Monday, January 30, 2006

Koyoshi's story

I received nice feedback on the poem I wrote about Koyoshi.
The inspiration for this poem came from the childhood memories of my friend Greensleeves, whose mother also wrote a beautiful, haunting haiku about Koyoshi that you can see in the comments section of this post.
Sometimes, I write even when I have nothing to say, and it shows.
Other times, something I see, hear or read elicits a feeling that rises up from deep within me, and the only way I can be at peace is if I set this feeling down in words.
That was the effect the story of Koyoshi had on me.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

"Birth of Meerkat," by Boobicelli

Some of my posts were getting a little heavy, so I thought I'd lighten the mood.
I found this on a Web site that explores the possibilities of Adobe Photoshop. I'm not the creator of this image. Whoever made it is quite talented.


Farmer, Yokaichiba City, Japan, April 1998, by Michael

A life spent stooped
over a vegetable field
pulling weeds
forever bound to the land
years since her husband died
backbone twisted into a question mark
cranes her neck just to look straight ahead
54 but looks decades older
farming can't pay the bills
shack falling apart around her
TV set, kotatsu, kerosene heater, toaster oven, ancient clock
her only luxuries
finds comfort in tea and cigarettes
and the cats that prowl outside

(*A kotatsu is a small table that stands about a foot off the ground. Underneath the table are heat coils. In wintertime, you stick your legs under the kotatsu, and a blanket keeps the heat in.)

Greetings from Kyoto

Maiko-san (apprentice geisha), Gion district, Kyoto, summer 1996, by Michael

Painted smile conceals
a heart brimming with sadness,
beneath the veneer a spirit
rarely allowed to shine through,
sick of this life
the rude customers
gawking tourists
staccato click of camera shutters
a routine set in stone,
had to leave school after ninth grade
to learn arts that stink of the old
here in the ancient capital,
hates the goddamned shamisen
makeup sometimes makes her break out
dreams of reinventing herself in Tokyo
time for her next appointment

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Gentle Koyoshi

Gentle Koyoshi,
scorned, cast out by family,
"You're no husband, you're no father," they yell
forcing upon him a life of solitude;
days of wandering,
finally takes refuge in a garden shack between two trees,
too proud to accept charity,
owner lets him stay in exchange for chores,
breakfast is part of the deal;
Koyoshi, ever in his own world,
joins us at table,
never talks much to his surrogate kin,
quietly sips his tea,
now and then lifts his head to smile, eyes twinkling,
gets up from the table without a word,
gently exhales
shuffles back to his shack
a man of quiet earth tones, a golden light within.

(I'm such a sentimental fool.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

(Belated) Self-portrait Tuesday

Photo taken in lower Manhattan in fall 2005.

Good news

To all of you who kept me in your thoughts yesterday, thank you!
It worked.
The results of my blood test show that my calcium level has dropped to 10.8, from 12.7. My endocrinologist, who contacted me by e-mail, was ecstatic. I could feel her enthusiasm through the keyboard.
My calcium level now is considered on the high end of normal, perhaps slightly abnormal. These levels are pulsatory in nature, which means that a blood test tomorrow could yield a higher result, or a lower one. It's overall trends that doctors consider important, rather than any single result. But a significant dip such as the one I experienced is cause for happiness and guarded optimism. A trend in this direction would be cause for rejoicing.
I don't know if I mentioned this in a previous post, but in the past I would get so worked up over these test results that waiting for them became an almost unbearable ordeal. I would drive my doctors and their staffs crazy with my phone inquiries. I would drive myself crazy, too.
I know now what it must be like for people on trial to await word of their fate, life or death.
I recently told my doctors that I want to be informed of the results only if I need to know, so that the dosage of my medication can be adjusted accordingly, or other medication needs to be added.
If I don't hear from them, that's good news.
Today's result was unusual, hence the e-mail.
My endocrinologist doesn't want to see me again for a month.
Until then, one foot in front of the other, one moment in its time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

