Noilly Prattle: May 2014

Friday, May 30, 2014

Out to pasture

     An old and valued friend recently asked me how I was “looking at retirement.” Perhaps that old friend considers me an authority (or at least more experienced) being several years older and deeper into grazing in the meadow. Facing retirement for me was like facing death—fear of the unknown. Essentially, retirement for men means a loss of purpose and breaking of comfortable though sometimes onerous routines. For many men, the workplace also means social relationships that don't carry over outside the work milieu. So the prospect of retirement can look bleak: long hours and isolation.

three irises
       Let me wax philosophical for a moment here. You are going to die. The closer you get to the check-out counter the less daunting it seems to me that that inevitability is. It's just another crossroads in life you are going to have to deal with when your time is up. No need to waste what time you have left dwelling on something you have no control over. The only control you do have is what to do with the time you have left.

       I had a satisfying job as an Art teacher for 20 years in a private elementary school. I developed and taught the program that included children from 7 to 12-years of age. I was fortunate enough to have complete control over the program without administrative interference. I taught the classes from age 51 to 71-years of age. In a way, I set up my own retirement so that I could ease into it. For my last two working years I had an arrangement with the school director to work only two terms out of three for a cut in salary. In the third term my wife and I traveled in Europe. After two years on these terms my employment was finally terminated and I took full-time retirement at age 71.  

       I have found that three things are important in retirement: health, purpose and peace of mind. The three are interrelated.

       Your health is paramount and a reasonable measure of financial security is essential. By reasonable financial security I mean that you have enough to do the things necessary to your individual quality of life. That will vary enormously according to the individual. I have heard of some bloggers who believe that it is absolutely necessary to have saved some $2,500,000 to retire comfortably. I, however, don't know anyone personally who has that kind of nest egg. Unless you must drive a Cadillac and your woman must have new Diors and Guccis every year, I can't imagine why you must have that much to live comfortably. If that were the case, most of us would be doomed to the poor farm of yesteryear.

Dammit! Fell off the wagon--again.
       The question of how you fill your days without the 9 to 5 grind is an important one. We humans seem to need some purpose in life and for most men that means having the means to provide food and shelter for a family. Ideally, the food and shelter issues are already taken care of when you reach retirement, but you still need something to do with your time, if for no other reason than to stay out of your partner's hair. Both of you had become accustomed to prospering in your own, separated spheres for eight or nine hours a day. Now, you are thrown together 24/7. For even the best-adjusted couples this can be a trying issue. You absolutely must learn to respect each others' space and privacy needs. It also helps to have things in common and an ability to keep the channels of communication open. A sense of humor is indispensable for coping with the bumps in the road.

at Theater of the Estates, Prague -
Mozart premiered Don Giovanni here
supper on the veranda in
Noumea, New Caledonia
       Both us have made health and physical fitness an important part of our daily activities. I have made keeping my body fit and healthy my new job, or purpose, in life. That includes a daily routine of walking and exercising and swimming one day a week. I am also fortunate to be able to do some part-time work outside the home. I teach ESL (English as a Second Language) to children a couple evenings a week—work that isn't physically stressful, and is fun and rewarding. Finally, being of wanderlust natures, we like to travel for a part of the year. We enjoy combining our love of travel with out love of music by scheduling concerts and operas as part of our travel itinerary.

       In conclusion, I have learned to enjoy having long leisurely waking hours with coffee in bed and no thought of an abhorred alarm clock jangling me awake at the crack of dawn, to drag myself into the shower and into my work clothes, swallow some food that I am not even hungry for and head off for the 9 to 5 routine still not really awake. Now, it's leisurely coffee, leisurely bath, really hungry for breakfast and then, depending on the day, chores for the upkeep of the house, workout, artistic interests and pursuits, walking, pool, evening class, cocktail hour....


       All in all, not a bad life, retirement.  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Screw the screwdriver

     German writer Hermann Hesse's apt metaphor, “...stagnated in a swampy lake of indecision,”* suits me to a T. I, too, was mired in the muck of being unable to make up my mind about what to do about the titanium nail in my left leg.

