Monday, December 31, 2007

Year-end in Review 1

As the Three Wise Men were led by a light, I too followed light through the latter part of December.

The bridge and bamboo forests of Arashiyama were lit up by multicolored spotlights. Every turn in the path brought a new hue, an ethereal quality to the air made thick from days of rain. The steam rising from the hot spotlights themselves added to the fairy tale quality. The hillside beyond Togetsu-kyo bridge was lit all across the spectrum, in a way rivaling, yet falling somewhat short, of what nature had done for free a few weeks before. A day of rain had thinned the tourist numbers and some of the more intimate nooks of Sagano were ours alone. The night was cold but the rain had stopped. Amazingly, Starbucks had set up a small kiosk near Torokko Arashiyama Station, warming us all with a free cuppa. During my travels I'd noticed that Starbucks had scored a prime location near every tourist site, but this mobile joe was certainly new. More than the coffee, the light itself warmed us as we wandered the forest, a far cry from the usual cold neon Tanizaki nightmare. If only downtown were lit so well.

On the Solstice itself, we braved more rain to attend a candle-lit event featuring Goma, in a subtemple of Kodai-ji. The event was a mess from the start. The flyers said a 4:30 start, but about 60 of us stood in heavy rain until 5, and the first wails of the didgeridoo sounded well past 5:30. Miki asked about this and was told, No the flyer said doors open at 4:30. So why were we still in the rain a half hour later? The candles were nice, the didge enchanting, but the vibe just wasn't happening for us. Goma went off on a half hour rant about the spiritual qualities of the music, a sound that goes back to a time before words and musical notes. OK, so far. Then he went on about how his dream was to study these meditative qualities using Western science, and I was confused at the contradiction. So Miki and I left then , going back home to a candlelit dinner and "Paris, Texas," a far profounder look at the contradiction between light and dark.

A few days after Solstice was Christmas, and the full moon. Last month, Adam had found some bizarre statue at Kitano flea market. It was a foot high figure of a seemingly Scandanavian shamanic figure, full-bearded and clothed in red like a pagan Santa. He sat in our garden for a month, anointed in falling ginkgo leaves. On Christmas, Miki and I teamed up with JesusChris for a mission to place Santa on a undisclosed mountainside somewhere in the Kyo. Along the way, we met a lone Aussie-Chinese girl walking alone, and she, taking an interest in our quest, rounded out the numbers. We eventually left the trail, following a deer path up to a hidden pond. It was an ominous place, the earth all around it torn open by foraging boars, under a sky going grey toward evening. One particular tree caught our attention, having a number of trunks growing out of a single flat base. We collected branches from the forest floor to build a platform and placed Santa atop it. Then we rummaged around for other bits of forest detritus--pine cones, slabs of bark, sprigs of sakaki. JesusChris left a crystal that he'd found in a cave in northern India. We meditated a while, then finished off with photos and a few rounds of Oms. I can't imagine what this woman we'd met made of us, and I wonder if at some point she feared she might be sacrificed.

Descending into town, a nearby temple had become a film set. The klieg lights coming through the trees threw psychedelic shadows on the pavement, equipment, and everyone's faces. The courtyard on the far side of the temple gate was a bizarre shade of blue, and some of this light flashed off the sword swirled by one of the actors. We stayed awhile to watch them set up a single shot, of a horseback ninja riding up to the gate, who is challenged by a yamabushi that steps from the shadows. You too can share in some of this light as it reflects from your TV set in the guise of an NHK samurai drama called, "Kurama Tengu."

Fade out 2007.

May the New Year bring you much light...

On the turntable: The Waterboys, "Fisherman's Blues"

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Year-end in Review 2

Mid-month was kabuki.  The Kaomise event brings some of the top names to Kyoto for a month of shows.  The afternoon program had four plays all set in the Edo Period, many dealing with the same themes I have encountered in my study of traditional arts.  I'd never seen real Kabuki before, so off we went.

Minami-za is a beautiful old beautiful dating back to 1694.  We climbed to our cheap seats in the upper reaches of the theater, up a flight of stairs so steep I regretted not wearing hiking boots..  They were high-backed, with a rail in front like a roller coaster.  I had no leg room at all, my knees pressed hard into the seat in front, for the next five hours.  It was like being on a long flight a decade from now.   It took me a while to settle down, and I wasn't the only one.  The first 5 minutes of dialogue were lost due to the Rattler phenomenon that Brady wrote of here.  When the actors' delivery finally reached up here, it was in the affected macho voices of Tom Waits, if he were hung like a tanuki.  Pure, gruff masculinity.  The stage effects were amazing, with unbelievable attention to detail.  Birds sounded, blossoms fluttered, the delicate subtle indication of a season's passing.  Action behind the scenes was silhouetted as if it were happening by candle light.  Even the veranda around the Shogun's retreat had the squeak of nightingale flooring. The crowd was enthusiastic and I'd  long been waiting for the kakegoe shouts done at the appearance of an actor, or to show appreciation of certain grandiose displays of emotion.  Their timing really helped emphasize the "ma."  The lighting at dawn of the final scene where the last Shogun departs for Kyoto was perfect.  

The next show was the Kanjncho story of Benkei and Yoshitsune at the Ataka gate.  I'd  seen this story performed twice before, once at firelit Noh at Osaka Castle, and in an early Kurosawa film.  The acting was top-notch though overwrought.  Kabuki is obviously the expression of emotion, but to an ignorant spectator like myself, a lot of it had the emotional depth of a Busby Berkeley film.  The moral I got was that in a thousand years we've gone from sentimental border guards to fingerprinting machines at immigration.  

After an incredble bento, the second half began.  Midway through the third show--a sentimental tale of giri--my attention began to wane.  I looked around at dozens of people dozing off with full bellies.  Below me were the rich seats,covered by an array of brand name clothing, and I imagined the days when a kimono clad crowd resembled a field of flowers.  The final show was a shorter dance piece, but I could no longer ignore the pain in my knees.   I walked around awhile, admiring the architecture.  In the lobby, a stage hand clad all in black dozed in a chair.  It was the purest display of humanity I'd seen all day.

On the turntable:  John Fahey, "Womblife"

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Year-end in Review 3

Miki's Tai Chi group is an amazing bunch. They have a very full schedule, including aikido, hiking, social dance, and a plethora of Chinese martial arts. Their Xmas party had demos of each of these (except for hiking, unless some folk chose to take the stairs to the Hotel's eighth floor), with the main event being a formal dress-up dance cotillion. Moments after arriving, Miki's senior in Tai Chi came over to greet us, then immediately took my hand and led me out on the floor. Back in Eighth Grade, I'd had weekly dance lesson along with the rest of my class, yet my skills apparently hadn't graduated with the rest of us. To further embarass myself, I asked Miki's sempai, (who happened to be model gorgeous), if my hand, which rested mere inches above her bottom (also model gorgeous), was in the right place. She said, not exactly, and moved it about a foot higher up her back. The redness in my face I played off as the effect of the wine. The song ended, but this coerced dancing never ceased. If anyone was caught standing and chatting (you know, the "social" part of social dance), they were led quickly onto the dance floor. In one case, some guy grapped Miki away as we were in mid-sentence. In my native New Mexico, lesser acts have led to pistols at dawn. The most amazing part is how little fun everyone was having. They all seemed so intent on their dance steps, even doing the obligatory "Sei, no!" before starting. Miki and I seemed to be having the best time, laughing as we worked through a reasonable semblance of what everyone else was doing, yet moving with the grace of a car on ice. Four left feet in action. And I can't see how everyone missed the sheer hilarity of it all. These dances of my grandparent's day done to the music of my own. Foxtrotting to Michael Jackson! Rumba to Madonna! Waltzing to the theme from 'Chariots of Fire!'

And a good time was had by two.

On the turntable: Widespread Panic, "Live in the Classic City"

Friday, December 28, 2007

Year-end in Review 4

The Origin arts foundation has a new machiya down in Gion, and we were invited to the opening party.  We sipped wine as Bodhi, the manager showed us around.  It was a breathtaking house, a perfect blend of Japanese aesthetic  (huge beams carved from tree trunks older than my country,  steep stairs moonlighting as dressers, the bath an oversized hinoki sake masu)  and Western function (hidden indoor heaters, high tech toilets).  An apprentice maiko danced for us, then came over to chat as I reached for my second piece of sushi.  Her face and makeup were perfectly sculpted, but I found her dense Kyoto dialect impenetrable, so I politely moved on toward other, easier conversations.

