Saturday, December 31, 2005

Getting a head-start

To all my friends in the blogosphere,

I wish you a Happy New Year, and may 2006 be a year of peace, happiness and prosperity for you and yours.

I spent the day Friday (a rare weekday off from work) in Philadelphia with my former karate teacher. We drank, played cards and chess (I was beaten badly in both), and reflected on the past year, and on the more than 12 years of our friendship.

I vividly remember that day in May 1993 when I first walked into his dojo.
I knew absolutely nothing about karate, nor about the culture that gave birth to it and the successive cultures that shaped it and honed it into what it is today.
I walked into his dojo because it was around the corner from my house and I had recently gotten out of the hospital and was looking for an activity to get me in shape. It was a question of convenience born of ignorance. And happenstance.

With a chip on my shoulder (I get like that when I'm unsure of myself), I asked him what he would teach me.
"I'll teach you Shotokan karate," he said, looking me square in the eyes. "But I don't know what you're prepared to learn."
From this tenuous beginning, a lifetime friendship was formed.
And a way of life was formed. I became increasingly interested in India and China, the parents of the martial arts. Then my attention focused on Japan and I wound up moving there, immersing myself in its religions, history and culture.
And all this began through a chance meeting between a defensive and clueless prospective student and an extraordinarily perceptive and gifted teacher.
A chance meeting? Perhaps not.

Three poems to mark the passing of the old year

A mountain temple --
Evening and the sunset bell,
whose every voicing
vibrates with a message sad to hear:
"Today, too, is over, dusk has come."
--Wakan roeishin #585

I have always known
that at last I would take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.
--by Ariwara no Norihira

Say I'm out
Say no one's here
In five hundred million years
I'll come home.
--by Takahashi Shinkichi

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Off the cuff

Such a lonesome sound:
An old plane's far-off droning
in the dead of night.


I woke up in the middle of the night last night to go to the bathroom.
Looking out the window, I saw the face of suffering and loneliness:
A single light shining in the house of a neighbor whose husband died two weeks ago.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Physician, heal thyself

This is going to sound silly. It does to me, anyway.
It sounds silly because I think it overstates the obvious, yet the fact that it's obvious makes it no less a source of wonder to me.
Lately, I see the line between myself and other people growing increasingly blurry.
I notice more and more how identical to others I am, in good ways and bad. It goes beyond mere similarity most of the time.
There's this woman I know who I can't stand because I think she's arrogant. Haughty. Sanctimonious. But lately, as I look at her and silently make this evaluation to myself, I see the same traits in me. And I also see the same self-doubt manifested in my actions that I notice in hers.
I see how people react to stress, and as I mentally take them to task for losing their cool, I'm reminded of my own frequent inability to deal with difficulties in constructive ways.
I criticize someone for craving attention, and remember my own ego and its quest for praise.
I harbor resentment against a friend for pointing out my faults. Then I recall the many times I've done the same to others, and how hurt I felt when they harbored resentment against me.
But this mirror also reflects positive images.
In karate class, I see someone execute a technique effortlessly and with fluidity and say to myself, "I think I can do that, if not now, then eventually."
My best friend told me a long time ago that if we see something we admire in others, it's only because we see that same potential in ourselves.
Lately, I've also seen the other side of that coin, that if I see something in others I don't like, I often need only look just under the surface to see that same weed growing in my own garden.
Yes, I think I'm overstating the obvious. I suppose it's like marveling that water is wet.
But I marvel just the same.

A poem and a picture

Yokaichiba City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, March 1998

Farm woman blushes

As I point my camera,

Adjusts her bonnet.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Everyone's a poet

A recent visitor to my blog saw some poems I posted in one of my entries and asked about other haiku (poems about Mother Nature) and senryu (poems about human nature) that I had written.
Well, here they are, for better or worse.
I realize that many writers of haiku and senryu in English tend to dispense with the traditional 5-7-5 syllable structure. I like it, though, because it forces me to express whatever I have to say within very strict confines. You be the judge as to whether it works.
Plus, as a newspaperman, I find it very good practice for writing headlines, which have their own set of strict parameters.
So, here goes:

Shiny-penny moon:

Miracle of creation

becomes clear to me.

Alone with my thoughts

Haunted by the bitter things

I shouldn't have said.

Gray hairs on my head

Each one a mocking witness

to empty worries.

For Gerald "Ski" Evans-sensei

A friendship grown old

You don't have to say a word,

Hearts communicate.

Thinking of Japan

Ripened rice a golden green

Autumn in the air.

"How is your dessert?"

"Fine," she says, fully sated

Now, awkward silence.

A thought arises

I try to chase it away

but like it too much.

Don't let anger rise:

One more precept I can't keep

The list grows longer.

Cat sleeps in my lap

Too old to do much but purr

Just wants to stay warm.

Sakura City, Japan 1997

Cute girl on a train

Smiling, offers me a plum

Alas, it's my stop.

Forgot my cellphone

Finally, blissfully free

of prying voices.

Sun is a blood spot

in a searing summer sky

Not a hint of breeze.

And just who am I?

Particles of shit and spit

Exactly like you.