      The apparent consensus of opinion of four Orthopedic doctors was that it wouldn't be worth my time and effort (nor theirs) to undergo surgery to remove the nail and do rehab all over again with no guarantee that it would make the leg all better. They all left it up to me, with: “I can do it if you want, it's your decision.” Right! And a hug and a kiss and a tuck in for the night might do just as well. Well, my “decision” is enough is enough, clear the swamp of indecision, out with the doctors, in with self reliance. In the final analysis, I know my own body better than anyone else, medical professionals included.

       While waiting for the information from Prague about the tools needed to remove the nail and screws from my leg in the “it all hangs on a screwdriver” phase, I had some time to monitor the nuances of the messages coming from my hip. It began to dawn on me that more of the discomfort and tendency to limp I was experiencing was coming more from muscle weakness than inflammation. So, I started to research and experiment with additional exercises to strengthen the quads and hamstring muscles in the leg and the glutei maximus and medius muscles in the buttocks.

       I've worked out a series of strengthening and flexing and stretching exercises for the leg and butt muscles, that I alternate with weights to maintain muscle mass in the arms, chest and shoulders and some leg lifts to tone the abdominal muscles a bit. I also go swimming at a local municipal pool once a week. Of course, only time will tell, but I'm hoping that focusing on an area that I have control over—exercising the muscles—instead of agonizing over whether to do or not to do surgery will improve the muscle strength and mass enough to relieve the stress on the trochanter area where the muscle meets the nail. I would be satisfied with 80 to 90% recovery of my pre-accident condition.

       For my friends who are also experiencing similar problems with post-surgical discomfort and weakness in the hip area or other issues with the legs and knees I've attached a few photos of the leg exercises I am working on. For the strengthening exercises I would start out in your own comfort zone in terms of number of reps and count. My goal is 10 reps. and hold for a slow 10 count on each leg. For the Yoga type exercises I do 3 reps. for a slow 10 count on each leg. I use 250 gram (about 1/2 pound) ankle weights for these exercises. 











* Hermann Hesse, Rosshalde

Thursday, May 22, 2014

It still hangs on a screwdriver . . .


    What do you do if you are peeing into the wind? This is not a riddle, it is a simple question of logic. Well, maybe common sense as well. Answer: you can either get wet or turn around. This little conundrum assumes, of course, that you are of the male persuasion.

        Get wet...or turn around. After some seven months of pissing into the wind, I have pretty much decided to turn around. I'm getting tired of wearing out my clothes washing them.

left trochanter- where the metal meets the muscle
        Recapping briefly, in a previous post with a similar title, I described the difficulty of trying to have a titanium nail and screws removed from my left femur, something I assumed would be a simple enough procedure, in Japan. The nail was inserted during a surgical procedure called ORIF to support a broken femur in a hospital in Prague, Czech Republic in February 2013. I began to experience some pain and discomfort in my left hip about seven months after the operation when we returned to Japan from a holiday in Europe in October, 2013.

        Consultation with a local Orthopedics doctor indicated some inflammation caused by friction of the titanium nail rubbing against muscle tissue. The doctor didn't seem to think it was such a serious matter and suggested I cut back on exercises that might exacerbate the friction and see how it goes. I tried that, but it seemed to me that it wasn't going very well, so I asked him about the feasibility removing the metal parts. He wasn't enthusiastic about that idea, and also added that there was a problem of what tools the doctor in Prague had used. He had never seen this type of implants. He did, however, refer me to an Orthopedics surgeon at a local hospital. He suggested I wait until the Fall (this year) and see how it goes.

        I finally consulted the Orthopedics surgeon at the same hospital where I spent 3 months with a broken right femur some 30 years ago. He didn't think it was really necessary to remove the hardware, much the same attitude as the three previous doctors. But he agreed to send a letter to the surgeon in Prague anyhow to find out if we had the proper equipment here...and see how it goes.

