Friday, March 31, 2006

Hermit's lament

Bored monkey, bored trainer, Miyajima island, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, May 1996, by Michael

'Tis a sad world indeed
that would rob you even of the simple pleasure
of bathing in your own blues

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Self-Portrait Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Today's Self-Portrait Tuesday is a double feature.
At top, it's July 1997 and I'm in the early stages of the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage in Japan. This photo was taken in Komatsujima City in Tokushima Prefecture. By this point, I had visited perhaps a dozen of the temples. I forget exactly how many.
I was on summer break from my junior high school teaching job in Chiba Prefecture, and this was how I spent a chunk of my summer vacation.
I was very eager, if supremely naive. My pack weighed 45 pounds. It was filled with enough impedimenta for an Arctic expedition. I even packed a blow-dryer. And that was one of the more "useful" items.
I was wearing hiking boots with heavy wool socks over thin cotton ones. This was at the suggestion of a self-billed outdoorsman friend of mine who turned out not to have a clue what he was talking about. Over the course of the week or so I was on the road, I never had worse blisters in my life.
At bottom is me in Kochi Prefecture in September 2004, a few days into my continuation of the pilgrimage where I had left off in 1997, at Temple 23.
My pack weighed about 15 pounds.
I wore a single thin pair of socks meant for triathletes. I'm wearing extra-lightweight running shoes. I carried just the bare necessities. I felt like I could walk forever.
I was just a travelin' man ...

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The threat

Country road at dawn, Iidaka district, Yokaichiba City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, April 1998, by Michael

Watch: One of these days
I'm gonna leave this old house
and just keep walking

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The circle advances

Twenty-five years ago today, as a college freshman, I remember thinking on my 19th birthday what a neat coincidence it was that Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" was playing on the radio that afternoon.
Here it is the day after, and I'm 44.
Where did the time go?
Where did it go?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Death is but a dream

Pilgrim (o-henro-san) on the Shikoku 88-temple path, Kochi Prefecture, Japan, September 2004, by Michael

Death is but a dream
a long walk through countryside
strangely familiar

Fragile hope

A good friend of mine who knows of my interest in Japan sent me these ceramic figurines.
The taller one stands about 5 inches.
They were made in U.S.-occupied Japan sometime between 1945 and 1952, but most probably in the late '40s. Below left, you can see the original price, 25 cents, stamped on the base of the shorter one.

I love these figurines for what they represent.
At the time they were made, Japan was in ruins -- at least most of the big cities.
Tokyo and Osaka had been carpet-bombed and firebombed and flattened. You would've been hard-pressed to find two bricks to stack in some neighborhoods.
And then there were Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
People were starving. They did whatever they had to do to get by, even if it meant eating tree bark and grass.
Or, for those lucky enough to have the means, crafting cheap figurines to sell to GIs or to export overseas.
The future never looked so bleak.

Slowly but surely, the people rebuilt the country, literally from the ground up. Against the odds, they created a new world that their forebears never envisioned.
And it started with baby steps.
Just getting through one day at a time.
Putting one foot in front of the other.
Making cheap figurines.

The friend who sent me these wonderfully symbolic gifts is facing travails of her own, as we all are.
These figurines are her poignant reminder to me that hope exists, fragile as it may be, even in the very depths of hell.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Self-Portrait Tuesday, March 21, 2006

This photo was taken Wednesday after an exceptionally grueling class of more than an hour of non-stop kata (forms), sparring and ground-fighting.
Two fellow brown belts are in the process of testing for shodan, or first-degree black belt. This six-week process is also tough on we students who aren't testing, because we help put the examinees through their paces.
The sparring is much heavier and more intense and near-full contact frequently is made to the body.
The groundfighting tends to have an element of desperation thrown in.
More than ever, we're expected to do our best, for our fighting spirit will help our seniors rise to the challenge.
After this class, during which I almost took a roundhouse kick to the head, I was too dog-tired to smile and too dog-tired to care.
I'm just thankful that, on the cusp of my 44th birthday, I'm able to participate.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Cat as teacher

In Goju-ryu, the style of karate I practice, there is a stance called nekoashi-dachi, or cat stance, that also is found in many other martial arts styles.

