due to too much paperwork, and the difficulties in negotiating the truck and trailer thru the narrow rows of a storage unit. To decompress, we hiked the Flatirons with Ethan, climbing the steep rocky steps up to Royal Arch. These steps drove my knees into my stomach, full and churning from pesto tortellini and spicy chai eaten earlier at Whole Foods. As I sat fighting nausea on top, Ethan pointed out local geography, mountains and lakes and the skyline of Denver far off to the right. Back in town, I ran Kurt thru an abridged version of one of my yoga classes. What followed was a Boulder pasttime. Dollar taco night at Masa. The place was packed and was a meat market. (Actually, the whole town's a bit of a meat market.) We filled up and crashed early.

Tuesday was the first day in a week that we had no errands. It was full nonetheless. We drove up to Lyons and tubed the St. Vrain with Ethan and his dog, Riley. It was a great morning, flowing from sunshine to shady cliffs and bouncing thru three sets of rapids. We finished at a small waterfall, which we and Riley would jump from into the swimming hole churning below. Later, Kurt and I went back to town to meet my friend Bruce, who drove up from Denver where he teaches yoga. I met him at Tias' Level 1 training, and he's the guy who introduced me to the "Brain Machine"(details later). At three we took an Ashtanga class at Richard Freeman's Yoga Workshop. At dusk, we drove up to Magnolia, winding high above Boulder, along dirt roads to my friend's cabin which sits at 8000 ft. I met Clarke when he was my teacher for Naropa's study trip to Bhutan. It was great to see him after a two year absence, and his sense of humor was intact, as expected. There were also a couple of Naropa faculty present, though to my slight disappointment, Anne Waldman was unable to come. We passed a great night over red wine, Thai curry, and corn on the cob. (I forget, do Americans eat this every night in summer?) Conversation went everywhere, from Tibetan Buddhism to the expat experience to conspiracy theories. As I said, a great night.

Wednesday morning I got an Ayurvedic massage from yet another of Kurt's friends, Jane. It was a mix of deep-tissue manipulation, light yogic stretching, and lots of oil. It made me really feel all the activities of the previous few days. When it was over, I could barely communicate for about half an hour. Kurt and I wandered Pearl street mall for awhile, eating at a Falafel place I remembered from my first visit here 23 years ago. I bought some books at Boulder Book Store and Trinity, then we set off for Denver and my next flight. I had had a great time in Boulder and didn't really want to leave. As we pulled out, three deer walked gingerly up the street.

On the turntable: Keb' Mo', "Keb' Mo'"
On the nighttable: Nick Hornsby, et al., "Speaking With the Angel"

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Nebraska Interim

Our truck was 16 feet and was pulling an Isuzu Trooper, all four tires up on a trailer. It was a massive rig which pushed from behind on downhills. It was just crazy. We were both freaking out and laughing alot, but figured that people dumber than us do this kind off thing all the time. After a couple hours, we found the balls to take it past 75 mph, cruising into Omaha just before midnight. Finding out that backing up on an incline is futile, we found a large parking space (Parallel! Go Kurt! You're the new Sir Speed, my brother.) and joined my friend Teresa for some wine. She had another guest, Jorge, up from Costa Rica, who Teresa had met on a yoga retreat sometime. Besides being a good guy, he whipped up some tasty coffee and a mean breakfast.

Nebraska is weird. I'm not being critical, but there is an energy there that slows down time. All the way across we had my Ipod on a ridiculously low level. Not much in the way of scenery. Corn. Maize. Tomorokoshi. We passed the parking area where we'd picnicked in the snow with Mason 18 months back. In the early afternoon, we pulled off the highway into an ancient gas station amidst the, you guessed it, corn. As we were filling the tank, another rental truck pulled in from the opposite direction. It too was towing a 4x4. Two young guys got out. I laughed. Time in Nebraska had slowed so much that we had met our selves from 15 years ago. Weird.

Once past the Colorado state line, we turned the music up high, as if we'd forgotten to do so earlier. Heads and feet bobbed. Speed increased. The front tire of the Isuzu lost its connection with the trailer. How many miles ago? Jesus.

The mountains welled up and Boulder embraced us.

On the turntable: The Ramones, "Rocket to Russia"
On the nighttable: Paul Birman, "Two Girls and A Camel"

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

...and then the Mountains Were Gone

Flew into Iowa City Tuesday the 26th, Buddy Holly on my mind on approach. My bags were still in Denver, due to a woman at the check-in counter being so flirtatious that she forgot to check them thru to my final destination. She told me that I'd been "randomly" (finger quotes) selected for an extra security check, and joked that someone wants to ensure I feel good and safe.. I replied that apparently, I wasn't the one who needed to feel secure. Once again I wonder, does being a member of the Green Party qualify a person for an FBI file?