        He was unable to make contact with the Prague doctor either through email or regular mail. At that point an angel arrived on the scene. A friend of ours in Prague offered to see the surgeon in person and ask him to send the information. He sent her an email outlining the procedure and tools used. She forwarded the email to me and I sent it on to the local surgeon and made an appointment to see him.

        It has been been about seven months since I consulted the first of four doctors (quadruple opinions). All were hesitant to do this surgery saying: “It's up to you.” Even with the information from Prague, the last surgeon wasn't “100% optimistic” about having the right tools. But, “I can do it, it's up to you.”

        Yes, it's up to me. The unspoken message from all four doctors, was that I am doing very well and that perhaps my expectations of 100% recovery (the way it was before the accident) are unrealistic. I think they may have a point. Perhaps it's a case of mind over matter, because I've been noticing that I seem to be having more trouble with muscle weakness in the thigh and gluteus medius and maximus muscles than pain in the trochanter (hip) area. Accordingly, I am shifting my focus away from removal of the hardware to working on building the strength in those weakened muscles....and see how it goes.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Getting Reacquainted 12 – bound by a rope - a spike in the head

     Japan’s archeological history ended with the Kofun period c. 538 CE. The oldest surviving artifacts of Japan’s first historical (Asuka) period (538—710 CE) can be found in Nara area Buddhist temples. On the last two days of our getaway trip we visited three of the oldest temples in Japan: Yakushi-ji (697 CE), Horyu-ji (607 CE) and Asuka-dera (596 CE) in Nara Prefecture.  

        The historical beginnings of non-mythical Japanese history can be attributed to the introduction of the Chinese characters known as kanji in Japan. The first Chinese characters probably arrived in Japan on official seals and as decoration on coins, mirrors and such practical items early in the Common Era (CE) as early as 57 AD. The characters were not understood, however, until the 5th Century when scholars were sent from the Korean Peninsula to introduce Buddhism and writing to Japan.

        Our original plan was to drive from Toba City, making a brief stop at Meoto Iwa, to Asuka-dera (25 km. south of Nara City)—about a 3-hour drive. However, we missed an important route turn off and, as the drive seemed to be dragging on, we realized that we had screwed up and were in the wrong [northern] suburbs of Nara City. After stopping and asking directions a couple times we discovered that we weren’t far from Yakushi-ji, the temple we had planned to visit last the following day. Thus, we decided on a change of plans. We would visit Yakushi-ji and Horyu-ji that day, drive south and find our Super Hotel, visit Asuka-dera the next morning and then drive back to Okayama from there. 


poster of the replacing
of the ropes ceremonies
        Meoto Iwa (夫婦岩), meaning “the rocks of the bound lovers” (no SM intended), are two rocks in Ise Bay adjacent to the Futami Okitama Shrine (二見興玉神社) not far from the Grand Shrine of Ise. These rocks represent the progenitor god and goddess Izanami and Izanagi in Japanese creation mythology. They celebrate the conjugal union of man and woman in Shinto belief. The rocks are bound by a heavy rope made of rice straw that weighs more than a ton. Due to the wear and tear of the elements the rope is replaced a few times a year in a special ceremony. We made a brief visit to Meoto Iwa on our way to Nara. In a way going from the shrine at Meoto Iwa to the temples in Nara we traveled from Japan’s mythological past to its early historical present.

bound rocks of Izanami and Izanagi


unusual 5-step pagoda
with two intermediate
smaller and indented 
inner temple precinct showing base of pagoda
         Yakushi-ji (薬師寺)was originally planned in 680 by the Emperor Temmu to pray for the recovery of his consort from a serious illness. Perhaps the gods extracted an eye for an eye because she recovered but he died. She then became the Empress Jito and commissioned the construction of the temple which was dedicated in 697. It was common for the Japanese nobility of the early Buddhist period to build temples as acts of devotion or seeking favors. The temple has been moved and destroyed several times over the centuries. Since much work has been done to restore this temple you get a good impression of what these colorful temples originally looked like.

main hall housing the original Buddha
dedicated by the Empress Jito
the Buddha flanked by the
gods of the sun and moon inside
the main hall on the left

recently built hall for meetings, conferences, etc. -- behind the main hall and sparkling in vermilion and white


5-step pagoda at Horyu-ji
        The full name of this temple, Horyu Gakumon-ji (法隆学問寺), means “Learning Temple of the Flourishing Law”—pretty impressive title, I’d say. The 5-step pagoda of Horyu-ji is one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world. Many of the temple buildings are probably just as old—and look it. 