Here's a student showing how it is done:


And here, Tara-sensei demonstrates:

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Just another beautiful day in Paradise

Today was an ordinary day in Mundaneville, the kind of day my barber friend likes to call "just another beautiful day in Paradise."
I had intended to take a walk to and through Manhattan, but I've been feeling a little stiff-jointed the past week. I've noticed this most just before karate class gets under way, during the period of stretching that precedes the lesson.
It, too, will pass.

It didn't help that yesterday, a karate friend of mine and I struggled to drag a full-size iron futon frame, the kind that folds into a couch, up the narrow stairs to my apartment.
We tried to bring up the frame in one piece, and it almost, almost fit through the 90-degree turn that marks the end of the entryway and the start of the single flight of about eight steps.
"One more push," I said with confidence.
Now there's a hole in the stairway wall the size of a cafeteria tray.
We took the frame apart, brought it upstairs, reassembled it, and all is right with the world.
The addition of the futon/couch inspired me to do some much-needed housecleaning (which I look forward to about as much as I look forward to going to the dentist).

This morning, dog-tired even after a full night's sleep, my visions of walking 18 miles through Manhattan never solidifed into action.
It didn't help that there's a 48-hour "Sanford and Son" marathon on the TV Land cable channel. I think it's the funniest show on TV, current or classic. The lure of 48 hours of "Watch it, Sucka!" and "You big dummy!" and "Oh no, Elizabeth, this is the big one!" proved too much.
I drank tea all day and sat on my ass in front of the TV on my new futon/couch, taking a half-hour intermission only to run to the bookstore for some used books I've had my eye on.
Just another beautiful day in Paradise.

Today put me in mind of a saying I once heard: We all want to live forever, but can't keep ourselves entertained on a rainy Sunday.

MST, Sept. 12, 1907-March 19, 1992

Friday, March 17, 2006

"I used to be fairly poor"

Farmer, Yokaichiba, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, March 1998, by Michael

I used to be fairly poor, as poor goes;
Today I hit the bottom of poverty and cold.
Nothing I do seems to come out right;
Wherever I go I get pushed around.
I walk the muddy road and my footsteps falter;
I sit with the other villagers and my stomach aches with hunger.
Since I lost the brindle cat,
The rats come right up and peer into the pot.

--Han Shan, Cold Mountain poems, No. 24

Thursday, March 16, 2006

My alter ego

Meet my alter ego.
I'm quite comfortable living in the here and now. But if I could visit any point in time and be anything I wanted, I think I would have enjoyed being a sailor back when ships were made of wood and their crews were made of iron.
I would have liked to have sailed out of New Bedford, Mass., in the 1840s, perhaps on a whaling ship, rounding Cape Horn to the Pacific for a two-year adventure.
This has been a daydream of mine ever since reading "Moby Dick," the Great American Novel. Not surprisingly, Herman Melville is one of my heroes.
I recently bought this tintype of a sailor wearing a water-resistant oilcloth cap. It's a compelling photo, but what I found behind it really caught my eye:

I did some research and learned that this photographer worked in the late 1860s through the 1870s. This was more than a decade past the heyday of whaling in America, but whaling was still an important industry.
Here's the view of the New Bedford seaport this sailor would have enjoyed:

And it's also the vista that unfolds in my mind's eye.
I can picture this man visiting the photographer's studio to have his likeness made just minutes after signing the ship's articles as one of the crew, and just a day before he would head out into the vast unknown aboard one of these ships, his mind a roiling cauldron of reluctance and anticipation.
This tintype probably comforted a wife or mother during his absence.
My friends tell me I was born in the wrong century.
I tell them no, I was born at just the right time.
But it's fun to daydream.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"But the Good Lord said ... "

"But the Good Lord said ... "
Don't quote me chapter and verse
God-damned hypocrite

