Saturday, December 29, 2007

Progress

What an extremely difficult, draining night.

I had a great chat with one of my bosses at a diner before he began his shift at the paper this afternoon. I had some Buddhist statuary and a few books I wanted to give him. I also wanted to express in person what a pleasure and privilege it has been to work with him for the better part of a decade.

Then I stopped at the paper for a brief visit to say goodbye to colleagues who work irregular schedules or only on weekends. Toward the end of the visit I was overcome by weakness and lightheadedness. What made it scary was the complete sense of helplessness that coursed through me. I met a friend for pancakes and bacon, of which I ate practically nothing.

When my father's 95-year-old sister lay dying a few years ago, her mental faculties were stunningly sharp. My mother remarked, though, that she seemed to be floating between worlds, that she was aware of but not absorbed in the circumstances of this one. She was waiting to let go.
And that's precisely how I felt tonight.

My cats are being given a new home tomorrow.
Things are moving along.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Raj

I dozed off this evening while watching a beautiful documentary on India on public television.
As the show delved deeper into India's enduring British legacy, my eyes began to grow heavy.

As I lay floating between the dream world and the real one, India was turned into a metaphor for my life in the sort of magical transformation that can occur only while between those two worlds.
As long as I could keep from falling asleep, my dream narration told me, I would live forever, enjoying all the riches and pleasure deriving from this wonderful jewel in my metaphysical crown.

My shock and disappointment were great when I discovered a few minutes ago that I had awoken from a dream.

Untitled

In younger days
I created
a rite of passage --
a silver-dollar-size tattoo
on my left bicep
of the Chinese ideogram
for "double happiness"

Done in reds and greens
it now looks like a rheumy eye

How silly it appears
on my toothpick arm

Love

I had the best Christmas I've had in years thanks to the hospitality of my brother-in-law's cousin and his wife, two of the most compassionate and warmhearted people I've had the pleasure of knowing.

About nine of us -- an assortment of siblings, extended family and their children, and friends -- gathered for a Christmas dinner that soothed the stomach and the soul.

I cherished the long talk I had with the host. He's an emergency medical technician who has restored life and hope to people in the most desperate of situations. And as a result of his past health issues, he has come face to face with death on three life-changing occasions. We related to each other that evening in a way that transcended words.

Life pretty much boils down to love, we concluded. Love, and compassion.

***

The Oxycodone I was prescribed is working with just mixed success now, and this after less than a week. Under a new strategy, it seems I'll soon be taking OxyContin twice a day, with Percocet interspersed as needed to deal with "breakthrough pain," as the nurse calls it.

I feel myself getting weaker, but I'm trying to continue as many elements of my regular routine so as to keep my spirits up. A lot of the time, the simple task of sitting down at the computer to add to this blog seems insurmountable.
But then, I'm typing now, so ...

I'm turning in my disability paperwork today, thus making pretty much official my decision to leave work -- not that this decision is a surprise to anyone. But turning in the forms is a big psychological step.

I'm enjoying a cup of my favorite green tea as I type this. I haven't had this tea, one of my life's true simple pleasures, in a week or more.
I had forgotten just how good it is.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Happy holidays to all of you who mark them!

The Oxycodone pills allowed me to sleep last night, though they leave me a little unsteady on my feet. It was a gift, though, to be relatively pain free.

I left work last night after just two hours, unable to find a comfortable sitting position. In the end, the discomfort in my legs won out.
I was supposed to work today, but I just don't feel up to it.
In calling in sick today, I told my supervisor of my doubts that I'll be able to return to work. He has been incredibly supportive of me during my health struggles, as has everyone at the newspaper, The Record of Hackensack, N.J.
I'm very proud and grateful to have spent nearly nine years of my life at that paper. I have learned much there and have grown immeasurably, personally and professionally. It has been the best job I've ever had, and the people I've worked with have made it thus.
Two of my best friends, who just happen to be Record colleagues, have eased my burden tremendously by offering to do my laundry and hiring someone to clean my apartment.

My family and friends couldn't possibly be doing more for me, and this is so humbling that it's impossible for me to put into words. Any expression of gratitude on my part seems so inadequate.

I'm the first to admit that I can be a very difficult person to deal with. I can be stubborn, sanctimonious, arrogant, unfairly critical and judgmental, hypocritical, and a host of other things. I've alienated people at work and in my personal life because of these traits. But, in spite of that, to still be the recipient of such kindness ...

In a beautiful confluence of circumstances, all this is happening during the holidays. I can't think of anything that embodies the spirit of the season so purely and so well as this soothing stream of support that is washing over me.

Monday, December 24, 2007

New prescription

My leg pain last night was unbearable.
I was literally moaning and screaming, which I can do without alerting the neighbors because my home is relatively secluded.
I got a new pain prescription today, which I'll take when I get home from work. Percocet, taken even two at a time, weren't at all effective.
Tonight should be a quieter night.