When I grow up, I wanna be a rooster

While I was living in Japan, my eldest sister e-mailed the following anecdote to me. She thought it would help me in coping with the stresses and challenges of adapting to a different culture, and it did.
I find its lesson even more valuable now.
It is from the book "Zhuangzi," written by the Taoist master of the same name who died about 275 B.C.:

"Chi Hsing-tzu was raising a fighting cock for his lord. After 10 days, the lord asked, 'Is he ready?' Chi answered, 'No, sir. He is still vain and flushed with rage.'
Ten days passed, and the prince asked about the cock. Chi said, 'Not yet, sir. He is on the alert whenever he hears another cock crowing.'
When the prince's inquiry came again, Chi replied, 'Not quite yet, sir. His sense of fighting is still smoldering within him.'
When another 10 days elapsed, Chi said to the lord, 'He is almost ready. Even when he hears another cock crowing, he shows no excitement. He now resembles one made of wood. His qualities are integrated. No cocks are his match -- they will at once run away from him.' "

Welcome to January

A chilly morning
Puddles show scudding gray clouds
Bones creak as I walk

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I almost forgot ...

... that I have a blood test this morning to check my calcium level.
If you all would keep me in your thoughts, I'd be much obliged!

It's all relative

This is what $12,000 looks like.
It's a three-month supply of one of my medications.
Three hundred sixty pills.
$33.33 per pill, three (soon to be four) pills per day.
These three bottles are worth
a new car,
a round-the-world cruise and then some,
10 months' rent on a small apartment with roommate(s) in Manhattan,
25 percent of what many people would consider a decent salary,
nearly 2 pounds of gold,
a bunch of other stuff I don't have the patience to list.
Elsewhere around the world, these three bottles represent more wealth than an entire family can ever hope to amass in a lifetime, and probably several lifetimes.
Complaining is easy when you've got wealth practically pouring out of your ears.

Monday, January 23, 2006

"Therefore, wander"

Sunday was a walking day, my first in about two weeks.
It was a trek interspersed with wonderful chats and nostalgic sights.
I walked from North Jersey to Manhattan's Upper West Side to meet a new-old friend. We met recently through a mutual interest in Buddhism and shared a correspondence. Discovering that geography had favored us, we decided to have lunch at a place not far from where we live.

From there, I walked east across Manhattan along 75th Street, cut through Central Park -- right past Strawberry Fields and within site of the Dakota Hotel, where John Lennon was launched into eternity -- and down to First Avenue.
From there, it was a brisk walk downtown, past a gaudy cigar store Indian, and down to the United Nations complex, where I entered a time portal.
A whole fleet of 1950s and '60s cars, taxis and motorcycles was parked along the curb, pristinely arrayed like the models I built as a kid. I was told that there had been a movie shoot earlier in the day, and now the vehicles were being loaded onto flatbed trucks to await their next casting call.

I continued downtown, hoping to walk to Brooklyn.
First, I stopped for a snack at my friend's restaurant in the East Village. He wasn't there, but his lovely niece was. It was a slow afternoon, so she regaled me with stories of her new roommate, and her school days back in Japan, and her favorite characters from Japanese history. She served me eda mame -- boiled and salted soybeans -- which made me thirsty for beer, which, of course, I had to follow with sake.
So much for Brooklyn.
Rather than an 18-mile walk, I glady settled for 12. I still had the walk back uptown to Columbus Circle at 59th and Broadway ahead of me, followed by the A train to the George Washington Bridge and the trudge back to Jersey, so it was time for a reluctant farewell.
Where does the time go?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Yoo-hoooo ... we're all in here!

Maybe it's just the cynical frame of mind I've been in lately, but reading some of the Zen and other Buddhist blogs to which I subscribe has become tedious.
Tedious, as in a near-complete waste of time.
Tedious, as in one lesson after another in what I consider how NOT to think, and how NOT to behave toward one another.

The angry exchanges between people who declare one another to be deluded, misguided and misinformed have grown wearisome. It has become a pissing contest between people intent on showing how learned they are, how much they know, how far along on the path toward "enlightenment" they are -- or, ironically, how much they don't know, each trying to outdistance the other from the very term "enlightenment" (but doing so in ways calculated to underscore their wisdom nonetheless).

