Archive for March, 2010


March 28, 2010

It was a perfect afternoon for a walk in the Alps, or to be more precise, in an alpine setting with the Alps as backdrop.  Up the last bit of suburban street and on up into the foothills, the undergrowth in the cool woods carpeted suddenly with bär lauch (bear leeks – a kind of garlicky chive great for soup), we walked up as the other German hikers came down, all lederfosen and Bavarian hats – ‘Servus’ and the more all-German ‘Gruss Gott’ (Greet God – very Buddhist concept) – clacking determinedly along with the ski pole-like walking sticks.

A week ago this was all snow, but now we pass only patches moldering in the shade, breathing in that rich but inescapable shit smell – it’s been everywhere since I got here – as the farmers fertilize the greening fields.  The ice is out of the ponds and the snow-drops and crocuses abound.  The woods – like most German forstry – are farmed to the point of manicure, the long straight trunks with bushy tops, evenly spaced, no tumble-down.

My German friend – as they do – follows the paths and we wind up around the corners of farms houses and along the muddy edges of the fields to a bench high on the hill, where we sit to enjoy the pastoral scene: Down the pasture to a line of woods, the successive valleys softened by vapor from yesterday’s rain and the smoke of spring brush-pile fires, green swards with mossy patches of orange-roofed villages stretching to the alban snow still clinging to the negran northern slopes.  The sun darts playfully among the clouds, reaching out its rays like children’s arms as the mountains come to claim it, to bring it in for supper, a story, bed.

The cattle are still all inside below until the fields are dry enough and grown in enough to withstand their hard feet and incisors.  I wish I could persuade the girls at home to do the same for our fields – keep the horses in until the grass has at least a chance to get ahead a little.

In the last of the sun we climb some more for a quick beer to assuage our walking thirst at the Stadberg Alm, maybe ten of us sitting at benches outside, most speaking Bayrisch – all leaving at once with the first chill that sternly shoos the sun inside. “Kim guat obi” (sp?) is Bayrisch for “Come down well” – good phrase for the mountain-top. The deciduous trees have not even budded yet, so they are etched in ink tracery against the sky above the tiny summit chapel.

As we pass down again amongst other farms in the gathering dimsky dusk, I think: Most American or English farms I visit – absolutely including my own ‘farm’ – seem behind the curve: fally-down buildings, thrown-together piles, rotting equipment; so much to be done, never enough time.  Almost every German farm appears ahead of the game, ready and eager to jump on the season, tractors humming, fences mended, yards in apfel-strudel ordnung.  Yes, it’s been going on for many hundreds if not thousands of years, and yes it’s a national characteristic, but could we not emulate?

OK, so the neatness is a bit overdone: a badly stacked woodpile – surely not a sin – sticks out like a sore thumb.  But having just been in Japan with those lovely cultivated Zen gardens, and now here with these farms that are both comely and productive, America seems ramshackle, improvised (and not in an entirely good way), and (I speak of myself here) just not dedicated enough to be in charge of its own destiny.

As we pass a couple, a woman leading a large black horse and a man leading a white pony behind her, I hear from my friend the other side of the orderly farms: They had to get permits via a complicated process even to put a new window in their house, even to take down a tree in the yard.  It’s the eternal question between freedom and order.  I am glad to go for a walk in the eye-pleasing layered cake of a valley, but I prefer to live in the freedom of my own decisions, even at the cost of appearing more disorganized than my Germanically inclined neighbour or seeing my jumbled house and scruffy grounds through the reproving eyes of my German friends.



March 27, 2010

The hunger for connection is so strong that even the poorer people (my presumption – i don’t even know where this photo is from – does it matter?) under these roofs will find the money to get a satellite dish.  I believe the cells within your body have this same hunger for connection, to be part of something larger, to be connected with your larger purpose.  Is your larger purpose worthy of your cells’ hunger?  Is humanity’s purpose worthy of your hunger to connect to it?

People often comment on the triviality of Tweeting sand Facebook and the rest, but taken altogether it represents a whole new kind of grouping, akin to the groupings of cells within the body – connected via the chemistry of the blood, the signaling of the nervous system, and the tensional net of the connective tissue.


March 27, 2010

Stumbling down the cobbled streets of Ulm after one of those interminable post-conference dinner discussions in the old part of the city – all tilting Tudor houses and tiny bridges over streams rushing to join the Danube – we caught up with a large lumbering man whose hair spilled down over his white wool caftan as far as his mid-calf – I kid you not, it could have been a cape.

