Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Inlet

There are breakers in the distance. It is obvious they are coming across the inlet’s bar that we are about to turn into. There are also many small fishing boats (most with hundreds of horsepower strapped to their sterns) negotiating the passage. This makes me feel better about piloting Carrie Rose (our 32 foot Nordic Tug) through, for you see this is Barnegat Inlet. An inlet infamous up and down the Atlantic coast for being the most treacherous of a treacherous group of inlets that makes up the New Jersey coast.

We left Cape May, NJ in the early morning’s calm, and the wind and waves have slowly increased. So now, Carrie Rose has to contend with a SE facing inlet, 15 knot NE wind waves, and the 3 foot swell that has been pushing us along for the last few hours. Though I did not realize it, Charlotte has been dutifully studying Navionics, a tide and current app on her iPhone. She quietly mentions that at this moment, minutes away from turning into the fray, there is a full ebb tidal current racing out of the inlet’s opening and running head first into the above wind and waves.

I hear this above the din and bile rises into my throat. This is a good time to take a few deep breaths. I turn into the inlet and push the throttle forward a few extra hundred RPMs. Suddenly we are in a weird combination of broadside breakers, a following swell, 4 to 5 foot vertical waves standing straight up in the air, their curly little edges defying gravity.

The next moment the sea is oily flat with various eddies and whirlpools, then it erupts into sharp little wavelets that remind me of the meringue on a lemon cream pie. I can feel the stern rise as a trough opens up before me. The swell twists the hull to the port, so I turn the rudder starboard. Of course, I over correct and struggle to spin wheel over to the port.

Remember the little boats transiting the inlet, well they are coming and going amongst the waves. Some obviously frolicking while others twist and turn trying to compensate for the melee. One disappears into the swell ahead and pops out within a second.

Since this is not the first time we have been through an inlet (though this is the most extreme) we quietly talk to each other and make sure that Carrie Rose is between the red and green markers. All 220hp are engaged. The extra power makes us more responsive and stable. It also has the added effect of creating an imposing bow wave that keeps the squirrely-ist power boaters thinking twice before getting in our way.

That said the Barnegat Bay boating community seems to be a full-throttle-all-the -time crowd. It does not matter how shallow, narrow, winding, or crowded a channel is, this is a take no prisoner boating environment. I thought about getting a “Baby Seal On Board” sign for Carrie Rose but realized that that would only encourage them to go faster and get closer. The odd thing is once out of the inlet most of these boats stop about a mile off shore to try to catch whatever pelagic creatures that wander by.

We decided to ignore the maelstrom and keep on task, which once through the inlet is no less daunting. Since the inlet and the area a few miles west are always changing, the charts are unreliable. I looked ahead and saw boats everywhere but where I thought they should be. Granted there was a large red buoy to port, which I would have aimed for but it was close to the shore and lighthouse. I pulled back the throttle to idled.

The usually reliable cruising guide’s only comment on Barnegat Bay was, “Use Local Knowledge, call on channel 16”. I ponder this and wondered whom I would call when on our port side I saw a Sea Tow rescue towboat. I picked up the radio’s microphone and called, “Sea Tow, Sea Tow, Sea Tow this is Carrie Rose, the trawler behind you.” He responded and I tried to sound calm when I asked, “I am new to the bay and I am confused about how to proceed, can you help direct me”.

In a comforting voice, he instructed me to follow him and then mentioned a shortcut across what was land on our charts. Charlotte groaned, I kept quiet and turned in behind him. Boats streamed passed us both ways. At one point, one large speedboat got so close to him that the spray flying off the bow splashed the Sea Tow captain. Five minutes into this the radio crackled, “Captain just follow the large markers on in and watch out at buoy 37, it gets shallow and tricky there”, and off he went.

I looked ahead, saw a nun (red) and a can (green) silhouetted in the sun and spray, and headed between them. In another 10 minutes we were out in the bay and in 15 minutes more Spencer at Spencer’s Marina caught our lines. He graciously welcomed us. I slowed my breathing and tried to answer the questions the crowd on the dock peppered us with: where did you come from; how long are you staying; do you need to borrow a car; Chicago, how the hell did you get here from Chicago.

For the first time in weeks I slept soundly, woke at five and nudged Charlotte, “We gotta get out of here, sooner is better”. Charlotte made coffee for the thermos, we took quick showers, pumped the head, and then headed east to exit the inlet.

It was obvious that most of the bay’s fishermen go to church on Saturday evening because they again streamed passed us. Other than the ruckus, it turned out to be helpful. We followed their wakes out and by 7:50 were on the North Atlantic. As a fitting send off, the largest boat encounter thus far blew passed us creating such a large wake that it spirited us out of the channel and pointed us north.

Autopilot on, heading 014 degrees, coffee, banana, and a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast, we settled in for the 7 hour cruise to Great Kills on Staten Island. The NYC skyline slowly emerged from the curvature of the earth. We rounded Sandy Hook and saw the first large grouping of sailboats since Annapolis, and what I assumed to be New Yorker’s sunning themselves on the beach. Carrie Rose cut across both St. Ambrose and Cherry Hill Ship Channels while heading into another ebb current. I spied a boat flying a “Don’t Thread On Me” flag ahead of us and followed it into the large Great Kills Harbor basin. Ah, home, for a week . . .

July, 2017

Friday, May 19, 2017

Duality

I understand that we live in a world of dualities. There is light and dark, black and white, soft and hard, male and female, and love and hate. We cannot have one without the other, and I wonder if that explains the cataclysms that take place on a daily basis. It is probably too simplistic of a reading. There are many other forces, most out of our control, that rule the planet. If I lived next to a volcano that decides to explode all the dualities in the world will not matter, I will still be incinerated.

And since I cannot control nature, I ponder the more mundane, like how do I feel first thing in the morning particularly before my first caffeine fix. Am I upbeat and positive, brimming over with joy for what the day will bring, or just the opposite, dower and pessimistic, dreading the day ahead of me. If I am truthful, it is a bit of both, though I tend to favor the positive side of the equation.

The way I lean on a particular day affects, in most cases, only my wife and I, but let us say I was someone with power (as I used to be) it could effect tens if not hundreds. Was I aware of this at the time, not really? It is only with time and introspection that I realize this. So, if I woke as a hateful brat or a beaming pixy that is what I spread.

I wonder why people choose the hateful side. It does not matter if they are Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or atheist. This love-hate balance is not predicated on religious doctrine, or the lack of it. It is quite easy to promote hate while singing the praises of whatever god or philosophy is believed.

The love versus hate I talk of here is not only meant to be personal. In the broader sense, it represents our interaction with the natural world, all the species, plants and minerals, the atmosphere and the ocean, the rivers and lakes, the mountains and valleys. What benefit is derived from being callous and not gracious?

I understand the lure of short-term gain and the power that goes along with it. But that said, if the choices presented, no matter how tenuous the tread, are ones of affliction or well-being, why not error on the well side of things.

I grew up with several examples of this: automobile companies fighting against safety and environmental standards, and the tobacco companies covering up the detrimental effects of cigarettes.

Even as a kid I thought, why not put seat belts in cars, improve the emissions, and then charge more for the cars. Why fight it, it is progress in the end, the cars are better products, and since the company is devoted to making millions of cars a year for the indefinite future what do they have to lose in the end. For the same amount of effort put into fighting every improvement, put that energy into engineering. The money will be spent anyway. Is it better to spend it on lawyers and lawmakers, or engineers and designers. If the former is chosen it might delay the process but eventually the latter will win out, nothing is stagnant.

When I became of car buying age, the American cars verged on the ridiculous compared with their German and Japanese counterparts. Now after two humungous bailouts, American cars have reached parity with imports but the delay cost much goodwill not to mention market share and jobs. If your life is building cars, why not just build them better.

And then there is the tobacco industry. I spent my career in healthcare and in that context delivered the devastating news of emphysema, lung and throat cancer on a regular basis. I always felt like the judge, jury, and executioner. The tobacco companies with the help of the medical establishment and governmental agencies fought to cover up the truth, a hopeless task. How many of our fathers, mothers, uncles, and aunts had to die in front of us before it was obvious that cigarettes kill.

Of course, there are differences between cars and cigarettes. A car can be improved but cigarettes just need to be abandoned. Each generation needs to make its own decision here, and as I see it tobacco stocks are still doing well despite the increase cost and enlarged font size of the warnings on each pack.

If we wake up with hate in our hearts even while preaching the good word what have we done to better the world. Why not error on the side of a better outcome. What do we gain by denying that the climate has changed, that the earth is billions of years old, that vaccines have prevented millions of premature deaths and that all people should have equal opportunities.

I have the benefit of a comprehensive education. It was not indoctrination. There was value in what I learned, and there was value in learning the process of learning. It is not infallible but helps cut through much of the intentionally fog. And it helps to have a bit of that indefinable entity, common sense.

