Thursday, June 28, 2007

Health update

My parathyroid cancer surgery scheduled for July 19 (see here and here) has been approved by my health insurer at the in-network rate.

This is a huge weight off my soldiers. I faced the prospect of having to pay a considerable sum to cover the out-of-network deductible. Now, that worry is behind me. I can't begin to thank the doctors, surgeons and their staffs who went to bat for me to get me over this hurdle.

For any of my readers in a similar bind, here are the steps that worked for me in dealing constructively with the insurance company. I pass them on for what they're worth:

1) Be kind
2) Be humble
3) Be flexible
4) Be persistent
5) Be patient

I found years ago that screaming at the person on the other end of the line causes far more setbacks than victories. It's counterproductive. People tune out pretty quickly when they're screamed at or made to feel inadequate. Plus, they've got your health care in their hands. They can make things happen, or not.

A wise owl doesn't shit in his own nest, so to speak.

Often, you'll speak with several people at the insurance company and get several conflicting answers.
This is where those five steps come in.

So ...

No more paperwork, nothing else to do but show up at the hospital on the appointed day and hope for the best. Meanwhile, I'm due for a final intravenous infusion of medication next week. I'm looking forward to it because the headaches I'm experiencing are getting more intense and less responsive to Advil, as they do when my serum calcium level reaches a certain point. But the IV drug has some pretty potent side effects of its own. It's a trade-off.
So it goes.
One moment at a time ought to do the trick.

Face of Krishna

Beneath the sacred Hare Krishna elm
Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Air still as a tomb
Thunderclaps move like footfalls

toward my shaking house

In the lion's den

Mennonite choir from Lancaster County, Pa.
Washington Square
Greenwich Village, Manhattan

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Celestial palace

I rail against the cramped confines
of my timeworn garage apartment

so hot in summer

so cold in winter

and then tonight

I see the golden gibbous moon

flickering through the pines
that tower over the roof

and I give silent thanks

East Village Lascaux

East Village

Can't touch this

Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan

Monday, June 25, 2007

Pay your respects, then beat it

Poet Allen Ginsberg lived for a time in a plain-looking apartment building at 170 E. Second St. in Manhattan's East Village.

Ginsberg was the quintessential free spirit.

How ironic, then, the list of things you can't do in front of his former home.
According to the list of prohibitions posted inside the front door, you and I can't spend some time sitting out front to reflect upon the man and his legacy.

Of course, when I visited on Saturday there was no guard posted at the door to ensure the steady flow of foot traffic, no tenants' group or block association monitors to shepherd me along. Frankly, I think most longer-term dwellers of the East Village wouldn't have a problem with this paying of respects, as long as the respect was extended to their needs, too.

But the sign is meant to get a point across.

We wouldn't want to piss off any developers or upset yuppie sensibilities, now, would we?

I think Ginsberg would get a good laugh out of all this.
Maybe even a howl.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Embracing the universe

Qigong teacher
East Village


My roots
on my father's side
are in the polyglot streets
of the East Village
and on my mother's side
in the wise-guy streets
of the Bronx
and Brooklyn
and Harlem
With such a noble pedigree
how the hell
did I wind up
in Joisey?

Friday, June 22, 2007


Rice planting, Nosaka Town (now Sousa City), Chiba Prefecture, Japan, 1996, by Michael

Every day, I'm visited by voices and visions from my years in Japan.
The memories remain alive and vibrant within me.
The sense of aesthetics that took root in me colors the way I view life itself.

Hints of incense remind me of lazy summer afternoons with a dear friend in Kyoto,
watching Arashiyama -- Storm Mountain -- turn blue then purple then green in the changing light.

The tinkle of wind chimes carries me back to my apartment balcony overlooking a sea of rice paddies shimmering emerald green in the brilliant sun.

Certain poetry rekindles the joyous solitude I felt inside bamboo groves.

A cicada's stridulations or a bird's call transport me back to forests of giant cryptomeria trees where the sunlight never fully pierces the canopy.