Buddhism, as I understand it, is a way of seeing reality firsthand, through one's own efforts. Despite the guidance of teachers, it seems to me that ultimately we're all flying solo.
It's also my understanding that these glimpses of reality can't adequately be described in words. If all this is so, then why are we so intent on trying to prove each other wrong (or right, for that matter)? It just seems awfully counterproductive to me.
I think it's quite telling that so many of the comments that are posted on these blogs just as quickly disappear, with the notice "Post removed by author" left in their place.

Not long ago, I was told that Dogen Zenji, the great 13th century Japanese Buddhist thinker, said that calling someone a "Buddhist scholar" was a supreme insult. I think I'm beginning to understand why.
And I think I also understand why it's so hard to find a "good Buddhist teacher."
They're all in here, enlightening the blogosphere.

One last comment: Mea culpa. Rather than being above this criticism, I'm right in the thick of it myself.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

To err is human, to forgive yourself for being human is divine

My previous post elicited an e-mail from a friend that made me end the mini-pity-party I was holding for myself.
She expressed concern over how I was doing, and offered to meet to chat things over.
This woke me up.
I don't regret that last post, even though, upon reflection, I was tempted to delete it. Through this blog, I've chosen to reveal myself as I am, strengths, weaknesses and everything in between.
Of course, I can present the illusion that I hold things together every waking moment of my life. I can give the impression that I am a rock of indomitability. I can convey the impression that I always prevail.
Nonsense. Most readers are too smart for that crap.
In Japanese ceramics, particularly in vessels used for the tea ceremony, it's the imperfections that often serve to make a piece intriguing. A masterpiece, even. I need to keep this in mind as a counter to my often unrealistic stoicism.
Anyway, here's the e-mail I sent to my friend in reply, with a couple of abridgements for the sake of confidentiality:

First, thanks so much for your extraordinarily kind note. I'm just feeling sorry for myself, is all. In small doses, life's setbacks are easier for me to process than when several things converge at once. But, that's life. Tough shit. I'm almost tempted to erase that blog post because it is so patently self-pitying. But, I feel I ought to leave it up because it reflects the reality that things don't always go my (our) way, and I (we) don't like when that happens and I (we) tend to get pissy about it. The only people I know who are fairly constant in their emotions are those on Prozac. Not that I'm condemning the pharmacological approach; people need to do what they feel is best, and sometimes that approach is best.
When I'm feeling generally positive, my true feelings on human nature tend to be overshadowed and cast into the background. When I'm having a bad day, the cynic and misanthrope in me is allowed to come out and play.
I just got back from the gym, so I'm in a better frame of mind. ...
You're so very kind to offer to chat, and I deeply, deeply appreciate it. But first I have to make sure I'm good company for myself, and then I can be good company for a friend. ...


Three cheers for ham and eggs!

When you're happy,
when you're rich,
when you have that healthy glow,
when you've got the world by the balls,
Everyone wants to know your name,
everyone wants to touch "the magic."
But as soon as even a hint of adversity
tinges your smile
and the soap opera becomes boring
and people's voyeuristic appetites have been sated,
they'll trip over one another in distancing themselves from you.
Works like a charm.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Friday the 13th: How appropriate

I'm feeling a little down these last couple of days, since learning Monday that my blood calcium level had risen again (from 11.8 to 12.7). Though this increase wasn't unexpected, the implications nonetheless prey on my mind.
The dosage of my oral medication was increased from twice to three times daily, which also wasn't unexpected.
Physically, I feel OK and am continuing with my routine: karate on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, weight training Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Psychologically, the roller coaster ride continues. These alternating periods of depression and elation never last, just as they wouldn't if I were perfectly healthy. They're just a little more intense given what's at stake.
I feel wrapped in a thin film of sadness and foreboding, but I'm leaning toward optimism because I recognize the cyclical nature of these ups and downs.
I haven't heard from my endocrinologist except for her e-mail Monday informing me of my blood test results and suggesting that I have a retest in one to two weeks to see what effect the increase in medication has on the calcium level. I don't know if the Sloan-Kettering surgeon shared with her his assessment of my situation. Nor do I know if she has any more thoughts on the experimental medication that I wrote about in my previous blog post.
The good news is, tomorrow's another day. Better still, it's the weekend and I've got a little cash in my pocket.
The phrase "keep the faith" never meant so much to me as now.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The fabric of life