Show and tell

Here are photos of some wall hangings in my apartment.
The first two are Tibetan thangkas that I think look pretty neat. From a practice standpoint, I'm not really "into" Tibetan Buddhism, but I love the iconography.
At bottom is a Japanese wall scroll depicting Kanzan and Jittoku (Han-shan and Shih-te), two enlightened Zen vagabonds who lived in T'ang Dynasty China. These two wild characters are a favorite subject in Chinese and Japanese art.
They're also two of my favorites. There's a famous painting of these blissfully grinning "Zen lunatics" ripping pages out of sutra books and casting them to the wind.
The implicit message is that all the books in the world -- and all the opinions in the world and all the blog entries in the world -- can never get to the heart of Buddhism. In short, words are just words.
It's direct experience that cuts through all the crap.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

So this is Christmas ...

It's Christmas Day but it doesn't feel much like it here in New Jersey USA. The temperature is in the upper 40s, there is a steady rain falling and this morning a blanket of fog wrapped the area in wisps of cotton. Very atmospheric. But not very Christmas-like.
I enjoy days like this -- they provide the perfect excuse for relaxation -- but something more seasonal would have been nice.

I spent Christmas Eve and part of today indulging a habit I picked up while living in Japan: end-of-year cleaning.
In Japan, there are essentially two kinds of cleaning. There's soji, which is garden variety housework (and schoolwork, too; schools in Japan don't have janitorial staffs. The cleaning is done at a set time every day by the kids and teachers).
And then there's o-soji, the "o" prefix meaning "big." O-soji is what you do at the end of the year in preparation for New Year's Day, and also when the seasons change.
I wasn't always conscientious about this year-end housecleaning in my small apartment in rural Japan. I was an o-soji slacker some of the time (and my batting average in plain old soji was none too high, either).
But at the karate dojo where I trained, I have fond memories of year-end cleaning, which was a communal event full of symbolism: Out with the old, in with the new. I remember helping to scrub the wooden floor till it gleamed, and cleaning dust and dirt from places I never knew it could gather.

And so, this habit has carried over, and with greater consistency, in my post-Japan life. I want everything to be spic and span for the new year, everything in its place -- even if this dedication to neatness and efficiency may last only a week or two. Hopefully, regular soji will kick in at intervals more frequent than in 2005.

I also want to do spiritual o-soji, going through the heap of ideas and notions I accumulated this year and neatly filing those that worked in the proper mental cupboards and consigning the rest to the dust heap.
It seems like just yesterday when I was making such preparations for 2005.
Time moves too quickly these days.
I once heard a very clever saying that sums things up: Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The gospel of timelessness

To all my friends in the blogosphere: Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah.
If none of the above applies, then may you enjoy being snug and warm with the beverage of your choice on these cold winter days.

I was launched into the holiday spirit this morning through the incomparable voice of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. Every year at this time, one of the interview shows on the local National Public Radio station (WNYC-AM) switches format and plays Christmas music sung by famous and lesser-known gospel singers.
I love this time of year, though I don't celebrate any of the holidays that occur around now (but I have a fondness for the winter solstice and mark it in my own way). But hearing Mother Jackson sing "Go Tell It on the Mountain" would soften the heart and warm the soul of even the meanest Scrooge. The emotion of her rendition literally makes my spine tingle. I wind up believing in spite of myself.
There was something about hearing this gospel broadcast, cup of tea in hand, on my small transistor radio that put me in mind of what Christmases past must have been like, when radio was king and people were creatures of greater imagination and were more easily, innocently and simply entertained.
It's funny, but I felt a nostalgia for a time well before my time.
Somehow, I got the feeling that I knew just what it must've been like back then. With my eyes closed and my ears open, you couldn't tell me that this wasn't 1940s Memphis and that I wasn't listening to Mother Jackson in a live broadcast.
I think this is what people mean when they say something is timeless.

Peace, joy, hope, health and happiness to you all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Paving stones on the path to hell

Two Septembers ago, I had the pleasure of visiting an old friend in Japan.
Toshiyo lives in Kyoto and was my home-stay host in 1996 while I was studying Japanese at a language school in the city during a summer break from my teaching job in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. I was matched with her completely at random. But, as I've come to believe, nothing in this existence is ever completely random.
From the time we first met that summer, she has been one of my closest friends and mentors, and Kyoto has been my second home. She is a woman possessed of immeasureable wisdom that is unsettling in its simplicity. I consider her another of my elder sisters.

Nature sometimes conspires against my sense of timing.
My September 2004 visit to Toshiyo coincided with the arrival of a powerful typhoon that was raking Japan from south to north, taking a considerable toll in lives and property.
Returning to her apartment after stepping out for some dinner, I closed my sopping umbrella and leaned it outside her door, not wanting to get her foyer wet. Later that night, I noticed she had hung the umbrella, still dripping, on the doorknob inside the foyer.

I had returned to Japan bearing gifts for Toshiyo and other friends I hadn't seen in years. Toshiyo's gift was a beautiful (and expensive) ceramic pendant whose colors were in the earth tones she so loves. Toshiyo, a refreshingly frank and utterly sincere woman, seemed taken aback at this extravagance.