On the turntable:  Eels, "Beautiful Freak"

On the nighttable:  Donald Richie, "A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics"

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Year-end in Review 5

Any warm sunny day this time of year should be considered a gift, even if that gift will eventually come with a heavy pricetag. And December had warm sunny days aplenty.

On one Saturday, Miki and I decided to do part of the Kansai 33 Temple Kannon pilgrimage. I'd done 24 of the 33 temples in June, 2002, a time that I consider to be amongst my most memorable in Japan. During the day, I'd wander the countryside, hitching from temple to temple, then head back into one of the three major Kansai cities to watch a World Cup soccer match with friends over beers. I'd also found time to visit a few aikido dojos and for some Zen training in my favorite temple. That summer, there was one segment I didn't do, the long haul over the mountains from Daigo to Ishiyama dera.

We got to Daigo early. Due to the ongoing construction, we forewent the temple's lower gardens and structures, and went straight up the mountain. The leaves were still in color, and the long flights of stone were littered with the first of their suicidal numbers. We eventually came to Daigo-ji's upper reaches, with fantastic wooden statuary and incense smoke hovering in the cold shadows. It had been a long ascent, so we sat in the sun drinking lukewarm tea and eating bread. The trail dropped straight down the opposite side of the mountain, but we got sidetracked by a smaller trail leading to Daigo-ji's deepest reaches. At its end, we found a narrow cave with small pools of water around the altars. I shined my torch into the darkness beyond, but mysteriously, the battery gave out just then. After a brief prayer, we followed another side trail which led to a pile of boulders offering views of the valley below. I gazed over the mountains beyond, slightly uneasy. We had no maps and didn't know the direction or the distance involved. But a pilgrimage is all about trusting in the local gods. Our feet would do the rest.

The forest below was a patch of land beautiful and unmolested. A rickety old bridge crossed a brook which led us into the valley. It was warm and sunny again down here. An old woman was selling vegetables from a roadside stand. Miki chatted with her awhile as I moved some boxes she'd been struggling with. My reward was two mikan big as softballs. The valley was wide and pleasant, close to Kyoto yet feeling remote. At the far end, a path took us again into the hills, beneath low hanging bamboo trees and signs warning of poisonous vipers. We had lunch atop the ridge, washed our hands at a small shrine, asked directions of a couple of young potters who dressed and talked like gangsters.

The path led us into the afternoon. At its end we arrived at Ishiyama Temple. A woman noticed us in the courtyard and gasped. She'd seen us from a bus full of old women that had passed us hours ago. We wandered the temple grounds, up the hills to the hidden parts beyond. It was a wonderful place, but we slightly cheated it in being tired. We'd been amazed already today by Daigo-ji, and had walked 23km since then, up and down over four ridgelines. Exiting, we saw the sign saying the train station was yet another kilometer walk away. Groaning, we pushed on toward the train which would take us home.

On the turntable: Philip Glass, "Satyagraha"

On the nighttable: Jan Blensdorf, "My Name is Sei Shonagon"

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sunday Papers: Andre Gide

"One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."

On the turntable: Van Morrison, et al., "The Skiffle Sessions"
On the nighttable: Garrison Keilor, "We Are Still Married"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

With apologies to Sei Shonagon...

Hateful Things in Autumn:

Lazy monks with leaf blowers

(Surely there's a koan here somewhere, relating, no doubt, to dust alighting).

On the turntable: Roland Kirk, "Live in Paris, 1970"
On the nighttable: Bruce Chatwin, "In Patagonia"

Friday, December 14, 2007


I realize that didn't post much in November. When I returned to the Kyo in late October, I'd made a pact with myself not to leave the country for a year. It was time to hunker down and get to work. For the first time since I moved down here, I felt I could finally commit to this city. So it was that I began to be more proactive about finding yoga students, began to set up yoga workshops for next spring, began to hang out with friends more, began to take my personal yoga and budo training more seriously. Plus the resumption of essay hell, and a few other pleasant surprises, about which I'll write when and if they arise.

There was of course time for fun. One afternoon, while having tea with Big Paul C, we saw Adam strolling up the Kamogawa. He joined us, and the nature of the conversation turned to things more historical. I immediately likened him to a modern day Bruce Chatwin, for his breadth of knowledge and infectious zeal for life. He spoke of a sword hidden in the deep mountains of Tokushima, unconsciously pulling his shawl around him like a wizard's cloak. The next day, he invited Miki and I to come out to Chiiori, in the deep Iya wilds of Shikoku. We rented a car and crossed Awaji, passed Tokushima city, and went over three high passes, bisecting the three Iya valleys. Our route followed that of the Heike as they fled in defeat 800 years before. The beauty of the area required many photo stops, and its danger had us take a long detour around where the land had slid, covering the road. We arrived at Chiiori long after dark. It was mellow and peaceful up there, eating and staying warm around the fire as the frozen rain fell outside. When the sun was out, we braved short walks, or sitting on the hillside looking at a somewhat Himalayan landscape with Tsurugi-zan looming over all.

Another weekend, Miki and I hiked from Kurama to Takao, climbing two passes and staying high in the mountains north of the Kyo. Along the way we came across a hunter and his dog out looking for deer or wild boar. It was the first time I'd seen a gun in this country, but it brought on thoughts about greater dangers: Were bears, usually in their winter dens this late in the year, still foraging on these unseasonable warm days? Shortly after, another sign confirmed our fears. As we approach a trail marker, we jumped backward when we noticed a poisonous viber enjoying the sun at the marker's base. Our walk took us through a beautiful remote village high in the hills, and to the shores of a small lake, unspoiled by concrete. It was encouraging to see a place with no traces of development, and we weren't the only ones to think so. Nearby, a film crew cranked out the latest episode of the samurai drama, Mito Komon. The cast and crew had lunch in their trucks while the lighting crew faced the challenge of filming under a sky constantly changing.

Back in the city, there were parties. We attended the Kyoto premeire of Gaia Symphony 6. Afterward, there were drinks. I talked a while with Jin Tatsumura, the film's director. There were also lots of people in the alternative health field, and quite a few scholars. One professor jittered and twitched as we talked with him, and if this were a different country, and a different decade, I'd have guessed he was pretty coked up.

During the last week of the month, there was a wine tasting party at @Cafe, and a couple farewell bashes for friends seeking other alternatives. At one of these, Sam was tap-dancing along to a jazz band. Each of his footfalls seemed to mock me, as if counting down the days until my own eventual departure.

Autumn was warm this year, and the koyo hunters were no doubt disappointed. We too followed the leaves through their changes. Each day was like watching a striptease in extreme slow motion. The Path of Philosophy gets a lot of traffic this time of year, and two temples were open for only a few days. Reikanji with its surprisingly large garden and lovely screens. Anrakuji, with the gorgeous moss covered gate, and the trimmed shrubs out back, marching toward the borrowed scenery like an army of helmeted warriors. Further North, Sekizan Zenin hid away from the crowds, the late afternoon sun pulling details of highly elaborate craftwork out of the shadows. The trails behind our place lead up to Uryu-zan, then around to Tanuki-dani. The ridges leading south mocking the technicolor neon of downtown. And gosho itself, with fewer trees, but whose gingko stand high and proud and with undeniable majesty....

On the turntable: Xymox, "Phoenix"

On the nighttable: George Leonard, "Mastery"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Anger Begets Disgust

Your friends back in the States are jaded.  They tell you how lucky you are to be far overseas, away from the madness.  You laugh and tell them of raised airfares due to fuel prices, and of the increasing xenophobic paranoia of your host country.

Then winter comes.  And you read of the elderly freezing to death up north, unable to afford the kerosene which costs twice what it did last year.  And you read of elementary schools cutting lunch programs, since it costs too much to ship food in.

And you think of the men in charge back home, and how satisfied they seem with their Middle Eastern Follies..

On the turntable: Nine Inch Nails, "The Fragile"
On the turntable:  Vikram Seth,  "Golden Gate"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Slouching toward Shakadani

I don't write about it much, but the main reason I moved to the Kyo was so that I could study Takeuchi Bujutsu, the oldest extant jujutsu style in Japan. This nearly 500-year old system was born in the deep mountains, so it's fitting that my dojo sits on a mountaintop above the Northwest corner of the city. It is a mysterious, and quite often, a spooky place. A few weeks back, my sempai Tony and I were talking out front of the dojo after practice. Up above us, something large was moving steadily but stealthily down the slope toward us. "A tengu?" Tony asked. I yelled into the dark, "Teach us some sweet swordsmanship!"