I spent a good part of the day today napping. I think getting a full night's sleep may leave me with more energy for tomorrow.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Untitled

I've trapped myself
into sniffing out death
around every corner
and when panic attacks
reveal a minuscule glimpse
of what I most fear
I recoil in terror
and scream "Oh Shit!"

Am I the pursued
or the pursuer?

I'm learning
that if you go fishing
you catch fish.

That was scary ...

I was in the shower not 20 minutes ago when I experienced the weirdest sensation.

I was a little unsure of my footing, and then I felt what I can describe only as an electric pulse passing through my body. My legs lately have been excruciatingly painful below the knees. In the shower, this pulsing affected the same part of my right leg, but there was no pain. It just tingled. My leg felt as if it weighed nothing. It felt as if a current were passing through it, and also through my body, from my head to my feet. I felt manic, as if I were being invigorated by a surge of energy.

I could feel my pulse accelerating wildly (in fear), and I worried whether I would be able to breathe. I wanted to jump out of the shower and call one of my sisters because I felt sure this was the end. I started to panic, but there wasn't any pain.

I probably was just feeling a bit woozy after having slept a good part of the day. And if not that, then there's some other physiological (or psychological) explanation. I don't go in much for mystic bullshit, even though I sometimes would like to.

But it was an odd sensation -- noteworthy enough to write about.

Update at 5:30:

I had another, much more powerful sensation about a half-hour after the first. A friend of mine is sure they were panic attacks, and I'm inclined to agree. It has been so long since I had one, though, that I forgot what they were like.
It seems that I'm so preoccupied now with waiting for the end to arrive (I know I'm being a fool) that I'm misinterpreting things and giving them meaning they don't have.
Going back to counting the breaths is what I need to do.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Loose ends

Ahhh, so much to share.

First, thank you all for your recent comments.
I haven't had the energy or focus to answer them in the timely manner to which I'm accustomed. I just haven't been at the computer much these past few days.

I'm not going to try to describe all of the recent events and feelings in perfect chronological order.
It has been a mishmash of emotions, and I suppose this post will reflect that ...

On Thursday, I met with one of my surgeons -- my first surgeon, actually. We were discussing palliative care as my illness enters its final stages. He joined in consensus with my other surgeons and doctors that I have just months at this point.

I have been experiencing excruciating pain recently in both legs, from just below the knees down to the ankles. The pain, tolerable during the day for the most part, hurt so much that I had been unable to sleep for several nights and was suffering for it. The surgeon on Thursday prescribed Percoset, which helps a lot but sometimes takes longer than I would like to take effect. I don't think I would be able to cope without it.

The painkiller prescription brought me face to face with an issue I had been reluctant to confront. I want to preserve my natural state of mind, such as it is, to the greatest extent possible. That is, I want to be aware of what's going on around me and inside me. I was worried that narcotic painkillers would dull this awareness, and this nearly lifelong fear was keeping me from doing the right thing. But I don't want to be in pain, and I need my sleep. So, I'm taking Percoset without hesitation.

A dear friend in Kyoto admonished me during a visit there four years ago that I should let flexibility become my most important weapon. She said it would help me confront this illness and adapt to it, rather than become mentally, spiritually and physically rigid to the breaking point. I see that she is right.

Given that toxic levels of calcium in the bloodstream can have far-reaching effects on a person's brain chemistry, I consider myself pretty blessed to have my faculties at this point. So, I think I should try to enjoy them pain-free.
As my aches and pains increase, it's amazing how quickly stoicism flees my body.
There are no brownie points in being a martyr.

I'm finding it difficult to live on my own now -- coping with the stairway to my apartment while carrying laundry or groceries, trying to keep the place clean and so on. My doctors are imploring me to be careful because a fall could be catastrophic.

Soon, I'll be moving in with my brother in New York. I'll have my own room, the tremendous help and comfort that he'll provide, a visiting hospice service, an instant circle of new friends (my brother has lots) and a simplified lifestyle.

He graciously is allowing me to bring my two cats with me. I've declined the offer and instead have found a new home for them. My brother isn't a cat person. And frankly, it's time for me to let go. If I wouldn't be seeing to the cats' future now, then it would have to be done for me soon enough and the timing won't be the same.

I'm going through my possessions now -- books, to start -- and am earmarking things for family and friends. The trash and treasures I have accumulated over a lifetime have given me much joy, and I want to share that joy now. I think it would be a great emotional burden on my family to try to distribute things the way they think I would've liked.
I am taking indescribable pleasure in this process of giving. Truly, I want for nothing.

On Wednesday, I called my karate teacher to tell him that I can no longer study my beloved martial art. I told a friend of my decision. "Sure, you need to stop if you're no longer getting anything out of it," she said. I corrected her: It's not that I'm no longer getting anything out of it. It's just that I can't bring any more into it. Classes were leaving me feeling as if I were coming apart at the seams.

I visited the dojo Saturday with bags of books for my teacher. The morning's class had just ended and most of the students had gone home.

Sensei invited me out onto the floor. "Just follow me as I do these moves," he said. "We'll do them slowly. Don't do what you can't."