The next morning, whatever we were talking about somehow led to a discussion of people's actions, and how their intentions can be interpreted in unintended ways.
She reminded me that Japanese people of an earlier age sought to simplify their lives once they turned 60 -- having completed five 12-year cycles of the old lunar calendar, one for each of the five elements that make up the world: water, fire, earth, metal and wood. Toshiyo, then 62 and very traditional in her ways, saw this process as well under way in her own life.
She was slowly and methodically giving away all of her material possessions, save for those that were absolutely necessary to live in this day and age.
And here I was, giving her one more thing that she felt she no longer needed.
She loved the thought behind the pendant, but made me promise her -- made me look straight into her eyes and swear -- that I would never again bring gifts with me when I come to visit her.

Then she glanced over at my umbrella, and took my hand in hers.
"You put the umbrella outside my door because you thought it was the helpful thing to do -- you didn't want to make a puddle in my foyer," she said gently. "All I saw was the inconvenience you caused my neighbors, who had to step around the puddle you created outside."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

If it's Sunday, then I must be walking ...

The sight that greets me every time I walk into Manhattan: The George Washington Bridge, completed in 1931, the busiest bridge in the world (you could look it up!).

Gruff but gentle.

A friend I met in some hole in the wall.

The GWB, yet again.

This and the following two photos show ruins of piers along the New York bank of the Hudson River. The piers carried railroad tracks on which train cars offloaded their goods onto waiting barges, which carried them upriver or downriver. I don't know exactly how old these ruins are, but they're very old and have been declared a historic site.

Heading across the River Styx to the underworld. Actually, this is the pedestrian path across the Manhattan Bridge over the East River, which links Manhattan and Brooklyn.

More Manhattan Bridge. My isolation was exquisite, but a little spooky.

Another beautiful Sunday, another excellent walk into Manhattan.
This time, though, I walked clear south and east to Brooklyn, the City of Churches, one of the Five Boros of Manhattan and the fourth (or is it now fifth?) largest city in the United States in its own right.
If you read my blog entry for last Sunday, then you know the route I take into Manhattan and down to my friend's Japanese restaurant at First Avenue and St. Mark's Place in the East Village.
The only difference today was that I walked south down, down into Chinatown, past Houston Street, and Delancey and Broome and Hester streets, past the ghosts of generations of Jewish families whose first stake in the New World was right here on the Lower East Side, down to Canal Street and across the East River over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn.
I got to the Manhattan Bridge (which is overshadowed, and unfairly so, by its close neighbor, da Brooklyn Bridge) at about 6 p.m. Darkness had long since fallen. I had the bridge all to myself the whole way to Brooklyn. Heading back to Manhattan, four phantom cyclists rode out of the night and zoomed past, the only other traffic on the pedestrian path.
I covered a total distance of about 17 miles on foot today. I finished with energy to spare and was only a bit footsore.
Not a bad day's work.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Monkeying with my identity

I changed my avatar, the picture of "me" that I use to illustrate my profile (which appears to your right).
It's a wooden netsuke of a monkey.
Monkeys are very important to me. Though I was born in the Year of the Tiger, I made my debut in this world during the Hours of the Monkey, which are from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. (I was born at 4:12).
The monkey's influence on a tiger is to inject a little humor, mischief and moxey into someone who might otherwise be insufferably strong-willed and self-important (not that I can't be both).
Pictured above is another wooden netsuke, one of my favorite representations of a tiger because it sums up a key aspect of my personality.
You'll notice that he's roaring fearfully and seems spring-loaded to pounce. But he also fits nicely in the palm of that benevolent hand.
I, too, can be full of piss and vinegar, but am easily contained by a few kind words.

Wax on, wax off

I had a wonderful karate class this afternoon, the final segment of which was devoted to freestyle sparring.
Today, I didn't get as caught up in thinking about what my opponent was about to do. Rather, I allowed myself to react more to what was being done. As a result I didn't take as many hits and scored a few points of my own.
But Sensei pointed out that I move in a linear style, rather than attack from different angles. He compared me to a Redcoat, a British soldier during the American Revolution: Advance inexorably forward, stand tall and unflinching, and be peppered by potshots.
If I were 6 foot 3 and 250 pounds, perhaps I'd be formidable in this approach (at least for a few seconds). But at 5 foot 7 and 142 pounds, it ain't gonna work.
A very close friend of mine once told me that we manifest ourselves in everything we do, from the way we play chess to the way we cook dinner to the way we practice karate.
Taken to its logical conclusion, I would say that in my case, linear thinking leads to linear sparring in karate.
Just one more thing I need to work on. Where to begin?