When I started this essay, it was with the name of Hate, but I tempered it and changed its name to Duality. An error I think. There is only one reason to ignore the other half, love, so completely and that is to give in to hate. A cataclysm if I have ever seen one.

May 2017

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Chaji

A chaji is a tea gathering that includes koicha (thick tea) and usucha (thin tea) plus a kaiseki (light) meal. This description belies the complexity of the undertaking. Despite attending and participating in chaji, I cannot say I truly understand the process. But I will try to explain, in a rudimentary fashion, what a chaji is. That in itself presents problems because there are many different types of chaji, so I will pick one that I have some experience with and do my best to illuminate the reader and myself.

Parts of a chaji can seem strange in a world with the transportation and communication options available to us. Just responding to an invitation requires training and an advisor to help ferret out the etiquette. The first question to answer is what type of chaji is it: formal or informal, a few guests or a large gathering, the time of day, and the purpose.

No time should elapse in the response. As stated in Chado by Soshitsu Sen, the then 15th generation grand tea master and now the retired Daisosho Hounsai Sen Genshitsu, the guest should pay a visit to the host to accept the invitation, see the physical location of the chaji, and make sure of the amount of time it will take to arrive there on the allotted day. It is important in tea to be 15 minutes early so as not to cause any bother for the host.

I suppose the next dilemma is what to wear. And here I will say, if you have a suitable kimono, wear it. If not, wear loose conservative clothing. Other things to bring are a folding fan for greetings and for entering and leaving the tea room, two silk napkins for various functions: kofukusa and a fukusa, a small folded pad of white paper, another small linen cloth for wiping the tea bowl, and finally a wooden pick to eat the sweet with.

But with that let me start to describe the actual event. When guests arrive, they wait in a room where they can organized themselves, view the room’s decorations and have a bowl of warm water served by the host’s assistant. Once the guests are ready, they move into the garden to a sheltering structure called the machiai. Here they wait until the host comes to greet them and initiates the move to the chashitsu (tea house).

On the way, they pass through another gate into the inner garden, and there they purify their hand and mouth with water from a small basin. Now they are ready to enter the chashitsu (tearoom). The first guest will remove their sandals, open a low door in the side of the chashitsu, place their fan in, and then enter the tearoom. The other guests follow.

In the tearoom hangs a scroll and vase with a flower arrangement. These are viewed, as is the brazier. This is a time to appreciate the room and what the host has done to make it interesting and comfortable.

Once everyone is seated, the host enters and greets the guests with a bow. There is a short discussion about the garden, the scrolls and the flowers, and then a light (kaiseki) meal is served. The host serves the meal but does not partake in it. The meal and the entire event are for the guests so the host does what they can to care for them.

A kaiseki meal is quite a treat. It begins with rice, miso soup, and a small dish of foods to be eaten with sake. Several courses follow including a nimono (cooked delicacies in broth), yakimono (grilled fish, poultry, meat or vegetables) served with the second offering of sake, hashiarai (a light broth), and hassun (one food from the mountains and one from the sea). The meal ends with Japanese pickles and crisp rice served in hot water.

Now you are probably wondering when we are going to have tea. Be patient it is coming, but first there are a few other things to be done. Depending on the time of year and if actual charcoal is used (a rarity) to heat the water the host will lay more charcoal into the already simmering fire. This is quite a procedure, so I will leave the description of it for another time.

In preparation for koicha (thick tea) the guest are served a moist sweet out of stacked lacquered wooden boxes (fuchidaka). There is a short break after this and the guests leave the chashitsu to allow the host to prepare the room for making tea. The sounding of the gong signals the guests to return to the tearoom. As before, the room is viewed. A flower arrangement replaces the scroll and several utensils for making tea have been placed in the tearoom.

A solemn preparation of koicha begins. There is little conversation between the first guest and the host. The motions are studied and deliberate. This is the focal point of the chaji. A sense of seriousness pervades the tearoom as the guests share tea from the same bowl, becoming one.

But the guests need to return to their daily lives and to make the transition easier usucha (thin tea) is served. The host replenishes the charcoal, brings in a tray of dry sweets, and begins to make each guest a bowl of tea. The atmosphere is relaxed and if a guest chooses more than one bowl can be had. Now the making of tea is complete, the utensils are cleaned and removed from the room.

The host reappears to humbly thank them for being so understanding. The first guest thanks the host for their effort, and explains it will not be necessary to see them out. The host bows and slides shut the shoji screen. The room is viewed one last time and the guests leave the way they came in.

As they walk down the inner garden’s path, the host comes to the door of the chashitsu to watch them leave. They bow to the host with the realization that this chaji, now just a memory, was a confluence of ideas and events that will never be repeated.

April 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

Ryurei

In 1871 Gengensai Seichu Soshitsu (1810-1877), the 11th Urasenke iemoto, created a method of making tea using a table and stools to make it easier for foreign guests to comfortably participate in tea. This type of tabletop seated tea is called ryurei. It was developed at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Japan opened to the west.

The table he designed, the Tenchaban, is elegant with a black lacquered top, four bamboo legs, and a lower shelf of unfinished cedar. A sumitori rests on the lower shelf. It is a container with what is needed for sumidemae, the charcoal laying process.

There are other types of tables but Tenchaban is the only one that can be used for a chaji, a formal tea gathering. The Tenchaban is suitable for both Western rooms and on tatami.

Misonodana or Imperial Garden Stand is another table. Tantansai Mugensai Sekiso (1893-1964), the 14th Urasenke iemoto, developed it in 1952. It is often used when tea is performed outdoors along with a large picturesque red umbrella, and it is used indoors as our Chicago Urasenke Association did recently for tatezome, our New Years celebration. It consist of two tables joined by a central shelve and is garnished with red cords tied in elaborate knots.

Tantansai’s wife Kayoko designed the first room built for table style tea. It is called Yushin, the Shelter of Newness Refreshed. The floor is tile rather than tatami mats. Kayoko used it to commemorate Tantansai’s 60th birthday.

There is yet another table called Washindana. This was designed by the present 16th Urasenke iemoto, Zabosai Genmoku Soshi Soshitsu. It is three nesting tables that when placed into each other can be used as a side table. There are three styles: a circle, a triangle, and a square. Any of them will seamlessly fit into a modern room and support a lamp, a clock, or a vase.

Each of the above Urasenke iemotos has faced the challenges of a changing world. Gengensai, the introduction of western culture; Tantansai, the disruption of World War II; and Zabosai, the rapid change brought on by social media. They have responded not by isolating themselves but by taking steps to retain the inclusiveness and the beauty of tea.

As translated by Gretchen Mittwer in Rikyu’s Hundred Verses, the founder of tea said, “If unexpected guests come, do temae for them with your heart easygoing but your technical performance of temae prudent”. The three Urasenke iemoto have taken his words to heart and produced beautiful, practical solutions to the world they find themselves in.

March 2017

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Chaconne

One of the joys of February is that there is time to contemplate and study. The days are short and other than Valentines Day, the holidays are over. The weather makes me appreciate the heat coming from the radiators. So, I settled into a comfortable chair and began to listen to Bach’s violin Sonatas and Partitas, in particular to the Partita #2 in D-Minor. Bach composed this set of six Sonatas and Partitas in the 1720’s. What got me started was reading a book by Arnold Steinhardt, the first violin in the Guarneri String Quartet, called Violin Dreams.

The book is an absorbing tale about his life in music and about the different violins he has played. A CD of him playing the Partita #2 in 1966 and in 2006 is included with the book. These recordings not only show how his interpretation changed over forty years but also just how different violins can sound.

The 1966 violin is high pitched and sonorous. The high and low notes sing out as if they are vying for position. While the 2006 violin is somber, verging on guttural. Its notes blend and merge into each other. There is no competition here just virtuosity favoring the baritone as opposed to the first violins tenor.

I have listened to the recordings many times but I cannot say whether I prefer 1966 or 2006. One is full of youthful exuberance and hesitancy. The other is deliberate; each note is thought out and mined for meaning.

Bach’s Chaconne is considered the pinnacle of music written for solo violin. It has been transcribed for many other instruments: piano, organ, harpsichord, flute, orchestra, and famously by Segovia for guitar. All these are compelling but I think the violin is topmost.

It is 64 variations on a theme presented in the first four measures. I was curious what the sheet music would look like, so I went to the library and checked out the score. I can barely read music but if I concentrate, I can follow along with it. The partita is divided into five sections each based on a dance: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, and Chaconne.

The Chaconne is almost as long as the other four sections. From my reading, there is a consensus that it was written after Bach returned from a trip only to find his 35 year old wife had died. As I listened to it, there are points where it shifts from solemn to gay and back again. The score reveals that the key changes from D Minor to D Major and back to D Minor: from sorrow to joy and again to sorrow.

