Saturday, May 26, 2007

My newest friend (and a sample of his music)

Adama Dembele playing the kora he made by hand

Wandering the streets of Manhattan, I've heard sidewalk musicians play just about every instrument under the sun, from harmonicas to hurdy-gurdies, saxophones to steel drums.
But I never heard someone playing the kora until Saturday, in Washington Square Park.

Adama Dembele is a griot from Burkina Faso, West Africa. He is descended from a long line of griots and has brought centuries' worth of this tradition of musical oral history to America.

Dembele's wonderfully intricate music is exotic to be sure, but there's something vaguely familiar about it (click here for a sample, but read my note first*). The phrasing, the rhythms seem to embrace Western sensibilities like an old flannel shirt.

And with good reason: West Africa is the mother of most of the music we hold dear. Rhythm and blues, gospel, rock, blues, rap -- they all have their roots in West Africa and they all started shaping our music the minute the first slave ship landed on these shores.

My personal favorites are the richly textured music of Senegal and Gambia, the sounds of which echo in music as diverse as Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley and Chuck D.
And today, I discovered Burkina Faso's wonderful contribution to the mix.


*This is a 5.2MB .wma sound file, so it will take about a minute to download, depending upon the speed of your Internet connection. The song is 5 minutes, 37 seconds long. If you would like to learn more about Adama or buy one of his CDs, e-mail me at henro1962(at)yahoo(dot)com and I'll send you his e-mail address, and you can work out the details between yourselves.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Blessing and curse

These days, I become winded very easily.
I notice it when I climb stairs.
And I especially notice it in karate class.

It's a hot, humid day today, with the temperature in the low 90s. The dojo is air-conditioned but the heat and humidity make their presence felt nonetheless.
Today's class was very rigorous, compounding the discomfort.

We were working on basic techniques taken from kata (set forms) that involved executing a block in one stance and a punch in a different stance. The emphasis was on making sure our movement and power came from our hip rotation. I was winded after just a few sets and became frustrated at myself for not keeping up with my sempai, or senior fellow student ("older brother," if you will).

And then an analysis of what I was doing technique-wise flashed in my mind.
In trying to keep up with my senior, I was being very stingy with my blocks and punches. That is to say, I wasn't executing full techniques. I was cutting them short in the interest of greater speed. I was doing the techniques halfway, especially the block and the hip rotation, arriving at the destination by taking a shortcut. Thus, the techniques felt as if they lacked power.

In a fight, that may be fine. But in trying to solidify my shaky foundation in the basics, it won't do.

So, I tried a different approach.
I was exhausted, so I gave up on the idea of trying to match the tempo set by the senior student. Instead, I decided to exploit my exhaustion, allowing it to give me the opportunity to execute each technique deliberately and fully, as if my life depended upon it. I tried to visualize an opponent in front of me.

My techniques became fuller, and had a feeling of power behind them, even if they weren't as fast as before.

It was at that point that I saw that exhaustion can be a great teacher.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Health update

My endocrinologist recently referred me to a different hospital in Manhattan for tests and consultations about my parathyroid cancer.
The surgeon with whom I met has treated some of my endocrinologist's other parathyroid patients whose illness had progressed to a level where options were limited and treatment was problematic at best.
He recommends surgery within the next month to month and a half.
It will be my fifth surgery in five years and sixth overall.*

There are two areas of tumor, one in the middle of my chest and one more or less at the base of my neck. My chest was operated on in 2005, and rather than saw through the breastbone again, the surgeon wants to remove the more readily accessible mass in my neck. Chest surgery will be a last resort.

At this point, the hope is to buy time, to see if plucking the mass from my neck lowers my serum calcium level to the point where the medications I'm taking have a better chance at keeping the calcium in check.
That's the way it is.
I'm well over 100,000 miles and this isn't covered in my warranty.

There are some encouraging signs, for which I'm grateful.
The intravenous medication I receive from time to time sparks an interesting reaction in me a few days after I receive it. The tumor in my neck becomes palpable, visibly swelling to the point where it can interfere with swallowing. A rash develops in the area, and I run a low-grade fever and generally ache all over for a day or two. It's almost as if the tumor becomes angry at efforts to lessen its effects. It's counterintuitive to me, but the surgeon says this actually is an encouraging sign. I'm sure he has his reasons.