Meanwhile ...
After class, I felt physically as if I had run into a brick wall and could go no farther. All I wanted to do was go home and take a nap (which I did, having gotten up about a half-hour ago).
Yes, the class was pretty intense, but I've had even tougher classes and have felt full of energy after them.
Fatigue is a symptom of high calcium levels in the blood, one of the calling cards of my parathyroid cancer. Other symptoms include depression, lack of appetite and forgetfulness.
Yet those are also symptomatic of a score of other conditions. So, I'm never quite sure what my body is trying to tell me.
I think the lesson in linear thinking may apply here, too.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Flashes in the pan

A friend and visitor to my blog, Mike Cross, had a great reply to my last post about flashes of insight.
The gist of his reply, if I'm understanding him correctly, is that such flashes invariably prove to be flashes in the pan rather than lightning bolts of clarity, at least in his experience.
I understand. And I also understand the dangers of clinging to supposed insights (though that doesn't stop me from doing so anyway).
Almost every time I feel that I've finally "gotten it," time proves that I actually got nothing. The jury is still out, so to speak, on some of my other "a-ha!" moments.
Often, I let my enthusiasm get the better of me. (But I'm reminded of something a good friend once told me: "He who builds no castles in the air, builds no castles anywhere.")
Through my blog, I have chosen to make a private journey public. Some visitors read my posts and agree, more or less, with my observations and can chart my progress (or its opposite) in a linear way. Others read those same posts and see a train wreck they believe is impending.
Whatever the case, I'm really thankful for all the comments and feedback I have received, and I hope it continues.
I have no idea where I'm headed, but I thank you for sharing in my "travelogue."

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A-ha! or uh-oh...

I had a flash of insight today. On those few -- truly few -- occasions when I have these breakthroughs, they're cause for great satisfaction. But satisfaction quickly yields to the difficult work of applying them to life through practice.

The setting for this afternoon's insight was the karate dojo.
I'm a brown belt in Okinawan Goju-ryu karate. At this level, I'm expected to have a fair foundation in the basics -- stances, punches, kicks, forms and so on.
This afternoon, we worked on those basics, with focus on stances.

In this style of karate, there is a basic stance called sanchin, which means "three battles." The toes of the forward foot are pointed slightly inward, the knee is bent over the big toe, the heel of the forward foot is on the same line as the toes of the rear foot, legs are shoulder-width apart and the knees are squeezed slightly toward each other. The idea is that this stance protects the groin if done correctly.
In the couple of years that I've been studying with this instructor, he always tells us to scoop our hips and butt slightly upward when doing this stance, which gets the body in the proper alignment to stand correctly in sanchin.

"Scoop the hips and butt slightly upward."
I've heard this instruction literally hundreds of times.
And literally hundreds of times, I thought I was doing sanchin correctly. My feet and toes were positioned in the right way, my knees were squeezed slightly together. There I was, in what I thought was acceptable sanchin.
Except that today, I realized that from Day One, I wasn't scooping my hips and butt slightly upward.
I was hearing sensei's words, but I wasn't listening.

He used the most descriptive and simplest language possible to help us learn this stance and he reinforced this simple instruction with his own textbook example of how to stand in sanchin. But until today, I didn't get it, and until today, I didn't realize that I wasn't getting it. In fact, I thought that I had already gotten it.
Despite his simple words and his own example, I had to arrive at the insight myself.
I don't know what led me to it. All I know is, one second I was standing in sanchin with a droopy butt and lazy hips, and the next second I felt as solid and immovable as a boulder. (If I'm still struggling with basic stances, you can imagine how much work lies before me, brown belt or not.)

This leads me to my point, which I state here not as "wisdom" I'm proudly trying to share, but as a reminder to my very forgetful self.
I read a lot of Buddhism-related blogs and books, and no matter how much the writers break down and simplify what they regard as their own flashes of insight into "what is," I'm left with the clear impression that I have to experience it directly and in its entirety. Otherwise, I feel like a blind man trying to describe an elephant.

I was reminded today that in the dojo and in life, I really don't know, despite what I may think I know, thanks to my stubborn ego.
But, when I feel I know -- I mean palpably feel this knowledge to the marrow of my bones -- then it seems as if it has been a part of me for 10,000 years.

"Scoop the hips and butt slightly upward."
What do those words mean? I don't know, because evidently I was interpreting (or misinterpreting) them several ways. Therein lies the limitation of language.
But I know what it feels like to be in that physical posture. The thing is, I can't describe it for you. Not because sanchin is so esoteric a stance that it requires decades of practice (though many would argue it does). In fact, I think it's just the opposite: It's so simple that I can never muster the eloquence to describe it. It has to be felt.

A former karate instructor of mine who is still a mentor and one of my dearest friends used to tell me that insight can happen in an instant, like a bolt of lightning.
Neat description, I thought.
But now I truly feel what he was telling me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The problem with you is the problem with him and her. And them, too.

I recently rediscovered a valuable lesson in my mental attic that begs to see the light of day once again.
I have big trouble with pronouns.
My Zen teacher at the time pointed this out to me last year.
Whenever we spoke in dokusan, a formal, private, one-on-one interview to check my understanding (or lack of it), she would stop me before I could get more than a few words out of my mouth.
Every time I answered her questions about why I felt a certain way or what I thought was motivating me, I would use the pronouns "you" (in the generic sense) or "we," when I really should have been saying "I."
It would go something like this:

Sensei: Michael, what do you think it means to express compassion?
Me: Well, when you act ...
Sensei: You mean, "When I act ... "
Me: Yes, when I act ...