The music is unrelenting and somehow accompanies itself. Believe me, listening to it is twelve minutes well spent. There are joyous moments and passages that will cause your heart to ache. I find it hard to contemplate the composing and playing skills involved. The Chaconne is well suited to the solitude of February when there is time to let it soak in undisturbed by a warm summer breeze.

February 2017

Monday, January 30, 2017

Principles

Harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility are the founding principles of chado, the way of tea. And there is Diashosho’s (the retired 15th Grand tea master) mission of “Peace through a bowl of tea”. Either of these can be an inspiration whether we are involved in tea or not.

I try to keep these concepts in mind while practicing tea: when cleaning the tatami with a damp rag, when rinsing and filling the kama to prepare it to heat the water, or when my leg muscles refuse to obey the command to stand.

Of course, there are a multitude of such moments in the chanoyu, the tea ceremony. They a joy and a frustration, and they are what keep chanoyu fresh even after decades of study. From the first lesson I took, tea began to permeate my life. It caught me by surprise.

Why was I walking this way, why was I wringing the wash rag that way, why did I look before entering a room or handle ceramics in a certain way. Why am I always 15 minutes early, and why do I send multiple email and stamped thank you notes after every event, why…

It is because I have spent thirty years in and around tea, and tea exist in the real world not separate from it. The reason to do tea is to interact with the world not to shy away from it. To do tea is to expose your true nature to your guest. This makes tea a little scary even for people who have studied for years. There is nothing to hide behind.

I did not realize this when I first began to study; just as I did not understand that chanoyu is not about my performance but about the guest’s comfort and tranquility.

The founding principles that I thought were there for me are in truth there for the guest. In my self-centered way, I imagined that if I practiced harmony, respect, purity, then I would find tranquility. I had it backwards. It is my guest that will find tranquility.

And I think that this is why Diashosho has such a loving following. He has travelled the world, baring his soul, to try to help create a peaceful world one bowl at a time. This is also something that took me many years to understand.

So what I am trying to say, in a long-winded way, is to let the essence of tea permeate your life, no matter if you practice or not.

January 2017

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Stalling

A shakuhachi presents the player with many unique challenges. It is a pentatonic instrument masquerading as a chromatic one. This is made possible by its somewhat primitive mouthpiece. It is simply a pipe with a diagonal cut at one end. This characteristic allows the player to blow air over the cut end at various angles.

Blow straight across and get the designated note, tilt your head down and the note flattens, tilt your head up or back and the note sharpens. This along with partially covered holes allows a shakuhachi to achieve about two and a half octaves on a good day.

There are other ways to manipulate the sound. Change the embouchure, blow harder and softer, purse or relax the lips, move the head side to side, exhaling quick and strong before settling in on a note, striking a hole between sounding the same note, all these and more alter the sound.

Often when moving between octaves the note will disappear. I can attest that this is vexing. It took many months when I first started to play to get a note to sound and so, to lose one is frustrating. I wonder where did it go and why can I not get it back.

Once, while visiting Kyoto for a tea ceremony event I sought out a shakuhachi maker. It was a long walk to get there and once there, we (I dragged Charlotte with me) could not find the address. I looked and looked; there was no one to ask even if I could speak Japanese. Finally, when just about to give up, I saw the only two characters in Japanese that I know — Shaku-Hachi on a small sign outside what looked like a private home.

We walked in from the street down a long pathway and were confronted by a shoji screen sliding door. There were no markings or doorbell. I summoned the courage to open the door and a bell sounded. It was the correct place; there were a few shakuhachi stored in a cabinet.

To make a long story short, the beneficent owner came out to greet us. I explained that I was not sure why I was there but I felt I should be. He stood up, walked out of the room, and returned with an armful of beautifully crafted shakuhachi.

He beckoned me to play one. I knew there was no turning back, so I picked one up but could not get a sound out of it. My face turned bright red — I started to hyperventilate — It was all over. Taking pity on me, a short lesson followed, I made a few squeaks, thanked him profusely, and bid farewell.

Once out on the street, I could not understand what happened and then I thought about stalling a small aircraft. In 1976, after I finished ground school I logged 22 hours in a Cessna 150, a small single engine airplane. At the time, for about fifty dollars (including the instructor’s fees) I could fly around the Southside of Chicago for an hour. This was when Midway Airport was in limbo. There were no commercial flights and so the airport was populated with flight training schools, small charter airlines, and private pilots.

It was interesting to takeoff and land on Midway’s long runways with this tiny plane. Even now as a passenger, I think about landing that runt of a plane while watching the approach out the window of a large passenger jet. The few hours I spent in the air taught me many important lessons about piloting everything from motorcycles to boats. There is a strategy to flying that readily translates into other modes of transport.

Stalling and recovering the aircraft was practiced each time I flew. This is done in two different modes. One is with full take off power, and the other in slow flight as when landing. These maneuvers are practiced with enough altitude to ensure that there is time to recover, for when a plane stalls it drops like a rock.

What makes the plane stall is the lack of air flow over the wings. Once the airflow is disrupted there is no longer any lift to support the weight of the plane and down it goes. No amount of prior discussion or study prepared me for feeling of helplessness as the plane suddenly dropped twisting out of the sky, but that is what flight instructors are for. After a few hours of stalling — I was no Captain Scully — I could recover and go on to finish the lesson without much anxiety.

A shakuhachi has a similar trait. When in inexperienced hands it is easy to stall the airflow across the mouthpiece. It is common for beginning players to take weeks just to obtain and sustain a note. Due to the peculiarities of the angled mouthpiece, transitioning from one octave to the next, whether up or down the scale can make a note drop out of the sky. The flow of air becomes chaotic and stalls, leaving one in the same position as a toddlers trying to blow bubbles for the first time.

Listen to a virtuoso and hear how they use this seeming flaw to their advantage. It is what gives the shakuhachi its characteristic sound: serene but with an underlying anxiety, always on the verge of disaster. In the hands of skilled players, the chaos is controlled to convey the message that beautiful sounds still live in a natural world.

This footing in the natural, dare I say primordial, world is what draws us into the sound. It is what compels a player to continue to play despite the stalled notes, the breathless light-headedness, the hours of learning the its odd tablature. So next time, when listening to a shakuhachi, listen with intent to the breath’s flow and not only the music…therein rests its magic.

December 2016

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Kei

Go Cubs Go…

The World Series is over and none too soon. It felt like home arrest, trapped in front of the TV. I could barely watch the vicissitudes. Talk about stress.

Though I did not frequent my local cemetery the night they won, I envision it aglow with the risen souls of Cub fans. I imagine my father was one of them. He was a sweet man who was most demonstrative while watching the Cubs. Every foible or strength brought a yelp from the backroom.

When the going got tough and breathless journalists asked one player or another why they lost and what was their plan to change the momentum, they said it's a game we love to play, especially with each other, and we are going to enjoy ourselves and see what happens. What could be more “Zen-ish” than that!

The 2016 Cubs certainly demand kei/respect. Their love for each other was palpable. The exuberance of youth eventually overcame every error. It made me think, have the collective “we” been enjoying ourselves this past year. I think not. Everyday brought another outrage whether it was significant or not.

My way of dealing was to turn it off but unless I sequestered myself to a mountain refuge out of sight of satellites and radio waves it was near impossible. It has also been necessary to isolate myself from many people. There is a sense of mania out there. Just say hello to a neighbor and suddenly the proselytizing began. I kept thinking, isn’t there something else to focus on.

What was it that Karl Marx said about the opium of the masses; he was referring to religion but more about oppression and our reaction to it. So, does oppression let us off the hook or gives us free rein to disrespect whomever we find in our way. I know I am asking many questions but I find myself baffled.

Respect is a lost concept. Hubris has replaced it. Now instead of giving respect, respect is demanded whether earned or not. And if not provided the consequences can be dire.

Fame and money have always been corrupting. But it seems that money is not as strong a motivator as it once was. Fame for nothing in particular is measured in likes and dislikes. A click here or there is the driving force for most of the mischief.

Chado, The Way of Tea, has a few things to say about this. It took me years of practice and study to realize that tea is about respecting and making your guest comfortable. This is done in the oddest ways.

The utensils used in chanoyu (such as the chashaku/tea scoop and natsume/tea container) are placed specifically, so when the guest views them the scene is coherent and settled.

The way the utensils are handled is another. Sen Riyku, the founder of chanoyu, instructed the host to carry heavy objects as if they are light, and light objects as if they are heavy.

And then there is the movement within the chashitsu/tea room. The host always turns towards the guests unless they are carrying the kensui/waste water container. The list goes on.