Physically, I'm half a world away now.
Spiritually, I never left.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Firmly anchored

The health insurance precertification process for my upcoming surgery is making progress -- slow progress, but progress.

Outside my kitchen window, something else is making slow but inexorable progress...

I've been immeasurably lucky to find blogs, by intention and through chance, that are kept by people battling a range of serious, even life-threatening challenges.
Some of the challenges are physical -- against cancer and other illnesses.
Some are mental struggles -- against inner demons, against reality, against ordinary, everyday things that for one reason or another loom far larger than they should and will someday look small in retrospect, if the memories linger at all.
Some of the challenges encompass all of these threats.

In nearly all these blogs, the will to survive -- no, not just to survive but to prevail -- is an unstoppable force made manifest through the simple act of sharing those challenges. I draw lots of strength through this network, and I'm humbled and grateful when I'm told I contribute to it. It's the two-way-street aspect that I like most.

Outside my kitchen window grows what I believe is a weed. It's a vine-like plant that seems intent, almost as if it had a will, to creep as close as possible to my window screen. Once within reach, it dispatches emerald tendrils that seek out the screen and then extend through it, like tiny green fingers reaching through the bars of a prison cell. The tendrils then curl back on themselves and form a tenacious grip.

I snip those tips that grip the screen.
Within a day or two they're back or are replaced by others.
They keep on growing, keep on reaching.

This is the power of hope.
And this is why I'm lucky to have good blog friends.

Then it hit me

East Village

Hell on wheels

East Village

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Jim and Jewels

Jim "Mosaic Man" Power, left, and Lower East Side Jewels, two East Village legends who took very different paths to where each is now. This photo was taken in Tompkins Square Park on Sunday, the day Jewels was to be married.

My newly made friend, photographer Bob Arihood, has written in great depth about both men on his blog and for years has chronicled their lives pictorially. I'm indebted to Bob for allowing me to learn more about these men through anecdotes and memories.

Jim has graced the East Village with wonderful mosaics, some of which adorn light standards throughout the neighborhood. On Saturday, I was standing alongside one at Broadway and Eighth Street.

As I was waiting to cross, I saw a dumpy, middle-aged woman eyeing Jim's artwork and then furtively glancing right and left. When she thought nobody was looking, she pulled a black Sharpie marker out of the pocket of her shorts and wrote her name on a white tile embedded in the design.

Well, I was looking.
I told her, "I happen to know the man who made this artwork, and I don't think he would appreciate your defacing it."
"Yes, you're right," the woman said almost automatically, as if she has been caught at this game before. She quickly headed across St. Marks while I crossed the avenue.

You suck, Joan

What would possess this thoroughly unremarkable streak of paralyzed piss to think that anyone would care that she had been on that spot on Saturday, June 16, 2007, and chose to record the fact for posterity, defacing someone's hard work and life's blood in the process?


Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan

The fish trap exists because of the fish.
Once you've got the fish, you can forget the trap.
The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit.
Once you've got the rabbit, you can forget the snare.
Words exist because of meaning.
Once you've got the meaning, you can forget the words.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words
so I can have a word with him?
--Chuang Tse

Friday, June 15, 2007

Get your own genuine piece of the Holocaust

Image courtesy eBay

Yesterday, a buyer on eBay bested 24 other bidders and paid $528.50 for a label from a can of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based insecticide used in the gas chambers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek death camps.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

For Hiromi

You and I
grown far beyond old roles
American to Japanese
teacher to student

father to daughter

but now

seeker to seeker

Strange dreams of travel and luggage

Today was the second in a row in which I've had strange dreams immediately prior to waking in the morning.
Both dreams were ultra-vivid and realistic and, though not nightmares, still were unsettling. Both involved travel and centered specifically on my worry of being separated from my luggage. And both occurred close enough to the time I woke up that I remember details, though as through a haze.

In today's dream, I was traveling on a bus that I dimly remember as an older model, a cross between a school bus and a passenger bus.
As we made our way along what I recall was a rural road, I had a gnawing fear that once we got to my stop, I wouldn't have time to get to my luggage, which was stowed underneath in a compartment accessible from the outside.

