Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gary and Me

(This post is an addendum to what I wrote here.)

I'm sitting in an uncomfortable folding chair, waiting for Gary Snyder to appear. And he does, moving through the door right beside me. He looks older than I'd imagined, small and somewhat stooped. He's finally come into the look of the wizard, an image cultivated more for, than by, him.

And on stage, he's suddenly much taller, his movements more dextrous and grand. The 81-year old that I just saw walk through the door is gone. His energy is astounding, outlasting my own as the reading nears the ten o'clock hour. I'm tired, the baby's asleep. We need to get her to bed, as much as I'd like to stay after for the book signing and tell him a few things.

...I'd tell him, remind him, of the first time I met him, here at Naropa in the summer of 1994. I'd mentioned that I was bound for Japan in a month, and had asked if he could recommend any temples or hikes that he found particularly interesting. And he cut me dead with a curt, "I'm not a guide book." I backpedalled, and said, no no, just a hint at something that had inspired him during his long years there. And he again fired off a "I don't even know you." I was so disappointed that I didn't even ask him to sign the copy of "No Nature" that I held in my left hand.

I sat awhile on Boulder mall, justifying it for awhile; that he'd had a busy week, that I'd overheard many requests to him, that I had been like everyone else in wanting something from the man. But then suddenly I
really got it. It was time to kill the Buddha; time to step out from behind my heroes. Gary, among others, had pointed the path out to me, but only I could walk it. And walk I did, down the darkened Boulder mall, and into my own life...

... I'd tell him of my friendship with Pachi and Yoko. The latter was my tea teacher in the 'Nog, a woman who had studied at Daitokuji while Gary had been there as a student of zen. At my first tea lesson with her, the other students had all sat quietly as Yoko Sensei and I had a long chat in English about him and their shared history...

...I'd tell him of my friendship with Uchida Bob, who I'd hosted when he played a gig in the 'Nog while US bombs were just beginning to fall on Afghanistan. The next morning, my now late son had sat in his lap. (Later, Ken never failed to recognize Bob's voice on the stereo.) Over coffee and pancakes, we talked of Gary, and of Nanao, and of the three communities they'd once created back when US bombs fell on other parts of Asia...

...I'd tell him of my friendships at Kyoto Journal, and of our mutual friends there. I'd tell him of how Iwakura Ken had commented on the blog post where I documented carrying my rucksack from Kyoto to the Sea of Japan, of a temporal crossing of paths...

...most of all, I'd introduce him to my daughter. Had he not served as a major catalyst for my moving to Japan, I'd have never met her mother, and this wonderful little girl would never have been born. Despite his claim of not knowing me, we both shared a responsibility in her creation...

On the turntable: DJ Food, "Kaleidoscope"
On the nighttable: "The Gary Snyder Reader"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Driving through industrial urban Hiroshima, Robert Earl Keen singing through the speakers. Just doesn't fit somehow...

On the turntable: Frank Black, "Los Angeles, 1993"

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Papers: Buckminster Fuller

"There is no energy crisis, only a crisis of ignorance."

On the turntable: Beastie Boys, "Check your Head"

Saturday, February 25, 2012


The flow of water. Trees towering from rock. Smoothly planed tree trunks shoring up the walls. It took little more than this for a certain peace to sink in, for shoulders to lower themselves from the altitude of ears.

I was sipping an iced coffee at Ishii Coffee shop, Miki and Sora at my side. We'd driven up into the hills so as to allow Miki some driving practice before she chances roads driven on the other side. And here I was in the Japanese mountains again, after an absence of 2 years.

There were mountains closer to where we were staying down in town. A few of the high, wild looking peaks that flank the Seto Naikai were a short walk away. Mt. Misen and some of her entourage rose just across the water, filling up most of my bedroom window. The sea that lapped her toes was a few blocks over. But between them and I were rows and rows of identical gray industrial storage facilities. And while they were an assault on the eyes, the ears too were similarly besieged, here in this house wedged between a train line and the busy Route 2.

Thus our drive up though Saiki-cho was such a delight, winding along narrow roads lined with beauty. Miki and I had just passed the better part of week looking for the ideal place to live, and here, a mere half hour from her mom's place, we found it, though we had by then already committed to a return to Kyoto.