Kei/Respect is one of the four guiding principles of Chado, the others being Wa/Harmony, Sei/Purity, and Jaku/Tranquility. The reason for chanoyu is to make tea and share it with friends. It is such a simple concept that it is almost impossible to accomplish well. That is the whole point of the guiding principles. If done with the above it is almost impossible not to do it well.

This is as it was for the Cubs to win the World Series after 108 years. They did it with aplomb, all the while respecting their opponent’s ability. So let us follow the Cubs — and Chado’s — example in how to live a life with kei/respect . . . Go Cubs, Go!

November 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

Hands

September was a sobering month. We attended two funerals and just missed one earlier in the month. Two of the departed were past their middle nineties, but even at that, one was a surprise. The other was a “young” man of sixty-one. He was a classmate of mine when we were in our late twenties. We were late bloomers.

The one service consisted of the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer for the death, and then an afternoon of sitting Shiva. Surrounded by family and friends, and considering the long fruitful life of the deceased it was far from a somber gathering. Her time was right, something that she realized and lobbied for.

The second service was different. There was joy in the remembrances but there was the realization that this was death come too soon. The visitation line at the wake never lessened and the church was overflowing to standing room only. One person after another came to the pulpit and spoke glowingly, and steadfastly refused to say goodbye even while doing so.

It was tragic and inspirational. Tears flowed followed by hardy laughs. The pastor who knew him best was profane in describing their relationship obviously shocked that he no longer had his beloved parishioner and friend to kid around with.

Throughout the service, our departed friend’s first grandbaby made a ruckus. It made a deep impression, a loving grandfather gone replaced by a dear child who will only know her exuberant grandfather through reminiscences and images. It is the way of the world but that does not make it fair, easy, or tolerable.

Sitting in the pew, listening to the gathered group of Lutherans sing their hearts out, my parents came to mind. My father died quickly. There was barely time to comprehend what was happening before it happened. And even though I spent much of my life in healthcare, I cannot understand how someone so present could just disappear.

My mother was a different story. Her disappearance took three years. At the end, she was not aware enough to continue her wish for death, so we took up the banner. The thing she and I did was sit next to each other, outside if possible, and talk. She carried on with many of the same stories year after year, and I listened quietly year after year.

I would often hold her hands as I listened, and study them. She worked all her life, even more after she retired. Strong of mind and body it was hard to watch her change and especially to watch her hands. Born in America of Sicilian parents, when she allowed herself to become tan, she would take on an earthy bronze. Mainly this was evident on her hands, tanned from working in the garden.

Skin is a marvelous organ. It provides us with protection, sensation, and embarrassing social moments. The look of skin provides a barometer to a person’s health. Pink, yellow and grey are some of the hues that offer clues. There is also another characteristic, transparency, which often escapes notice.

As I watched my mother fade, her hands became translucent. My knowledge of anatomy almost overpowered the awe of what I was watching, identifying structures as opposed to seeing the glow. Towards the end of her life, her skin was like that of the little aquarium fish that light passes straight through.

September was sobering. When the leaves begin to change color this fall and the garden dies back, it will be difficult not to think of the one thing that cannot change, we are born and will die. And that there will be exuberance and tragedy, and in many ways, the two will be comingled.

I am not a religion person but I think this is what the Lutherans, Methodist, and Jews exposed me to this September, and what, in my secular understanding, my mother’s hands revealed.

October 2016

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Cigars

When the spirit moves me, I enjoy a walk around the neighborhood. About 4 or 5 miles is enough to give my heart a workout. The logical destinations from my bungalow in West Ridge are Andersonville or Lincoln Square, the former being a little farther that the latter. Both locations are well supplied with unique coffee shops to fuel up with a shot of espresso for the return journey.

Details missed if driving become apparent while walking, such as topography. I have lived here much of my life and never realized why the Hilltop Restaurant on California and Foster is called the Hilltop Restaurant. Well, because it is on a hilltop.

It is a long slog south to the summit at Foster from Peterson and California. Then it’s downhill to Lincoln Square at Lawrence and Western. The hill is steeper when walking back north. For anyone who lives in a mildly undulating area this hill would be a joke, but then that is not where I live, so I relish this hillock.

The trip east to Andersonville is devoid of altitude changes. I often cut through Rosehill cemetery; it has special meaning for me. My wife’s family on her dad’s side is buried there, and it was the site of my first job. During the summers between 7th and 8th grade, and 8th grade and high school I cut its grass eight hours a day five days a week.

Valuable life lessons were learned as I mowed the lawn around the graves. I labored with seasonal workers from Appalachia. Their accents were thick. It took me weeks to decipher their dialect. They were good for about a half days work. Lunch was eaten at a local tavern along with multiple Old Styles. They wore bib overalls and returned from lunch with stubby beer bottles tucked into every pocket. I was promoted to supervisor within the first two weeks, and along with the promotion came a larger mower. More importantly, it was self-driven.

This was a sobering time in America. The Vietnam War was raging and every large city seemed to suffer devastating race riots. Several times per week, we would turn the mower’s engine off, and stand in respect for a fallen soldier’s burial. At the gravesite, the military honor guard fired three rifle shots as the family grieved. I will never forget this. Some years later, when it was time for me to register for the draft the war had escalated and continued for many more years.

Pardon the reverie. The walk east towards Andersonville is flat. There is a slight decline in elevation as the lake is approached but so minimally as not to exist. The trek to Andersonville is a little longer than the walk to Lincoln Square, so the energy expended averages out.

Several weeks ago while coming back from Lincoln Square, in Rob Blagojevich’s old neighborhood, there was a sign for a house sale. House sales are hard to resist. Most of them contain the accumulated possessions of the newly departed. When I looked around, my childhood flashed before me; dinnerware, small appliances, long out of fashion clothes and shoes, yellowing books, odd record albums, and out dated tools. I searched for a find and in 50 years of looking have found a few. Mainly it makes me reflect on my inability to discard my collection of junk.

I cannot deny the melancholy of rummaging in someone else’s life. That said, on this occasion I purchased three 25 cent cigar boxes. They were constructed of wood permeated by the sweet bouquet of Cuban tobacco. One box was bare wood and the other two were covered in impeccably embossed glossy white paper. Each was festooned with tax stamps, and shiny holograms attesting to their true Cuban origin.

Charlotte tolerated the diversion and did not ask why I was buying the three empty boxes. By now she has figured out that there is often method to my madness, and my madness on this particular day was thoughts of making a cigar box guitar (CBG).

A friend in NYC started me down this path when he texted me a picture of his recently built CBG. He had alluded to making one but I had not paid much attention. I was taken aback when I saw the image. I like to think I am not competitive but this certainly got my juices flowing. Of course, the Internet provided numerous examples, and YouTube has an endless stream of accomplished CBG players rattling off blues riffs.

My basement, though less clutter than in the past, still contains much of the raw materials needed to make a guitar. There was a chunk of cherry left over from a never realized table, and several large containers of nuts and bolts. As far as tools, they were waiting to be used, and as far as expertise, I haven’t been messing about in my basement for 25 years without picking up a few woodworking skills.

A blueprint was needed. Pertinent websites were bookmarked. The list grew with no end in sight. A decision had to be made and so I went with a YouTube video. This was a first; to build a complex structure with no paper plans or books to refer to. The video was approximately 25 minutes long and the presenter was a charismatic character. If he was selling the Brooklyn Bridge, I might have bought it.

I watched it once, twice, three times, took a few rudimentary notes, and then got to work. As the video said, “Let’s do this!” There is a saying, measure twice and cut once. I took this to heart but wished I had been more attentive when ordering the various accouterments such as strings, tuners, etc. In the end, not much money was wasted.

The guitar came together quickly. As I waited for the strings to arrive in the mail a funny feeling crept over me. I realized I did not know what to do with the lovely little instrument. It was back to YouTube!

So, next time I go for a walk I will endeavor to keep my eyes from the various signs posted on fences, light poles and trees. I will keep my heart rate at a therapeutic level, and hustle over hill and dale. And if you believe that, I have a great deal on a bridge!

September 23, 2016

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Intangible

To relate an experience to others is fraught with uncertainties. It is a finely crafted art to explain details in a coherent fashion. There are writers, whether of fiction or nonfiction, that have devoted their careers to it. And then there are the one-offs, like me.

The stories that come from a one-off are not customarily staged. The person could have gone on a journey whether or not a publisher gave them an advance. When the non-writer left, they were not a writer but must they have become a writer, otherwise nothing would have been written.

Is this silly to even discuss. To be human is to experience and be reflective. If we do not, does this mean we are not human? These are awkward questions to answer with the intellect. Maybe the questions need to be simplified to, what allows me to ask the question, or the inverse, what allows me to expect an answer. In this, the inverse seems the ultimate conceit.

I was trained in the biological sciences: from the basic molecular building blocks to the circuitry of the brain. Along the way, I dissected multiple species, teasing out their intimate details. I understand, at least conceptually, the chemical nature of a neuron’s function. But none of this gives me a clue about how to answer the above questions.