My oldest brother Kurt met me at the airport and so began a marathon three days of packing, cleaning, and loading a Penske for the long haul to Boulder. We were smart in that we loaded the thing in increments over three days, usually after dark when the humidity was down and the blood-alcohol content up. So it wasn't all dull moments. The first night started out with pizza at an English-style pub (!?). We stopped at a liquor store to buy beer, and on our way out spotted some of his friends in the Foxhead across the street. A couple rounds ensued. We downed our warm beer in the park at the by-now winding down party. The whole proceedings then migrated back to the Foxhead. This seemed to be the official drinking hole for the Iowa writer's workshop. Many of its participants had since moved on, but the dregs were all here, playing pool, smoking cigs, and talking about their proposed destinations. I imagined a fleet of rental trucks, loaded with great books and full notebooks, parked on small-tree covered streets throughout the town. The night went enjoyably on and on. Kurt and Ted, together again.

I awoke way too early the next morning, head and shoulder pounding from too much second hand smoke. We headed to the Penske rental office. It apparently also rents carnival junk, such as skeeball tables, cotton candy machines, inflatable clowns, and huge jousting puppets, among other bizarre things. In my weakened condition, I wandered through the immense room ,the strange images jumping out at me. I swear I heard manic laughing and the lights flashed red. Welcome to John Waters' attic. (Yes, there were pink flamingos.)
Around noon, I went to the University hospital to meet Kurt's friend Sahib. He was doing an experiment on how meditators are more sensitive to the workings of their bodies. I was fitted with random wires and clips, and after meditating for awhile, was expected to tell whether or not the tone I heard was in sync with my heartbeat. Two problems arose (Three including the hangover). One, when verbalizing "yes" or "no," you lose both concentration and the feeling of the beat. Two, having played drums for close to thirty years, I'd like to think I have a finely-attuned sense of rhythm. So I was honing in on the ever-changing beat in my chest, assuming that a tone just off the beat was not sync-ed. I'm not sure whether Sahid got the results he had hoped for. Burritos followed, then coffee at Java House thru the afternoon. That night, Kurt had to emcee an open mic night for participants in the summer writer's program. The readers were mostly middle-aged, a couple pretty good, and divorce poems carried the day.

(You know, I'm sitting here, and for the life of me can't remember what we did on Thursday. Ah, Iowa. I think that I looked for Greg Brown CDs in used music shops, the Rig Veda in used book shops. No luck. I'm sure coffee was drunk, words read, notes heard.)

Oh yeah Thursday. Thursday sucked. That morning we took Mason for his last walk. That evening at five, we had to put him down. A week before, Kurt took him for a checkup to see if he could handle the 750 mile drive to Colorado. After that one mile trip to the vet's, the poor guy could barely walk for three days. There was no choice really. I still remember playing with him as a pup, in a river outside Missoula, Montana, fifteen years ago. He's intersected my life many times since, in New Mexico, Portland, Eugene, Iowa City. He'd even lived in Prague awhile. I returned to the house at 4:30, he and Kurt sitting in the yard under his favorite tree. "Iron and Wine" was playing, and I think I'll always associate them with this scene. Then it was his time. Did he know? He got on well with other dogs, but not with rules, so he was always a fighter. Which was how he went out. He'd been sedated, but I'm sure his last twitches weren't involuntary. And his last few breaths went out in growls. Yeah, Fuck You Death! I see Mason now, chasing my own dear departed beautiful boy around, somewhere beyond the reach of us mortals. Farewell old friend...
After, Kurt and I sat on the front porch with beers, quiet. For the next week, every toast we raised was to the 'Sonic. We went for a Carribean dinner, still somewhat somber, then picked up the pace with the rest of the writing gang on the back patio of a bar called Martinis until I, drained, set home just past twelve, giggling at the drunken antics of outgoing grad students and incoming undergrads.

Friday was a day of dust and cobwebs. Kurt took his final stint as emcee of "Elevenses," a daily lecture delivered by a famous writer. This last day was an open mic for the Iowa Writer's Workshop Faculty. In comparison with the other night, it's easy to see the gulf between good writing and bad. (I'd like to think my own stuff floats somewhere between.) I wandered a bit on the ped mall, not sure when I'll be this way again. Then it was back to campus for a farewell dinner for the summer workshop attendees. At 7:30 pm, we blew town.

On the turntable: Jeff Beck, "You Had It Coming"
On the nighttable: Alfredo Bryce Echenique, "Tarzan's Tonsillitis"