I quickened my pace to catch up to him and his lady – not conventionally dressed, but obscured by his outlandishness – before they reached the bus stop, and caught his eye. “Wonderful hair!”  He must hear it all the time, a silent acknowledgment.  “How long have you been growing it?” I don’t even know why I asked, as this must be everyone’s first question.  “This I will not tell you,” he said, facing me with a twinkle in his eye.  I held his stare, and he must have found the old hippie beneath my slicked back hair, knotted scarf and shiny leather long-coat, because at the same moment we bowed and said a mutual “Namaste”.  As he came up, he gave me a look that said “I’m still not going to tell you” while I gave him a return look that said “And I wasn’t going to ask again”.

He was several more times at the bus stop outside the hotel when I went to and fro, but we said not another word, but the spaciousness – dare I call it ‘no-mind’? – that passed between us each time our eyes met was a sustainer in what was otherwise a very intellectualized week.

The Well of Grief

March 15, 2010

Those who will not slip

Beneath the still surface on the well of grief

Turning down through its black water

To the place we cannot breathe

Will never know the source

From which we drink

The secret water – cold and clear

Nor find in the darkness – glimmering

The small round coins

Thrown by those who wished for something else.

David Whyte – The Well of Grief

We spend so much time avoiding our emotional core.  If we’re going to talk about ‘core’, let’s go deeper than tone in the transversus abdominis and exercise our truth-telling muscle as well.  We grow younger to our death each day.  To really enter your death – and sometimes even worse, your living grief – is to have the breath squeezed out of you.

Once I was returning my Dad’s old sardine carrier to the mooring – showing off in early summer before I had my ‘boat feel’ in – and I overshot, tangling the mooring pennant in the propeller.  The rule is: you tangle it, you fix it.  Hitting that Maine-in-June ocean was so instantly rigidly frigid that it was all I could do not to suck in water.  I flipped the couple of coils off the shaft, cutting my thumb to the bone on the the blade, but I didn’t notice.  Surfaced, into the rowboat like a dolphin, one swift movement both powered and hampered by the grip of cold.  Only then did I bleed, drops splattering on the thwarts as I shook without control.

In some moments I am overwhelmed with grief, sometimes for weltschmertz, sometimes for sins more personal, and I am reminded of this cold, this icy distance from the warm surface touch that has filled my working days.  But far better to exercise this muscle, the ability to simply stand this cold, this separation than to throw the coins of wishing or trying to make it all right with your perfect offering (of a temple with a toned transversus). Let the breath be squeezed from you as you enter your deepest, blackest coldest grief; then let go into the shaking that reflexively warms you back into the world of contact, a deeper and fuller breath then follows, the one that says in no uncertain terms, “I am alive.”

You cannot have Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.  Jesus cannot be both truly despondent and at the same time triumphant as he dies upon the cross – not and have a consistent theology.  I know, Christianity is open to hundred interpretations, and some Biblical scholar could reconcile “Why has Thou forsaken me?” (He died a real human death for your sins) with “I and my Father are One” (He died a symbolic death to return with the Kingdom of Heaven), but if you are a Christian (and though steeped in it, I am not) then it seems to me you must stand to one side of this divide or the other.  For me, the former slips me beneath the still surface of the well of grief, while the latter has me throwing coins in the well of wishes.


March 11, 2010

Home is … stars

Over the last couple of weeks in New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, I’ve seen many scenes by street lights, headlights, red tail lights, green laser shows, Klieg lights on clouds, nightlights on floors, desk lamps, neon lights, computer screens, cell phone displays, fluorescent tubes, LEDs, TV’s, flashlights, laser pointers, projectors, the pervasive lighting of airports and hotels, the general overspill of light from the city –

and of course daylight –

but I haven’t seen stars since I wrote about them in the Caymans.

So now that I am home and up at odd hours of the night while my soul catches up 11 time zones I moved through in 28 hours, I love to step outside into the brisk air of the maple syrup season and check out my old friends twinkling gently in the sky.

Of course the house, cats, wife, and smells are familiar – but funny how this time the most ‘homely’ element are those that are farthest away.

(Click in the space below here for a link)

Hong Kong

March 7, 2010

In this my fourth visit, it is with a genuine heart-pang that I leave my good friends Kaori and Travis and Yuki and Masa and new friends Kazu and Christine.  Complex negotiations (always a Kabuki dance through a mine-field in Japan, but nothing like good initial sales as a lubricant, to mix a metaphor) successfully concluded with the book publishers and video producers add to the feeling of quiet satisfaction as I leave for the airport.

Banking over the crinkled coast, I had hoped to look down on Fukuoka, where I visited last year (, but by that time we are in the clouds of the bumpiest yet quietest plane ride I have had in some time.  Bumpiest because of unavoidable weather, the ‘rough air’ sending the crew to their seats and the Japanese schoolgirls on their spring trip abroad shrieking in fear.  But also the quietest because I indulged myself in some of the new noise-canceling headphones which are so many steps above the previous ones; these turned even my window seat at the back of the plane into a quiet garden of silence.