What she was trying to get me to learn is that taking responsibility for my actions begins with using the right pronouns to reflect MY behaviors, observations and motivations, not yours or anybody else's.
Her point was that when I use generic terms to refer to things associated with myself, I separate myself from my actions, and the cycle of dualistic thinking continues unbroken and with all the consequences associated with it. In other words, it's a subconscious way of foisting responsibility for my actions on someone or something else through subtle disassociation.
Thus, I need to speak for myself, and from my heart, when I'm talking about me.
Just semantics? Maybe.
I know that in conversation, I use the generic "you" all the time. It's simply a matter of convenience.
But I'm trying to catch myself when I do this, and to be extra vigilant in my writings, which don't usually require the spontaneity of conversation and allow more time for reflection.
Of course, a primer in pronouns and a change in vocabulary isn't going to stop my dualistic thinking.
But by being more mindful of how I represent myself, I can then begin to see the me in you and the you in me, and how there really is no "I" after all.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Making perfection

That green blob in the middle of the photo I took yesterday of the cyclist at sunset (see below) was really bugging me. So, two of my pals showed me how to use Adobe Photoshop to remove this anomaly. And, while they were at it, they showed me how to make the sunset colors stand out more, and to add contrast to better define the trees and the cyclist.
So, here it is, my first doctored photo.
Now, if only there was an equivalent of Photoshop that would let us erase life's anomalies, soften the jagged edges and accentuate the important elements...

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Back on the road

In the background, the 59th Street Bridge, which connects Manhattan with Queens

A glance back on the path I traveled, with the GWB barely visible in the distance

Fishing on the New York side of the Hudson, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge

Too cold for these pigeons to fly

Getting ready to step off the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River and into upper Manhattan, and with time to spare for a cheesy self-portrait

Poetic justice?

Me at 125th Street and 12th Avenue in Harlem, underneath the elevated Riverside Drive.

Sunset on the Hudson River trail. I have no idea what the green dot is. Damned digital cameras...

The reward: Chicken teriyaki and some tasty trimmings at my destination, Shiki Kitchen in the East Village

Me and my friend Shiki-san, right, owner of Shiki Kitchen at First Avenue and St. Mark's Place

Today I took my first 15-mile walk in several weeks, and now, safely back home, I feel like a new man.
Above are some photos I took along the way.
I walked from Fort Lee, N.J., to the East Village in New York City and then part of the way back.
For those of you familiar with the area, I walked across the George Washington Bridge to the Hudson River path, then down to 67th Street in midtown Manhattan. I left the river path, walked down West End Avenue to 59th Street, headed crosstown (passing the southern end of Central Park), turned right at First Avenue, and then headed to my friend's Japanese restaurant at First Avenue and St. Mark's Place.
After dinner, I walked west to Third Avenue, uptown to 59th Street, crosstown to Broadway, and took the A train (thank you, Duke Ellington) from Columbus Circle back up to the GWB, which I crossed on foot once again to Fort Lee.

For those of you unfamiliar with the route, my path took me through the heart of a metropolis of 8 million people and
8 million tales of success
8 million tales of woe
8 million memories of babies' first steps
8 million heartaches of saying goodbye forever
8 million Buddhas
8 million delusions
8 million neuroses
8 million missed opportunities
8 million heroes
8 million dreams
and me, alone, walking in the middle of it all...

It was a brisk day with a stiff breeze coming from the south. I don't think the thermometer topped 40 all day and if it did, it wasn't by much.
Walking under such conditions is heaven for me. I rode a natural high all the way down to the Village, and got a beer-and-warm-sake assist back up to the bridge after dinner.
Any further attempts at describing the joy of this walk are destined to fail miserably.
So, enough said.

The Nyuk-nyuk Sutra

Was Curly (of The Three Stooges) a Zen master?

Curly: "I'm trying to think, but nothing happens!"

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Who am I really?

This evening, I got this e-mail from my friend and co-worker:

"Your blog is your public persona, but it is not the you I know from your years of grousing at work, your angry outbursts, etc. I am sure your blog is therapeutic, but you need real therapy -- someone to talk to and help you work out all the dysfunctional aspects of your life -- from your finances to your pathetic diet."

This is true. I have a public persona, as reflected in my blog. And among those people I see and interact with on a frequent basis, I reveal more of myself -- or maybe not necessarily more, but a different side. It isn't always pretty. But it's me.
I call this being human.
I can be judgmental, temperamental, stubborn, mean-spirited, impatient, critical, and a bunch of other downright nasty things. I can also be the exact opposite of each of these traits.
But who can't?

My response to my friend (a very honest, perceptive person and my closest friend at work) included my observation that "dysfunctional" is one of the most abused and overused words in our language. I don't like this word when it is applied to people (and I'm guilty of that myself) because it implies that there's a perfect state of being against which everything else is compared. It's very easy to bandy this dismissive term. I think its message is that a behavior is EITHER normal OR abnormal, functional OR dysfunctional -- one or the other, instead of recognizing the behavior and its opposite as different aspects of the same thing.

If this is true and if I'm not full of shit, then how can I be anything but dysfunctional, because in a battle with perfection (if it exists), imperfection always loses. Maybe I'm just rationalizing and justifying and trying to deflect a very well-aimed arrow. Some of that surely is going on.

I want to bathe in my many imperfections, accept that I have them and deal with those that I can. When I know better, I'll do better.