Some remarkable occurrences in my life go far beyond mere coincidence.
To me, they prove the interconnectedness of everything in creation.
A visitor to my blog took note of my medical condition, and mentioned it recently to a friend of hers, a medical researcher at a major U.S. university.
It turns out that this researcher developed an experimental drug that may be helpful for people like me with parathyroid cancer.
This is an extremely rare disease, so the odds against such a perfect confluence of timing and circumstances are quite high.
But I don't think it's just a coincidence.

The blog visitor gave me the researcher's e-mail address and we began a correspondence. The drug is now being tested in clinical trials at five hospitals [1/13/06 update: I erroneously reported four in my original post] in the United States, one of them the hospital where I'm being treated.
I forwarded the information on the drug study to my endocrinologist at that hospital. She said she is familiar with this clinical trial but didn't think it would be beneficial for me. Her understanding was that the drug wasn't especially effective against parathyroid cancer. She quickly added, though, that if any evidence developed to the contrary, she would be interested.
I indicated these misgivings to the researcher. And he responded with evidence.
Now, my endocrinologist is interested.

Is all this a coincidence?
I don't think so.
Everything happens for a reason. Everything is interconnected. I don't think there's anything mysterious or magical about it. That is, unless I insist on complicating things and making it so.
My eldest sister called this whole sequence of events a "cosmic coincidence." I'm inclined to say that it's cosmic, but basic.
No smoke, no mirrors.

Of course, this may all turn out to be a potential option that wound up a dead end.
But I think to dismiss it as just that would be to miss the point entirely, and tragically.
The point is, we're all in this life together, and empathy and compassion are what make it bearable.
When we manifest compassion, wonderful things can happen.


I got the results of my Friday blood test this afternoon, and my serum calcium level has risen since the last test. I'm not surprised. I was expecting this. This level fluctuates, but there are existing medical options to control it -- not to mention the possibility of the new study drug.
The fight is over only when a person concedes defeat.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

"Too many mind ... "

Yesterday's karate class was spectacular, the continuation of an insight.
We spent nearly the entire 90 minutes in ju kumite, or free sparring, combined with groundwork (grappling, submission holds).
What made it such a breakthrough experience for me was that I spent far less time thinking about what my opponent was going to do and much more time simply reacting to him or her. This builds upon a realization I wrote about several weeks ago on the newly discovered benefits of hitting the pause button during my thought process.

I found myself going on the offensive far more frequently, and instead of planning which techniques I would try to execute, I acted upon openings as they occurred, and created openings by sometimes snatching the initiative from my opponents.
I wear a chest protector during sparring to protect my sternum, which was sawed in half during my last surgery, in August. Maybe this subconsciously gives me the confidence to surge forward, knowing that this piece of equipment, and not my chest, will absorb most of the consequences of my offense. But it won't soften a shot to the face or kick to the groin. Yesterday, I chose not to think about consequences.

In the movie "The Last Samurai" (an utter fairy tale but a fine movie nonetheless, in my opinion), there's a scene in which Tom Cruise's character is engaged in a kendo match with a master swordsman. In several bouts, he is soundly thrashed.
Then, he gets this piece of advice from an onlooker: He is told that he has "too many mind," and that he must have no mind if he hopes to win. He mustn't think. He must react.
In a miracle of Hollywood, he learns this lesson in less than two minutes, and his next bout is a draw.

