Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sunday papers: Tom Waits

"I feel like there is a battle going on all the time between light and dark, and I wonder sometimes if the dark has one more spear."

On the turntable: Patti Smith, "Twelve"
On the nighttable: Marc P. Keane, "The Art of Setting Stones"

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Elegy for Rob

Yesterday I found out that one of my best friends has killed himself. I first met Rob back at University of Arizona, where we were both studying creative writing. As students do, we spent long hours in drunken ramblings about what constitutes talent, and he always seemed to trump my own ideas about which writers were good by lending me books written by better ones. He was a Hemingway freak: when sober, Rob could be as sparse as that author's dialogue, but while drunk he could as rambunctious as the man himself. Some writers I've grown to love--Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Tim O'Brien--I met through Rob.

After graduation, my growing idealism led me to decide to leave the US for Japan, with the intention of not returning for quite a few years. But Rob's wedding brought me back Stateside, and he in turn took part in mine. (This pair of ceremonies served as catalyst for a long, somewhat meandering international phone debate about his new found Catholicism [via Tolstoy!] and my own Gary Snyder inspired Zen.)

Like many passionate friends, we lost touch for awhile. Six years later, I found him in Dallas. He'd been suffering from a condition which required heavy medication, turning him into a mere shadow of the intellectual giant I'd know him to be. During that visit, he decided to go off the meds. The clouds parted and suddenly the old Rob was there. I was encouraged, was sure that Rob would pull through. My visit gave him strength and during subsequent phone calls, I sensed a guy still struggling, but able to keep his head above water by clinging to the rocks of his Catholic faith. Yet fighting the current for too long can lead to an unbearable fatigue.

A couple weeks ago, Rob sent me a email, wanting to start up a community newspaper together in Chicago. I'd have refused, but no doubt we would have had a great conversation about the paths our lives were walking. Usually I reply to his mails quickly, but this time, overwhelmed with my own detritus, I put it off. The guilt I have is heavy. As in the past, would he again have found support in my friendship, leading him in a direction other than toward self-destruction? I'll never know.

But I do know that I love the man. I'll miss you buddy...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Taxi Drivers Should Be Drag Racers

Taxi drivers should be drag racers, the way they blast off the line.

On the turntable: "Spirit of India"
On the nighttable: Rumi, "Say I Am You"

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day!

I plan to stay on the planet all day today...

On the turntable: Mickey Hart, "Planet Drum"

Sunday Papers: Aaron Cometbus


--Double Duce

On the turntable: Cesara Evora, "Cafe Atlantico"
On th nighttable: "Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader"

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Remembrance of Things Passed

Since leaving the ashram, I've been trying to avoid eating meat. Besides a couple special occasions like Chinese New Year and St. Pats (complimentary lamb stew courtesy of Tagh!) I've done pretty well. But I'd long wanted to go to Okariba, since first hearing about it a few years ago. The one year anniversary of Miki and I meeting seemed a good enough excuse to go.
The vibe was like the usual izakaya, but with funky log cabin walls, mounted dead birds, and various things hanging from the unfinished ceiling. This menu is infamous for being whatever the owner has killed recently, yet I was surprised at the variety. Miki and I chose wild boar, barbecued and served on skewers. (While eating, I kept wondering if this boar might have been one of the group that threatened us on the Path of Philosophy one autumn night.) We also had smoked duck, served cold, but a little too icy on this chilly night. (Colder than our beers actually.) The owner was friendly and this being a quiet Thursday, he had lots of time for us. And me, being non-Japanese as usual, drew out a certain amount of interest from him. Which, to a bar owner, is usually expressed in free food and drink. Besides the obligatory sake, he presented us with a plate of grasshoppers and bee larvae. The latter I've been wanting to try since my first month in Japan, when a student told me that it was the most disgusting thing she'd ever eaten. Coated in sugar and soy sauce, they were pretty tasty, so the distinction for my own worst food experience remains the boiled silk worms I had in the mountains of Korea. So, not getting the facial reaction he'd hoped for, the owner broke out the big guns. "Dig in," he said. I did. Chewy. Fatty. "Deer?" I asked. "Bear, " he said with a grin. From behind his back, he presented an uncooked chunk. It was a pyramid of white fat, with a small stripe of meat at the center. This bear, shot in November, appeared to have already bulked up for hibernation. The meat itself tasted less gamy than you'd think. It tasted more like deli meat; the salami of the predator world. And while not grossed out, I did feel guilty, due to my narrow escape in Hokkaido. That time ten years ago, the bear had chosen not to eat me. Today, I ate his cousin.

(Setsunai, at On Gaien Higashi Dori, printed my account of that encounter. I pirate it here.)

