Monday, February 27, 2006

Hat trick

My normally easy Sunday 12-mile walk was grueling, made so by the frigid cold and gusty winds.
I love the cold, I revel in it, but the conditions were so severe that I almost turned around and went home.
But I was on a mission.
I wanted to buy a hat in Harlem, and not just any hat.

The winds raking the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River path were especially harsh. The temperature was in the low 20s but the wind made it feel like it was in the single digits.
I didn't see any of the homeless people who sometimes camp beneath the bridge.
This is the familiar view of the GWB:
But there's another aspect to the bridge, one you would never see unless you were on foot and knew where to look.
The homeless seek refuge under the approach ramp on the New York side. It was deserted Sunday -- in this weather, anyone sleeping there runs the risk of freezing to death. But you could still feel the despair in the air, which cut to the bone just as mercilessly as the cold.
Underneath the bridge
a world of broken spirits
tucked away, unseen


My walk took me past the Cotton Club, at 125th Street and 12th Avenue. I wanted to stop in to ask vocalist Pamela McPherson-Cornelius if she liked the photo of her I posted last weekend. (I was prepared to run if she didn't.)
But there was no show going on. The place was deserted. Outside, leaves blew in tight little circles by the front door.
At the Cotton Club
is that Duke Ellington's ghost
in the pinstriped suit?

Now I could focus on finding that special hat.
I walked down 125th past the Cotton Club, past the Apollo Theater -- where Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown and so many others of electrifying talent brought down the house, the place where stars are born and legends are made.
I was headed toward 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, the heart of Harlem, just a couple of blocks from the Apollo.
I've wanted an old-school wool Kangol-brand cap for a while now.
Tastes in North Jersey run toward the provincial, however, and they're very difficult to find there.
But in Harlem, a friend told me, they abound, plentiful as manna fallen from heaven.
At 125th and Lenox (now called Malcolm X Boulevard) is a hat lover's nirvana.
When my friend told me about this shop, I asked him for the street address.
He didn't know.
Then I asked him how I'd recognize it.
"Believe me," he said, "when you get there, you'll know."
Now I knew.
Big glass windows opened onto a shop filled with rack after rack and shelf after shelf of every kind of hat imaginable, and some that were unimaginable.
It seemed like half the world was in there shopping.
And there, in the center of it all, was the object of my quest: a navy blue wool Kangol, as old-school as Run-DMC and as stately as a touring car.
With my purchase perched atop my head, I made my way back to the Hudson River path.
On the way, I stopped for a few self-portraits with some friends, the stars of posters that served as a thought-provoking backdrop.
Back on the desolate river path, the wind-whipped debris sand-blasted my face. I wondered if I would run into Mr. Driftwood.
I passed a couple of his sculptures that had been knocked down by the wind or vigilant park guards, and an interesting artistic statement consisting of eggs that suggested he was working in a new medium.
About a mile farther down the desolate path was Mr. Driftood, working away.
I asked him about the eggs. Turns out they were put there by one of his fellow artists, with whom he enjoys a friendly rivalry.
We talked about my hat adventure.
He asked me if I had eaten at Sylvia's, the world-famous soul food mecca that's just a stone's throw from where I bought my Kangol.
I told him that I hadn't, but plan to once the weather warms a little.
"Oh, you should," he said. "Sylvia's from my hometown, Monks Corner, South Carolina. Lovely woman. Lovely woman."
We chatted just a couple more minutes. Just standing there, nothing moving but our mouths, we were absorbing the full force of the wind and the tip of my nose was becoming frostbitten.
Mr. Driftwood returned to his work, and I headed down to the East Village for a beer and some hot miso soup.
Then I began the long, cold walk home.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bridge of dreams

A recent post on a friend's blog detailed a dream she had involving a bridge.
Coincidentally, her dream reminded me of one I had more than a decade ago that also involved a bridge.
This was the most powerful, profound dream I've yet had in my life, coming as it did at a time of turbulence and, unbeknownst to me then, transition.
I was living in Philadelphia and was stuck in a job I hated, mired in my personal life and unsure of what to do to extricate myself from this rut.
Luckily, I wrote down the dream immediately upon waking from it and added it as an entry in the journal I was keeping.
I try to keep its message fresh in my mind all these years later.
Here is the text of it, edited only for style and grammar:


"Monday, Jan. 10, 1994

Perhaps the most noteworthy event of the weekend was a dream I had this morning at around 5:45.
I think it was set in Kutztown [in Berks County, Pa., where I lived quite happily from 1980-85] or on the way to Kutztown ...