He led me in very slow, measured, gentle steps through three kata. I knew these were advanced, black-belt-level kata but I can't recall seeing them performed in the dojo and I'm not even sure of their names. I am a brown belt. Were I to continue studying karate, I wouldn't have been taught these kata for several years to come.

I was overcome with emotion at the profound emotional and spiritual meaning of his gesture of symbolic instruction.
Words won't work.

Thursday, I visited my mom.
Of course it was great to see her, but I was arriving just two days after my eldest sister and her husband told her of my medical situation. I'm sure my physical appearance when I walked in the door provided all the details she needed to know.

The lighting in my apartment is very forgiving, very flattering. Facial shadows and lines are softened. Harsh angles are mitigated.
It's photographer's light.
The lighting in my mom's house is bright, all-revealing, unsparing. When I undressed to shower, I saw myself in the bathroom mirror as if for the first time. I was shocked. Frightened.
My ribs are painfully well-defined.
There's very little meat on my bones.
Muscle tone is nearly vanished.
I weighed about 155 pounds when my fight with this illness began six years ago.
I'm 116 now.

But, the day before I went to my mom's, I had a massage of my legs, neck and shoulders, which really helps with the pain, at least while the massage is being done.
I asked the masseur -- a genius of intuition and healing -- if my energy level felt as low to him as it does to me.
"No," he said. "It's actually quite strong."
He went on to relate a story about one of his clients, a woman in the final throes of lung cancer. "It made me want to cry," he said, "because when I placed my hands on her body I felt nothing. No energy. It was as if she was hollow inside."
So, I suppose I'm luckier than I think.

And finally, I have learned that my blog has been linked to the Tricycle magazine editors' blog. In the brief blurb about me, I'm described as a Zen practitioner. How ironic: A Zen practitioner without a sitting practice to speak of. I don't know whether to laugh or cry and, in fact, I did both.
I'm not sure what the hell I am anymore.
And I want to work on accepting that.

***

You know, my blog posts these days add increasing levels of doom and gloom.
It reminds me of a Daffy Duck cartoon that I particularly enjoy.
Bugs Bunny and Daffy are in the circus and are pitting their talents against each other.
Bugs, the consummate showman, repeatedly towers above Daffy's attempts to outdo him.
Daffy gets desperate.
He devises an act he's sure will outshine Bugs'.
He begins swallowing every explosive, every flammable substance he can lay his hands on.
Then he lights a match, swallows it and is blown to smithereens.
"You were excellent!" raves Bugs Bunny. "That was great! They want an encore!"
As Daffy's spirit ascends to heaven, he says ruefully, "Sorry, but I can only do that trick once."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Let's go Outback tonight ..."

You declared open hunting season on the adults
stole the children from their parents
to "save" and civilize them
and now you use
their sacred images
and music
to sell your goddamn steaks
you piddling, unprincipled cowards
"No rules, just right"
you glibly promise;
no rules, indeed
especially where
remembering history is concerned

Monday, December 17, 2007

Secrets

Today was a very difficult day psychologically.
Today the realities of my health situation were shared with my 87-year-old mother.

My eldest sister and her husband thought it would be easier to deal with all around (but particularly from my perspective) if they went out to my mom's house and delivered the news face to face. This way, my mother's reaction could be guaged and the flow of details could be adjusted accordingly and conversational detours made.
I would then call her on the phone (we live about 50 miles apart). I had already made arrangements today to visit her Wednesday.

My prognosis was shared in a way that didn't mention death outright, but she is under no illusion that the outlook is anything but discouraging. Things were put in such a way that rays of hope were allowed to shine through. Thank God for rays of hope.

My sisters and my brother and I all were worried about how she would handle the news, about how she would bear up under the stress of hearing the worst news a mother can receive. But, not surprisingly to us, her example instead has revealed our own weaknesses, not least of which is underestimating her exceptional ability to handle crises with grace, compassion, love and calm. You would think we would know better by now.
And besides, she already had a very good idea of what was going on. Underestimating her maternal instincts was just another well-intentioned foible.

So, now, I have precious few secrets left.

Untitled

Facing death
recalling the "virtues" of my life
(why am I keeping score?)

letting the foibles haunt me
Who am I trying to please?
What am I measuring up to?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Untitled

I'm curled up on a bed in an ER exam room. An elderly woman lying on a gurney rolls by my door.

The gurney stops for a moment.
She turns to me and her tired, sad gray eyes meet my tired, sad blue ones.
Whisper acknowledges whisper.

Then she slowly turns away as the gurney moves on.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I've been tagged ...

I've been tagged by a man called Zen to share seven "random or weird things" about myself, and then to ask seven blog friends to do likewise. I'll leave it up to you if you want to participate.

As for me:

1) I always feel at home in houses of worship. The denomination is of no consequence.

2) I talk to myself -- and sometimes answer back. This keeps my cats amused. They thought they were the centers of attention.