Then I began having vague worries about the location of the stop itself, so I got up from my seat in the very back of the bus to walk up to the driver to ask a question. I asked my seat mates if any of them had questions for the driver, and a blond-haired fellow with a crew cut offered one, something about whether a night bus traveled straight through to a particular town or whether a transfer was needed.

I slowly made my way up to the driver. I recognize her now as a graphic artist from work with whom I'm friendly. I kept asking her the question that had been relayed to me by the blond kid, but she wouldn't answer. "I want to help you," I recall her saying. "But my husband and I are supposed to go to a fish restaurant along here but I forget the name and I need to keep my eye out for it."

We finally spotted the restaurant -- named Bard Heder, whatever the hell that means (and how did I remember that?) -- and then I woke up. I don't recall my question ever being answered.

In yesterday's dream, I remember being back in what I think was the rural Pennsylvania town in which I attended college. I wasn't a student but was staying in a dorm room for some reason, though it was set up more like a hotel room.

It was the day before school ended for the summer and people were hurriedly packing up possessions and preparing to leave. I recall having a difficult time getting all my things to fit in the one or two suitcases I had.

Fast-forward and I find myself in town on Main Street, at the bottom of a steep hill. I remember being aware of the time and worrying that I would miss my flight. So I started jogging up this steep hill. It was quite warm out and I was dressed in a suit. I was drenched as I made it back to the dorm.

I don't quite remember the details, but I had just minutes to grab my suitcases and go. I ran up to my room, but couldn't close my stuffed suitcases, which for some reason I had opened. I panicked. I also recall worrying about whether my travel papers were in order (a theme reflected in a dream last year in which I arrived at the airport without my passport).

And then I woke up.

I remember that these dreams were photographically clear and in color, even if I can't recall all the details now. My mannerisms and demeanor were exactly as they are in waking life.

What could they be trying to tell me?
Are they somehow connected to my surgery next month?

(I've had other dreams similarly fraught with symbolism, which you can read about here and here, if you like)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007

Friday, June 08, 2007

"I fart in your general direction ..."

"Repelling a kappa with a fart"
Ukiyo-e by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1881
(With gratitude to my friend Jerry Vegder)

Here's another of my favorite ukiyo-e.
Click on it to enlarge it, and take a good look.
I love it for the unbridled laughter it elicits.
I love it also because it nicely sums up my philosophy these days.

It shows a pair of kappa creeping up on a fisherman and his pal.
In Japanese folklore, kappa (literally "river child") are smallish creatures with webbed hands and feet that inhabit rivers and lakes. They like to overpower unsuspecting people and tear out their liver through the anus.
They also love to eat children.
But they love cucumbers even more. Ever eat a cucumber-filled sushi roll? It's called a kappa-maki (kappa roll) in honor of our aquatic friends.
They're pretty mischievous when they're not stalking victims.
They like to peek up women's kimono.
They like to sumo-wrestle.
And they like to fart, noisily and most malodorously.

Ostensibly, these fishermen are in great danger.
But one of them turns the tables on the kappas and dispatches them with a mighty blast.
One kappa, holding his nose, is blown right back into the river. The other, also holding his nose, is swimming away for dear life.
The fisherman's friend looks none too happy, either.

My first karate teacher once told me that there comes a time in a person's life when he has to learn to say "F--- it, and f--- you." In other words, we need to put bedeviling circumstances (and people) in our life in perspective, refusing when possible and practical to let them continue to cause us so much grief. After all, it is we who have invited them to make such inroads into our psyche.

Right now and for the past several years, my parathyroid cancer has been the most bedeviling circumstance in my life. Like a kappa, it has the potential to do me in, and thus I have deep respect for it.
I can choose to live in fear and to stay away from rivers, metaphorically speaking.
Or I can say, "Blow it out your ass."

Kappas, you've been warned.