Anyway, among the details of the dream I remember was walking into a freeway-style diner and asking for directions to Kutztown. I was on foot. The waitress told me the way and I walked out the door.

I was on top of a very steep hill, and I had to get to the bottom of this hill ... to proceed to Kutztown.
Something resembling roller coaster tracks, complete with the ... framework, went straight down the hill. Unlike a roller coaster, though, there were no dips or anything. [The tracks] just went straight down this very steep hill at a steep angle.

Parallel to the tracks and attached to them was a lower level that consisted of a slatted walkway, sort of like the walkway across the Brooklyn Bridge but much narrower.

I didn't want to walk down the roller coaster tracks because I was afraid a train might come, so I climbed down to the walkway. As I started down ... the walkway, it began to fall apart. Each time I'd try to get a handhold, it would crumble and fall away. Every time I put even a little pressure on the floorboards, they'd break and fall away.

I started to panic, but then I heard myself telling myself to calm down, that the situation was surmountable if I kept a level head and remained calm.

It was at this point that I decided to climb up to the level of the roller coaster tracks. It didn't seem like too difficult a climb, perhaps 4 or 5 feet. ... I had just grabbed hold and was preparing to hoist myself up when I woke to my alarm clock. I don't know if I ever made it.

This wasn't a nightmare ... in that I didn't wake up in a cold sweat or with a palpitating heart. It wasn't a particularly unpleasant dream -- what I remember of it -- especially once I told myself not to panic prior to attempting to climb up to the tracks ...

Not in a very, very long time have I had a dream that seemed to relate ... so eerily well to my circumstances. ... [I think one of the messages is that] I don't have to look nearly as far for a way out (a new job?) as I think I do; it's running right beside me."

***

Within about two months of this dream, I was fired from that job I so hated. I got a new job that May, and within a year I was bound for a new life in Japan.

This old house

My drafty old house
Frigid gusts find every crack
in these thin, tired walls

Friday, February 24, 2006

Immodest meerkat



Photos courtesy Dan Drabek, Yur (criticalmass)

Folks, I have too much free time on my hands.
I think these photos are hilarious.
It's sometimes good to have our sensibilities tweaked.
Back in January, I posted a deliciously creative take on a famous Renaissance painting. At the time, I lamented the fact that I forgot who created that latter-day masterpiece, and the Web site from which I took it.
Well, now I remember: It was Dan Drabek who thought up "Meerkat on the Half-Shell" (and the top two photos here), and the Web site was a forum for users of Leica cameras.
As for our comely star, as of October 2003 she was a resident of the San Francisco Zoo.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Self-Portrait Tuesday Part II, Feb. 21, 2006


In Japan, one's signature isn't affixed to legal documents, apartment leases, bankbooks and so on. Instead, a hanko or inkan is used. Both words can be loosely translated as "signature seal." A hanko carries the same legal weight as a signature elsewhere in the world.
Here are my hanko.
The oval one at left was my legal hanko, my hanko of record. It shows my first name, Maikeru, rendered into katakana, the Japanese syllabary used for foreign words.
The three square ones show a purely phonetic rendering of my name, Maiko, in kanji, or Chinese characters. It's just coincidence, but maiko can be translated as "tall rice," which I think is neat. I use these hanko instead of my name when signing photographs. On a white or gray mat, they really stand out.
The small circular hanko is of my name in katakana. I used it to sign off on my students' classwork and homework.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Self-Portrait Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006

Central Park, Manhattan, Feb. 19, 2006

Pilgrimage II: Mysteries solved

Today's 12-mile walk from North Jersey to Manhattan's East Village and partway back was a journey through time, legend and the realm of ghosts.
I got a late start this morning because of the bitter cold. When I awoke at 9, it was 17 degrees. I drank pot after pot of tea waiting for the temperature to rise some, and by the time I left at about 2 p.m. it was in the mid-20s.
When the air is this cold, sounds carry forever. Small propeller planes and helicopters flying high overhead sounded so close I was sure I could reach up and touch them.
On the New York shore of the Hudson River, I saw something just past the George Washington Bridge that I had never seen before -- a peregrine falcon circling about 50 feet above the riverbank. The birds have made a comeback (along with hawks) in Manhattan, where they build their nests on ledges high atop skyscrapers. There may even be a nesting pair in one of the towers of the GWB, if I recall.
By the time I got out my camera and tried to fumble with the focus with gloves on, Brother Falcon was gone, his tight, clockwise circles carrying him over the treetops and out of sight.
All he left was this haiku:

Peregrine falcon
gliding over the Hudson
taut wings slice cold air

About three miles farther down the path is the place where angels gather to make music.
In all my countless walks on the Hudson River trail, I've passed within a stone's throw of the legendary Cotton Club at 125th Street and 12th Avenue, resolving time after time that the next time, I would snap a picture of this musical paradise for my blog. Then I would amble on, usually whistling Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train."
After many miles over many months and many walks up and down the river, today was the day.

The place looked closed. From outside I heard nothing.
On a hunch I tried the door. As it gave way, a blast of sound nearly blew me off my feet. A kickin' jazz show was in full swing. I wanted to take some photos, but this was out of the question as it would've distracted the musicians.
But through providence, the beautiful Ms. Pamela McPherson-Cornelius, one of the vocalists at the club, stepped into the lobby and offered to pose for a snapshot. "You better make me look good," she said. "Otherwise, I'll come and haunt you."

Then I had a wonderful chat about the club with a classy gentleman named Curtis, who works the door and coatroom and keeps an eye on things.
I walked the couple of blocks west to get back on the trail and once again was by the riverside.
For a long time, I've noticed delicate driftwood sculptures set up at intervals along the river's rocky banks. I always wondered how they got there.
Today I found out.
A man was busily tying twine to join two branches together, so absorbed in his work that he didn't notice my approach. I introduced myself and asked him his name. "Call me Mr. Driftwood," he said, smiling.
I asked if I could take some pictures, and he told me to snap away -- even though he revealed that his artistic endeavors along the banks of the Hudson technically are illegal. "But go ahead, take some pictures, I suppose it's alright," he said. "They don't know who I am."

"All you need is twine and driftood," he explained. "The wood tells you what to do."
These sculptures don't last very long, he said. The elements and the park guards quickly reduce them to their components. I said that in this respect they remind me of mandalas.
"That's exactly what they are," Mr. Driftwood said. "I put them together, photograph them and say goodbye to them. Three weeks later the Parks Department comes and takes them down."

The middle part of my walk took me through Central Park, where I took advantage of the thin crowds to visit the mosaic dedicated to John Lennon that's inset into the pavement. It's within view of the Dakota Hotel, where he was fatally shot in 1980.

I wound up my southward trip with a visit to the apartment building where my father was born Sept. 12, 1907. It's at 409 E. Sixth St., between First Avenue and Avenue A.

It was dark by the time I got there, so these photos didn't come out very well. But standing on the same spot where he had his photo taken as a young child sent shivers down my spine.
Today I discovered that I love New York City far more than I ever knew.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Pilgrimage


I've often mentioned my study of karate in this blog, and have referred to my first karate teacher with fondness and admiration.
Here is The Man.
He's Gerald Evans, but everyone calls him "Ski." Call him "sensei," even in the dojo, and he'll firmly but gently remind you that "the name's Ski."
He lives in Philadelphia, and I make occasional trips there to visit him and the city I called home for nearly a decade.
But mostly I go there to visit Ski, who remains my mentor and dear friend despite the passage of 11 years since I last trained in his dojo.
He's 67 but moves with the litheness and power of a far, far younger man. For those who keep track of such things, he's a yondan -- or fourth-degree black belt -- though he gave up testing for rank a couple of decades ago as a mostly political exercise in ego massage. Were he to test today, he would likely be a rokudan, or sixth-degree black belt. Possibly seventh degree. "So what? Who cares?" he would say.