3) I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was a child. The family freezer was filled with clay models of dinosaurs buried in the permafrost. Luckily, the family didn't mind. I also wanted to be an astronomer but the math skills just weren't there. (I was a poor student; see No. 6.)

4) I am fascinated by insects but have a hatred of flies, mosquitoes and ticks.

5) I think one of the most beautiful tableaux in all creation is the winter nighttime sky spangled with stars. (Talk about being made to feel very small.)

6) When I returned home from living in Japan, I was jobless and nearly penniless. I took a substitute teaching position at the high school from which I had graduated about 20 years earlier. I was now a colleague of the teachers to whom I had given so much grief during my school days. I also was subjected on a daily basis to the same kinds of grief I had dished out from students who thought I was just as clueless. Thus, I learned the meaning of karma.

7) My house is very old. It was a stable a long time ago. Thus, it's drafty even at the best of times. One of my life's simple pleasures is to turn off the heat at night in winter and snuggle under the blankets. The simplest pleasures are the best ones.

Now it's your turn, if you choose ...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kindness

Worried friend stops by
with a hearty meal
"Enjoy these blessings while you can,"
says I to me

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Moving closer

This weekend, the Zen Buddhist community to which I belong held an intensive three-day period of zazen, or sitting-zen. This event, which in Japanese is called a sesshin, was held to commemorate the day on which tradition holds that the Buddha achieved his breakthrough to complete and perfect understanding, which many call enlightenment.

I joined the group, or sangha, today, the final day of the sesshin. After a closing meal, my teacher presented me with a kit to sew a rakusu. Rakusu are the bib-like garments that symbolize in vestigial form the robes worn by Siddhartha Gautama, who would become the Buddha, as he set out on his journey of spiritual and self-discovery.

Sewing the rakusu is in preparation for the February ceremony in which I will receive the Buddhist precepts and publicly (and internally) proclaim my commitment as a lay practitioner.

My spiritual searchings have led me over varied and beautiful terrain over many years.
Have I arrived at my "spiritual destination"? I really don't know. I just don't know. I know that I'm afraid of being a spiritual dilettante, but I don't think I qualify as one. It's just time to settle down. And, now that I look back on it, I have been moving inexorably toward this decision for 15 years.

Anyway, these paths I have followed seem to me to be roads leading up the same mountain.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Winter sky

Outside my hermitage
on a chill night
I watch Orion
prowl through the trees

Monday, December 03, 2007

Human nature

People
stick with you

pledge eternal friendship
devotion
concern
goodwill
until the next shiny doodad
catches their eye
Should it be
any different?

"I am become death, the shatterer of worlds"

Of all the articles I've read on the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, this article by journalist Larry Calloway is among the very best. The firsthand accounts by ordinary citizens who were shocked and stunned by the mysterious, otherworldly blast from the test bomb detonated in New Mexico in July 1945 make this article especially riveting.

First snow, Part II

Saddle River
Ridgewood, N.J.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

First snow

Saddle River
Ridgewood, N.J.

Hiromi

East Village
Manhattan

On gossamer wings
a butterfly
arrives from across the ocean

I taught English in a junior high school during the three years I lived in rural Japan, from 1995 to 1998. During that time, Hiromi was one of my students. She was about 11 when we first met. Now she is a beautiful young woman of 23. Watching her grow up has been such a wonderful experience for me. I've also become friends with her mother and younger sister. They are like a second family to me.

Hiromi spent 10 months in Manhattan studying English at a language school. She returned home in February. On Friday, I had the good fortune to pick her up at the airport for a one-week visit.
Yesterday, we spent a great day having lunch and exploring Greenwich Village and the East Village, two of her favorite neighborhoods.

Her visit has rejuvenated me. Yesterday I was able to walk with little pain or discomfort, and her enthusiasm and fresh perspective on things were like a restorative tonic.

The timing of her visit was exquisite because I don't know if I will ever have the chance to revisit Japan, circumstances being what they are.

But seeing that her adventurous, indomitable nature and free spirit are thriving is really all I need to see.

Contemplation

Cobbler's shop

East Village
Manhattan

Friday, November 30, 2007

Untitled

Frightened beyond words
by that final anxious moment;
Hoping beyond words
for a journey to the stars

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Oracle of philaDELPHIa

Gerald "Ski" Evans
Mentor, friend, karate teacher, chess fanatic, gentleman

I spent Saturday in Philadelphia with my longtime friend and mentor, Ski.
I hoped to talk with him about my worsening medical situation. I wasn't seeking advice necessarily, but I always find that when he and I discuss something, I invariably walk away with a deeper understanding of the matter at hand.

We skirted the topic of my health. The crux of the conversation was Ski asking me if I believed in reincarnation. I have no idea what happens after death, I answered. I neither believe nor disbelieve in reincarnation. "You will," he said.

We wound up going to a big chess tournament at a Center City hotel where I met old acquaintances, made new ones and took photos of people engrossed in pitched battles fought over 64 squares.

Coming out of the tournament, Ski and I discovered that my car had been towed. I swear, that car is a magnet for the parking authorities.