It's getting cold in the Kyo now that it has hit December, far too cold to ride my Vespa up there. I prefer an hour of reading in the warmth of a bus. I'd noticed that there is a set of stone steps leading from near the bus stop, and wondered if they were a shortcut to the top of the zigzag of streets leading up to the dojo. Last Saturday night, I took a torch with me and decided to explore. The steps leave civilization quickly, entering a dark and dense bamboo forest. Midway up this trail is a small pond. I'd had my iPod going, but above it I thought I heard something. I took off the headphones to hear something enter the water. Not a loud sudden splash of a startled animal, but the slow deliberate movement of something trying not to be heard. Like something hunting. I shined my light over the surface of the pond, but it was glassy, without a single ripple. I usually feel quite at ease in the wild, but on this occasion, my blood turned icier than the winter air. I hurried up the hill, shining my light wildly behind me every few steps until I entered the safety of the dojo.

And then I asked myself, quite seriously. Are kappa real?

On the turntable; David Byrne, "Rei Momo"

On the nighttable: Gary Katzenstein, "Funny Business"

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sunday papers: Ogden Nash

“Translations are like mistresses: the beautiful ones aren’t faithful, and the faithful ones aren’t beautiful.”

On the turntable: Timbuk 3, "Eden Alley"
On the nighttable: Paul Auster, "Oracle Night"

Friday, November 30, 2007

Ceci n'est pas une gripe

From Campbell, "It is the predicament of the neurotic that he translates everything into the terms of infantile sexuality; but if the doctor does so too, then where do we get?"

After a century of Freudian psychology grounding the self in the lower, primal, animalistic states of existence, is it any wonder the West dictates value in terms of sex and glory, wealth and fame?

On the turntable: McCoy Tyner, "Inception"
On the nighttable: Joseph Campbell, "Primitive Mythology"

Friday, November 16, 2007

(Workin') On the Road Again

A mere two days after coming back to Kyoto, I was on the move again. Ezaki Mitsuru was again in need of people to help fire his kiln. Figuring that working 'round the clock would be a sure fire way to beat jetlag, off we went.

So it was that three weeks to the day after saying, "Mata ne!" to the Atlantic, a week to the day after saying "Hello" to the Pacific, I crossed a bridge which brought the Nihonkai into view, reminding me of Ray Carver and his "so much water so close to home." (I'm going to stick with the term, 'Nihonkai,' not wanting to take sides in the playground spat over Japan Sea and East Sea. Maybe they should just call it, "The Sea that Divides.") The men in blue flared trousers were still hard at work fixing the road damaged in the Spring quake. When I'd come up here in May, there had been only three or four spots which had collapsed into rice fields below. Today new sections were being laid down in huge kilometer-long swaths, and the traffic delays were worse than they'd been 6 months before. Unlike the American solution of a band-aid on an amputation, here it's more of a heart transplant to treat high blood pressure. I think I get it now. The puppets in the Ministry of Construction must see natural disasters as gifts from the kami. Behind them, their construction industry master rub their hands with glee.

Anyway, Ezaki's works that we helped cook are currently on display in Tokyo. Check it out:

On the turntable: "Anthology of American Folk Music"
On the nighttable: W.S. Maugham, "Far Eastern Tales"

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Autumn Nocturne

I can't finish writing on my US trip without mentioning the music. Road trips require good tunes, a tradition dating back to those settlers who boogied to the percussive clip-clop of horse footfalls.

The backroads of Vermont, miles ticked off by gentle guitar chords. Bonny "Prince' Billy, Elliott Smith, and Bright Eyes played heavily here.

Massachussetts was all Led Zeppelin.

In New York, my iPod was heavy with late 70s punk and New Wave. The Ramones were a big fave. The history of music is chock full o' songs bearing the city's name, and I mined my folders for these. Michael's nouveau Japhy Ryder bungalow rang out with the voice of Lou Reed, first the obligatory New York and later with Magic and Loss, this latter having special resonance for my new friend. I'd forgotten just how incredibly dark that album is. As Spinal Tap says, "There is none more black." Later on a street corner in the Village, we heard Joe Walsh's "In the City" playing in some shop. But nothing, nothing, sounds better for a late night stroll of Manhattan boulevards than Moby at high volume.

Arcadian coast of Maine and Atlantic Provinces were predominately Celtic. Quebec tunes sung in French.

The nature of Phoenix Rising tends to pull me skyward, so at lunchtime I'd blast hardcore, a sort of sonic pair of heavy soled boots to keep my feet on the ground. Tapping.

Pickin' and grinnin' along the windy coast of Big Sur and Carmel with folk and bluegrass.

And finally, as is custom, at that moment where the journey is done and centrifugal force pulls me out of the U-turn toward home: Cornershop's, "Good to be on the Road Back Home Again."
A must.

On the turntable: Sting, "The Dream of the Blue Turtles"
On the nighttable: Wolf Lowenthal, "Like a Long River"

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Rounding Third and...

After I left Montreal, it was if someone hit the Fast Forward button, and the next two weeks passed at great speed. Montreal is only a couple hours to Vermont, but in this narrow strip I met a girl who had no English and spoke French in a dialect which made no sense to me whatsoever. My next encounter went little better. The official at the border crossing with New York state was a true prick, a real standout in his profession. The way he sneered at my having been in Canada was filled with a malice toward any American who had the nerve to want to leave his fine land. I thought about how the first impression most foreigners have of the US is formed while dealing with guys like him. Little wonder we are so hated abroad. A beer and a walk in Burlington did well to calm me.

That night began my 5th and final week in Bristol. I felt I edged down what felt like two paths superimposed on one another: one of much-needed technical PRYT training, the other an intensely personal journey of pain and self-discovery. Elizabeth Gilbert's book weaved in and out, making up my nighttime reading and lending bits of wisdom eerily related to what I was experiencing during the day. I finished the week drained but strangely elated. During the downtime, I took my seat at the bar of the Bobcat or in one of the Adirondack chairs out front of the bakery, my face turned toward the sun rising over the hills at the end of Main Street.

My five weeks in the East came to an end on a clear day when I flew down to Raleigh. My plane looked down on the magnificent colors below, giving way to mountain ranges further south, laid out in parallel rows like berms. The next few days were spent at the house of my sister and her family. I have bad luck with the weather in Raleigh, and this town which had been facing severe drought got a third of its needed rain in five days of thunderstorms which oddly reflected the ice storms of my previous visit. I only left the house twice. Pete had scored center-ice, fourth row tickets for a Carolina rout of the Buffalo Sabres. This was pure Americana for me--a high speed, in-your-face event where the potential for violence was imminent. Not being a hockey fan, and holding no familiarity to the local team, I had a moment where I shut down completely due to lack of a fixed reference. This happens sometimes when I go back to the States, a reminder that being Lost in Translation can also work in reverse. Oddly enough the reference I did have (besides the end-of-empire, Roman bloodlust, crowd mentality thing) was that I followed the action in how I related it to soccer. Which just goes to show just how internationalized this lifelong basketball fan has become.

The next morning Meghan and I had breakfast in the brick downtown of Raleigh. It was the total Southern package, grits and bad coffee served up by waitresses who call you "Hon." Around an adjacent table, four suited (no seersuckers unfortunately) bigwigs were having a power brekkie, casually going over the day's biz, before reworking it back at the office. One guy was a figure of incredible girth, and another had a thick growth of bangs which hung down his face like a beaver's tail. A hundred Southern book- and film-characters danced in my mind.

I spent the last weekend in Monterey with Ben-chan. The flight over looked down on the Sierra's covered with fresh snow, bringing me full circle to May and those same peaks slowly going topless for summer. On the drive down from SFO, I took the wrong exit, leading me up over a high pass to startle a deer on the side of the road, waiting to cross. The next day, Ben and I drove down to Big Sur, stopping in at the Henry Miller library and for a quick peek at Esalen. We also got in a couple hikes, one up above the redwoods onto trails lined with mesquite and poison oak. Another trail led through high grass to a beach of stones, driftwood, and kelp strands thick as bungee cords. Sunday, we alternately biked along the shore to a popular surf break, then back through Cannery Row. Commercialism has whitewashed the place, making it now unrecognizable from Steinbeck books or my last visit 21 yeas back. The history is completely gone, the factories serving little purpose but to bilk tourist dollars. May as well call it Chicanery row now. Downtown Monterey was nicer, rust-colored tiles over bleached Spanish walls. Though I rarely miss Santa Barbara, being back on the Central Coast made me frequently reminisce about my three years there. A nice warm-fuzzy ending to a long, meandering year of journeys.