Ski was a prize student of Teruyuki Okazaki, who was a student of Master Gichin Funakoshi, founder of the Shotokan style of karate. Ski also earned the respect of Masatoshi Nakayama-sensei, another of Master Funakoshi's pupils.
Okazaki-sensei went on to found the International Shotokan Karate Federation, headquartered in Philadelphia. Ski eventually started his own dojo -- but not before competing internationally and compiling a very successful record as a tournament fighter in world championships, including in Japan, where he battled the legendary Masahiko Tanaka, world champion in sparring at the time, and nearly defeated him.
I have some of these matches on DVD.
They are Zen in motion, nothing more, nothing less.
Ski vs. Masahiko Tanaka, U.S. Bicentennial matches, Philadelphia 1976

OK, this is starting to sound like a speech at a testimonial dinner.
The essence is that Ski was instrumental in opening my eyes to life and to human nature, and offered me a glimpse into who I am. Karate was only the vehicle through which these lessons were imparted. He could've been my tiddly-winks teacher and I would've learned just as much. He was the finger pointing at the moon.
He also got me interested in Japan, where I lived for three years through his encouragement.

I haven't lived in Philadelphia since 1995 and I study a different style of karate now and have come to be very fond of my current instructor, a most impressive and respected practitioner in his own right.
But insofar as we have "parents" in the martial arts who shape us and teach us to walk, so to speak, Ski is my father.

My visit yesterday began with hat-shopping with Ski in South Philly. This was for Ski, but I wound up buying one, too. Here's Ski in his old-school "applejack," me in my old-school "stingy brim." I'm not much of a hat person, but this one cried out to be bought.
Then, it was off to a culinary mecca on Ninth Street in South Philly called Geno's Steaks. Vegetarians, my apologies for these photos. And you might not want to read the next few sentences.
If you've never had a cheesesteak (and if you're not a vegetarian), you don't know what you're missing.
Pictured here is a "Whiz without": A 10-inch piece of heaven consisting of sliced steak slathered in Cheez Whiz, served piping hot on a fresh roll from the nearby Italian Market. The "without" refers to sliced onions.
I could go up to the order window and say "Hello, I would like a plain cheesesteak with melted Cheez Whiz, and hold the onions, please," but with a line of hungry customers that sometimes stretches for blocks, economy of words is key. My preference can be stated in two simple, beautiful words: Whiz without.
Use other vocabulary and you'll be laughed at mercilessly by any native Philadelphian within earshot. Take too long to make up your mind and you may be pushed out of the way.

Many other places around the world offer cheesesteaks, and may even have the audacity to call them Philadelphia cheesesteaks. But if you're not eating one from Geno's, or from main rival Pat's diagonally across the street, then you're ingesting an impostor.
Just as you must go to the Louvre in Paris to behold the "Mona Lisa," so you must journey to South Philly to munch that masterpiece in meat, the cheesesteak.

After gorging myself at Geno's -- Ski doesn't touch the stuff -- I sat in on his Friday evening karate class. As always, I picked up some pointers I can use in my training in Goju-style karate. I don't participate in Ski's classes. I believe in the Japanese proverb, "The hunter who hunts two rabbits goes hungry." I just watch, but I still pick up a lot of wisdom that transcends styles.

These visits to Philadelphia every few months are always a homecoming for me.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Self-Portrait Tuesday, Valentine's Day

Kind of a strange self-portrait, but insofar as it reflects things that are important in my life, it's actually quite accurate.
This is a butsudan, a Buddhist altar. Butsudan in Japanese literally means "buddha shelf."
This one is about 21 inches tall, 17 inches wide and 12 inches deep.
I brought it with me when I moved back to the U.S. from Japan. As a student of Japanese religions, I wanted it as a keepsake and something more.

The butsudan business is big money in Japan. B-I-G money. My butsudan is of the type you might find in the small apartment of a person on a budget, or kept by a shopkeeper in his store. It cost about $350 back in 1998. More ornate butsudan, the type you often find in a house, can stand 6 feet tall and cost $35,000 or more.

If memory serves, there's an annual unofficial (I think) holiday, celebrated in February or March, stemming from the nearly 1,500-year-old custom of having a butsudan in one's house.
It's sort of a National Butsudan Day, on which everyone is encouraged to spruce up their altars, maybe buy a new one -- the most expensive one you can afford. After all, you wouldn't want to dishonor your ancestors -- whose memorial tablets are kept inside the altars -- by purchasing something chintzy.