Several years ago I decided that instead of buying new books I would strive to read the books I already have. With this in mind, I reached for a book that has spent decades patiently waiting to be noticed. It is a compact volume expertly printed in Japan by The Hokuseido Press. I have the first printing from 1966 but alas, not its jacket. It is Volume Four of R.H. Blyth’s series Zen and Zen Classics titled Mumonkan.

I was unprepared as I flippantly flipped through its pages for how thoroughly it would grab my attention and relate to the above dilemma. Even though it is a sequential record of 48 “Cases”, I cannot read it page for page. I jump from the preface to multiple cases and then back to the introduction, which only lead me to the index in a vain attempt to make sense of what I am reading.

This thesis on the teaching and transmission of Zen was first published in 1229. Mumon, the compiler, gathered the content from many different sources. Each case is presented in a similar format but I am uncertain if that was the wish of Mumon or R.H. Blyth. There is the title, a discussion of the protagonists, the case is stated followed by commentary and finally a verse.

It is a curious book, for Blyth uses both the translation of the cases (presented in the form of a koan), and an interactive style of pithy comments and illustrative examples from western writers to help explain Zen’s universality within its intangibility.

Blyth has strong opinions and though he is enamored of Buddhism, especially Zen, it does not prevent him from harsh criticism. In Case XXXII, Buddha and the Non-Buddhist, he writes that he has “warm friendly feelings” for Christ but only “coldness” for the Buddha. In this case the Non-Buddhist says to the Buddha, “I do not ask for words; I do not ask for silence.” And then when there is no reply he states that the Buddha’s compassion “has enabled me to enter on the Way.” and departs.

A discussion begins between the Buddha and his disciple Ananda about what the Non-Buddhist understood and if I read it correctly, the Non-Buddhist comprehends the encounter better than Buddha’s disciple. The commentary continues. There is talk of a horse and a whip, and of balancing on the edge of a sword, and since I am not a Buddhist scholar, I suggest you read it for yourself. It is on page 223.

The discourse has my mind doing cartwheels. The mental gymnastics leads me back to my original question: when does a non-writer become a writer? I realize that my “simplified” version — Is it possible to ask an intangible question with the expectation of a tangible answer — adds more complexity.

I stop, take a deep breath, and find that I have broken into a fine sweat. It is August after all, and the air is thick with moisture and the sound of unseen cicadas. Time to move on. The delight is that each individual, whether Buddhist or not, must work this out for him or herself. With the male life expectancy in the USA approaching 80 years, I have seventeen years left to find an answer. That is if my intangible intellect holds out!

August 2016

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Rockfish

Rock Hall, Maryland is a small town that time has left behind, and I do not mean in a bad way. It is located on the eastern shore of Maryland in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. I have spent five days there. Once while cruising south on the bay and another time, most recently, by car. The car went there specifically to get a rockfish sandwich at Waterman’s Crab House.

I have been a vegetarian since 1978, and because the definition of a vegetarian has been corrupted the past few years, I will add of the ovo-lacto variety. There are times when I will succumb to a serving of fish. Famously, the three times I visited Japan I gave up and ate whatever sea creature was placed in front of me. I felt it was psychically easier than any benefit I might derive from not eating fish for a couple of weeks.

And then there are the times like this when I find myself in an area of the country where fishing is their lifeblood. So, while waiting for a deep fried rockfish sandwich with fries and tartar sauce, I found myself reading the placemat. This starts me thinking about how diverse a country I live in, and how a city dweller like me can feel unrelated to a village dweller like the folk in Rock Hall.

The placemat contains thirty ads of varying sizes but all are square or rectangular. It is printed in two colors not to my liking. One is a pukey green, the other a kind of varicose vein maroon. I, who used to be a printer, am thinking the printers had two half used cans they wanted to get rid of, but then there is no accounting for taste.

As I read the ads, I realize that some of them would never be seen on a Chicago placemat. An obvious one is the ad for cover crops with the catchy slogan of “Tap Into It”, whatever that means. I doubt the average person on a Chicago street will even know what a cover crop is.

Another is for a pile driving company that proudly states, “Four Generations of Marine Construction”. They will drive pilings for piers, boathouses, duck blinds, etc., etc., and they never cut off the old post, they pull them out.

There are ads for fishing charters, for a marine railway, and a motel that recommends reservations during hunting season. There is an oil heating specialist, a sail maker, and a towboat company with unlimited membership for just $158 per year.

I find myself smiling. On recent trips across the Great Plains, and up and over various eastern mountains, the just-off-the-interstate world has looked amazingly similar. The same architects, restaurant and retail consultants, and dare I say, the same politicians that approve of the former’s plans and designs must move from interchange to interchange.

It was refreshing to be in a place so unrelated to my place. It made me want to stick my head into every nook and cranny, to talk to everyone I saw, to drive down country back roads; I guess it made me want to explore the U.S.A. again. For as unrelated as we may seem, we are here in this greatest of melting pots because of our or our ancestor’s drive for a better life.

And for this insight, I have to thank Waterman’s Crab House of Rock Hall, MD for luring me back to visit their splendid town, and of course, for the best fried rockfish sandwich and fries.

July 2016

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Robins

From the vantage point of my postage stamp size backyard, this spring has been an odd birding experience. There has been a pair of ducks landing on the roof. Then there was the enormous hawk that landed on the power line after missing a pair of pigeons. The pigeons had spent weeks unabashedly courting each other on the roof of the two-flat across the alley.

Another change has been the recurrence of crows. In the past, there were large flocks, which hung out on the tops of the largest maples. There are only a few now but they definitely shake up the neighborhood. They stalk (and eat) the small birds and baby squirrels, and in return are stalked by the local red tailed hawk. I will hear cawing and look up to see several crows dive bombing the gently soaring hawk as it winds its way across my small piece of the sky.

Of course, there are the chattering families of sparrows who chased away the dainty goldfinches and there are a few starlings. An occasional woodpecker shows up to do some woodwork but they never seem to stick around. There used to be wrens in the shrubs but no more, and there is the rare hummingbird.

This year the most visible drama has been the robins. Robins seem to be appearing earlier and earlier each year. The snow — what there was of it — had barely disappeared when I saw the first of them hunting their prey in the backyard’s frozen ground.

For the first time a pair of robins decided to build a nest on one of our yard’s metal sculptures. It hangs just below the eave in the center of the garage that faces the house. It started with a few strands of dried straw and ended with a substantial mud reinforced basin.

To my surprise, after it was completed the mother robin deserted it. It could be that it was unstable or that the entrance to the garage was only about six feet away. She had started it while we were away visiting and so, she had the backyard to herself for the first few days of the construction. I waited for her to come back. She never did. I took the nest down and mixed it in with the other rotting plant life in the compost bin.

That was in April and now it is the end of May, and though I cannot be sure it is the same robin, she is back with her baby in tow. Mom looks a bit worse for wear. Her baby hides in the lower branches of our large blue spruce. Baby can only fly a few feet off the ground at this point, which is perfect for hiding in the lower branches. Her hiding place is given away by a loud intrepid chripping. It is annoying and I suppose that is the point. As much as mom tries to ignore it, she cannot.

The pattern seems to be that mom forages for herself for a while as the chirping increases in volume and repetition, and then, grub in beak she seek out baby’s open gullet and feeds her. On occasion baby comes out of hiding and chases after mom, not being able to resist the tasty morsel.

A robin is a meticulous forager. Standing erect, they move about 6 or 8 inches at a time, once stopped their heads will tilt to one side or the other. I had assumed (never a good idea) that they were looking into the grass and they may be, but realize now that they must be listening. They start to dig with quick jabbing motions of their head and beak until a juicy white grub appears between their beaks — gulp!

She then moves the next 6 inches, and the next, and on and on. It starts before I wake up and ends as the sun goes down. Earlier in the season, the big bright males were fighting for dominance. I do not see them anymore. They must have moved on to populate other regions, leaving the mothers and babies to fend for themselves.

I am not an ornithologist, so I may be getting some of the details wrong, but the gist of this article is that it got me thinking about Buddha nature. I have read the books, and tried to emulate it in the practice of chanoyu and in playing the shakuhachi. I can safely say that none of the above has gotten me any closer, but watching the lives of the robins play out in my backyard has provided me with a valuable lesson.

I can tell that they do not complicate their lives with introspection and expectations. They live it as it comes. If the first nest does not work, they move on to the next. If there is no grub in the first 6 inches, then there may be one in the next. If the big black crow gets the first blue egg, they lay another one.

There is a certain truth in the robin’s way of life and that truth has always existed even if the robins and my backyard have not, and even if I am not here to notice it. I guess this is about as close as I am ever going to get to comprehend Buddha nature, and I have the birds in my backyard to thank.