Once again I found myself on a plane. Once again I lost a day. The train took me through Osaka, all bright and neon and looking quite CG after the truer colors of New England autumn. (How much nicer to re-enter this hideously ugly city at night!) This train took me to Paul and Marla's three hour yoga workshop, which I somehow survived despite my ragged condition. But like all the other days, I always know that there's a warm bed at the end, even if I don't know where that bed is.
Good night.

On the turntable: The Replacements, "All Shook Down"
On the nighttable: Mo Yan, "Big Breasts and Wide Hips"

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday papers: Henry Miller

"It isn't the oceans which cut us off from the world--it's the American way of looking at things"

On the turntable: Joe Jackson, "Look Sharp!"
On the nighttable: Seta Jeter Naslund, "Ahab's Wife"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday papers: Bruce Chatwin

"Religion is a travel guide for settlers."

On the turntable: Yo Yo Ma, "Classic Yo Yo"
On the nighttable: Elizabeth Gilbert, "Eat, Love, Pray"

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ca et La

Friday morning, I pointed the nose of my car north and followed it. It was a dreary day, less like rain and more like driving thru slow moving water. The first few hours were dull, moving along roads hemmed in by trees and the low clouds like a lid on top of it all. Around noon, I finally reached the Acadia Peninsula, which branches off from Miramichi, a city with a Japanese sounding name and supposedly good fly fishing. I stopped in a small diner for lunch. Inside, the old timers were speaking French and an equal number of younger men in muddy boots spoke an English that was so thickly Canadian that it was almost a parody. The waitresses flowed freely between both. I read a few of the French flyers by the door, then moved on. Signs in French began growing in prominence until out by Caraquet where English was badly outnumbered. As I followed the coast, the sky cleared just enough to reveal the high peaks of the Gaspe Peninsula out across the bay. I crossed into Quebec and cut across the peninsula, finding myself suddenly in an Alaskan landscape of thick wooded hills and rushing streams. The only distinct "back east" touches were the centuries old wooden bridges that spanned them. I was literally driving into fall. Down in Maine, the maples were still yellow, and the orange leaves didn't appear until the Bay of Fundy. Up here, the birch trees had already shed their colors to take on a light gray. From a distance, a mountainscape seemed streaked in a way that resembled the alarming recent changes of my chin stubble. In Quebec, I'd gained an hour, but this far east, not any daylight, so at the coast I called it a night. I stayed in Matane, a town I liked for its Japanese pun of a name. As I ate pasta laced with the region's famous shrimp, the winds coming off the St. Lawrence River shook the restaurant. I barely felt it, my body still vibrating from an 11-hour drive.

I set off the next morning before dawn, driving away from a sun just rising. The streets were empty and none of the houses had any lights on. I played connect the dots with the small beach towns out this way, then crested a foggy which is the last of the Gaspe mountains. On the far side the hills dropped to parallel the shoreline, creating a long flat valley containing a chain of beautiful little farm towns. The rain stopped for awhile, bringing a sliver of blue to the sky which added color to an otherwise black and white day. Unfortunately it didn't last. I followed the farms to Quebec City, where I crossed over the north shore of the St. Lawrence. The sky dropped again and erased the view. I followed the highway toward Montreal.

Once in town, I contacted my friend Yvon, who directed me to his house in the northern part of the city. I'd met Yvon at PRYT training back in June, he being the only male besides me. When the rest of the group commented on our bravery, we two males venturing into areas more familiar to women, I countered that Yvon was the truly brave one. I'd been sipping the spiritual waters since university, yet he'd been a CEO of a successful company until the day he'd had an epiphany which led him to gradually shed 50 years of conditioning. He was currently working to bring yoga into the boardroom where he felt it was most needed. This weekend he was out at his country house, but I had free reign of his place in the city. I dropped off my stuff, then walked over to Outremont, following the streets around. The rain had stopped and the weather was perfect for a stroll. High brownstones lined the sidestreets, many with bicycles on the metal fire escapes. The main avenues were a mix of New England town and Paris boulevard, bizarrely perfect in their balance. A few streets over, the neighborhood grew rougher and hints of immigrant populations began to appear, in the form of Greek delis and Lebanese restaurants. Orthodox Jewish children walked in front of one of the three sushi bars on this street. I had dinner in a bistro specializing in mussels, then finished off with coffee at Second Cup, across from a movie theatre which screens French films. In both places, the staff approached me in French, then switched easily to a nearly unaccented English. I sat awhile reading in the front window table until it grew dark. I'd driven eighteen hours in two days and was exhausted.

I awoke early again, and walked through the silent streets past huge homes until I found a series of hiking trails up Mont Royal. A series of switchbacks gave way to a side trail which led into the Catholic cemetery. Looking around I realized that I was surrounded by the graves of children, each stone fronted by stuffed animals or toy cars. Why today of all days? On this date five years before, I'd lost my own son. I gave myself over to grief and cried for a good long time. I wandered the graves awhile, passing rows of markers of those who'd died in the 1950s. Spouses were buried together, and I couldn't fathom how it would feel to outlive your spouse by decades. Other graves were separated by ethnic group. The Chinese had the best spot, up at the top of the hill with a view of the Olympic Park to the west. Nearby I found a narrow path over to Mont Royal itself, with the main part of Montreal spread before me. I wandered down to the gothic stone spires of McGill College, then into the city itself. Down on Rue St. Catherine, I noticed three Natives laughing as they looked into a shop selling Inuit goods. Wearing backpacks and clad as hunters, they looked out of a cliched film about simple natives set loose in the big city, surrounded by well-classed tourists in this ritzy part of town. I followed this street until it began to resemble every other North American city with their chain shops and boutiques. I followed the side roads down toward Vieux Montreal and the waterfront.

Crossing into old town was like crossing the street between New York and Paris. The streets narrowed and became cobblestone. There were horse-drawn carriages down here, carrying tourists with blankets across their knees. In one lane, a pigeon feasted on the grain-flecked horse dung left behind. Down another cobblestone lane, one ballsy guy actually rollerbladed. I navigated these streets on a mission to find poutine, that artery hardening pile of gravy coated cheese fries. Ducking in and out of bistros and sandwich shops. I noticed that the latter were all run by Chinese. I finally found poutine in a cafe near Norte Dame, where I later stopped to light a votive candle for Ken-chan. I spent the rest of the morning down here, popping into shops and walking the lanes. On the waterfront, young couples strolled arm-in-arm or stole kisses down alleys. Seeing them made me miss the other half of my own couple, made me really long to waste away a lazy Sunday with her in some romantic setting like this.

A few more turns brought me to Chinatown, its one lane packed with people. Up the hill further was the trendy Latin Quarter, and the nearby Plateau. Down the old hippie haunts of Rue Prince-Arthur into Square St. Louis, where the hippie's offsprung still smoked dope in front of elaborately decorated Victorians. Up Boulevard St. Laurant now, stopping to read and write over coffee at the hip Cafe Popolo. Further up the street I had dinner with a now returned Yvon and his wife, talking Yoga and Zen over Indian curries served up by fussy waiters....

On the turntable: "Bach Meets Cape Breton"
On the nighttable: Tim O'Brien, "Tomcat in Love"

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Eastern Edges

Halifax. My friend Marcin, (who you may remember from our Kyoto adventures) was living here now, teaching at the local university. The morning after I arrived, we had breakfast at the hip Blower's Paper Chase cafe, then walked around the city and along the waterfront. After beers at Garrison brewery, we had lunch at the old Henry House, then drove out to Peggy Cove to hop along the huge granite stones of the shoreline. The sea beyond was teeming. The heads of seals bobbed just offshore, sharing their meal with the seabirds who would dive into the frigid water from great heights. Further out were the fountains of spray of a pod of whales migrating south along the coast. Incredible. Back in town, we chilled out a bit at Cabin Coffee amidst the lounge music and powerful scent of maple. That night was band practice. I met the other three members of the group--all Japanese. Within seconds my body language and style of speaking changed. It is amazing how at home I am in Japanese culture, and how it, not my native North American culture surrounding it, dictates how I act. Rehearsal was fun, watching them run thru some pieces with flute, taiko, and voice. The last hour or so I joined in for a jam session. Later were the obligatory beers.