I've been battling my mind since I first became involved in karate nearly a dozen years ago. And in nearly every such bout, my mind has won. Now, I think I'm beginning to understand how to even the score.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Hurdle (mostly) cleared

This is being written in haste, so I'll likely go back and polish it later.
In a nutshell, the consultation went as good as I could hope for. The surgeon agreed with me that my four surgeries in the past four years were proving more problematic than the cancer, especially considering that each procedure was unsuccessful.
He said that as medical science stands now, there's little hope for a surgical cure for my parathyroid cancer. Instead, hope rests in the development of medications to control its symptoms, and the use of existing drugs, such as the one I'm taking, to do the job until better ones are available.
He added that surgery would be a likelihood in the future. Whether it's in a few months or a few years is the question. Though surgery likely won't result in a cure, it will buy time, and thus it must be included in any approach to this disease, at least in my case.
As he put it, it's not living with cancer that's the problem -- it's dying of it. And I have some of the greatest medical and surgical minds in the world -- in the world -- working on my behalf.
I have no right to ask for any more than that, especially when there are so many people on the planet who can't get even a simple infection properly treated.
The doctor -- who really set me at ease with his calm, straightforward demeanor and no-nonsense talk -- said he doesn't think I'll die anytime soon. But, I'll have to face a lifetime of surgeries and a side career as a human pincushion, what with all the tests, for the rest of my days.
After the consultation, I went to my "home" hospital, the one where, "Cheers"-like, everyone knows my name, for a blood test to check on my serum calcium level. If it is elevated, then the dosage of oral medication I'm taking will likely be increased and the prospect of adding an intravenous drug to the mix becomes that much closer to reality. I'll find out Monday. How I hate needles!
But, I'm alive, I'm in excellent physical shape, I have a will to live, and I am grateful for all my many, many blessings -- especially that of having people concerned for my well-being.
Thank you all for your support! Now, on to other topics...

Monday, January 02, 2006

Four days and counting ...

My long-awaited and highly dreaded consultation with a surgical oncologist is set for Friday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
I've been through these consultations before, and each time is like the first time. All the terror and uncertainty come flooding back.

This meeting became necessary after the failure of surgery in August to completely remove the tumor blooming in the fertile ground of the farthest reaches of my chest.
It's very likely that this doctor is going to suggest still another procedure, which would be my fifth surgery in four years. (You can read about my odyssey here.)
I was told that this surgeon has dealt with other cases involving parathyroid cancer in hard-to-reach parts of the body.
This is heartening.
Now the question becomes whether I want to go through another surgery, when each of the previous ones has been unsuccessful.
It's becoming a question of quality of life.


A co-worker and friend of mine is a nut for anagrams. He has a gift for analyzing names and all their possible letter permutations.
Tonight, on a whim, he came up with an anagram for my first and last names: HEALTH MIRACLE.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

I'm just a travelin' man ...

First sunset of the new year, on the New York City side of the Hudson River looking toward the 79th Street Boat Basin.

First levitation of the new year, on the Hudson River path. (Actually, these three women were playing jump-rope, but the movement of the rope was too quick for my camera to capture.)

First scam of the new year, on First Avenue. No thanks, I think I'll wait 364 days to see how the year plays out.

I began 2006 pretty much the way I ended 2005: with a walk. Today's was my customary 12-miler from New Jersey to my friend's Japanese restaurant in the East Village in Manhattan.
I set out expecting solitude because it was a holiday. Perhaps the swarms of other people on the Hudson River trail expected the same thing.
It really wasn't that crowded. Anyway, a crowd is the loneliest place, as they say.

The Hudson was so calm on this brisk day. The only ship traffic I saw from the George Washington Bridge was a massive barge being escorted like a fat dowager by a tugboat as it inched its way upriver.
In midtown Manhattan, the revelers who came Saturday night to see the ball drop in Times Square were still milling about, making the most of the fact that New Year's fell on a weekend. The East Side down First Avenue was its usual dark and deserted self on a late Sunday afternoon, which is why I so love walking down that street from 59th Street, past the United Nations and down to about 23rd Street, where the pedestrian traffic picks up as you get closer to the East Village.

Walk walk walk.
Think think think.
Angels and demons vying for my thoughts.
I'm just passing through.

Happy New Year!

Ring out the old, ring in the new
Ring out the false, ring in the true
Happy New Year from me to you!

(with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson and George Harrison)