And it wasn't even the first time I'd been in the countryside, having returned to Japan two weeks earlier. There had been a couple days spent down in Kunisaki Peninsula, where I'd hammered out the details of my new employment with Walk Japan. And there was that lunch at Cafe Millet, where we popped in to surprise friends, and were in turn rewarded by a nice lunch, and the promise to resume our workshops up there. But at that time I'd been too preoccupied to sink into the peace, too burdened by the enormous task of resuscitating a former life.

House hunting had been the biggest. While still in America, we were determined to settle on some land in the countryside somewhere. I'd chosen the Kibi region of Okayama, centrally located and within a two hour trip to Yonago, Kyoto, and Miki's family in Hiroshima. Kibi had always resonated with me spiritually, as a powerful place dotted with ancient wonders. I looked forward to wandering her hills, and to exploring the hundreds of islands of the Inland Sea. But reality thwarted us, finding that a century of hyper-modernization had scarred all but the most sacred ground. The houses we looked at were uninspiring, the villages overbuilt and unappealing. In the midst of this, we received word that a couple of Kyoto acquaintances were leaving, their houses coming free. So we drove that way, still stubbornly determined not to live there again. But a few phone calls, a few meetings, and we began to be seduced again by our community. A friend mentioned an available house up in Kumogahata, a possible best of both worlds scenario: a country life lived a half hour from town. The house was beautiful, the rent cheap. But it also needed work, a less than ideal proposition from a renter's perspective. It seemed the final hint toward a gradual realization, that to create an comfy country life is an all or nothing proposition. You must buy, not rent. A dance of two steps, one requiring time and patience. Eventually, we'll find it, but we needed digs soon. Then the real estate guy mentioned that he had another house to show, and it will become our new home, that restored machiya near Daitokuji.

And so it goes...

On the turntable: The Stone Roses, "The Complete Stone Roses"
On the nighttable: William Least-Heat Moon, "River Horse"

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sunday Papers: Thornton Wilde

"If we shrink from platitudes, platitudes will shrink from us."

On the turntable: Heart, "Greatest Hits Live"

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Papers: Haruki Murakami

"When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in."

On the turntable: Jane's Addiction, "Jane's Addiction"

Monday, February 06, 2012

Bangkok Final Days

January 2010

...awake to the Ayuthaya ruins at dawn. The train is 2 1/2 hours late in arriving. At one of the main stops, I watch a dog walk along an adjoining rail. Later, a motorcycle cop avoids traffic by riding up the sidewalk. A man balances precariously on a stack of cardboard boxes in the back of a truck. A cat too, balances precariously as her owner rides a bicycle. On the train, a group of young backpackers are bitching loudly, rightly so I suppose, but I wish they'd look out the window at the passing slums we're passing to get some perspective.

We stay near the river off Khao San Road, landing a room on the 5th attempt. It's a surprisingly clean and quiet place.

We take a klong taxi to Jim Thompson's house. It is a wet, noisy ride, with twin sheets of plastic obstructing the view of dilapidated houses overhanging the filthy water. Thompson's place is amazing, the red teak containing gorgeous art. It inspires me toward something like this, the beauty and sentimentality of simpler times. I find myself mourning the loss of our own Kyoto home.

Later we meet Dew and Pom. We can't find the restaurant they want (Naturally. Pom has gotten us lost everywhere we've gone. Hard to believe he's a pilot.), so we take a cab to a small busy place of 100 year's history. Next door we have dessert at a place that Pom tells me is called 'Magic Milk,' though Dew keeps laughing as he says this. It is crazy busy, one of the most popular joints in the city. And they sell only one thing -- toast. It is incredibly noisy with talk, the roar reminding me of the gathering places of Hong Kong's Filipina maids on their days off...

... at dawn the next day, I get breakfast at a 24 hour place, watching tired backpackers arrive, fresh off the plane. And it the very same airport that is our next destination. It is my first visit to the new airport, this bizarre structure that looks like it is draped in panties. (I have a strong memory of the old airport, where I once was startled by how tall Peter Garrett was, as I watched him move slowly through the terminal.) On board, the flight instructions are right out of the '70s. We transit for a few hours in Kuala Lumpur but see nothing but the airport, with its square toilets, indoor jungle, and tasty food. I still don't understand the sign 'reverse airport water security.'