Because of where the tumor is located, there is a risk of infection. But, all things being equal, I should be out of the hospital within two to four days. I plan to take a week off from work following the surgery, and I'll take some vacation time the week before I go in.
I've been through this routine, so I'm not particularly anxious. Considering my surgical batting average of 0 for 5, I'm not very optimistic, either, though I've learned by now never to underestimate my body's resilience (or to undermine it by obsessing over hurdles).

As the Japanese saying goes, fall down seven times, get up eight times.

*(For newer visitors to my blog, you can do a search in the header at the top of this page using the keyword "parathyroid" to follow my ups and downs since this adventure began in 2001.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Looking for Han-Shan

Berkshires, Massachusetts, near the New York border


I live in an old house with lots of eaves and overhangs that form perfect nooks and crannies for all manner of flying insects to take up residence.
If there's a tiny Lonely Planet travel guide for wasps, bees and hornets, my house is a recommended destination.

Recently, I noticed a chorus of buzzing outside my kitchen window. Honeybees had established a hive through an attic ventilation shaft just above the window.
Somehow, some of the bees had gotten into the kitchen. I hurriedly duct-taped all the gaps in the window frame through which the bees had possibly squeezed and nervously scanned the ceiling for other potential entryways.
Then I wondered what I was going to do next.
I couldn't very well have bees flying in my house. My thoughts turned to my cats and the possible danger the bees posed to a feline that might try to swallow one.
My first instinct was to call my landlady and have her send in the exterminators.

But then I thought, wait a minute, these are honeybees. Something's killing them all over the country. Did I want to add to that?
I decided I would live with the hive and deal with the few bees that somehow made their way into my kitchen.
And then, just a couple days ago, the frantic apian comings and goings outside the window stopped. Where there had been a cloud of bees outside the hive, there was now only silence.

We had been having a stretch of chilly weather the past few days, and I thought the bees were staying inside the hive as a result. But the days have gotten slightly warmer, and there is still not a trace of them.
Not one single bee.

This is very frightening.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Road to glory

Civil War veterans monument
Hillsdale, Columbia County, N.Y.

Damn kids went off too proudly and too eagerly
to fight in a war they thought
would be fought and done in a month
Full of piss and vinegar
itching to get in the fray
poor bastards probably died
of measles or dysentery
long before they could fire a shot
in anger or fear
Sure, put up a monument
write odes to their bravery and courage
and the nobility of their cause
but how do you capture in bronze and stone
a dying boy scared shitless
crying for his mother

Friday, May 18, 2007

I looked in my mirror and Jerry Falwell winked at me

(Editor's Note: This is a reposting of my original entry. An alert reader pointed out to me that the comments function on my original post was disabled. This was due to a coding error -- not a Freudian blip of the keyboard. Sorry!)

When I heard the news this week that Jerry Falwell had died, my first reaction was primal. The world has one less right-wing fundamentalist nut case to deal with, I thought.
And that's the family-friendly version.

I could never be that ignorant and intolerant a human being, I thought. I could never be that parochial in my views. I could never be that sanctimonious, that inflexible.
And then I examined my own moral compass side by side with Falwell's.

Falwell famously blamed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on gays, lesbians and feminists.

I often point to what I consider insipid pop culture, rampant corporate and personal greed, the dumbing down of our school curricula, the failings of our foreign policy, a general lack of respect in society these days for people and their rights and, ironically, intolerance as reasons for me to conclude that as a nation, maybe we deserve what we get (not terrorist attacks, but the just desserts resulting from our behavior).

I can rationalize this comparison of Falwell and me all day and say that what separates us is a fine line between sanity and insanity, between going off the deep end and coherently expressing angry but understandable, even "justifiable" views.
It's a question of degree, my ego coos soothingly. He's a reactionary, I'm a commentator.

The fact is, at the root there is no difference between us. He and I have dualistic, discriminating viewpoints expressed in much the same way.

My ego demands that I insert a disclaimer here stating that if you examined your own thinking, you, too, would find examples of hypocrisy. But the priest who leads the Zen sangha to which I belong discourages such speaking in the third person. When we use "I," she teaches, we accept responsibility and accountability for our own actions and leave others to deal with theirs. Besides, when I say "you," it's usually just a face-saving way for me to say "I" in the first place. It dissipates reality. (And presto, I've just gone and done that.)