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Atomic Bomb Dome

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, May 1996, by Michael

Atomic Bomb Dome
twisted beams, cries of anguish
searing heat, silence

Crazy Zen abbot

Adashino Nembutsu-ji temple, Kyoto, summer 1996, by Michael

Crazy Zen abbot
serves tea, tries to out-bow me
at Daisen temple

Self-Portrait Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Yep, that's me in the red dress.
This photo was taken in Japan in 1997 or '98, while I was teaching English in a small town in a rural part of Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo on the Pacific coast.
The setting is Noda Elementary School, one of two elementary schools (and a kindergarten and junior high) at which I taught.
The handicapped students class was putting on a play titled "Momotaro," a beloved fairy tale about a boy born from the pit of a peach who goes on to have wonderful adventures.
One of the characters in the tale is an oni, or demon, who vexes Momotaro and his pheasant and monkey friends, only to be defeated by Momotaro's unearthly strength. The chastised demon then promises to reform his ways and be nice to all creatures great and small.
At least that's my distant memory of how the fairy tale went. I'm probably botching it badly, as I'm sure I'll hear from my Japanese friends.
I played the part of the demon owing to my towering height (5 feet 7 inches).
My one and only line during the whole play was "Eh, nani? Namaiki-na..." (Eh, what? How impudent ...) It's funny how we remember such small details.
In the photo, I'm getting a push from Y.-sensei, the class teacher. I forget what part she played. She was one of the kindest, gentlest, most nurturing people I've ever met.
My only regret was and is that she is married, though I'm happy that she is happy.
Well, these wonderful kids -- a monkey and a pheasant and a daikon ( giant radish) in fourth or fifth grade nearly a decade ago -- are now fondly reminiscing about their high school years. I haven't heard from Y.-sensei in some time, but I'm sure she's still married and still teaching.
And all of a sudden, I feel old.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Two grizzled tigers

Miyagi Chojun (top), 1888-1953; Funakoshi Gichin, 1868-1957

Two grizzled tigers
Funakoshi, Miyagi
laugh and swap stories

(Miyagi Chojun-sensei is the founder of Goju-ryu karate-do; Funakoshi Gichin-sensei is the founder of Shotokan karate-do. My introduction to the martial arts was through Shotokan, which also led to a long-term residence in Japan. I now study Okinawan Goju-ryu.)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Warning: Buddhist blog

I've come to hate the designations "Buddhist blog" and "Zen blog."
What makes a blog Buddhist, Zen or non-denominational, anyway?
I subscribe to several blogs linked to Zen or Buddhism either through self-description or by inclusion in "roundup blogs" that post weekly or monthly synopses of blogs deemed Zen or Buddhist in nature.
On some of these blogs, all that's done is a lot of bickering over what's perceived as good or bad in terms of personal practice, teachings, what he said or she said and so on.
Fine. People bicker.
If I don't like it, I tune out.
If I like it, I keep reading.
I can be awfully argumentative and judgmental myself.
Some of the bickering on these blogs seems to come from the heart of whomever is trying to make the point.
But a lot of it seems to come, in my opinion, from unbridled ego, a need to be heard above the din (sometimes just for the sake of being heard), posturing and the desire to be authoritative. (Heck, you can find all of these things, except for the bickering thus far, in one convenient place: my blog.)
I wonder if the fact that I and others describe my blog as Buddhist (at least in intent) is a liability.
Maybe it should be a disclaimer.
The way I see it, if a blog discusses being alive, being in each moment as it comes, explores the human condition, and tries to accept and interpret things and circumstances as neither good nor bad but just as they are, then they're a hell of a lot more Buddhist than any self-proclaimed, tongue-wagging "Buddhist blog" ever could be.
I would be honored if people considered this blog a "human blog," chronicling a life in all its imperfect, idealistic, egotistical, selfless, boring, compelling, agonizing, ecstatic, messy glory.
And if it happens to have an undercurrent of Buddhism or Sufism or Islam or Christianity or Judaism or whatever, great.
Promise not to paint me one color, and I'll promise you the same.
Now, I must go and remove the coat of paint I foolishly applied to myself.