The next day I was solo. I had a quick swim in a waterfront pool open this late in the year due to the warm weather. I spent most of my day zigzagging up and down the hills of Halifax, looking around the Khyber Gallery and the Art School, hanging out at various coffee shops like the Paper Chase and Just Us!, and tripping over the piles of used books in the bookshops. I probably walked every square meter of the city's sidewalk, seeing the same people again and again. Halifax seems to have an overabundance of the dreadlocked and the homeless. My favorite character was this happy-go-lucky guy that seemed like a drifter with his big fuzzy Abbie Hoffman head of hair, who I most often saw begging change, though I once saw him walking with great purpose down a steep hill toward the waterfront. (To buy a beavertail maybe?) That night Marcin and I met up with the Japanese again to go see the performance Drum! The music was terrific, but the message of harmony through music was a tad overdone and somewhat naive. (Ask the indigenous people their opinion, if you can find any.) Later we all went up to Rogue's Roost for Pub Quiz. Walking home past a centuries old graveyard, I couldn't help but think that the hard work of the dead lying there had a direct correlation in my day.

Another cemetery closed out my visit. I'd been to the Maritime Museum the day before and was surprised to find that many of the Titanic's dead had been brought here since Halifax was the closest port to the site of the wreck. On the outskirts of town I found them, about half lying in graves unmarked for nearly a century. The taller stones told tales of valor and duty that no longer exists, which is perhaps just as well since it led to so many fatalities. Heading back to the waterfront, I looked out into the rainy mist and imagine the Titanic rescue ships coming in, bearing horrors yet unknown to the people watching from the shore.

On the turntable: Prem Joshua, "Water down the Ganges"
On the nighttable: Richard Ford, "Women with Men"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Narrow Road to the Great White North

Autumn came on slow. The sky has been clear, blue, flawless, and the sun comes down and keeps the temperature high. It's been the perfect weather for driving in, passing from shadow to shadow of the trees doing their annual magic act.

One afternoon, my aunt and I drove around northwest Connecticut. As we passed certain lakes and towns, she told me the part these places played in the family history. After a nice lunch outside, we dropped by a farm to get pumpkins and fruit. The hills beyond rolled away toward Canada. So the next day I followed them. A straight line northeast, into a Massachusetts looking more worn than the rest of New England. The larger towns seemed overwhelmed by a changing world where history no longer mattered. Many of their churches seemed in the throes of desperation, with signboards bearing weird slogans like "October 14th, 30 hour famine," or "The ten commandments aren't multiple choice." By contrast, further out in the country, the churches were still holding the centers of smaller villages, the town green extending toward the obligatory single street lined with old wooden shops. Between these villages were large swathes of forest hiding immense houses with immense lawns, and lakes to maintain the color.

By late afternoon, I had made it to Portland, Maine. I had lunch in the waterfront, with trendy shops and galleries where tourists could walk off the meals had in old taverns and converted restaurants long tied to a historical fishing industry. I followed the back alleys down the piers lined with stacked lobster traps and boats finished for the season. The smaller streets were still paved with brick, which made me think a little of Seattle. I got back to my car and realized that I had forgot to put money in the meter, but even after an hour I hadn't been ticketed. Lucky. I drove east. I went through Freeport, crowded with people on pilgrimage to LL Bean, which has made autumn into a lifestyle. Further out, the towns grew more spaced and the rivers wider, more wild. Crossing one, I looked back to see the sun touching the hilltops out west. Turning back to the road, I saw a group of cottages lining the Sheepscot River. Again, luck was with me as I could get one for the night cheaply. Mine was a small cottage, and much bigger the the apartment of my friend back in NY. The living room and the bed both had views of the sun setting over the sailboats tied up in the bay. I went down to the water's edge watching the tide swirl the kelp until it grew too dark to see anymore.

The next morning I set off early. I stopped for an hour or so in Searsport, a small village which used to have quite a large shipbuilding industry. The maritime museum was a small lane containing seven buildings and a church. I walked around, drawn to the old oil paintings of seascapes and tall masted ships. I thought of the different faces travel has taken in different times. Whereas in the old days a person would be drawn to the sea, to months and years away from home, while a person of the same character today might set out today on a roadtrip, or an extended backpacking jaunt across a continent. Kindred spirits, though admittedly with different risks. Today the town was having some kind of festival, with elaborately decorated pumpkins and scarecrows, and horse-drawn carriage rides. I pulled out just as the police closed the main road for the parade. A couple hours later I was in Bar Harbor. A cruise ship was in port and the town, normally sleepy this time of year was crawling with Brits. Parking was surprisingly easy to find since everyone came by sea. Had Paul Revere repeated his wild ride last night, calling out to Robert Newman to hang two lanterns from the town church? I had lunch at the waterfront, wandered town a bit, then drove toward Acadia Park. It dawned on me that as a boy I'd seen this place in an old photo book and had been floored by the scenery. Dense, dense forests tangled in a mess of wind weathered trunks opened to give glimpses of perfectly shaped bays of shimmering sun and sailboats. I was almost a cliche in its magic. Around every turn a view that topped the last. After a couple hours, I was spent so went back up to Bar Harbor to sit in the village square and read in the grass. My friend Jen finished working late afternoon, so I drove out to her place in the woods. It was a small house unseen by the main road and surrounded by more of that thick density of trees. Her dogs needed a walk, so we took them through the woods toward the beach. They'd been in the house all day and simply tore through the trees at high speed, nipping at each others face and ears in play. They darted on and off the trail at high speed, one time even passing through my legs as I jumped up, my feet connecting with their backs so that for a moment, I was dog surfing. Jen and I had met in Vermont in June but hadn't talked since then. We caught up, walking the stones and stepping over tree trunks. A bald eagle landed in a tree across the bay. She told me how humbling she finds these woods and is happy to have put down roots here. Me, ever wandering, envy this. We had dinner later, but she'd made plans she couldn't escape, which made me dogsitter for the night. The first rain began to fall, but I sat warm inside, with tea at my side, dogs at my feet, and trees absolutely everywhere. My sleep was dreamless, filled with shadow...

I leave really early into the gloomy morning. Getting coffee in a small village on the south of the island, I saw one woman looking at the flyers in the window of a real estate office. I know that feeling well, of falling in love with a place so deeply that you begin to fantasize about moving in. A street over, a local with a screwed up Popeye face scrutinized me with one eye as I move past. I drove the perimeter of the island, eventually joining highway 1 again, which I followed east for most of the morning, sometimes taking smaller roads in an attempt to stay with the coastline. The day began to clear, but the wind stayed strong, making this the first true first day of fall. I moved ever east. The number of cars grew thin as the road led toward the border. Houses gave way to trees and those occasional moose crossing signs disappeared altogether. I image the woods are thick with them up here. But it felt like I was alone as I counted off the miles to Canada. I love this feeling, this 'fin-de-seicle' of geography, of moving toward a point that is an extreme. Near Lubec, it is just that, being the easternmost point in the US. The grass at that corner of the yard is worn thin by the feet of visitors. I too stand there, take my photos, then move on. In Lubec itself, I find a village deserted this Sunday, all these buildings stand empty, the Canadian winds blowing from across the river have made their blue-grey paint go almost turquoise. I stand and look across, but then get in the car and drive up to the crossing at Calais.

It's a breeze going across, but I still get that weird guilt and worry even though I have nothing to hide. At the border, I'm thrilled to find a moneychanger, since this is Sunday and I completely spaced out those logistics. Worse still, I think that tomorrow may be Canadian Thanksgiving and banks may not be open, hotels may be full. The first thing I see in Canada is a group of right to lifers picketing some place. Behind them is a grocery store called "Choice." This seems to have turned some tumblers in my head. I can't explain it, but I feel really confused for the next first half hour or so. I'm often overwhelmed at new cultures and countries but this is Canada, for godssake. I calm down and then realize that my speedometer doesn't have the markings for kilometers. A minute later I decide to think in multiples of six and after that, I'm fine. On to Saint John.

I arrive to find a city completely devoid of people. I mean no one, no cars, no people. I'm still not sure if tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and a moment ago I passed a clock that was an hour ahead of my watch. I can see myself running the Saint John streets like Jimmy Stewart, shaking people as asking, "What day is this?", "What time is it?" But there is no one to be seen, and I make a leap from "It's a Wonderful Life" to "28 Days Later." I walk the empty streets awhile, then sit in the sun in an ancient graveyard. The stone nearest to me is for an 8 month old child who died in 1825. Unbelievably, someone has left a single yellow rose. I'm sick of Saint John already and want to go. I've said many times that a city's beauty depends on whether it has embraced it's waterfront. A few blocks south, the city just ends at a fenced in lot. The sea is about 30 meters beyond. On the way back to my car, I decide to get a cup of coffee at Tim Horton's, which appears to be a chain shop. Inside, I talk with my first Canadian. The conversation goes:
"One medium French Vanilla coffee and that (pointing) chocolate glazed."
"You want a donut?"
The million Canadian jokes I've heard (or told) simultaneously rush into my head.