She goes on to teach that the vast potential for good and evil is present within each of us. We're all killers, saints, heroes, cowards, people of great compassion and people who are hopelessly uncaring. So, it shouldn't shock me when I find myself acting in ways, however subtle or obvious, that I would never ascribe to myself.

Learning that we are all inextricably interconnected with one another is the hardest task I've ever undertaken.
My ego rails at every step.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


In a departure from habit, I didn't turn on my radio for my morning shower.
As I let the water play on me, I thought to myself, "Silence is golden."

But is it?

Because I'm easily distracted at work, I sometimes create silence by wearing earplugs. All I can hear are my breaths and my heartbeat. This is as close to total silence as I can easily, artificially achieve.

Years ago, I took a canoe trip on the Conemaugh River near Indiana, Pa. It was the hottest, most oppressive part of summer. The stretch of river I was on was completely, almost disturbingly isolated.
It was beyond the middle of nowhere, because "middle" implies awareness of boundaries.
There wasn't even a hint of breeze.
The stifling heat and humidity rendered even Nature itself silent.
Dead silent.
All I could hear were my breaths and my heartbeat.

Silence -- true silence -- can be quite discomforting, at least to my ears.

Most times, when I think that silence is golden, what I'm really expressing is my love of unadorned sound -- the sound of sound itself without my willfully modifying it. Sound that isn't muted or enhanced. The chorus of the universe, intentionally lacking only my voice.
No radio.
No TV.
No conversation.
Just the sound of my wind chimes singing this afternoon in a delicate spring breeze.
The sound of my cats' heavy breathing as they sleep on the armchair in my living room.
The sound of a large fly buzzing outside my bathroom window.
The sound of plaintive birdsong just far enough away that I have to strain to hear it.

No, I don't think silence is golden.
Words can be so misleading.


I got a lovely e-mail yesterday from a California woman who visited my Web site of photos I took while living in Japan.

Her mother, who was born in the same small, rural farming town in which I lived, married an American GI following World War II. This is quite a coincidence because the town is very small. The woman believes her mother may have been married at one of the small Shinto shrines I photographed. The woman is preparing for a trip back to this town with her mother and her children, who will meet their cousins for the first time. The woman has few close relatives in America on her husband's side, so she feels especially close to her kin in Japan.

Receiving her e-mail rekindled all sorts of memories of my years in Japan. It especially brought back memories of the wall of culture shock I felt upon first arriving in Japan, made even more daunting by the rural area in which I found myself. I grew to resent the town, its inhabitants, its location -- in short, everything about it.

As I gradually became more flexible (beating my head against a wall got me only so far), I came to love, to truly love, living in the countryside. It's these memories that keep me going some days.

Over the past decade, I believe I have matured enough and become circumspect enough to make the most now of an opportunity such as the one I had of living in a small Japanese farming town.

Of course, I can't revisit the past. I had my chance. Eventually, I came to get the most out of it with the abilities and outlook I had at the time.

This woman's e-mail brought me back at light speed to a very special time and a very special place. It also reminded me of just how interconnected everything and everyone is.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Jumping to conclusions: A sword that cuts both ways

Conversation between me and clerk upon my leaving Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookstore, at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan:

Clerk: Domo arigatou gozaimashita.
Me, in English: I'm sorry?
Clerk: In Japanese, Domo arigatou gozaimashita means thank you very much.
Me, in Japanese: Ah, yes it does, doesn't it. Where are you from in Japan?
Clerk, bowing: Domo arigatou gozaimashita.
Me, in Japanese: What I mean to say is, where is your hometown?
Clerk, bowing lower: Yes, thank you.

By this point, I'm thinking that what we have here is one of those ultra-insular Japanese who is so xenophobic that he won't acknowledge that a foreigner is addressing him in his own tongue, even if the grammar is correct and the pronunciation is OK.
Yes, yes, I met quite a few like him during my years in Japan ...

Me, in English, frustrated: Where in Japan is your hometown?
Clerk, sheepishly: Actually, I'm not from Japan. I can't speak Japanese.
Me, sheepishly: Ah, yes, sorry, have a nice weekend.