* the Guze Kannon
        The temple complex is huge and my bum hip was giving me trouble since walking around two large temples was pretty tiring and, for my hip, a bit abusive. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and visited what to Road Buddy was the main reason of the visit to Horyu-ji , the Guze Kannon. 

* the Guze Kannon's
spiked head and halo
        This statue of the Buddhist deity Kannon (a sort of Christ-like savior figure) is said to be cursed because its halo is spiked to the back of the head by a very large nail. (The halos [or auras] on Buddhist statues are usually set on top of a pole behind the statue and not physically attached.) The Guze Kannon is thought to be a likeness of the revered Prince Shotoku whose son was forced to commit suicide thus ending the Shotoku imperial line. The spike in the head is thought to be a kind of voodoo effort to calm Shotoku’s spirit. Beats hell out of me how a spike in the head is expected to “calm” a spirit. The statue, usually hidden from the public except for brief periods in the spring and fall, is housed in the oldest octagonal building in Japan, which looks it. In fact, and maybe it’s because my bad hip was grousing me, the overall look of Horyu-ji is dilapidated.

the oldest octagonal building that houses the Guze Kannon

detail showing some of the original color
and the effects of time on the woodwork


main gate of Asuka-dera
the Great Buddha, the oldest statue of Buddha in Japan, 609 CE
the countryside around Asuka-dera
        Asuka-dera (飛鳥寺) is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) temples in Japan c. 588 CE. Unlike the large complex of Yakushi-ji and the even larger complex of Horyu-ji, embedded in otherwise busy commercial areas, Asuka-dera is small and surrounded by farmland in an obscure, difficult to find location. Once you find it, being small, it is easy to take in as a whole and pleasant to walk around in without exertion. The most impressive thing at Asuka-dera is a great (three meters [over 15 feet] high) bronze statue of a seated Buddha. Made in 609 CE it is the oldest statue of Buddha in Japan. The temple buildings themselves have been rebuilt several times; the present buildings were rebuilt in the Edo Period in 1632 and 1826—not as fresh looking as Yakushi-ji, but not as dilapidated as Horyu-ji either.

small and easy to walk around in the main compound of Asuka-dera
- the Great Buddha is housed in the central building


just in time for a couple of Martinis
*Note: Guze Kannon photos from the Internet

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Getting Reacquainted 11 – doing a Sri Krung

                One of the world’s worst kept secrets is the high cost of traveling in Japan.

                In most other countries hotels charge per room, sometimes with breakfast included, sometimes not. The price of a room, of course, depends on the quality and location of the hotel. Road Buddy and I have a private euphemism for low rate accommodations. We call it “doing a Sri Krung” based on an experience we once had in Bangkok.


Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand - 1983
                We had pre-booked an inexpensive hotel called the Sri Krung in Bangkok back in our younger, grubbier back-packing days--1983. After arriving latish at the airport, we shared a ride from the airport to the various hotels of the passengers. We were the last ones left and the driver didn’t seem to know where he was going. Finally, in a fit of frustration, he stopped the vehicle and pointed down a dark, unlighted and garbage strewn alley to a small barely discernible sign hanging over the sidewalk that he implied was the Sri Krung Hotel and drove off in a puff of petrol fumes.

                We looked at each other skeptically and, finally, shrugging, made our way past spilled trash and garbage and what looked like a couple of rats rummaging around looking for edible tidbits. A dilapidated signboard that could have said anything hung over a dark entrance through which we could see a flight of dimly lighted stairs. We gingerly climbed up, looking over our shoulders once in a while and trying to peer ahead and around a bend into the obscurity beyond.