Meanwhile, I think we all act as mirrors for one another. The trick is in being able to see the reflection, the same potential for perfection and imperfection in ourselves that we often see more easily in others.

To put it another way: I know I am, but what are you?

To put it still another way, "If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where do you expect to find it?"

Mea culpa.

Memo to myself

"If you cannot find the truth right where you are,
where do you expect to find it?"
Master Dogen Zenji

My deepest thanks to Anu for reminding me of this.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Encouraging health news

The results are in: May I have the envelope, please.
My blood test shows that my serum calcium level is the same as it was in November, the last time I was tested. This is very good news. My doctors are very happy. I'm very happy.
To put it another way: No gain, no pain.
Sitting menacingly in my refrigerator is a vial of medication that lowers blood calcium levels should the need arise. It's administered intravenously, which, given my aversion to needles, is not a pleasant prospect.
So for now, I get to open the refigerator and stick my tongue out at that small cardboard box with the vial inside. Or the vile inside, depending on one's perspective.
Thank you all for your good wishes and kind thoughts.
Moment to moment, breathe in, breathe out.

Sound familiar? Part II

The Buddhist precepts:
Very easy to follow
till I leave my house.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Sound familiar? Part I

Time to sit zazen:
Fart around, now it's too late;
OK, tomorrow.

The biggest stakes of all

The blood test has been performed. And what a performance it was. Now I'm just waiting for that beautiful, awesome, terrifying Big Lottery to see which number I drew this time.

Cold fact: A normal blood calcium level hovers in the 9 to 9.5 range, sometimes slightly lower or higher, depending on the quirks of a person's biochemistry. Mine has gone as high as 14.3. When I was checked last a few weeks ago, it was 11.7.
A difference of one or two points may not seem like much. But that would be like looking at a map of the United States and saying, "Gee, New York and North Carolina are only a few inches apart."

Ah, the magic of numbers.

Blood tests are particularly unpleasant for me because I hate needles. The irony is that this is a cancer whose progress, good or bad, is measured by blood tests. This is what my enemies would call my comeuppance. This is what I call "why me." This is what fate calls tough shit.
I haven't done so -- yet -- but I think I'd faint at the sight of my own blood being taken. Another irony: My first newspaper job was as a sportswriter, and one of my beats was professional boxing. I could sit ringside and watch two men pound each other into ground chuck, and I'd be transfixed. On several occasions, sweat and blood actually spattered the laptop computer on which I was typing my story. My clinical detachment would've made a doctor proud.

But when I go for a blood test, a room has to be reserved for me because I have to lie on my back, take off my glasses to ensure I don't see anything, and cover my eyes with my free hand to make doubly sure. I have to be told to take a deep breath just before the needle enters, and to remember to breathe regularly during the course of the test, all 30 seconds of it.

The woman who takes my blood is a queen among women. By title, she's a phlebotomist. But I would never refer to her by such a cold, ugly word. She's an angel of mercy because she has been putting up with my squeamishness for a few years now. Not only does she not protest, she actually tells me it's OK to react the way I do. This, this is compassion.

So now, the waiting begins. Because the test is done at the hospital as opposed to an outside lab, the results should be ready by tomorrow, maybe even by late this afternoon.
In the past, I've surrendered to the interminable waiting by calling my doctor with anxiety in my voice, and sometimes far too soon, and then sweating bullets while she either looked up the results on the computer or told me that they weren't ready yet.
She and I had a nice talk today (she is another example of compassion incarnate), and I told her that this time I'm not going to call. This time, I'll wait for her to call me.
It's not as if my anxiety is going to change the test result one whit. I can make all sorts of promises to God and mankind about what I'll do if given a good result, but the number is the number.
I want to worry less about those things over which I have little or no control.
Reality's a bitch, but the lessons are priceless.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Click or bang?

Well, it's that time again. Tomorrow morning I must go into Manhattan for one of my regularly scheduled blood tests.
Hopefully, the results will show that the medication I'm taking is keeping my calcium level steady.
A couple of years ago, one of my surgeons told me that a patient of his with the same cancer described going in for these tests as never knowing whether to expect a click or a bang.
The allusion to Russian roulette is fitting.
Let's hope for a click this time.

Two old friends

Top: My favorite tetsubin (iron teapot). I bought it at a Japanese shop right here in good ol' New Joisey.
Above: My favorite chawan (tea mug), which I brought back from Japan. The kanji (Chinese character) says chikara ("power"), the name of the sushi shop whose owner gave it to me. The shop was in the town next to the one in which I lived.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

It suits me to a tea

"... the first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy."

Jack Kerouac, "The Dharma Bums"

A visitor to my blog points out that I mention tea in several of my postings, and asks what role, ceremonial or otherwise, tea plays in my life.

When I was in college, I used to drink gallons of tea so that I could pull all-nighters studying for tests. My favorite blends were Twining's Earl Grey and Tetley's, both taken with enough sugar to trigger diabetic shock.
When college ended, so did the tea orgies.

And then I moved to Japan.

For many Japanese, tea isn't just a drink. It's a way of life called Sado (or Chado), the Way of Tea. At the center of this art is the Japanese tea ceremony, steeped in Zen and requiring a lifetime to understand. I don't know much about Sado, so I won't delve blindly into it here.