June 2016




Saturday, May 21, 2016

Library

It is late on Monday night as I write this. Tomorrow I am driving to Denver, CO to attend a college graduation. While I am on the road, the deadline for this commentary will have come and gone. In moments of inspiration, I can compose an extra commentary or two. They will quietly sit in a Word document on my MacBook until needed. I am not an obsessed writer, so having them there will allow me to relax and not worry about deadlines for a few weeks; but this is not the case this month.

It is not that I worry much. To my knowledge, I have only missed one deadline and that was out of the shear silliness of retiring. I failed to recognize that time had taken on a new rhythm. Missing the deadline was more confusion than delinquency. But I am in the rhythm now. I do not need to be inspired to write, just focused. I need to give my mind permission to roam. And that is what it is doing as I write this — roaming.

For reasons unknown to me, one of our two bedrooms has been deemed mine. I do not sleep there but use the closet and most of the shelves in the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that line one wall. It is my library.

The books on the shelves reflect my interests, some as far back as high school. There are many stories of small sailboat adventurers. There are health related books including chiropractic, homeopathic, acupuncture, osteopathy, and mainstream medicine. There are probably more books than I need on bread and wine, and of course, there are the books about Japan. These cover poetry, architecture, art, history, and chanoyu, the tea ceremony.

Most of the books were collected before the Internet and many have been with me for fifty years. Some of them took years of searching in one used bookstore after another. Nowadays the Internet provides an efficient but much less fun search. To find a book after years of searching is like discovering a golden nugget.

The used bookstores are owned by some of the most colorful people I have met, and most have an aloof but beloved cat lurking in the stacks. A well run used bookstore offers possibilities that unlike Amazon are not driven by algorithms but rather by chance. I never know what new interest will be kindled (pardon the pun) as I comb through the rows of books.

My library feels like these bookstores. The books are loosely organized into topics but there are outliers. I am literally on my toes when searching for a specific title. It is a good stretching exercise. As I look over the titles, many that I have never gotten around to reading, a new passion for the topic flares. I have to concentrate not to get distracted from the task.

So, when I am writing and need to do research, I can walk the few feet to my library. I rely on my paperbound resources more than Wikipedia, and have developed long relationships with many of the books. I trust them. Their presence is comforting.

I have a suggestion for this years graduating class, despite the sexiness of electronic gadgets, start your own “brick and mortar” library. Become familiar with it. Take joy in the books even as you pack and unpack them for the umpteenth move. Fill them with notes, highlight them, make them dog-eared; make them your own.

A personal library can be an inspiration, and a good tool whether rushing to make a deadline or when inspired to write late on a Monday night.

May 2016

Monday, April 25, 2016

Disputatious

There is a prominent but fractious figure in chado that receives scant mention except when it relates to a specific design of dogu (tea ware). This figure inherited — if that is the correct word — Rikyu’s post of head tea master to Hideyoshi after Rikyu’s suicide, I am speaking of Furuta Oribe (b.1544).

Rikyu and Oribe were caught up in the momentous cultural and political changes. There are three main characters in the unification of Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. It occurs in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600), and is an amazing story of shifting alliances, conquering armies, remorseless murder of vassals and their families, and the complication of foreign powers in both a mercantile and religious sense.

Oribe was unorthodox. Unlike Rikyu — a townsman and a merchant — Oribe was a samurai and a daimyo. He was one of Rikyu’s Seven Sages that carried on chanoyu after Rikyu’s death and became tea master to the Hideyoshi.

A sure way to get a rise out of demure tea folk is to use a piece of tea ware that is based on Oribe’s design. They have a distinctive look. The chawan will be deformed in some way, usually with purposeful indentation in the rim of the bowl. The color scheme is flamboyant with spattering of bright matcha green over a dirty white glaze with obscure markings in brown or black. It is as refreshing as it is distinctive.

Rikyu is celebrated for his restrained sensibility. A Raku chawan is like fashion’s “Little Black Dress”, elegant and refined. But Oribe took license with the form. He innovated and broke with tradition. Not only in tea ware but also in how he used tea spaces, mixing soan (the thatch hut) with shoin (reception rooms), and introduced the display of both calligraphy scrolls and flowers in the tearoom.

Most of the books I consulted on Japanese history made scant mention of Rikyu and did not address Oribe’s role. Oribe was a student of Rikyu (an inept one if I read correctly) and as I stated above, one of the Seven Sages (all military men) that Rikyu anointed to carry on tea after his death. He became tea master in all but name to Hideyoshi. When Hideyoshi died, he then became Ieyasu’s (the 2nd Shogun) tea master, and eventually the tea teacher to the third Shogun, Hidetada.

Oribe, a renowned military leader and a supporter of Tokugawa Shogunate, miscalculated the effect of his communication with the opposing side during the siege of the Osaka Castle. Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered him to commit suicide, and then had Oribe’s family and thus his lineage destroyed. This made me think how valued that Sen Rikyu’s family must have been to Hideyoshi that it was banished and not decimated after Rikyu’s death, and then quickly rehabilitated.

Kumakura Isao, in an article he wrote in Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu, quotes a five-line verse that describes the tea of four tea masters from the Tokugawa period. The first line of the verse is “Oribe is disputatious…”. It is a rarely used word meaning argumentative, awkward, and contrary.

It is my contention that Oribe is remembered, out of the many tea men that came after Rikyu’s death, not just because of his unique utensils but also because of his contrary genius. May we all be so daring!

April 2016

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Auteur

Mike Nichols, the famed director of movies and plays such as the Graduate and Spam-a-Lot, sits dressed in black answering unheard questions. He is brilliant and confident without the slightest pretention. And he has a wicked sense of humor. At one point in the interview, he lashes out and firmly states that he is not an auteur, something that he has been accused of by his critics.

What is an auteur? I reach for the dictionary on my phone, read the definition, and realize that I have always wanted to be one. An auteur is an artist that has a distinctive style. I am not sure why Mike Nichols denied the label. It does not sound like a put down but maybe in the film world it is a derogatory term.

I wondered what my style would be when I first started to write. Did I need to invent one? Then one day I realized I had a style when I decided it needed to be changed. Does everything we do need to be innovative or is it okay to leave our distinctive stamp on it.

I mean a Rothko is a Rothko. Maybe his earlier works look different but not his later paintings. To the uninitiated, they are hard to tell apart. His studies of color are worth tens of millions. I wonder would he be upset at being called an auteur.

We all have a style, something that distinguishes us. The poor souls in my neighborhood that spend their lives outdoors have style. It could be their carts or their collection of bags or a stooped walk. I have learned to spot them wandering as I wander my north side bastion of Chicago. Few individuals have no style or distinction.

Of course, much time and effort is devoted to trying to stand out. Hair color, tattoos, garrulous cloths, enormous watches, 8 inch heels; I know, I know I am jealous. I am just too conservative and frugal to devote the time and money that it would take. An artist friend of mine, though dressed in black, always has a slightly quirky pair of eyeglasses on. In fact, I look forward to meeting him just to see what the new pair (for there is always a new pair) will reveal about him.

Whenever I get new glasses, I am determined to emulate him but fail. I suppose that is what makes us different. I cannot force myself out of my middle class rut to splash a little color or distinctive design somewhere on my body.

But then I am not completely without distinction, in my role as president of Urasenke Chicago Association (a group dedicated to chanoyu, the tea ceremony) I wear a kimono. This certainly puts me in the minority of Chicago males and maybe of most males in Japan. A kimono certainly makes me stand out in a crowd even if the kimono I am allowed to wear is a dower affair. It is like the pin striped suits that bankers and funeral directors wear.

Though, through none of my own doing, my obi stands out. An obi is a sash that is worn around the waist to keep the kimono intact. It was presented to me as a gift from a gifted tea master. I would have never thought to buy it. It is flamboyant with its gold ground and multiple pastel colors. One side has a linear design while the other is fleur de lis. But I enjoy wearing it and will never go back to the drab brown or navy blues of the past.

And I enjoy the attention I receive because of it. The black transparent jacket that is also part of the outfit shrouds it. Some attention to detail is required to see it. This means that I am being watched and so it reminds me to pay attention to my posture and my behavior. It is a good lesson in humility that a piece of fabric can and does take precedence over the whole of my personality.

Mike Nichols could wear only black. His brilliance drew people to him. He needed no outward affectation. For me though, I am grateful for my showy obi. It keeps me working for the day when I can fling it into space confident of my asteurism.

March 2016

Monday, February 29, 2016

Fermata

Miles Davis was a unique trumpet player. In a time when Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were playing the hard driving multiple note passages of Be-Bop, Miles Davis played quiet notes here and there; weaving his way through a melody, just touching on the most pertinent notes.