The thing is, there is nothing -- NOTHING -- written in any of the Buddhist sutras mandating that people have butsudan. Buddhist teachings don't even mention butsudan. Nor do they mention memorial tablets. These things aren't Buddhist at all.
Butsudan and memorial tablets come out of a purely Confucian tradition that was imported into Japan from China ages and ages ago.
When Buddhism itself came to Japan, first from Korea in the sixth century and afterward from China, the monarchy ordered all households to have a butsudan as a way to entrench the new religion among the people. The idea was to enshrine the Buddha in your house, and also enshrine your ancestors for good measure.


In Japan, there are stores that sell only Buddhist altars and such trappings as butsuzo (statues of buddhas), incense, candles, sutra books, Buddhist wall scrolls and juzu (Buddhist rosaries). That's my discount card, above, from one such chain, Hasegawa Butsudan. This place should be called The Buddha Depot. It's where I bought my butsudan.
The card has the store name and the words Magokoro Kado -- sincerity card.

OK, enough of the history lesson, and back to the self-portrait aspects.
Inside the altar is a buddha statue I bought at a very famous temple in Ichikawa, Chiba prefecture.
The vase next to the statue with the flowers in it was purchased at Mt. Koya in Wakayama prefecture, site of a 1,300-year-old temple complex and one of the holiest spots in Japan.
Below and to the right of the statue is a bell -- not the kind you shake, but the type you strike, sort of like a Tibetan "singing bowl." I bought it in Ibaraki prefecture, north of where I lived, from a butsudan shop along a coastal road that holds many fond memories for me.
To the left of the bell is a white offering cup. To its left is a candle I bought in New York City at a Japanese restaurant at which my sister and I had a beautiful lunch just a week or so before one of my first major surgeries.
On it is printed the Heart Sutra.

The photo on the left is of my dad shortly after his induction into the army in World War II. The other photo is of Chojun Miyagi-sensei, founder of Goju-ryu, the style of karate I practice. Funny, two pictures of dead men who would've been mortal enemies 60-odd years ago, together on a buddha shelf.

And there you have it.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Tag: I'm it

I got tagged by Kim -- or, shall I say, I accepted a "tag challenge" she issued on her blog. So:

Four jobs I've had:
1) Horse-and-carriage driver, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia (a horse's ass literally put me through grad school)
2) Janitor in a Philadelphia dive bar where even some of the women carried guns
3) Roofer
4) Sportswriter for a daily newspaper (boxing and lots of high school sports)

Four movies I like:
1) "Raging Bull"
2) "GoodFellas"
3) "Seven Samurai"
4) "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai"

Four places I've lived:
1) Alsager, Stoke-on-Trent, England
2) Nosaka-machi, Chiba prefecture, Japan
3) Kutztown, Pa.
4) Philadelphia (all over the city)

Four TV shows I watch:
1) "Sanford and Son"
2) "All in the Family"
3) Whatever's on the History Channel
4) Whatever's on Turner Classic Movies

Four places I've vacationed:
1) Florida (with parents when I was a kid)
2) South Carolina (participated in a Civil War "living history" event on the grounds of a former plantation. I slept on the floor of a slave shack)
3) Japan (I had a job, but really, it was a three-year vacation)
4) Seattle, Wash.

Four of my favorite dishes:
1) Tuna and salmon sashimi
2) A real Philadelphia cheesesteak at Geno's (if you've had one, you know)
3) Chicken
4) Not a dish, really, but I must include tea

Four blogs I visit:
I can't narrow it down to four. It would be impossible.

Four places I'd rather be right now:
1) Japan (always my top choice)
2) On a sofa counting my millions in lottery winnings
3) Mongolia
4) Right here, right now (if choices 1, 2 or 3 are unavailable)

Four bloggers who are now tagged:
Following Kim's lead, I extend this tag challenge to anyone reading this who'll accept it.

Friday, February 10, 2006

For MST, 1907-1992



I could've eased my dad's final months
could've soothed
his fears
arising from awareness
of ebbing lucidity
his mind the victim
of a capricious child
stealing a cookie here and there
from the jar

I could've bridged decades of enmity
that had settled
into an uneasy truce
could've answered
that frantic long-distance call
one afternoon
a cry for help
asking me
where he was
why he was alone
why I wasn't there
"Can you HELP me?"
he pleads
into the answering machine
through which I screened the call

In his last days
his mind nearly gone
wife unable to care
for his needs
or defend herself
against his blind rages
he is put in a nursing home
the same one where his mother died
I remember visiting her there
as a boy of 4
"Why is Grandma playing with a doll?"
I ask my mother
in a scene that haunts me
to this day

And now my dad
perched on the edge
of that same fine and fragile line
and at that same way station
in a moment of clarity
says
"I'm going to die here, aren't I?"