But I can tell you that on a more mundane level, tea infuses most every aspect of Japanese life. It's a token of hospitality and friendship, a cue to relax and take a break from your office work. For me, it was always a subtle reminder that I was a guest in someone's house or workplace, a formality that officially marked the start of a visit.

When I first got to Japan, I thought green tea was green tea. But I quickly learned that that's like saying the "Mona Lisa" is just a painting.
I discovered the differences between common-grade bancha and higher-grade sencha. I grew fond of the nutty taste of hojicha, so inexpensive and so comforting on a cold winter's night. I loved the strong, slightly bitter matcha, that staple of the tea ceremony, so expensive that it was only an occasional treat. I liked the woody taste of kukicha, the subtle hint of puffed brown rice in genmaicha.
And above all, I savored that ambrosia of the gods, gyokuro, as if it were the very breath of life itself.

I've been back from Japan for nearly eight years now, but my green tea habit is as strong as ever. Lately, I've added Quan Yin tea, an inexpensive import from China, to my stash.
When I drink tea, time melts away, the pace of my life slows. Nothing assumes greater importance than enjoying the warmth of the cup in my hand and the warmth of the tea that spreads like a down comforter across my chest.
This is my tea ceremony.

I never got into the coffee habit. I never cared for the taste. I equate coffee, probably unfairly, with morning rush hour, stress, a caffeine fix, high blood pressure, lives of quiet desperation, cheesy Folger's TV commercials and Joe DiMaggio ("Mr. Coffee").
Ironically, coffee has become more popular in Japan than tea among younger people. But then, I've always bucked trends (or at least I like to think so).

So there you have it.
Tea is my heroin, my obsession, my savior, my teacher, my excuse to procrastinate (as if I need one).

The joy of gym

Today was a banner day! It was the first time I've been back to the gym to lift weights since a couple of weeks before my Aug. 31 surgery.
It was wonderful to feel the same familiar muscle tautness, the same painful yet strangely pleasureable aches, the same feelings of challenge and uncertainty followed by the same sense of accomplishment. Muscle memory, indeed.
Tomorrow I'm probably going to ache like hell, but I look forward to it.
I've been reading some recent postings on three blogs on Zen Buddhism to which I subscribe (thank you and deep bows to Mike, Brad and Nishijima-sensei) that address the mental and physical aspects of existence. The gist of the postings is, if I understood them correctly, that we get into trouble when we try to seperate two things that are inherently one -- that is, when we try to consider our physical aspect without taking into account our mental (and spiritual) ones, and vice versa.
As much as I love to read about Zen and other paths to awakening and discovery, today's trip to the gym hammered that point home better than words. Sitting here sipping tea and typing this, I feel very much at peace, yet also very much ready to jump into just about any physical activity I can think of.
I had been feeling depressed and sorry for myself lately, but not now, not at this very moment, and I know why.
Through negligence, I tried to separate the inseparable.
I guess I missed going to the gym more than I ever knew.

Purrfect blog III

Third and last installment of equal blog time for the kitties.
This is Yasashi (Japanese for gentle). A prince among tomcats. The very embodiment of gentleness.
Like Sasayaku (see below), he takes after his owner. Because of the abnormally high level of calcium in my bloodstream, I frequently develop kidney stones. Yasashi once had a bad case of bladder stones. So, he's on a special diet. I, too, have to watch what I eat. Milk, cheese and other foods rich in calcium are occasional indulgences at best.

Purrfect blog II

More equal blog time for the kitties. Meet Sasayaku. That's Japanese for whisper.
See, when Sasayaku opens her mouth to meow, no sound comes out.
They say that pets take after their owners (or is it vice versa?). During one of the surgeries to my neck, one of the two nerves controlling my vocal chords needed to be severed. This left me sounding permanently like Don Corleone from "The Godfather," but without the Sicilian accent.
One of my friends, a big fan of "The Sopranos" TV show, started calling me "Mikey Whispers."
And then I made him an offer he couldn't refuse: Call me "Mikey Whispers" one more time, and I break your legs. And then I make you sleep with the fishes.
Now, he calls me just plain Michael again.
Sasayaku, she understands.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Purrfect blog I

Zen mistress Tara, the all-seeing one, alpha cat extraordinaire

Hope you don't mind the gratuitous kitty pic. Actually, my three cats demand equal blog time. So, this is Tara. Not Tara as in "Gone With The Wind." Tara as in the Tibetan Buddhist emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, peaceful version (for now, anyway).

OK, Tara, you've had your equal time. Now scram. It's my turn.

I really appreciate and am humbled by those of you who have said that I'm brave to share with you the details of my battle with parathyroid cancer. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Truth is, I'm not brave at all. I'm really scared. Terrified.
This blog is partly a manifestation of that fear. Part of me feels that if I can share with enough people, Fate will stop and say, "Gee, he seems like a really nice, sincere guy," rethink what he (or she) has in store for me, and cut me a huge karmic break. The wand will be waved, and I'll be all better.

Of course, I know this is pure fantasy.