Spots on a tin ceiling

Trendy SoHo art gallery
entertains the well-heeled and the hip
paintings hang like jewels on the wall
magnets for comments
small talk
like the three kinds of wine that fuels it
flows freely
few look up to notice the ages-old pressed-tin ceiling
with a diamond pattern in relief
its fresh coat of white paint
can't cover the vignettes
of generations of tenants long gone
immigrant families crammed ten to a room
mothers nursing newborn babies
elderly relatives breathing their last
strong men with calloused hands
speaking languages strange even in this Babel of Manhattan
all their ghosts mingle
but felt
in the art gallery

Monday, March 06, 2006


City on the hill
pristine New Jerusalem
wide streets paved with gold


I just got an e-mail from my endocrinologist informing me that my calcium level is fine (slightly elevated from last time), and that I should continue my current medicine dosage and come back in two months.
Thank you all for your good thoughts and support!
Positive vibes truly do have a power that shouldn't be underestimated, I believe.
I don't think there's anything mystical about it.

Eyes on the path

I learned Sunday that Tom Armstrong of Blogmandu, a weekly roundup of Buddhism-related blogs, selected One Foot in Front of the Other as Best New Blog in 2005 as part of his Blogisattva Awards, which he plans to make an annual event.
I'm grateful for the recognition, and I congratulate my fellow honorees.
But while in Manhattan that afternoon, I saw a quote framed on the side of a church that puts everything into perspective:

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Slavery in New York

Caesar, a slave. Daguerreotype, 1851. Courtesy New-York Historical Society, copyright 2005. From exhibit "Slavery in New York."

Slave burial ground
yields beads cowries bits of bone
echoes of anguish

Yasashi MacFeline

The effect music has on some animals is funny.
My male cat, Yasashi, loves the bagpipes.
I discovered quite by accident that his favorite CD is "Amazing Grace: A Real Highland Fling." I played it on my stereo one day some months ago (because I, too, like the bagpipes) and he became a cat transformed.
He paced back and forth, meowing all the while in the most plaintive way -- and on key, too. It was as if he were recalling a cherished Celtic memory from the distant past.

His favorite songs are slow, mournful dirges in which every note from a solo bagpipe is achingly drawn out, like juice being squeezed from an orange.
He also responds to jigs, but less vociferously. If more than one piper is playing, or if the pipes are accompanied by drums, he loses interest.
Every time I play this CD, it's as if he is hearing it for the first time.
My two other cats, both females, are unmoved because they are tone-deaf and preoccupied with more mundane things. They can't be bothered with something as frivolous as music.

Of course, Yasashi is probably responding to what he thinks is a phantom cat somewhere in the apartment just out of sight, a fellow feline in unearthly distress.
But I like to think it's because he has a wee bit of "Braveheart" in him.

I have a cat
unlike all other types
he's in love with the sound
of the Scottish bagpipes

When the skirling begins
his ears perk up straight
"That's not music," he thinks
"That's a possible mate"

Friday, March 03, 2006

Tick ... tick ... tick ...

Hello everyone!
My deep, deep thanks to you all for your good wishes and support. I'm really grateful for it, and eternally so, because it makes a difference in my life.
Despite the sleet and snow and icy roads, I made it into Manhattan on Thursday morning for my blood test. I wanted to get the damned thing over with, foul weather or not.
I have a deal with my endocrinologist. I may have mentioned this in an earlier post, but it still holds.
I told her I don't want to know the results of these tests unless I absolutely need to. My blood calcium level is a number. It's abstract. My state of mind and the way I feel physically are not.
I've had results before that indicated the cancer was gaining the upper hand. But mentally and physically, I felt fine -- until I was told those numbers.
I've also had results that have been good, all things considered, and I rode a wave of euphoria until the next test yielded discouraging numbers that brought this Icarus crashing back to earth.

So, unless it's a matter of urgency, unless I need to be given the results to explain the reason, say, for an increase in my medication, unless the results indicate that another surgery may need to be considered, I don't want to know.
I'm sick of fixating on numbers.
The only numbers I care about right now are Thursday's New Jersey Lottery results. (Ooops, gotta check my tickets.)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

It's that time again ...

Come Thursday, I have one of my periodic blood tests.
When the parathyroid cancer plays particular havoc with my biochemistry and my blood calcium levels skyrocket, these tests can occur as frequently as once a week. When things are relatively calm and my calcium levels moderate, they occur every other week.
My last test was a month ago, and the results were good enough to earn me a monthlong respite.
Until now.
When I last was tested, the good wishes of my blogosphere friends really helped me get through that trial. I humbly ask you all to keep me in your thoughts Thursday.
It worked a month ago, and it'll work again.