I want to visit him
"He wouldn't even recognize you"
my mother says
I take her word for it
and stay away

The phone call came a week later
he died just past midnight
on his 48th wedding anniversary

I don't recall shedding many tears
at his funeral
but afterward
I pulled out the box of old home movies
safely tucked away
and forgotten
in my mother's basement
carefully threading the brittle film
through the projector
and there he is
vibrant
smiling
in his element
forever young
in far happier days
before realities put hopes to flight
and opening this portal
I let loose torrents of emotion
such as I've never felt

It's been 14 springs
since he's been gone
but the talks we have now
by his graveside
are among the best
we ever had


Books by my bedside

Here's a sample of what I'm reading, and what I've recently read.
Some of these books have been by my bedside for months.
Some will go back to the shelves unread.
Some will change my life in one way or another, big or small.
The great thing about books is that if I have enough of them lying around, guests to my house think I'm very wise -- even if I know good and well that I haven't read half of them. :)

Bob Dylan, "Chronicles, Volume One" -- A beautiful book that reads like an exquisite extended lyric. I just finished this one. I'm not a huge Dylan fan, but I may just become one now.

Denise Chong, "The Girl in the Picture" -- You've seen that unforgettable 1972 photo of the little Vietnamese girl running naked down the road, screaming and in agony, after her village was napalmed. Her name is Kim Phuc and this is the story of her life and what has happened to her since that Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was taken. I'm about two-thirds done with this one. I always thought it was a U.S. warplane that was responsible for that fateful airstrike. Turns out it was a South Vietnamese Air Force plane. I'm sure it didn't make a damned bit of difference to Kim.

Fred Reinfeld, "The Complete Chess Course"
Fred Reinfeld
, "The Complete Chess Player" -- What can I say? I'm tired of getting whupped.

"Dhammapada: The Sayings of Buddha" -- Enough said. The translator, Thomas Cleary, is one of my favorites. For my money, he and Red Pine, another awesome translator of Chinese and Japanese works, are the best in the business.

Thich Nhat Hanh, "Old Path White Clouds" -- Haven't started this one yet.

R.H. Blyth, "Mumonkan"
Thomas and J.C. Cleary, "The Blue Cliff Record" -- Both of these collections of koans have been sparsely read. But after reading all the sniping and nonsense of late on some of the Buddhist blogs I visit, I may put these back on the shelf. Or burn them.

Alan Watts, "Become What You Are" -- Haven't opened this one yet, but have liked other books by Zen priest Watts.

Christopher Benfey, "The Great Wave: Gilded Age misfits, Japanese eccentrics, and the opening of Old Japan" -- Awesome book whose chapters are each devoted to a Western intellectual , adventurer, scientist, charlatan or mystic who was drawn to Japan after the country was forcibly opened to the West in 1854. As a sort of spiritual heir to this bunch, I could intimately identify with the things about Japan that captivated these people, comparing and contrasting their motives with my own. Three of my heroes -- Lafcadio Hearn, Theodore Roosevelt and Herman Melville -- are featured prominently, as are Percival Lowell (the man who discovered Pluto), John La Farge and Ernesto Fenollosa.

Kakuzo Okakura, "The Book of Tea" -- Written by a polymath who is featured in Benfey's book.

Pierre Francois Souyri, "The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society" -- The history of feudal Japan puts the most creative and imaginative soap operas to shame. The best part is, all this stuff really happened. I'm looking forward to starting this book.

G.B. Sansom, "Japan: A Short Cultural History" -- George Sansom wrote the book on Japanese history in more ways than one. He's considered one of the best scholars ever to write on Japan. Columbia University has established a professorship in Japanese history in his name. This book, which first came out in 1931, is still considered one of the best on the subject. The language is a bit dated, though, and this book isn't an easy read. I'm about a third done with this book. It's a lot of work.

e.e. cummings, "Complete Poems 1904-1962" -- Some of cummings' poems fly completely over my head. Others make me want to cry because of their beauty.