It is an understatement to say he was restrained. I think of this while playing Kurokami on the shakuhachi. It is the first of the distinct shakuhachi repertory (sankyoku) to be studied. I have read to take each section, demarcated by breath lines, as its own entity. The pace is slow, probably 38 beats per minute on the metronome.

Kurokami starts with a HA-RO. The HA (C) is a grace note and RO (D) is the long note. Five notes follow this and I find myself rushing to get to the end to take the next breath, fearful all the time of running out of air before finishing the passage. The next passage is three notes with two repeats. I am already getting behind. Then the pace quickens with a series of closely packed notes. Now I am in trouble.

Though I manage to play the entire piece, I am usually light headed by the end and have not interpreted it with subtlety. I need to slow and take each note for the blessing it is. This is matter over mind when it needs to be mind over matter.

Chanoyu is similar to the above. There is a pace to the dance. Slow and steady then quick and decisive with slight variations within. It keeps it interesting. At the beginning of tea, once all the utensils are in place, there is a moment of rest or contemplation, a fermata, a moment for the training of a lifetime to click in and allow tea to be made without the “monkey” mind.

A fermata when placed over a note puts the regular counting of beats on hold. The time lingered on the note is a musician’s decision. Chanoyu has a similar moment. Its fermata is called izumai o tadasu.

It meant little at first. I would stop, try to get comfortable, take a deep breath, and move on. But it has become a moment where time takes on a new metric. Like in the fermata, it can be long or short. It is dependent on the practical need to adjust the kimono and posture, and then on the more ephemeral need to concentrate on the present.

I am afraid I have the same tendency to haste in chanoyu as I have in playing the shakuhachi. I try to think of Miles now when performing both the above. How he hit just the right note highlighting the song without obviously playing the rhythm. How he stops playing and listens before committing to the next note. How even in the midst of his sidemen’s passionate playing, he calmly stands and anticipates the truthful time to play. And how he is unhurried in a hurried world.

I found the fermata while studying how to read a score. It has opened up a new realm even if it is too late in my life to be instinctual about it. My neurons toil as they try to make the necessary connections needed to sight read. I am not sure if this will stave off or foster dementia but it has given me permission to put the regular counting of the beat of my life on hold and explore…lingering.

February 2016

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Being

New Years has past, resolutions have been made — and probably forgotten. I’d like to suggest a revision. This year’s resolution should be simply, be in the moment. Make each moment count. This is what drew me to Chado, The Way of Tea. Chanoyu is about the details of making the best possible bowl of tea for your guests.

I have been privileged. What I have imagined, I have been able to accomplish. But in my twenties, I was at a dead end. I covered up shear laziness with, as it is now called, content. Day after day passed without any foreseeable change.

The “5 Year Plans” of the communist countries back when they were still waving around Mao’s Little Red Book and Das Kapital made sense to me. Secretly I began to formulate my own five year goals and I started to pay attention to the details. It was more a subconscious endeavor than a conspicuous one. No goal was every written down, nor did I inform anyone else of my plans.

Details are what count in a life. Good or bad, without them we are just empty shells. A life spent absorbing others content and not creating your own, well I do not want to contemplate that. Dreams are a good judge. Tumultuous dreams, disturbing dreams, Technicolor dreams, contradictory dreams; such dreams reveal the brain hard at work deciphering your content.

Rather than blotting the dreams out, I relished them. Granted I do not always think this at 3:30 in the morning waking up due to a particularly complicated dream. But I am grateful that my mind thinks my life is worthy enough to require this level of sorting out.

Of course, I cannot claim these thoughts as my own. They are a conglomeration of ideas gathered from D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, e. e. cummings, Sen no Rikyu, Basho, Bach, and Mahler to name a few. And my rudimentary understanding of Zen influences these ideas. Zen is a real life construct, even if it is full of contradictions.

People practice by sitting in zazen for hours, by playing obscure notes on the shakuhachi, by whisking a bowl of tea, by slinging arrows towards nonexistent targets. It makes little sense and matters even less. The pixels I manipulate to write this can exist in different fonts but they still create words and meaning.

The plan, the details, and the doing are essential. The plan can be vague but the details should be vivid, and the doing, well that is the key.

These are momentous times. There are many distractions. Climate change, terrorism, failed states, police and neighborhood violence, technology run amuck are just a few. It can be numbing. Resist them even at the risk of being uninformed.

Spend 2016 being in the moment. Soak in life’s details. Dream complicated dreams. As it was said in the 70’s, let your freak flag fly. And above all, forget I ever wrote this!

Friday, January 01, 2016

Time

There is nothing new under the sun. Well, there is nothing new 90 million miles from the sun. I have reached the age where I can say this with some authority. Of course, there are many new devices, many new molecules, many new technologies, and we humans have a much better understanding of our own physiology and of how to manipulate it. I mean there is nothing new in our behavior.

There is certainly newness in the speed and the amount of information that comes our way. Most, even if it seems important, isn’t. But how are we to know that and so, every beep or wiggle of a device requires a response. A response even if the response is to ignore it. The brain fires off another couple of million neurons whether we answer or not.

It is tragic to grow up in the clutches of pervasive technology. With how absorbed the populace is with a life lived on a small screen I am surprised any one continues to shop. Why do we need things when we live a life through an LED screen. We can stay home and cuddle up to the warmth of a discharging lithium battery.

Do not think for a moment that I am not bound up in this culture, less than most but more than others. I remember my first brush with technology: a HP 12C calculator. What an esoteric devise. It uses RPN (Reverse Polish Notation) which makes calculating easier by eliminating steps.

Before that, I tried to program a Commodore computer with Basic, the language of the day. The storage was on a cassette tape. I learned early on that I was not interested the programing but in what it could do for me.

Several years later a friend dropped off his Macintosh for me to computer sit while he went to Jamaica for a couple of weeks. It was like a pet. It was certainly cute, it even purred. I asked for the instructions and he tossed me a quarter inch thick spiral bound manual that resembled more of a child’s book than the portal to a sophisticated machine.

I thumbed through the pages before turning it on and I have since regretted ever having to use a PC. Not that the Mac was/is without frustration but there was no looking back. My MacBook Air is one of several things that I usually try not to let out of my sight. It is used to write, shop, research, navigate, communicate, read, check the weather, and listen to whomever or wherever my musical taste lead me. If there were a fire, it’s what I would grab first…well, after my wife that is.

Now that is tragic. To have so much invested in a chunk of aluminum, lithium, and various other rare earths. After Google Earth-ing my entire summer cruise I actually thought do I need to burn the diesel, haven’t I already seen what there is to see. Should I sell the boat and invest in a faster processor and a 3-D screen.
Like I said, this is tragic. In the First Part of King Henry IV, Shakespeare’s character Hotspur says, when confronted by a messenger bearing letters, “ I cannot read them now. O gentlemen! the time of life is short; To spend that shortness basely were too long, If life did ride upon a dial’s point, Still ending at the arrival of an hour.” In English, to waste even an hour is too long.

It may be time for the world to make a New Year’s Resolution: Less screen time, and more face time. Get the word out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, Tumblr, and Pinterest…Tragic!

January 2016

Friday, December 18, 2015

Repairs

Nothing runs forever. Everything requires maintenance. At some point, every appliance goes askew. This is, unfortunately, what occurred the last several months in our bungalow on North Talman Ave.

When the nightly news reports on the economy one of the benchmarks is “Durable Goods”. These, as opposed to consumables, are products that do not need to be replaced often. By often they mean every three years but for most of us ten years is more like it. Washers, dryers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and cars are a few of the devices that are expected to make our lives easier while we toil away at work to make enough money to buy, repair, or replace them.

A reason I went into medicine was that I hate to see people (and things in general) die prematurely. I was one of those kids that took everything apart. Sometimes the things I took apart, at least in earlier days, never found their way back together. Through trial and error, I have become much better at fixing things, and have learned to restrain myself from “fixing” things that do not need fixing.

When people or machines malfunction, finding the correct information to diagnosis and then to repair them is critical. This is the philosophy behind medical school, internship, and residency. It is to instill the fundamental knowledge needed to find the correct information to base an opinion on.

One common complaint of medical students is why do they have to learn anatomy, physiology, microbiology, etc., etc. in such detail. My answer to that is, there is never a time when less knowledge is better than more knowledge. The brain is a sponge. It soaks up all the data presented to it and in the process alters its neural circuitry to create interconnections.

Many diagnoses seemed intuitive. I wondered to myself where did that come from. But I knew that at some time in the past I was exposed to a particular packet of information that my mind was able to draw upon when presented with a particular set of circumstances.

Louis Pasteur wrote: Fortune favors a prepared mind. In this, I am a firm believer. When it came to tests, I understood that if I knew the material it would not matter how squirrely the questions were, I would still pass. And so, when our home’s durable goods started to malfunction I decided to search for a cause.