Then awake in Osaka. We spend a single day in Kyoto, and leave again in the rain, the weight of the water not nearly as heavy as my heart, as our bus passes historical sites that bore witness to scenes of my own history. Then another red-eye drops into SFO, where a car awaits us...

On the turntable: Joy Division, "Unknown Pleasures"

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Cold Lampang

January 2010

...spent a couple of days in Lampang. The teak houses on both sides of the river were lovely, their old faded bodies raised off the ground on pilings. We made an attempt to visit a few wats, but they weren't where they were supposed to be. The maps were a world away from the reality, nothing at all corresponding. It was like a town designed by Dali. We got lost easily, miles up a highway. After two months of being pestered by tuk-tuk drivers, naturally we didn't see a single one when we actually needed it. Later, we were hoping to relieve the accumulated stress and frustratiion with a massage, but after visiting 5 places, found not a single masseuse on hand. Then the impossibility of finding a cold beer. Still, our room was nice, with our own private patio on which to sit and watch the river...

...the next day, we rented a motorcycle. But the frustrations continued. A cop stopped me for going the wrong way up a one-way street, and the bike stalled. It took a while to figure out the gears, not having ridden a manual in many years. It was 18 km down a fast and busy highway. hardly worth the effort, we were thinking, until we saw the temple. Totally gorgeous, an old wooden Lanna masterpiece. In an adjoining hall, a group of art students were seated o the floor, listening to their teacher lecture on the 14th Century murals. The male students had a uniform of long hair and piercings. One guy's T-shirt reminded me how popular Vespas are at the moment.

Back in town, read in a hammock riverside until the heat left, then took a horse drawn carriage ride around town. I had hoped to see another foreigner so I could do the cupped hand Royal wave, but no luck.

Night train to Bangkok. An hour early, only farang on the platform. The locals turned up 10 minutes before. A group of English students interview me with a video camera, then we board...

On the turntable: Lynyrd Skynyrd, "One More From the Road"

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Chiang Mai Notes

January 2010

...wound up at Chedi Luong after dark. With no funeral in progress this time, it was quiet and empty, but for a few monks gossiping in the shadows, and dogs sleeping on marble floor now cool. The temple took on a different character at night. the Buddha at the top glowed, and my mind tried to complete the chedi's broken top...

...popped into Wat Phuak Hong to look at the beautiful old chedi. the grass pushing up through the brick. We were intercepted by an old fat priest moving slowly through the grounds with a cane. He asked me where I was from. When I answered, he said, "Chicago, Denver 8 months." we continued the conversation in chairs, he basically saying the names of cities, how many times he'd been, how long. I was barely able to interrupt his list with a question, which he'd briefly answer, then return to his mantra. It was beginning to feel like a geography lesson with an autistic savant, the conversation going nowhere. A shame, as this was quite the high ranking priest, one who'd opened dozens of centers throughout the US...

...Friday night was famous for holding a writers and journalists gathering at the Writer's and Wine Club, serving as Chiang Mai's Foreign Correspondents Club of sorts. I was early, and got into a chat with an NGO worker who'd been in Cambodia for 20 years. He was doing something in the medical field, but was pretty vague about his life and work, giving very little away. he did talk more freely of his time in Japan 40 years ago. He told a horrible story about his being in love with a woman from a rich and powerful family. She became pregnant, and as they went off by Shinkansen to elope, the train was stopped by the yakuza at a small country station in the middle of nowhere, and the girl removed from the train. The guy had never seen her again. He found out later that they'd aborted the fetus, then shown it to her. This pushed her into insanity.