A short drive brings me to St. Martin, which is the most beautiful place I've seen in NB so far. As feared, one B&B turns me away because they are full--of family. The smell of turkey coming from the door behind this sweet old woman is killing me. Luckily, I find a place nearby, in a large pretentious house on a hill. The room is large, but there are far too many flowers on the wallpaper. Here too, I get a turkey dinner, and I sit happily wondering what it is that Canadians have to be thankful for. It's a happiness steeped in confusion since my watch, room clock, and clock over the dining room all show different times. I know it's not important, I'll merely eat, then read, then sleep, but having absolutely no idea what time it is is unbelievably disorienting. Is this why we look at the clock first thing if we awaken in the middle of the night, even if it is full dark?

The next morning, the roads leading out of town are deserted, and I have the Bay of Fundy drive all to myself. I stop at the various turnoffs, take photos, hike around a little. The ground here is moist, the moss-covered trails almost squishy. Here too, the woods are dense and thick, a far cry from the overgroomed forests of Japan. I continue on to the national park itself. I am running dangerously low on gas, but luckily, the last few kilometers into Alma are steep hills. I fill up, then walk the beach, listening to the local fishermen talk in a dialect I've never heard. At nearby Hopewell, I hike to the rocks, but the tide is high and I can't get down to the beach. I keep driving. It's a beautiful fall day, and I'm giddy. New Brunswick is a truly bilingual province, and I read the French words out loud in the voice of Cajun Man, from that old SNL skit. I follow the bay as it funnels toward Moncton. The tide is falling now, and each bridge I cross looks down on multiple shades of brown left high by the receding water. The tide differences here in the Bay of Fundy are the highest in the world, and I image that mud must play a large part in the lives of the people here.

Outside Moncton, I find Magnetic Hill, a weird place where your car, if left in neutral, will roll backwards uphill. I wonder how my brainwaves are affected, as I cross into Nova Scotia...

On the turntable: Robert Mirabal, "Taos Tales"
On the nighttable: W. Somerset Maugham, "Far Eastern Tales"

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sunday papers: Whit Stillman

"Passion is the hare, conformity the tortoise."

On the turntable: White Stripes, "De Stijl"
On the nighttable: James Welch, The Indian Lawyer"

Friday, October 05, 2007

No Sleep 'Til...

Brooklyn. I'd never been out here before. Monday morning I found myself in Park Slope, walking Flatbush Avenue, a name I knew from a lousy Stallone film. I was out to here to visit Shivani, a friend I'd met up in Vermont at PRYT training last June. After practice, she and I could often be found at the Bobcat, drinking beers and swapping India war stories. In the yoga world, it is a delight to find those who 'keep it real." We spent the day wandering her 'hood, down the old streets lined with brownstones, up the Avenues lined with trendy cafes and used bookstores. Whereas nearby Williamsburg is better known as an artistic enclave, Park Slope is where the more moneyed set went to escape rising Manhattan rents. There is a cool vibe here too, but it costs more. A nice exception is the Tea Lounge, where I spent most of my time. It's the sort of hipster cafe where you sip your Italian coffee not behind a well-thumbed paperback, but in front of your laptop. A silver MacBook seems to be the black beret of the current decade. I felt anachronistic in reading my novel. The bathroom here was filled with graffiti of a political theme and next to one bit about the British responsibility in creating the Palestine mess, someone had written the Boddhisattva vow. MCA perhaps?

Mid-afternoon, I arrived back in Connecticut. Literally five minutes off the train, I suddenly felt exhausted. While in the city, had I been 'girding' myself against potential harm? Here in the safety of the countryside, could I finally let go? It's bizarre, especially since I had felt no danger at all. There were a couple sketchy looking characters on the train, but I never for a minute felt in harm's way. New York is a far safer place than I remember. I was reminded of a friend telling me how after he returned home from years in Japan, he found himself scared of black people and felt guilty about it. I can understand, but after giving it more thought I realized it was something else. One of the major benefits of martial arts study is the ability to recognize (and avoid) potential threats. I found that my instances of fear were rooted more in a reaction to how a person presented themselves, that way which screams, "Don't even think about fucking with me!" I found that I was reacting to the body language, not to the skin color. On this particular trip, the most intimidated I felt was when approaching a group of four tall white dudes done up in baggy hip hop style and walking down the dark street in that loose-jointed way that Tom Wolfe so brilliantly dubbed the "pimp roll."
There's nothing wrong with a little caution. As the proverb says, "Trust in Allah, but tie your camel to the post."

On the turntable: Kronos Quartet, "Performs Phillip Glass"
On the nighttable: Peter Moore, "The Wrong Way Home"

Thursday, October 04, 2007

In the City

Hopped a southbound train in Waterbury, CT. The tracks were covered with the first fallen leaves of the season, and as the train passed, it seemed to be trying to blow the leaves back up into the trees. At Grand Central, I took the subway to the East Village, making my way toward Life Cafe, heavily featured in the musical "Rent," though I found that out later. I had come here to meet Michael, whose blog I had somehow found about a year ago. Back in the 90's, he'd lived in Japan, and his writing often reflects back to that influence. More recently, Michael has been documenting the changes happening around the east village, the area where his father was born, exactly 100 years ago. This immigrant neighborhood and its low rents eventually gave rise to an artist/hipster culture which has slowly been eroding due to rising rents and rich types filling (or expediting) the void. The center cannot hold, and Michael has been photo-documenting the loss of a neighborhood's soul. Over two days I followed him as his eye and his camera led him around. As expected, he knows most of the more colorful characters.

Bolivar Arellano's studio was closing that Sunday. His final exhibition was a series of 9/11 photos taken by local photographers. Many of these were too graphic to be shown in the mainstream media. Heavy, heavy stuff. While I was looking around I heard Michael and a Canadian journalist talking about that day, and the eerie days that followed where birds and cicadas could be heard due to the absence of planes in the air. (Interestingly, this contrasts exactly with an impression of my own. On that late 2003 US trip where I was looking for the pulse of the country, I was walking up Madison to the Whitney Museum, hoping the Hoppers would shed some light on the dark side of the American dream. Suddenly a plane flew over, and everyone on the sidewalk literally stopped and looked up. Very, very odd.) Michael has an interesting post of the story of Bolivar here.

We popped into WAGA to talk with Oueni. This shop sells African art, clothes, and musical instruments. The entire time we were there, his stunningly gorgeous girlfriend danced in front of a mirror, sexily gyrating to the Afro-pop coming though the speakers.

We met Urgyen, a Tibetan who has a shop nearby. He told us a comedic incident involving a rather zealous woman friend who happens to be Soka Gakkai. Chenrezig give him strength.

We passed some time with his good friend, Jim "Mosaic Man" Power, a long-time local legend. I had a small part in his latest art piece, documented by Michael here. Jim's backstory here.

Along the way there were acrobats and waitresses, street musicians and homeless, dancers and punk bands. Plus basketball games, free microbrewed beer, late night tea at Teeny, Saturday night outer-borough punters, kids eating ice cream, know-it-all Cubans in wife-beaters, sunlit pumpkins, uptight lapdog pamperers, Physical Graffiti facades, basement Taoists, gay newlyweds, Hare Krishnas, urban bicycle cowboys, a massive owl, and a woman dining alone with Lonely Planet on her sidewalk tabletop.

Getting the picture? There are more here. Wander awhile.

Late Sunday, Michael dropped me off at the Chelsea Hotel, my digs for the evening. I stayed in room 702, and I wonder who else did. I dropped my bags and made my way down a staircase framed in art all the way. I walked uptown. Passed a cafe where the conversation at each table was in a different language. A cop jaywalked on 7th Avenue. A Latin guy repaired a window in a sports bar (the Mets dropped out of the pennant race that afternoon).

I found Times Square, absolutely overrun with people toting cameras. A Hasid stepped out of the crowd and wished me a happy Sukkot. My face must have shown surprise, so he asked me if I was Jewish. I smiled and shook my head and headed down 44th to Angus McIndoe's for a stout and a swordfish. To establish the night's Monty Python theme, I was sure to eat "more bread pudding" before crossing the street to see "Spamalot" which I'd missed two years ago. Brilliant. Then walked back out to Times Square, now done up in neon like a frenetic Shibuya. I tried to hide the fact that I was just another annoying tourist, but I too was mesmerized into blocking the sidewalk and slackjawed gawking. As I walked away, I wondered exactly when New York became a brand, with the obsequious "NYC" this and "NYC" that. Was this a post 9/11 thing, a light, Disneyesque attempt to lure tourist dollars back to a still-reeling city? Despite this logo, I found New York to be the most European of American cities (though I've never been to New Orleans), the effect being that while I was here, I began to really long for Europe.