May 27, 2005

The Shiretoko Bear Story
A while ago,
Ted promised me a story on the time he encountered a Japanese Brown Bear on the remote Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido. True to his word, he sent the story today. Scary stuff with an interesting twist at the end. I don't think I would have ever been able to leave the tent. If you're ever up in Shiretoko, take those bear signs very seriously. And bear bells are good.

"I'd been walking for two days down the mountain range that serves as a spine for the Shiretoko Peninsula. Typhoons rarely hit Hokkaido, but a recent one had given the area a good soaking. I'd had a rough day, pushing along soggy trails, and it's entirely possible I'd nearly died a couple of times due to my own stupidity. I finally hit the trail end at dusk. In front of me was an observation point where cars can pull off the road, and between the guardrail and the cliff's edge I had enough room to set up my tent. With the fly facing the moon now rising over the sea, I'd have a lovely view with dinner. A half km up the road were some waterfalls, the water heated by the volcanoes I'd been hiking over. It was great place for a natural warm shower.
"The moon was up and full, so I used its light to make my way back to my tent. A few meters away, I saw something move above me on a slight ridge. A bear. Keeping my eyes on it, I slowly got into my tent, then into my sleeping bag for extra protection. I listened. Within seconds I heard a loud sniffing. Amazingly, this large animal had come down the ridge, across a gravel road, and over a guardrail within seconds, without making a single sound. I'll never forget the mushroom shape of its nose sliding against the tent wall. It moved around to the front flap. Ah! It was after my shoes, soaking and reeking after the wet slog. Suddenly, it fell down the cliff, breaking branches as it rolled down the slope. I started laughing with relief, but within a few minutes it was back. It lingered around for about ninety minutes in all. At first I was terrified. (They say that if you are within a fifty meters of a bear, you are as good as dead. These higuma (Japanese Brown Bear) are related to the killer grizzlies of both Alaska and Kamchatka.) After a while I began to get pissed off, wanting simply to eat and sleep after a long day walking. I reached into my bag for the bell I'd bought in Sapporo. At its first peals the bear tore off. Not long after I fell asleep, but not before ruining my water bottle since I was too scared to go outside to pee.
"The next morning cooking breakfast, I noticed that the water I'd collected at the falls was yellow with sulfur. If I'd drunk any the night before, I'd have become incredibly sick. The Ainu up in Hokkaido consider the bear to be a god. Had one come to protect me? I pondered this as I walked up the road toward town."

On the turntable: "Maximum Rock 'n' Roll radio, Spanish Punk Special"
On the nighttable: Charles Mingus, "Beneath the Underdog"

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sunday papers: Gary Snyder

"Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves that they really like the cage they were tricked into entering"

On the turntable: Pearl Jam, "The Full Birdman Sessions"
On the nighttable: Aaron Cometbus, "Mixed Reviews"

Saturday, April 14, 2007


(I know I've been blogging too much bloody awful poetry. Frankly.
But I reckon a nibble beats fasting.)

Starved for words,
This blinking cursor
Taunts me

On the turntable: Sonic Youth, "Goo"
On the nighttable: Brian Edge, "924 Gilman"

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Baptism by petals
Heralds winter's true end

On the turntable: "Peace Together"

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Beside the concrete stream,
a lone sakura
lit by vending machines

On the turntable: The Who, "Live at Leeds"
On the nighttable: Alan Clayson, "Keith Moon: Instant Party"

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday Papers: Jane Siberry

"Whenever you look at someone with love in your heart, you are praying."

On the turntable: "Kila & Oki"
On the nighttable: Ikkyu, "Wild Ways"

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Easter Coming Down

From my unedited travel journals. A farm stay in Ireland, February 2005.

In Abbeyliex, I lapped the town. Unlike Portlaoise's curvy grid, this village had a single street with incredibly busy traffic. It looked newer, but had a few nice old buildings. I waited for my ride at Morrissey's, a beautiful pub of black furnishings which looked the old shop that it had once been. Behind the bar, various goods and bottles lined the high shelves. It all seemed out of a daguerreotype of a century ago. Since this store had opened in 1850, I wonder if any of my family had ever been in here. I sat near the pot-bellied stove, nursing a Guinness.

The farm owner, Marty, took me far out into the country. I'd previously noticed that Dublin seemed to have the world's dirtiest buses, but this guy's car deserves special mention. It was a theme matched by the trucks parked in front of the farm. There was a team of six staying here, all from various countries, all studying the sod. I had a simple dinner of bread and coffee while talking to a Scot who's working on a conservation project near Dublin. He was currently doing a one week crash course in chainsaw handling. A quick count of his phalanges told me he must be doing OK.

At 7, I went to my room. I listened to classical on the radio, read some Joyce, wrote awhile. It was noisy early on, with an old man watching TV upstairs, and someone else playing drums--badly--in the loft next door. When it settled down, I slept for 10 hours...