I was introduced to a group of writers by now sitting at a table and well into conversation. Three took no real notice of me, but two engaged me in talk. We started on media in Japan and Thailand, but somehow it quickly segued into a monologue on communism in South America. This was interrupted by a guy who turned up and upon hearing that I was from Japan, launched into a 45 minute tirade on his brilliance as a shakuhachi player, and his inability to get an artist visa. I sat with a grin frozen to my mug, trying to find an opening to shift my attention to the more interesting conversation going on over my right shoulder. I ran into one of these guys later -- Steev, a flute playing traveler with long distended ears like the Buddha. The other I eventually talked with was named Jim Cunningham, who has apparently written quite a few books on hill tribes, and was called a good writer by many. He told me of his days in Korea in the '70s. When he got up to pee, I found myself alone (the annoying shakuhachi genius having driven off everyone to the next table), and somewhat rudely, simply left in order to get to sleep by midnight. It had been a frustrating night. I'm not sure why I'd expected it to be any different than similar nights I'd experienced in Japan. Expat artists, and I include myself here, are too often frustrated and disgruntled.

It was an enjoyable walk home, the streets of the old city nearly empty. Outside the wall, I was chatted up by a couple of prostitutes, passed a lone old farang man drinking alone in a doorway, and smiled at people eating at food stalls late into the night...

...walking along, a flower falls before my face and lands at my feet. It is a filmatic image -- there being no way that I could recreate in words the color, the movement, the play of light on the petals. I found irony later in that I'd been wondering which tree was the frangipani that I'd frequently found reference to in books. Now one had literally dropped into my lap...

...had massages everyday, read in coffee shops, walked around. It had the feel of a boho way of passing the day, though a cynic might say that we were merely killing time until our flight home...

...did escape the city one day on a motorbike, up to the mountain packed with Sunday revellers, and one blonde-haired Akha girl who hid her face from the stares of passersby. We also hit a couple of far reaching temples: a forest wat with strange tunnels and a monk meditating in one; Wat Suan Duok with its long wooden temple hall, photographed by an obviously traveling monk who merely photographed it, without praying to the Buddhas it housed; and Wat Jet Yot, a handful of ruins rising from the grass.

South of the city we went to a restaurant we'd heard about, but sadly, it didn't live up to the hype. At the next table were two expats who'd been in Asia for decades. So long in fact that their country --Rhodesia-- no longer exists.

The rest of the afternoon was a nice ride around the ruins of Wiatt Kamkum, and the villages built around them. Back at Nooky Guest House, a nice old house of teak with a beautiful garden and a noise problem. We arrived to find a party in progress, to or grumpy chagrin. We couldn't find a reason for it, but it may have been a means of amends. It seems that nearly the whole dormitory had been sick for a few days, caused (possibly) by raw sewage leaking into the water supply. (Miki and I were planning to check out anyway.) I sat outside and talked to an English backpacker who was really together, despite his 24 years. I also talked to a couple in their '40s who'd come to Chiang Mai every winter to ride bicycles. When the husband said that 'every morning we go down to Hang Dong," I nearly blew beer through my nose. The wife and I talked about the change in backpackers, the general unfriendliness, the self-centeredness of today's crop. Alcohol seems to get more people here than jet fuel...

...the whole street freezing as the national anthem comes on, like a city of the undead...

...a girl walking and blowing out here flip-flop, but luckily, a dashing young flip-flop engineer was close by to save the day...

...thunderstorm at night fools me into thinking I'm in Bangkok...

...wet footprints on the sidewalk a tell-tale sign that someone just peed...

...our final night spent at North Door's open mic night. We share a table with a young couple from Montana who are witty and cool, free of the usual backpacker pretenses. The first 'group' comes rushing out of the gate, blowing some funky jazz to get us going. Every musician has the feel of a professional, especially the alto sax, who is amazing. The drummer has the chops and technique, but he's lacking in engine; at any jam session, it is the drummer who keeps it together. This guy doesn't alter the pace, and after everyone solos, it kind of drags on. The second song, a bluesy moody ballad, goes nowhere. Steev is up next, playing an amazing Middle Eastern thing on two flutes simultaneously, one as drone. He is excellent. As he plays, I look back to see that his music has also charmed a mahout, sitting there astride an elephant. (We're definitely not in Kansas anymore.) The third act was a Chicago folk grrl singer, obviously thrilled to be back up by a band of truly talented musicians...

On the turntable: ZZ Top, "Best of ZZ Top"