                Attaining the top of the stairs we found a middle-aged to somewhat past it man behind a grillwork cage in a dirty and holey tank top style undershirt. We told him in English, which he clearly didn’t understand, that we had a reservation and showed him the confirmation paper. He looked baffled, but nevertheless showed us to a “room”  that contained nothing but a narrow cot bed with a smelly rolled up mattress on it and disappeared into the dark hall. We started to unroll the mattress after deciding that we would sleep with our clothes on when there was a knock at the door and a different younger and cleaner looking man came in and asked us in English what we wanted. We breathed a sigh of relief and told him that we had a reservation for the Sri Krung Hotel, whereupon he explained that this wasn’t the Sri Krung, but that the Sri Krung was back down the same alley, turn right and walk about 200 or 300 meters along the Chao Phraya River to the real Sri Krung Hotel. We practically ran down the rickety stairs and quickly found the real Sri Krung. It turned out to be several notches above the flophouse that we thought was the Sri Krung although it was still a budget type hotel.


our hardy little Mitsubishi i
pit stop lunch - tuna roll
and potato chips
              We decided to try and “do a Sri Krung” on our recent getaway to visit the Grand Shrine of Ise and some Buddhist temples in the Nara area. Whereas it isn’t unusual to pay anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 Yen per person [$100-500] (depending on location) in a more traditional Japanese hotel (usually including dinner and breakfast), we found that there are more economical hotels these days. There have always been less expensive so-called business hotels around train stations for business travelers. The rooms in these hotels are generally very small and compact and offer very basic services. Business hotels go for around 3,000 Yen per person [about $30] up to around 6,000 Yen [about $60] a night, many including a breakfast buffet.

                The concept of basic low-cost accommodation seems to be growing in a Japan that has pretty much been in a 20-year recession and deflationary economic situation. There are now “Econo” hotel chains and “Super” hotels groups in the countryside with parking lots that are enjoying a growing popularity with the traveling public. The prices vary according to location. Hotels that are nearer famous tourist attractions are in the 6,000 Yen/person range, ones in less popular spots, though still in easy striking distance to a major attraction, can be in the 3,000 Yen/person range.

We took a three night four day getaway by car spending two nights in low cost hotels in the 3,000 Yen/person (including breakfast buffet [total about $120]) range and splurged for one night in a more traditional but reasonably priced hotel for about 9,000 Yen/person (dinner and breakfast included [total about $180]).


We staying in an Econo Hotel about 20 km. from Ise Shrine. The hotel was within walking distance of an Aeon Mall which had a sento (public bath) with hot spring water and a restaurant. The hotel gave us a small discount ticket for the use of the bath and the restaurant, all very reasonable. 

the Econo Hotel
tiny, but clean and comfortable room 

Aeon Mall restaurant and sento

dinner and a couple beers

            SECOND NIGHT

We splurged for the second night after concluding out visit to the Grand Shrine of Ise. We stayed at the Toba Grand Hotel in Toba City not far from the Ise Shrine after a brief stop to see the "husband and wife" rocks at a local but well-known shrine. The Grand was a typical Japanese style inn, somewhat pricey with breathtaking views, an outdoor hot spring bath with dinner and breakfast included. The breakfast was very good and the hot spring bath was relaxing. I had the great good luck of catching a gorgeous sunrise with my camera before going down to the spa in the early morning sun. . 

the lobby of the Toba Grand Hotel 

typical tatami room with futons

sunrise from Toba Grand Hotel

outdoor hot spring pool


We left the Grand Hotel around 9:30 in the morning and drove to Nara. We planned to visit two temples and stay in a Super Hotel situated between those two temples and one more that we planned to see the following day before driving back home to Okayama. Unfortunately we missed a turn off, wasted an hour and ended up on the wrong side of Nara City. After some inquiries we decided to reverse our temple visit plan, see two temples: Yakushiji and Horyuji Temples, stay at the Super Hotel and drive south to Asuka Temple the following morning and return to Okayama from there. The next installment will cover these temples. 

sleeping /working area is about 9 sq.yds.
almost need a shoe horn
to wedge your way into the
system bathroom/toilet - but
 notice the hi-tech toilet