Gary Snyder, "Danger on Peaks" -- I like many of Snyder's poems and prose works. My decision to live in Japan was inspired in part by Snyder's own life course. I'm just about to start this book.

Seamus Heaney, "Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996" -- To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the English gave the Irish their language, but the Irish showed the English how to use it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Due to technical difficulties ...

For the past several days, my atom.xml site feed had failed to load.
This was because I wrote a recent post in Microsoft Word and then cut-and-pasted it onto my blog.
I've learned that importing posts in this way also imports HTML code that disrupts the feed.
I've since removed this bad code.
The site feed should load properly now.
Thanks!

Self-Portrait Tuesday, Feb. 7

Togane, Chiba prefecture, Japan, 1997 or '98

Monday, February 06, 2006

Walking, again

" ... gray clouds part like a fleece jacket unzippered ... "
Manhattan skyline from George Washington Bridge

Firehouse door, Canal and Allen streets, East Village


Anatomically correct kitty statue, 79th Street and Park Avenue, Manhattan


Today
Manhattan was mine
seven leagues
20 miles
a trail of footfalls
from North Jersey
nearly the length of the island

Crossing the George Washington Bridge
haven't felt a hammering headwind like this
in a long time
it's a cunning sparring partner
threatens to sweep my feet from under me

Walking down Hudson River path
wind roaring in my ears
my eyes water
can't hear myself think
gray clouds part
like a fleece jacket unzippered
on the gusts
a hint of spring

I leave the riverside
to escape the wind
walk east down 83rd Street
to Central Park
Choose a serpentine path
blasted through bedrock
deserted
runoff from yesterday's rain
drips from an overpass
cars and taxis zip by

Cross Fifth Avenue
Madison
Park
Lexington
Third
Second
First
Downtown-bound

Reach Gramercy Park
memories of my grandmother
summers spent as a kid
not far from the little bar
where O. Henry wrote
"Gift of the Magi"
and Babe Ruth bragged
over beer and cigars

Cut back west to Third Avenue
head down to Canal Street
Chinatown
hucksters hawking
fake designer bags
and wind-up toys
and God knows what

Sun setting
streets emptying
People rushing home
to see
the Super Bowl kickoff

Streets turn quiet
purposeful Chinese ladies
head home from shopping
men shut their stores
and I head to the Manhattan Bridge

A dark, mysterious span
over the East River
not a soul on the footpath
wind blows dust into my eyes
subway trains clatter by
deafening screech of metal on metal
sparks cast a greenish light

To my right
the Brooklyn Bridge
twinkling like tinsel
strands of angel hair

On a whim
I don't double back
across the Manhattan Bridge
I'll head into Brooklyn
city of churches
instead
and take the Brooklyn Bridge
that lacework fortress
back over the East River

Back in lower Manhattan
the financial center
Wall Street
all dark and quiet
no deals going down
all the tourists gone
a few drops of rain
(hungry ghosts weeping)
I see the ghost
of Bartleby the Scrivener
(he still prefers not to)

Head up Allen Street
which becomes First Avenue
after Houston
past crowded bars
sports banter wafts outside
men out front smoking
excitedly talking
the world's biggest football fans
some just for this day

I stop at my friend's sushi bar
the place is a crypt
kid reading a book
at a corner table
leaves as I arrive
just me
and the waitress
and the cook
and the radio
I quietly sip my beer

Return from the toilet
to find someone sitting next to me
some college girl
young enough to be my daughter
I try to make small talk
amid cavernous silence
rebuffed, ignored
she turns away without a word
"Don't flatter yourself
you just happened to be there"
(I feel like saying)
but I finish my beer
pay the tab
tell her
"Enjoy your dinner
and keep in mind
life isn't nearly as serious
as you make it out to be --
but you'll find out"
and back out into the night

9:30
trudge uptown
losing steam
ankles sore
carefree stride well behind me
walk past the carriage horses
along Central Park South
no business at this hour
drivers talk among themselves
in conspiratorial whispers

I reach Columbus Circle
nearly fall asleep on the A train back to the GWB
I get off the train
the station quiet as a catacomb
up the stairs
onto the street
into the darkness

Half-moon perched
atop one of the GWB towers
wind still howling
even stronger than this morning
not another soul
walking back to New Jersey