Back at the Chelsea. I took a bath with a book and a beer. The label said something like, "We share in the rousing company of good spirits," so I raised a toast to any who might be lingering around, as the clock in the other room ticked closer to the month of Halloween.

I awoke early with a mild headache, caused perhaps by 123 years of cigarette smoke leaching from the walls. In the lobby, European bohos wrote on their laptops. These days, is it art if no one sees you do it? Once out on the streets I found myself walking the walk, directed by a map of New York as known by the Beats. It was a wonderful way to spend the first morning of October. A series of right angles led me past the former flats of late-1940s poets and painters. I saw where Kerouac worked on "On the Road," where Ginsberg fought his inevitability. I too wasn't insusceptible to the muse:

Near Ginsberg's old 15th St pad,
Two actors sit on the stoop
Rehearsing a scene

I passed Warhol's Factory, bought juice in Union Square market, looked at the photos of old ships at Chelsea Docks. I was born in this neighborhood, at St. Vincents Hospital, so I closed a 40 year circle. On the front steps, I marvelled that from this vantage point I'd first seen the outdoors.
My own journey had begun here.

On the turntable: Gomez, "In Our Gun"
On the nighttable: Ursula Hegi, "Salt Dancers"

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sentimental Journey

Drove south, zigzagging in and out of Vermont's Green Mountains. Much cooler today. The trees ripe in color after last night's storm. Nostalgic autumn sights and smells. A family playing horseshoes beside a lake. A maze cut through a cornfield. A brother and sister race to grab the best pumpkin.

At dusk, a walk in the forest near some wetlands, hoping to see moose.

Autumn in New England. There's no other place I'd rather be right now.

On the turntable: Tosca, "Delhi 9"
On the nighttable: Whit Stillman, "The Last Days of Disco"

Friday, September 28, 2007


And now again, back in the States, basking in the cusp of autumn, brought on by a late afternoon Vermont thunderstorm.

On the plane over, I was for some reason upgraded to sit in the jumpseats usually reserved for the flight crew. I shared them only on takeoff and landing, with a Taiwanese beauty who kept up enough of a steady banter to keep my eyes and my mind off the usual pendulum swing between awe at the view and sheer terror at the unconceivable physics of flight. Connect in Chicago to board a plane next to a Korean student with long eyelashes and the fresh smell of PlayDoh. Land in Indianapolis's surprisingly progressive airport, with massage chairs and a kiosk selling Rosetta Stone language courses right in the terminal. As usual, I spent my first few hours thinking how fucked up everybody was. But I admit that my research was skewed since most of that time was spent in airports. And air travel brings out the absolute worst in absolutely everyone, in both the cattle and the cattle drivers. My uncharitable first impressions tend to go away quickly and are always the result of the fog which could be jetlag, but could also be a survival mechanism to deal with the sudden sensory overload, overhearing the syllables of my native tongue and my eyes drawn to shapes and letters which I can actually read.

In late 2003, I'd returned to the States for the first time after nearly 3 years away, trying to reassemble my world after the death of my son. While trying to reconnect with my own heart and soul, I'd returned to the source, an attempt at acquiring wisdom from the land of my birth. I sought it out on long train and bus rides, while wandering its cities, while flipping thru the pages of its recent novels. I never even came close to finding it since the country at that time, 9 months into the Iraq debacle, was a nation adverse to communication of any kind. Forget about emoting.
Ironically I find that heart now, in the book I was just reading, in Richard Ford's "Lay of the Land." Had it been published back then, I needn't have looked further. It is almost a thesis on fin de siecle America in 2000, yet in many ways I still feel the G forces from the continuous spiral. Here in Ford's insight seems to be the pulse of the America I have since rediscovered, a pulse beating with the blood of everyone whom I make contact.

I make my way to the religious center of the nation, to the mall. I get nearly all my hair chopped off as a sort of flight of passage into a new decade. In the chair, I sit and listen to all the hairdresser banter, reminding me of the dialogue from the film "Waitress, " itself seemingly the "Steel Magnolias" of the current generation. I think that there are few chances of long term love in a hair salon, where if a handsome man comes in at all, he won't return for at least a month or two. My hair was cut by an young woman who's absence of smile reflected possible love problems of her own. After a while we started to chat, and it turned out she had learned Japanese in high school. This town may be small but the world is far smaller.

I later meet a true speaker of Japanese, Eriko, who I married to Marty in my role as a minister. A group of us have pizza and beer on the patio of their beautiful new house, while my brother Eric sneaks out to the car to check the football scores. Flat-bottom boats cruise the perimeter of the lake on this, the autumnal equinox. In honor of the balance, of the equality, I spend one day indoors watching two films brilliant in the use of violence as art--"28 Days Later" and "Sin City." Another day is spent in the sun, at the park where Columbus Indiana is having it's first folk fest. Dave and I at first laugh at the fact that the town's three hippies are in the crowd (including himself in fact) and later begin a rambling conversation about psychology that expands to well over three hours, long after the beer and smoothies have run out.

On the flight to Vermont I change planes in Cleveland, which I honor with a "Spinal Tap" reference. Here in the heart of Rock 'n 'Roll, we are force fed country music and bad pop through the airport's sound system.
On the final approach to Burlington, the mountains below dazzle. A lone lake rests high in the peaks. They're smaller and much more welcoming than the snow-capped monsters of Montana and Idaho I'd seen a few days before. Off the wing, I see the fort where Ben and I basked in the warm sun on summer solstice. Time's flight needs no wings...

On the turntable: Matthew Sweet, "Altered Beast"
On the nighttable: Nicholas Shakespeare, "Bruce Chatwin: A Biography"

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Stand Still Laddy!

I can't finish talking about my US trip until I tell the story of one bizarre thing that happened there. Well half of it happened there. The other half occured after getting back here to Japan. in a single month, I had the unpleasant experience of having to renew my driver's licenses in both countries. I'd expected the US variation to go far smoother. In my small town it's basically a process of eye check, photo, hand over ten bucks and you're set for 8 more years. But on his day there was a glitch. It seems that an updated computer system had found an outstanding warrant from Arizona, a place I haven't lived in since university finished in the long hot summer of '90. I'd never gotten any moving violations but over my last couple years there I'd gotten about 17 parking tickets on campus, which in the wisdom of youth I'd ignored until the University had threatened to withhold my diploma. I paid, or so I thought.
I called the State DMV but they couldn't find anything. Then I called the county--same result. City of Tucson likewise had no records of anything. With each of the people I talked to, I politely and patiently explained that I was only in country for a short time and ideally needed this cleared up by 4 pm today. Each of them promised to look into it and let me know. The whole process ate up the morning.
A few hours later, I got a call from the county. They found a citation from 1989 in the amount of $10. How can I pay? Don't worry, it's been cleared. Cool. OK, so can I have you guys fax that over to Belen? No problem. After about 15 minutes, I call Belen DMV to check if they got the fax. A woman informs me that she it isn't proper policy. Shit. I ask to talk to her supervisor. He's left for the day. Right, it's Friday afternoon. I ask her to please call him, which she says she'll do, but doesn't promise anything. Later, around 3:30, the supervisor calls. He tells me he's not showing any violation on the computer at all. Come down for your photo. As they are taking it he asks me how I did it. Arizona usually takes a couple months to do what I did in 5 hours. I shrug and walk out to the car, my new license warm in my pocket.

Japan, 2 weeks later. I'd long ago received a postcard telling me where and when to show up. The place was inconveniently in the middle of nowhere, south Kyoto, well away from the bus and train lines and we had to show up between 1 and 2 pm. . There was a huge queue of people stretched out the door and shuffling slowly toward the first window. Some workers were actually standing in front of doorways to tell the queue not to block it. Mind the tape on the floor please. We reached window one. Then two. Three. Work our way slowly along. I half expected window 6 to lead to a huge meat grinder out of the film, "The Wall." After an hour, finally cleared. I find a room, where I have to sit thru a 2 hour film. I find the moderator outside having a smoke. I do what I never do, pull the gaijin trump card. I say, "Look, do I really have to sit thru this? I probably won't understand most of it (a fib) and it's not really my first license. After all, I've been driving for 25 years already." No luck, as expected. Time means little to a man who smokes. So I find a spot in the back near the window. Once the film starts, I'll pull out my book and read by the small strip of sunlight bisecting the curtains. Then I notice that I have an assigned seat, right in the middle, directly in front of the moderator. My book stays at the bottom of my bag. I guess this film and lecture will be good listening practice for my Japanese language course which begins next week. The film starts...