Students observe, Kaori laughs at, and Quan has kyboshed my penchant for buying watches and wearing a different one each day.  Frequently in need of a little retail therapy at the end of a long stint of teaching, the urge hits me in the airport as I await the flight out, and a clever or pretty new watch is cheap and easy to add to the backpack – and I must have about a dozen by now.  These new headphones, though more bulky, are way more useful for the upcoming return across the Pacific and the anticipated 10 crossings of the Atlantic I must make before summer.  The constant noise of planes and airports is exhausting, so I think the investment will be well worth it.

Typical back street in HK

After a truly white-knuckle landing at Honk Kong’s mountainous airport on the south side of the island, I am met by the unexpectedly young and whip-like Lau On (last name first, of course) and whisked to the Holiday Inn.  After Japan, Hong Kong is hot, sticky, and decidedly dilapidated (I later learn that this is because of the lease system of ownership, similar to England).  I had no time for touristy things, and little inclination either – head down, heart a little hardened, time to go home.  The hotel room overlooked a grimy series of high-rise flats where laundry is hung over the balconies.

I walked down to Victoria harbor (I’m actually in Kowloon, so looking across at Hong Kong itself – the better view in fact) in a sea of humanity that makes Japan feel like a study in aloneness.  The two cultures, both decidedly Asian, couldn’t be more distinct – bumped, jostled, and constantly beset by hawkers who are shameless by Japanese standards, the faces are much the same, but their miens are different, as are the postures and the movement.

If I had the room or inclination for more clothes in my overstuffed suitcase, this would be the place to buy them – bespoke tailors everywhere sporting quality cloth, all tugging at my sleeve, “Come in, sir!”  And watches? Kaori would lift her eyebrows and Quan lower hers – I look but I don’t touch, everything from Patek Phillipe to the lowliest Casio, all at such bargain-basement prices that I would suspect any Rolex I picked up – but my resolve is strong.  While prices are politely fixed in Tokyo, everything in Hong Kong is cheerfully ‘negotiable’.

The harbor is as you would think – full of junks, tourist cruisers, and the occasional freighter (all of China’s exports used to go through here, but since the handover from UK to ‘Red’ China in 1997, the prosperity and bustle has continued, but China’s other ports have taken some of the trade away from the massive docks).  The view of the Hong Kong side from Kowloon is just what you imagine from the pictures – a solid bank of higher-than-high rises set against The Peak of the hill behind the waterfront crowding.  The water itself has the mild but distinct sweet-sewery smell one associates with Venice.  (Later, I see the skyline at night alive with lights and lasers, that go only for a limited half-hour at night because of objections to light pollution.)  The new expo on the shore looks like a turtle, and some say that it is the turtle who traditionally lives inside The Peak that is coming out, making for bad feng shui (pronounced fungshway).  So others have proposed – seriously – that this needs to be countered by another building on the Kowloon side like a huge bird – maybe something like the Sydney Opera House, wings and all.

The students in my windowless classroom at the Expo are from all over – Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Philippines, even one from Vietnam, as well as Japanese and Australians resident in Hong Kong.  The class is a mix of physios, trainers, yoga, Pilates, and manual therapists that makes it hard to hit the right note – the soul-less room and some equipment trouble combining with my fatigue to make this very expensive class less then worth its weight in sterling in my eyes.  I had warned Kaori that with all that is going on at home I would not be 100%, but the Japanese classes went well; it is here that I really feel a bit flailing and hollow.  But the second day goes better and we end with the inevitable photos and invitations.

Hong Kong is loud, though – the taxi drivers, the streets, the muzak in the expo – all exuberant to be sure, but my ears have been sensitised by living with Quan and my visit to Japan, so it all feels unnecessarily jangly.

Bathroom notes: One handle controls the amount of flow through the faucet and the other the temperature – doesn’t that make much more sense than one controlling the cold and one controlling the hot?  And in this hotel, the shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, and body lotion all come in the same type of bottle, so the contents are printed in Braille on the back.  Why is American money all the same size? – makes it hard on the blind.

So runs my mind in the last packing hours before the 24-or-so-hour run back across 11 times zones to home, home, home.

Running on Empty

March 2, 2010

One more night of the hotel room just wasn’t going to do it, so I asked Travis to scan the net for what might be happening in Tokyo tonight.  I thought about trying to find Avatar in Imax, as that would be fun (would the subtitles be 3D?) but settled for a concert instead.  Kaori-san – already hoarse and clearly tired from four straight days of following my twisting verbal path – sweetly wanted to take me there, but Travis wanted her home: “He’s a big boy,” tactfully not mentioning my age, “I think he can make it to Tokyo International Forum.”  And indeed, it was a quick cab ride through the brightly lit canyons of Tokyo, though the expo was so big it took me a bit to find the hall.