I came to Philadelphia wanting to talk with Ski about mortality, perhaps seeking advice even though I wasn't aware of such an intention.
We instead went to a chess tournament and my car was towed and I spent a couple hours getting it back, paying $125 cash for the tow and owing $41 for the fine.

And perhaps therein lies the answer: Life goes on.

Paying homage

Geno's Steaks
Ninth and Passyunk
Philadelphia
(Official cheesesteak of this blog)

Untitled

The old Eastern State Penitentiary, c. 1828
Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia

Philadelphia 'Round Midnight

City Hall

Temple of the Apocalypse

Linden Cogeneration Plant, Linden, N.J.
(from the New Jersey Turnpike northbound)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Two thoughts from the zendo

Sitting in the zendo
I am just a shadow
on the wall


***

Going on a journey
leaving behind everything
even myself



Anniversary

On this day in 2005, I began this blog as a chronicle of my fight against parathyroid cancer.
It quickly grew into much more than that. It became an outlet for my poetry, photography and random thoughts. And it also has served its original purpose of detailing my ups and downs, and will continue to do so.

To my regular readers, thank you sincerely for sticking with me these two years.
To my newer readers, welcome aboard. Speak up now and then.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Journey of a lifetime ...

I had a consultation this afternoon with the surgeon who performed my latest operation, in July.
We have a very cordial relationship built upon mutual respect, and we indulge in precious little beating around the bush.

He told me that future surgeries at this point seem futile. As anxious as he is to help me, my body seems just as determined to destroy itself. My surgical history is a long, painful, expensive series of failures. For the record, I'm 0 for 5 over the past six years, 0 for 6 overall. As the surgeon put it, operations seem to help me for about 10 minutes, and then the situation reverts to what it was, and with a vengeance.

I expected this conclusion, in large part because I felt it within myself. It's not rocket science. I knew, especially after July's unsuccessful surgery, that we were reaching the point of diminishing returns.

Given the progression of the illness and its ability to thrive as well as it has, he said that it may well come to pass that I'll be incapacitated within six months. I'm not so sure about that timing. Especially if I have something to say about it.
But, I agree that my joint pain, which has led to decreasing mobility, is going to prevail at some point, quite possibly sooner rather than later. And my headaches, which occur several times a day and can be debilitating, are likely here to stay, as they have now for years.

I'll learn to adapt to all that, hopefully. But what most scares me is that I'll lose my mental faculties. I need to live this, and to know that I'm living it. I need to be aware. This is important.

My doctors and I are going to explore the possibility of radiation therapy, knowing from the start that this cancer doesn't respond well, if at all, to radiation. But because the therapy won't do much damage, we have little to lose.

The focus now is on making me as comfortable as modern medicine can, and keeping pain at manageable levels.

A friend suggested I get a second opinion, even a third. But my surgeon is one of the world's top specialists in this disease, and I have the best minds at two of the world's leading hospitals employing everything but alchemy to try to help me. And alchemy may come next.

Sure, I could go around to different doctors until I find one who tells me what I want to hear, but one of my mentors has a term for that: mind-fucking one's self. The indelicate imagery is dead-on. Reality is what it is, whether or not you accept it.

Tonight, I spoke to a friend of mine who is a Zen priest. I plan to receive the Buddhist precepts from her within a month or two, forgoing the usual year's preparation for what is called the jukai ceremony. I began the process a couple of years ago and got a few months into it before my laziness prevailed.
Time was a luxury then.
It isn't now.

I feel the need to declare my spiritual and philosophical beliefs as a way of addressing the tremendous doubt and sometimes paralyzing fear I feel within me. And the jukai ceremony certainly is a public declaration.
Who knows, I may recant everything when my final moment arrives. Nonetheless, I think jukai will be useful. If I'm misleading myself about my motives for jukai, then my priest friend will be the first to tell me -- if I don't beat her to the punch.

I'm simultaneously comfortable with and terrified by the unknown.
Maybe jukai is just me grasping at straws.

I'm not sure I've fully processed all that has happened this momentous day. It certainly has a dreamlike quality. I've gone over and over what was said by my doctor, what was said by me. At times, I've choked up and have felt tears form in my eyes. I also realize the inevitability of all of this -- for me, for you, for us all, and this gives me great comfort. Some very difficult and conflicting emotions are waging war within me now, and I hope peace and acceptance soon prevail.

This has been a difficult post to write, not at all the way I wanted it to come out.
But life is like that.


I've been expecting you
but not eagerly

Won't you have some tea?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jisei

Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan
March 2007


Winter is here
a trudging old man
who finally has arrived

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Untitled

Bogota, N.J.

"He's got a gun ..."

My friend and I were in an Upper East Side theater Saturday night watching "American Gangster."

This long, emotionally draining and extremely violent movie was reaching its bloody climax when a man sitting 20 feet away from us began shouting. "They [Russell Crowe's character] wouldn't be treating them [Denzel Washington's character] like that if they were white. White-ass motherf--kers."