In the past, the search itself constituted a major effort. Just to find the proper manual was a challenge and then to interpret it another. And if I was able to diagnosis the problem, purchasing the part needed was the next hurdle. Then along came the Internet. I have owned some obscure pieces of equipment: an old German motorcycle and a slightly younger Swedish sailboat to name two. Both presented challenges to fix in pre-internet times.

The first appliance to hiccup was the dryer. Now this dryer has put in its time, probably close to twenty years. It was even submerged under 18 inches of water when basement flooded and, after it dried out, struggled on for five years more. But finally, it stopped making the odd noises that it started making after the flood and died. It had had a good life and served us well, so we were prepared to let it go and be reincarnated into a toaster or a car door.

And since it was written off, the childhood trait of dismantling things to see how they work came calling. Charlotte had a better idea. She consulted The Great Google and to both our surprise found, for all practical purposes, an infinite number of references to this dryer. After reading and looking at diagrams, we started to watch YouTube videos.

There were three men, some better spoken than others, extolling on the diagnosis and repair of this dryer. We both decided it was the motor after the first timid attempt to repair it failed. Apart it came, and not without some difficulty, the motor extracted.

Chicago is blessed with a fine appliance parts store (Fullerton and Damen). To their amazement, they had one motor on the shelf. I jumped in the car, fought through a maze of traffic, and found myself with $160.00 invested in appliance parts.

I took a deep breath, watched the “put-it-back-together” videos again, and went in the basement. There it stood almost daring me to fix it. I plunged in. I cannot say there were no difficulties but in the end, I popped the dryer’s top into place satisfied that I had done all I could do.

At some point in the process, I had told Charlotte to please give me some space. In fact, I drew a line in the sand and demanded she stay behind it. I admit this was not charitable on my part, but in my fervor to revive the dryer, it seemed the reasonable thing to do.

Now was the time to plug it in. No sparks went flying. This was taken as a good omen. Then I depressed the start button and nothing happened. Not only had I not fixed it, wasted $160.00, and worse alienated my wife in the process; I was deflated. Then I heard a quiet voice — from behind the line in the sand — say, “Are you sure you reconnected the door’s safety switch.”

I had not and so I did, and it started. And this is when I thought of Rikyu’s statement, “One should abandon feelings of embarrassment and ask people questions: this is the keystone to being adept.” Chanoyu has taught me many things over my years of study but I never imagined it would affect my approach to repairing a durable good.

(Thanks to Gretchen Mittwer for her superb translation of Rikyu’s Hundred Verses.)

December 2015

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Communication

Seventy years is but a speck of time, but think of the momentous change that has taken place since 1945. Countries have been reconstructed. Enemies have become friends. Economies have cycled, boom and bust. Vacuum tubes have been replaced by transistors, ships by jets.

The world has shrunk. In ten hours, we can be in an utterly different culture. Satellites connect us with ongoing calamities in real time. Has this drawn us closer together, it is hard to argue against it. Are we better for it, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Displaced persons need to communicate in familiar ways, and in familiar languages. They do this to create new, and to preserve existing communities in a faraway place. In this America is unique. For all the consternation about immigration, America continues to welcome people. In my neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, I see a new church, restaurant, or grocery store open to serve the needs of the immigrants from the latest conflict.

I come from an immigrant background. Both my maternal and paternal grand parents travelled to America in the 1800’s. The Statue of Liberty welcomed them and as far as I could tell, none regretted the decision to leave their homeland. I am aware that each ethnic group has its unique history, and that each group is welcomed, or not, differently. Some easily fit in, while others continue to struggle after generations.

It is important to keep the channels of communication open and to have a forum to distribute the news of the old and new countries. News, whether it is business, political, or cultural; whether it be profound or purely gossip; is vital to the health of the emigrant population.

My mother, a first generation Italian-American, was fluent in Italian. Throughout my childhood, she subscribed to Fra Noi, an Italian-American newspaper that serves the same function for Chicago’s Italian-Americans as The Chicago Shimpo does for Japanese-Americans. I remember her at the end of a long day sitting with a cup of coffee reading the Italian language section at the rear of the paper.

Fra Noi was (and is) populated with ads for lawyers, funeral homes, specialty food shop, restaurants, and the many festivals that take place during the year. Most are centered on the Catholic Churches that continue to provide comfort and support as the Buddhist Temples do for the Japanese community.

I have no Italian or Japanese language skills, but this has not stopped me from visiting both countries. It has been a pleasure to travel to Japan three times, spending a total of seven weeks immersed in the culture. And it was my good fortune to discover Chado, The Way of Tea, thirty years ago. This is the reason I can share these thoughts with The Chicago Shimpo’s readership, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

For seventy years, The Chicago Shimpo has provided an invaluable service documenting generations of Chicago’s Japanese-Americans. Without it, much of this history would have been lost. And without it, the relationship between Japan and the United States, and between the evolving generations would be diminished.

Communication, whether it is ink on paper or pixels on a screen, is what makes for a civil society. It keeps communities alive and flourishing. The Chicago Shimpo has given us the gift of hindsight and helps as a template for the future.

Thus, we have the farsightedness of the originators, and the tenacity and self-sacrifice of those who have come after them to thank for the seventy years of The Chicago Shimpo.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Southwest

Lake Michigan off the coast of Chicago has some interesting quirks. To begin with, it is relatively deep as inland coastal waters go. No worries about going aground here unless you are in a super tanker. But maybe I should start out by saying that my intimate knowledge of the lake comes from spending an inordinate amount of time sailing on it.

While everyone else was in Little League, playing golf, or studying I was bouncing around in the waves trying not to get seasick. I am not sure why, but the seasick part did not deter me from getting back on the water. So now, fifty years from when I started sailing on Lake Michigan I still am.

But back to the quirks, when the wind is blowing from the southwest it has certain characteristics that winds from other directions do not have. A southwest wind blows across farmlands, subdivisions, industry, and Chicago’s bungalow belt before it collides with the manmade cliffs of the central city.

Try to imagine the above characteristics, and add to it the warmth and humidity that a southwest wind inherently brings with it and you get an idea of its feel. A southwest wind is thick and rowdy, and it is gusty at Chicago’s shoreline. The city’s wall of concrete, steel, and glass breaks the wind into an infinite number of vortexes, which combine in odd ways.

This keeps a sailor attentive, never knowing from moment to moment what the wind is going to do. With experience I learned to shorten sail before venturing onto the lake. A sailboat needs a certain amount of sail area to move through the water. Since most boats will only reach a certain speed, the more wind there is the less sail area is needed. If there is too much sail presented to the wind the boat gets blown on its side and goes sideways instead of forward.

The lake outside the Montrose Harbor entrance tends to be tumultuous. The southwest wind piles water up against the northern concrete shoreline that jutes eastward. With nowhere to go, the waves bounce back south and hit the rocks that work their way south to Belmont Harbor.

The Montrose Harbor entrance is tucked into the corner. The wind is in our face as we make our way out of the harbor. The sails flap wildly until the entrance is cleared and the boat can be pointed more east than south. The sails fill, the engine is turned off, and we pick up speed — if it were only so simple. Because the nature of a southwest wind in this particular place is gusty it can be overpowering one moment and absent the next, and its direction can vary from south to west.

To shorten or reduce a sail is to reef it. Reef is an Old Norse word meaning to rend. Reefing a sail is much easier to do at the mooring in the harbor then out in the wind and waves. So, this is what we do.

A sailboat needs the power of the wind to make its way through the confused seas. To adjust to the changes in wind speed and direction, and the changing sea state requires experience and a bit of chutzpah! In many respects, an underpowered boat (remember we reefed the sail) is as bad as an overpowered one, but knowing what we know, that the wind will become stronger, the sail area remains the same.

In a southwest wind, we steer for the Harrison-Deaver Crib 2.75 miles offshore, and some seven miles distant from the mouth of Montrose Harbor. If we venture too close to the downtown skyline the wind becomes, for a lack of a better word, squirrelly. The more off shore the steadier the wind becomes, so we try to head towards Michigan City, Indiana knowing we will never get there.

Heading for the crib the boat has the wind on its nose or close hauled in sailing terminology. Once heading back to Montrose the wind is on the port or left stern quarter and this is called a broad reach, the most efficient and comfortable point of sail.

On the best of days this short sail up and back from the crib encapsulates what sailing is all about: tactics, logistics, upwind and downwind sailing, a spectacular scenic background, unpredictability and the satisfaction of piloting a boat well. And did I forget to mention camaraderie, I shouldn’t have.

Lake Michigan’s quirks (believe me the list is much longer) are what make a barren coast so enticing to sail for a lifetime. When I look back at the inordinate time spent, I think I should strike out inordinate and replace it with rewarding or useful or well spent. For a sail in a southwest wind is certainly all those even if it is a bit quirky!

September 2015