In terms of time wasted, it was a draw. But there was almost a stereotypically predictable outcome. My experience in the US was a volitional greasing of bureaucracy's wheels with honey, yet constantly pushing, pushing, pushing. The Japanese sequel by contrast was passive. Stand in line, mind the tape, and try not to hit your head getting into the meat grinder...

On the turntable: Elton John, "Captain Fantastic"

Friday, September 21, 2007

US Notes (July flashback edition)

Miki and I spent a few mellow days at my mom's place in Belen, watching films, eating good spicy food, and simply sitting out back in the dark, staring at the stars and sky. One day we took the train up to Albuquerque, wandering downtown and visiting galleries in Old Town. The train was a new thing, having started running a month before and it was a treat to take good efficient public transportation in the States. Another evening we had dinner at Maggie's, while the cottonwoods outside burst into a snowstorm.

I wanted to take Miki to places special to me, so we drove up to Sandia Peak and walked along the crest to the Kiwannis cabin. After finishing university, I used to spend whole days here, reading all my literary giants and writing in my journal, fancying myself one of 'em. This was nearly twenty years ago, before "the outdoors" was a hot commodity, and fewer people went out there. Miki and I sat awhile and looked out over the city and at the clouds playing hide and seek with the lesser peaks out west. Before we left, Miki threw her mala down the cliff face. I'd bought the beads in India for her, but they'd broken a few days before, and she had wanted to return them to nature somewhere. I joked about how in a 100 years, some hiker would find them, and turn them in to an anthropologist at UNM, who'd write a thesis about pre-historic contact between the local tribes and southern Indian Carnatic kingdoms. Truly a history-making day, coupled by the fact that Miki went up the hill a girlfriend and came down a fiancee.

Later, we drove out to Acoma Sky City. We were forced to join a tour, which was quite militant about photos. Fair enough. Our guide Fred had a funny way of speaking his native language, using his whole body. He'd twist and bend slightly as he forced out the more complicated contortions of syllables, as if this language was learned and not innate. We spent a good part of an hour up there, following a drumming shaman along the dusty paths between abode homes, while a heavy monsoon poured down literally just off the mesa. Somehow we were untouched. Just like last time, lightning danced around me as I walked the sacred land of the Acoma.

At the end of our time in Belen, we drove north. After a quick stop in Santa Fe to take yoga with Tias, we continued on to Taos for my niece's 6th birthday. My sister and her boys were already standing around the grill, waiting for my brother to cook the Brats and veggie dogs. Later, we went out to Kimberley's place for pizza, the sun setting over the nearby ski area peaks. It was a mellow day, a vibe no doubt shared by the people attending the Taos Music Festival at that moment wrapping up back in town. The next day we all had a long breakfast, and then a stroll around the plaza. I'd see Kurt and Brigid in Boulder in a few days, but said goodbye to my mom, sister, and nephews. As always, I wasn't sure when we'd see each other again. Miki and I went out to Taos Pueblo, which had changed incredibly since I'd last been there 10 years ago. The admission fee was huge, coupled with a surcharge for photographers. On my previous visit, this place had been little more than a village, but today I noticed that half the homes had been turned into galleries, with the owners/residents selling paintings, clothes, and pots. With every trip to the States, I'm further and further awed by how deep the tendrils of materialism stretch. To see the ever growing commercialism was shocking, though I suppose that since countercultures are quick to be commodified, why not cultures themselves? I don't really known the details behind why a group would sell out so completely, but based on this region's history, I'm inclined to believe that they were forced to. Sad.

We drove south. A short detour to Santuario de Chimayo to look upon the crutches hanging on the wall and wash our hands with the sacred healing earth within. West then, out to Abiquiu, to walk the groomed paths and labyrinth of Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch. Nearby we found a turnoff and took the long dirt road out to the Church of Christ in the Desert. This one-lane road ran along a beautiful stretch of river feeding a green swath though the desert. We found the monastery at the road's end, its tall chapel of stone and glass a puzzle piece fit to a huge scar in the mesa face behind. It was a very quiet place. Walking the grounds we met Brother Timothy, who is in charge here. He was a kind and peaceful man quick to laugh and he encouraged us to come back sometime and bathe in the quiet of the place. Miki and I kept up the silence on the drive back, a slower pace than the drive out. I kept an eye on the storm clouds marking the horizon, hoping we'd be back on blacktop before the monsoon hit. The weather held, so we followed a different dirt road past the mosque to Piazza Bianco, an incredible group of rock spires made of sheer white sandstone. We walked around in the soft sand awhile, enveloped in silence as we watched these frail spires turn pink in the setting sun.

The next few days we spent in Santa Fe, wandering the Plaza and the galleries of Canyon Road, splitting our meals between cheap-ish cafes and take away from Whole Foods. One morning we went out to Bandelier, climbing around the Anasazi ruins and walking the trails. A few deer grazed just off the trail, and a small bear was being herded back into the hills by the rangers. This bear, being still quite young, seemed to be a little too used to humans. We followed it awhile, then went back to town.

On the third day we drove north, the pavement giving away just past Ojo Caliente. This road was right out of the Aussie Outback, long and straight, with the occasional huge truck looming up to kick stones at us as we passed. San Antonio Mountain guarded the border, its gentle grassy slopes stretching up to blue sky. An old SL train pulled across our path on it's way to Cumbres. Through the flatlands of southern Colorado, running parallel to the lesser Rockies that shelters the sand dunes and sacred Crestone and perhaps even UFOs. The mountains caught us, and we wound through valleys of rushing water overrun by day-trippers enjoying this, the 4th of July. Under the shadow of Red Rocks, to meet Kerouac's Rte 6 at Golden, then down through Nederland's canyon and into Boulder itself. Here we'd spend a few days.

In Boulder, we mostly chilled out with my brother and his daughter, long nights spent dining on his balcony, shaded by the nearby peaks, and watching the lightning out in the distance. One night while walking around a small lake, we got caught in a heavy storm, and had to take shelter in a playground. A few days later, we were caught in another storm while hiking higher-up in the Rockies themselves. I'd never got caught out like this before, and it was terrifying to huddle under a closely-spaced cluster of trees, quickly becoming a true believer in statistics. Another day Miki and I hiked up the notorious trail known locally as "Stairmaster." We lost the trail coming down, and instead took a quick descent down a deer trail which followed a small dry creekbed. Everyone later told us how crazy we were to attempt this in our sandals. In hindsight, I agree. Another day we went to the flea market. I ran into Clarke, the guy who ran my study tour to Bhutan 4 years ago. Other days we spent playing with Brigid at Naropa or CU or on Pearl Street Mall, before meeting up with my brother for good beer and food at random cafes around town. Boulder in the summer truly is a magic place.

The last couple days in country were spent in San Francisco, as usual. I hadn't realized it, but we arrived the day before the All Star game, and baseball furies were everywhere. We dropped our bags at CLo's office which was a block from the baseball Stadium. We quickly left this chaos for the relative quiet of North Beach for pizza and obligatory City Lights browse and Trieste capp. Up to Coit Tower, then down to the waterfront, eventually meeting CLo downtown later for dinner.

The next morning we had a quick breakfast at a local cafe in Potraro Hill, then walked down into the Mission, up Valencia, through the Castro, up and over Corona Heights, then along Height to the Park, hitting all my 'spots' on the way. Miki and I read and played Battleship in a small cafe, sat atop the Corona Heights rocks for the view, had falafel in a Height coop. We continued west through the Park, past the freaks sunning themselves not far from where the posh people played tennis. One guy walked up to me and said cheerfully, "You look like a man who could use some nuggets." Since CLo works in the art world, he got us free passes to the DeYoung museum. We spent the better part of the afternoon here, completely floored by the Oceanic art, later recouping out back in the Turrell sculpture. We walked on, eventually arriving at the windmills and the sea. I dunked my feet in the ocean, as I did a few weeks before in Maine. We had a celebratory beer in a restaurant by the sea. CLo picked us up and we drove up to the Sutro Baths to walk the caves and watch the seabirds trace the coastline. This long day ended perfectly with take-away tacos from the Mission.

The next morning, we'd go back to Japan...

On the turntable: "Asia Lounge"
On the nighttable: Richard Ford, "The Lay of the Land"