"Shut the f--k up," yelled a theatergoer.
"Make me," challenged the angry man.

And then one by one, the people sitting near this man began getting up and leaving the theater. The man stood up, setting off an even greater rush of people, only now they were running.
"He's got a gun," one said.

My friend and I looked at each other for a split-second and then joined the rush.

On the way up the stairs a man casually asked me, "So, did he have a gun or not?"
"Why don't you go ask him," I said.

My friend and I quickly walked to a Starbucks around the corner, joined by other theatergoers who likewise ducked into the first place they saw.

We stopped by the theater about an hour later. It apparently closed for the night after the incident. I asked some exiting staff how things ended. The man was "escorted out," one of them said. "But do you have your ticket stub? You can get a rain check for the movie."

Welcome to New York.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Untitled

Hawk-faced waitress scowls
"Who is this foreigner
ordering in Japanese?"

In the X-ray lab

In the X-ray lab
they peek
at the inner man
while my spirit finds
a hiding place
amid all those bones

Lying on the exam table

Lying on the exam table
as the IV medication
drips ...
drips...
drips ...
I know how I got here
but where am I going?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

That's progress, Part II

I was immortal
when I was younger
fooling time, fate
and myself
with a parlor trick
long since forgotten

Sage advice

I found this poem by Nanao Sakaki to be especially skillful. Sorry, the Wikipedia entry is in French.
One interesting thing about his life is that while in the Japanese army in World War II, he saw on his radar screen the B-29 that minutes later dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
That's heavy stuff.

Just Sit Here

If you have time to chatter
Read books
If you have time to read
Walk into mountain, desert and ocean
If you have time to walk
Sing songs and dance
If you have time to dance
Sit quietly, you Happy Lucky Idiot

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Thoughts on a Wednesday afternoon

Embers cool quickly
as the last bundle of sticks
is burned ...
my thoughts are
distant
clouded
wrapped in gauze
my body weighs
as much as the universe
I just want to sleep
and sleep

Calcium dreams

Sometimes the most interesting, seemingly abstract thoughts come to me wrapped in the gossamer veil that floats between wakefulness and sleep.
That seems to be when the good stuff bubbles to the top, unbidden.

Pick a dream
from the catalog
and wrap yourself
in it
then fade
to black

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

That's progress (so get over it, Michael)

The small town in Japan in which I lived, laughed, loved, hated, cried, struggled, languished and thrived for three years no longer exists.
Physically, it's still there and is largely as I remember it, thanks to a recent bird's-eye view on Google Earth.

But its name has been stricken from Japan's roster of municipalities, a victim of a great nationwide consolidation of little villages and towns into bigger towns and cities, many complete with new names that sound sterile and squeaky clean because they're so new and pure and without baggage.

In 2006, Nosaka Town in Chiba Prefecture combined with Yokaichiba City to form Sosa City.
And in the process, local lore was lost.

Nosaka was formed in 1954 through the consolidation of two villages, Noda and Sakae. The first two kanji, or Chinese characters, of those names were blended to create Nosaka.
Yokaichiba, literally "eight day market," was named for the farmer's and tradesman's market held there on days ending in an 8. It, too, dates from 1954.

House entrance, Sawara City (now Katori City), Chiba Prefecture, Japan, 1997

Japan had tens of thousands of municipalities by the end of the Edo era in the mid-1860s, when the feudal period met its bloody demise. Those ranged from tiny villages of just a few homes to castle towns to great cities such as Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto.
This dizzying hodgepodge has been winnowed down at intervals during the ensuing years so that now, just a few thousand distinct municipalities remain. There are fewer villages than ever.

I have no doubt that this consolidation, this simplification, this shedding of the past has cut some of the red tape that existed when there were more towns and villages, and has unquestionably saved money in the process.

But the connection to the past has suffered.
Novels, poems, biographies, period accounts, lovers' secrets make reference to place names that exist only in memory, if at all.
People have to qualify their answer when asked their hometown.

I'm sure it was like that in 1954, when Nosaka and Yokaichiba became strange new names, and in the great consolidations before that.
But a place name ties you to the land because it personalizes what you see as both yours and shared. You are a part of this place, and these are your fellow townsfolk. This is where you cast your lot. This is where new life is brought into the world, and where souls are launched into eternity.

Reality is impermanence and impermanence is reality. It's not a difficult concept to understand, at least superficially.
Feeling it in my bones, though, is another matter.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Blowin' the autumn blues

East Village
Manhattan


Untitled

East Village
Manhattan

The wait

East Village
Manhattan

Fractured vision

East Village
Manhattan

Death don't have no mercy

Community garden
East Village
Manhattan

Janus

Community Garden
East Village
Manhattan

And yet ... and yet ...

As a follow-up to yesterday's post:

The flip side to whatever emotion we're feeling is just a heartbeat away.