Sometimes, I look upon this disease as a blessing because it has forced me to appreciate things in my life I used to take for granted. Simple things.
I still take these things -- time, friends, the physical ability to pursue my livelihood, interests and hobbies -- for granted. But now, I often catch myself in the act, slow down a bit, and appreciate more. I see the joy in just being able to enjoy a cup of tea. Or having an especially rewarding workout in karate class. Or not feeling guilty about doing absolutely nothing on a Saturday afternoon, even though there's so much I could be doing.

If I had to state a single goal through all that has come, and through all that is to come, it would be to learn to take the good with the bad. To enjoy the beautiful, and to embrace the ugly like water flowing around a rock.
To learn, as I once heard someone say, that life is a bitch. But that some of her puppies are cute.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A walk in the snow

Top: George Washington Bridge pedestrian path. Middle: Looking north up the Hudson from the GWB. Bottom: Tunnel leading to the Hudson path on the New York side of the river, around 170th Street in Manhattan.

I awoke this morning to the first measureable snowfall of the season -- about 2 inches here in my part of northern New Jersey.
After putzing around my apartment waiting for Mother Nature to cease the light drizzle that ended the storm, I decided to take a long walk, something I hadn't done in a couple of weeks. The cold weather would be just right for a brisk, sweat-free pace. The cloudy sky would provide just the right level of brightness and contrast to view the beautiful blanket of white covering Manhattan.
I love to walk. I live to walk.
I've walked halfway around Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands, on a Buddhist temple-visiting pilgrimage. I hope to complete the pilgrimage in 2006.
I love walking from North Jersey to Brooklyn, the City of Churches, seeing some of the same sights and walking some of the same ground as that most poetic of inveterate walkers, Walt Whitman.

I got off to a late start today because I indulged my other passion: drinking cup after cup of good, strong tea. If China and Japan had given us nothing else, tea would have been enough.
It was 1:45 by the time I set out. I had wanted to walk to Brooklyn, but there wouldn't be enough daylight to get there and part of the way back home before darkness fell.
So, I walked as far as I could in the time I had.
It was a sublime pleasure having the footpath of the George Washington Bridge, which spans the mighty Hudson, to myself. Once across the bridge, the foot/bicycle path that hugs the Hudson southward to the tip of Manhattan Island appeared nearly untrodden this day, with just a few footprints in the fresh snow to indicate anyone had passed this way. I think I ran into six people the whole time.

When the weather is nice, it seems all of humanity is on this path. You have to be constantly vigilant for hotshot cyclists in their designer attire, some of whom come justthisclose to knocking you on your ass and who seem genuinely bitter at having to share the road.
And then there are the novice inline skaters who, with arms flailing and shouts of "Coming through!," threaten to knock down those walkers who the cyclists miss.
But today, I was nearly alone, and it was paradise.

I got as far as 100th Street and the Hudson River before calling a friend to meet for -- what else? -- tea at a popular Columbia University student hangout at 110th and Broadway.

So, my epic jaunt became a five-mile stroll. But it felt so good to have that path to myself. The chill in the air made me keenly aware of my pace and my surroundings.
It was five miles geographically, but 10,000 leagues spiritually.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Cancer consultation

I arranged my consultation at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for Friday, Jan. 6. My new insurance plan will have taken effect by then, and hopefully it will be as reasonably comprehensive as the old one, which was dropped by my employer because of escalating costs. What else is new, right?
Meanwhile, today I filled prescriptions for my three medications before my old insurance runs out.
My eldest sister will come with me for the consultation to ask any questions and take down any information I might miss. I've been through these consultations before, and they're harrowing because literal life-and-death issues are being discussed. So, an extra pair of eyes and ears and a fairly objective viewpoint will be most welcome.
Ironically, I got the confirmation call from Sloan-Kettering yesterday afternoon during the funeral of my favorite uncle, a veteran of World War II's Battle of the Bulge who died last week at 90. (Luckily, the phone rang while we were waiting for attendees to arrive, and not during the service.)
I know that sometimes I can be maudlin and too wrapped up in the negative aspects of any given situation, but the timing of this call was exquisite, no?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Surrounded by ghosts

I collect antique photographs.
Sometimes I know the names of their subjects. Most of the time, the people's identities are lost to the ages.
What trials did they face in their lives? What milestones -- personal, perhaps global -- did they witness? What were their hopes and fears?
My friends sometimes tell me that I was born in the wrong century, given my passion for the past. I like things that the Japanese dismiss as "furukusai" -- literally, things that stink of the old.
I disagree with my friends. I'm glad I was born exactly when I was.
For one thing, given my medical history, I likely wouldn't have survived these nearly 44 years had I lived during a time whose state-of-the-art medical practices are today's quaint, and sometimes chilling, curiosities.
So, who were these people in the photographs? Who am I?
Most people covet posterity. That explains graffiti. And wars. And diaries. And monuments. And blogs.
And photographs.
One cultural belief -- I wish I could remember which culture -- holds that a person isn't truly dead until there's nobody left who remembers his name. That's a beautiful thought, and a powerful one.
But when I look at these photographs, these moments frozen in time, they put me in mind of a Jack Kerouac poem:

The stars are words ...
Who succeeded? Who failed?