..well rested and well-fed, I walked a bit across the bog, listening to the ground squeak where I stepped. I peeked over a low fence into a sheep's pen to find dozens of eyes staring back at me. It reminded me of my English teaching days. Marty came through and fed them, the sheep lining up and taking their turn without shoving. They'd been sheered just after Xmas, so that when they'd lamb around March, it would be easier to see the progress if a lamb got turned around in the womb. Plus, if the sheep were cold, they'd eat more and be strong when it came time to give birth. If a sheep loses a lamb, it's difficult to get it to nurse another, so farmers would put her into stocks in order to feed another sheep's lamb, which she couldn't identify because she isn't able to turn her head to see or smell. Once her milk was in the lamb, she'd think it was hers. As Marty and I talked, it dawned on me that, with Easter about a month away, some of those cute lambs I'd seen frolicking yesterday were due for someones dinner table.

In the barn next door were a couple dozen cows with enormous heads, walking gingerly across boards slatted to collect shit. Marty stood in the doorway and explained his plans for the future. It appeared to be a pretty cool place when it wasn't booked with the sodders and their muddy trucks. In addition to hosting art events, Marty was active politically, serving as a member of the County Council. He drove me to Borris-in-Ossory to catch the bus. On the way, he pointed out sites both political--farms-- and historical--abbeys and ruins. We sped along bumpy roads at high speed, both his hands off the wheels for much of the ride. Farmers love to put their trust in faith. They know that you can't bend nature to your will. You have to learn to trust it.

On the turntable: Gogol Bordello, "Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony"
On the nighttable: Russill Paul, "The Yoga of Sound"

Friday, April 06, 2007

White Man in Nostalgia Palais

Man, I love the Clash. Few things sound sweeter pumping thru the iPod. I'm hard pressed to name my favorite tune, or even my favorite album, but every time "The Card Cheat" comes on, my stride naturally doubles and I begin to strut. When that line comes around, that one that goes,

"From the hundred year war to the crimea
With a lance and a musket and a roman spear
To all of the men who have stood with no fear
In the service of the king,"

I feel like belting it out, even in a crowded place.

How is it that the Clash were so damn good?

On the turntable: The Clash, "London Calling"
On the nighttable: Douglas Coupland, "All Families Are Psychotic"

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Contusion shames

Politician's truck harmonizes
With machine eviscerating Machiya--
Springtime symphony

On the turntable: The Kleptones, "Yoshimi Battles the Hip Hop Robots"

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Confucian Rains

Pink blotches
On yellow canvas--
Springtime skies

On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "Dick's Picks 25"
On the nighttable: Dave Lowry, "In the Dojo"

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Bobblehead Knight

As I was leaving the ashram in February, I was wondering what would be the first thing to make me completely lose the peace I'd found. It happened a mere month later, at the annual International Budo Seminar in Chiba. The beauty of the seminar, besides all the hang-time with good friends, is the chance to try a martial art that you don't practice. This year was my 8th, and the only thing I hadn't tried yet was kendo. So, donning the Jawa-like gear, I ran through a series of drills, under the eyes of a few of Japan's highest ranking kendo practitioners. I have to admit that I find Kendo kiai hilarious. To watch a group of males jumping forth, repeated yelling "Men!' always brings a smile. And on this day I got great delight in bellowing a Homer Simpsonesque, "D'Oh!" with every strike to my opponant's midsection. The last part of the session was spent sparring. We traded partners every few minutes. My first three "bouts" were pretty mild, my opponant and I both giggling as we tapped and poked each other with the bamboo shinai. My last partner ended the mirth. Seconds into our bout, as I'm looking for a place to poke, he brought his shinai down on my head full force, making my ears ring. Playtime's over I thought, and started to gear up for battle. His shinai came down again. "Fucker!" I yelled, muffled by my head gear. So it went, him smacking me hard, me losing it, me then smacking him back full strength. When we finished, I went up to him, patting him amicably on the back.
"You do karate?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said.
"Thought so. You're pretty fierce, man"
Drenched in sweat, I drank tea in the lobby, my aikido-gi stained blue. I hadn't expected kendo to be that hard. I was already exhausted, but we had two more training sessions left. What to do? My body said kyudo, but my pride said judo and aikido.
Pride won, as it does, but for the next two days, my body wouldn't shut up about it.

(My friend Jeff wrote of his experiences, and does a fine job of summing the event up in his usual humorous, self-depreciating way: )

On the turntable: "Heavy Flute"
On the nighttable: Larry Watson, "In a Dark Time"

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sunday papers: Oscar Wilde

“Life is one fool thing after another whereas love is two fool things after each other.”

On the turntable: "Deep in the Heart of Tuva"