(Thanks, Emiko-san. It is a wonderful world.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Thoughts on a Friday night in the ER

In a burst of fury
hotter than the sun
my right fist engages
in a brief
but vicious
bout
with the bathroom door
and the door wins
like Tyson
over Spinks
only much quicker

The exquisite pain
flushes the anger
from my mind
like a burning
bubbling
stream
of peroxide
flushes out infection
and I realize
in a rush of clarity
what a long
long
journey
this
is

Untitled


Two cats
couch-mates for years
yet in the morning
strangers

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jersey faces, Jersey places

Phil
Clompclompclomp
of workboots on my roof --
It's just Phil
trimming a tree


Tasha


Well dug circa 1763 in yard of carriage house where I live.
The main house, a Dutch colonial, was built in 1763 and was occupied by the British during Washington's retreat from Fort Lee. The well is no longer used, but the quality of the water is said to be nearly pristine.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pilgrim's progress

I want to elaborate on something I wrote about in my last post.

Walking lately has become excruciating, even at a slow pace, even on level ground.
My joints have given me varying degrees of trouble over the course of my fight against parathyroid cancer. And my knees historically have been a source of bother even before that diagnosis in 2001-02. I quickly became intimately acquainted with my knees when I took up karate in 1993, and we've had a love-hate relationship ever since as karate has become an integral part of my life. (And yes, I still practice, but very carefully and gingerly, sort of how our grandfathers would.)

My neck, elbows, hips and knees have at times been painful, and often just annoying, over the last several years. But the deterioration of my knees has come about suddenly, and scarily so. The base of my neck and back of my head rank a close second, especially when I wake up in the morning. My hip pain comes and goes, like the periodic (and often unwelcome) visits of an antagonist from one's past.

This rather sudden and hopefully temporary impediment to mobility is a great blow to me, seeing as how my photography -- a passion that burns within me -- depends on getting around from place to place, in no particular order, sometimes hurriedly, sometimes leisurely.

Being hobbled also is ironic given the importance I place on physical pilgrimage, whether it's circumambulating a Japanese island as part of a 1,300-year-old Buddhist ritual or walking the length and breadth of Manhattan and down into Brooklyn (haven't been able to do that in many, many months) or just going to the toilet to take a piss.

What I'm getting at is, LIFE itself is the pilgrimage and all of the activities on that path, from the sublime to the mundane, are part of the package deal. I place lots of emphasis on the physical aspects of pilgrimage (I like to think of my photographs as postcards from the path), and walking the walk has become increasingly difficult. Maybe I need to change my focus, photographically and spiritually.

So ...

My doctors suggest a few options, beginning with X-rays to see if arthritis is the culprit (and it is a likely one, given the bone loss that's part of the range of things parathyroid cancer can do). I'll also be tested for the uric acid content in my system because my illness also can inflict gout -- not in the big toe, which it targets in otherwise healthy people, but in the joints of those with this particular cancer.

There are medications that can alleviate my symptoms once I find out just what is behind them. That's quite heartening, even though I'm not really thrilled about having even more drugs to deal with than I already do, along with their potential side effects.

Plus, I need a new bed. I've been sleeping on a futon that leaves me feeling like a science fair project gone awry when I wake up in the morning. It's destroying my lower back, which in turn could affect other parts of my body. After all, the leg bone's connected to the thigh bone ...


"Every night I still ask the Lord, 'Why?' and havent heard a decent answer yet."
--Jack Kerouac,
"Desolation Angels"

Idle camera

No photos from the weekend ... ah, well.

Saturday was a washout (we needed the rain).
Sunday, I got a late start getting into Manhattan, and once there my knees were so painful that trying to make up for lost time by covering as much ground as possible was just out of the question.
Picture Fred Sanford from "Sanford and Son" with a heavy camera bag slung across his shoulder trying to cross a busy street. Yes, my "arthuritis" got the better of me.
Hurt like hell, to tell the truth.

There was an annual Halloween dog costume contest Sunday at the dog runs at Tompkins Square Park. The crowds were large, the energy level overbearing. I gave it a miss. Besides, I covered it last year in a photo essay for a Lower East Side magazine, and once was enough.
Some people I know could use a short, sturdy leash ...

But there was one interesting encounter Sunday, which will be filed in my "It's a Small World" folder. I was walking along Seventh Street between Avenues C and D in the East Village when the facade of a pre-1900 synagogue-turned-apartment house caught my eye. There was a fellow sitting on the top step of the sandstone staircase leading up to the front door, smoking a cigarette.
"You live here?" I asked.
"Uh, yeah," he answered warily.
"I was just wondering if any of the original architectural details are preserved on the inside of the building."
He explained that a roof leak ruined the building's interior, and that when it was renovated and converted into apartments, any vestiges of its former incarnation were removed.

I don't remember how, but eventually the conversation turned to our livelihoods and I explained that I work for a daily newspaper in Jersey.
My new friend said he has a good friend who also works for a Jersey paper.
I asked the name of this fellow journalist.
Turns out that we work for the same paper and are friendly with each other.
These two guys went to college together, and the person I had just met seemingly at random was a groomsman at my colleague's wedding.