(If you enjoy ukiyo-e, please visit my friend Jerry Vegder's online gallery. He has many woodblock prints for show and for sale and also has illustrated archives of some of the masters of the art.)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree

This is one of my favorite ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints). It's by the great Hiroshige.
In Japanese folk beliefs, foxes (kitsune) are imbued with magical powers, among them the ability to change their physical form to trick silly humans into doing their bidding.
It was thought that on New Year's Eve, all the foxes in the provinces around Edo (modern Tokyo) would gather at the Oji Inari Shrine north of the city. The shrine was dedicated to Inari, the god of the harvest (and lots more). The foxes would meet at a tree near the shrine and change their dress into suitable shrine-visiting attire.
On their way to the shrine, they would give off kitsunebi (foxfire) by which farmers could predict the harvest for the coming year. And foxfire is real: We call it swamp gas; it's also caused by bioluminescent fungi.
But I like to think mischievous foxes are responsible.

This print is part of the Hiroshige series "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo" and was first published in 1857. I bought this modern reprint years ago in Kyoto.
Recent postings by my blog friends Robert Brady on Hiroshige and Tamar on a nocturnal encounter with foxes brought this print to mind.

Bob's and Tamar's postings made me wistful for a long-ago time before science had precise answers for nearly everything, when things we couldn't fully understand were given such evocative and creative explanations.
Let the foxfires burn.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Surgery day

My parathyroid cancer surgery is set for July 19.
It's a Thursday. And, according to the traditional Japanese calendar, it's a highly auspicious day luck-wise.

This calendar is based on the old Chinese lunar calendar. A feature of the old Japanese calendar that has been carried over to the modern one is something called rokuyo, which means six days, a six-day repeating cycle. Each day of the year is assigned one of six levels of auspiciousness ranging from worst (butsumetsu, or the day marking the Buddha's death) to best (taian, or great peace, a day for holding ceremonies and for visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and for having cancer surgery).
July 19 is a taian day.

My lucky day? Perhaps. Each day also is assigned to one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, and July 19 is a Day of the Tiger. I was born in a Year of the Tiger (Water Tiger, to be exact). That's got to be good. I'll take all the help I can get. Grrrrr.

It all sounds quaint and superstitious, but to this day big Japanese corporations won't schedule important meetings on butsumetsu days. Weddings are often avoided. Major decisions are postponed, if possible. These traditions run very strong, especially among older people. When I was living in Japan, the graduation ceremony at the junior high school where I taught was haphazardly scheduled one year. It fell on a butsumetsu day. The vice principal's nervous laughter upon discovering this faux pas belied some very serious, heartfelt misgivings. We were all very happy when the ceremony proceeded without the gymnasium roof caving in on us and without any other incident to mar the day.

I didn't pick my surgery day with taian in mind, but I certainly don't mind that it works out that way.
I just hope the kami ( gods) and I are on the same page.


Detail, door to Japanese restaurant Otafuku
East Village, Manhattan

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Writ in tin

Tin ceiling, Life Cafe, East Village, Manhattan

Pressed tin ceilings remind me of when I was very young.
One of the enduring memories of my childhood 40-odd years ago was visiting my mother's mother in her apartment at 287 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, across the street from Prospect Park.

The building was very old, a vestige of the Victorian era. The ceiling in the lobby was of pressed tin, painted white.
My grandmother's apartment had what to a child seemed like towering ceilings.
The original gas hookups for lighting fixtures protruded from the walls. Long since disconnected, their ends were covered with metal caps. But in my mind's eye, I could still see the flickering flames of the original gaslights once Nana explained what those small pipe stubs were for.

I had lunch Sunday at Life Cafe in the East Village, a favorite haunt. The cafe is blessed with its original tin ceiling. In many buildings of similar vintage, the details of the tin ceiling have been obscured by multiple layers of paint or hidden entirely by a drop ceiling.
At Life Cafe, though, the richly textured details pop out at you.

Momentarily neglecting my hamburger and gazing straight up, I was wafted back to long-ago summer days in Brooklyn.