What with all the questions at the end of the seminar (Can you tell me what to do with my knee?…  I have a client… What about hemiplegia?… Yesterday you said braces were damaging, but I have to have them… And one poor physio with a terribly bothersome hypermobile SI joint who lived so far from help in Hokkaido that I had to spend some time treating and educating her) and the inevitable photos, I was late for the first few numbers of Jackson Browne.  I don’t know whether he had done my new temporary favorite number (Live Nude Cabaret – specifically the lines: “I’ve heard ‘form follows function’, and I think that must be true – especially when you think of what the female form will do” – thanks to friend Ron for turning me on to this album, and thanks to Quan, because those lines, the whole song makes me ache for her a half a world away – my eager senses love Japan, but it’s enough now, my deeper senses need to be fed by the touch that only people who have been in love for a long time know.  No trophy wife for me – the trophy can be seen deep in the crinkly eyes of those who have cultivated love through the ups and downs, let it sink its roots, and bear its fruit, not all of which is sweet, and the outer bark can be a little rough, but the heartwood is smooth, the xylem pulses, and step back and the whole tree glows with beauty – like the Soul Tree in Avatar, I suppose, to get me out of this sentence and back to real time)

But Jackson did do enough of the old and the new in the remaining part of his set.  He’s one year older than me, but he and Joni have often been my heart’s voice.  Having never seen him live, I was impressed with the crispness of his playing – the band was good, but without David Linley, he just couldn’t reach the aorta-bursting highs in Running on Empty.  It was fun to watch him struggle with rudimentary Japanese as I am between the songs – Ohio go-sigh-mass – and to watch the audience’s struggle between wanting to get up and shout and wave their arms vs the cultural abjuration not to disturb your neighbor or block the view of the person behind you.

Culture won for Jackson’s quiet and cerebral songwriting, but when Sheryl Crow hit the stage running, we were all up and dancing in the aisles of the auditorium.  Never really followed Miss Crow, but her band was tuned to boom-vibrate just below your diaphragm (acoustics were fab, and of course her story is great – first child after winning over breast cancer, listen to Detours – so I stayed for most of it – Change Would Do You Good, Cat Steven’s First Cut Is The Deepest, Every Day is a Winding Road, Strong Enough, and my absolute favorite, as it makes me think of my daughter, my wife, and my career: You’re My Favorite Mistake.

Fatigue overcame intrigue and I left before the end.  The streets of Yurakucho district still flowed with business-y looking people purposefully going to and from the train even at 10:30 pm on a Tuesday.  I walked around in the fluorescent cold mist of Japanese winter for a while to work my legs.  I’d had no time for dinner, so I stopped into a little hole-in-the-wall sushi joint and had a few nigiri to stave off the pangs – these are places where my limited Japanese comes to the fore – and grabbed a little Toyota which sped – not uncontrollably, however – home.

(The Japanese, by the way, think Toyota is being unfairly targeted by the US government – conspiracy is everywhere.)

‘Green’ is green

March 2, 2010

Nearly every hotel I stay at these days has a notice– inevitably blue or green – in the bath urging me to “Help Save the Environment” by putting only those items on the floor that need to be replaced, keeping the rest for another day’s use.  The request appeals to your guilt over the environmental costs in terms of energy and water in all this towel washing and sheet drying, etc. Of course I am glad to help, but the motivation of the hotel is much more direct and less socially motivated: they want to save money.

Also ubiquitous are those requests in the mail saying “We’re Going Green!” urging you to stop getting this or that information on paper, and to sign up for email alerts or consult the web.  Our local NPR affiliate just did this, to my mother’s chagrin, as she is not wired in.  Again, the appeal is to save paper and energy, and again the reality is that it is a money-saving maneuver.

We are going to do the same thing in our own operation very soon, and we will probably make the same appeal, but our motivation is the same: postal mailings are very expensive of both administrative time, postal money, and printing money – and 95% of the paper probably goes pretty directly into the recycling system (more energy) or worse.  Compared to an email blast that goes to thousands of people at the click of a button – it’s a no-brainer example of positive ephemeralization – doing more with less.

So what puzzles me is why more supposedly ‘conservative’ politicians don’t see the value in this form of conservation.  Spending 17% of our GDP on health care is not only monstrous, it is economically inefficient, and will slow down our recovery and make us less competitive in the 21st century world market. (And Americas does not have anything like “the best health care in the world” by nearly any objective measure.)

Going green is not only the right thing to do, not only the Christian thing to do (all those shepherd images evoking good stewardship), it is also the most economically advantageous thing to do.  Dragging our feet on environmental standards and cleaning up our act is one of the greatest threats to our economic recovery.