Yeah, it's a small world, all right.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Giving thanks for inspiration: Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder,
at Columbia University
Manhattan


I came face to face with Gary Snyder, one of my icons, at a poetry reading Wednesday night at Columbia University. The Pulitzer Prize winner spoke about the influence of Japanese poetics on his work and read selections from his early and more recent poetry to illustrate this influence. It was wonderful to hear his measured cadence reading poems I had read many times before but which now came to life.

Snyder was a friend of Jack Kerouac, who based the autobiographical novel "The Dharma Bums" on his relationship with Snyder, portrayed as protagonist Japhy Ryder in the book.

Reading "The Dharma Bums" and Snyder's poetry years ago stoked my growing interest in Japan and figured big in my decision to move there in the mid-1990s.

After Wednesday's reading and after I took my photographs of Snyder, I shook his hand and thanked him for his wonderful poetry. I told him how his work inspired my own journey across the Pacific, which seemed to please him. "And how'd it go?" he asked. "It changed my life," I told him. "I went there expecting to learn lots about Japan, which I did. But I wound up learning more about myself." He smiled.

There was a reception going on in the room behind where he spoke. I saw him sitting at one of the tables, patiently signing the books and photos that people were placing in front of him. Earlier, I saw a star-struck but earnest fellow give him a manila envelope with his poetry for Snyder to critique. Snyder pressed it to his forehead and thanked the man with a gassho, a Buddhist bow with palms pressed together.

I wanted to go over and chat some more with Snyder, who seemed absorbed in thought even in the midst of this throng of admirers. And then I thought, what more did I really have to say? What could I tell him that he hasn't heard 10,000 times before from fans and friends over the decades.

I had expressed my gratitude to him. What higher compliment could I pay than to acknowledge his influence on my life?

I decided to let it be.

Just to let it be.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Irony

Age and illness are the cause of such joint pain, especially in my knees and hips, that practicing karate is becoming increasingly painful and difficult, at least from the hips down.

But I can still sit easily and comfortably in the full lotus posture for extended periods of zazen.

Karate is something I actively pursue, something I regard as food for my spirit. Yet my pursuit is encountering higher and higher hurdles.

Zazen is something I used to do regularly. My practice faded long ago, but its physical underpinnings are as good as new.

I pursue the one and find my body mired in the mud, so to speak.
I've let the other fade from my life, but could return to its physical posture as easily as slipping into an old flannel shirt.

I think I'm beginning to see the light -- insofar as there is light to be seen.

Untitled

Teaneck, N.J.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Untitled

Court Street Bridge over the Hackensack River
(built 1908)

Hackensack, N.J.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Making movies

It was 1947, the year Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a rocket plane.
My mom and dad, married three years earlier, were living in the newly constructed Stuyvesant Town housing complex on Manhattan's East Side, just blocks from where he had been born. My dad had recently finished his Stateside service in the Army during World War II in military intelligence, covert domestic operations and interrogation of German prisoners of war.
He and my mom were ready to enjoy the fruits of postwar prosperity.

My dad, circa 1942

My eldest sister was a year old, and my dad wanted to create a record of her childhood. So he bought a palm-size Filmo Sportster 8mm movie camera made by Bell & Howell.
That little Filmo went on to chronicle in shaky home movies the childhoods of my brother, born in 1950, my older sister, born in 1952, and me, born in 1962.

It also preserved my mom's parents, now both deceased, on celluloid, and also my dad's mother, whose husband had died before the Filmo could be brought to bear on him. I know my maternal grandfather, who died five years before I was born, only through the fleeting images of him captured by the Filmo and through the stories my mom and siblings tell of him.

My dad's mother died when I was 4. She was senile and playing with a Raggedy Ann doll in her nursing home bed in the only vivid memory I have of her. But in the movies created by the Filmo, she is as vibrant and full of spice as she is in the many stories I have heard about her.



Magazine ads for the Filmo Sportster, circa 1947

The last time the camera was used must have been in 1963 or '64, trying to capture me whirling like a little dervish across the basement floor of our house on Long Island, where my parents moved to enjoy the blessings of suburbia.
I still vaguely recall my dad filming me, camera in one hand and set of small movie floodlights in the other, trying to keep the lights trained on me so that I wouldn't fade into the shadows.
I could move pretty fast in those days.


My dad's Filmo Sportster

On Tuesday, I drove out to Long Island to visit my mom, who still lives in the house in which her children were raised.
I was rooting around in that same basement, trodding on the same linoleum floor over which I scooted as my dad filmed.
In a closet, I found the Filmo, still in its original box with instruction booklet, warranty card, film guide and pack of lens-cleaning tissue. It had somehow survived the rough-and-tumble years during which I used it as a toy, pretending to make movies like my dad.
Its leather case was still supple, its gray pebble-finish metal body still unscratched and nearly brand-new.
And it still worked, its motor emitting a soft whir as the shutter button was pushed.

So many gossamer memories almost transparent with age are trapped inside that old camera.