Noilly Prattle: February 2015

Saturday, February 28, 2015

a diamond is forever

       Events converge at times that make you think,—the way the late Douglas Adams put it—on * life, the universe and everything.

Spock - the final frontier
Some cardiac arrest patients recalled seeing
a bright light; a golden flash or the Sun shining
       Recently my only remaining aunt died at 90 (although my 98-year-old mother is still living independently); and just yesterday Mr. Spock, at 83, has gone beyond the ultimate frontier. Back in January, a friend, reflecting on deaths in the family, mentioned that she believes that consciousness continues after death (and pre-exists birth).

"tombs" consist of  400 40cm. squares
 arranged in a grid pattern

stone pagoda and
tombstone grid
        A couple days ago, while out in the country looking at plum blossoms, we came across a structure that was shaped like an unusually tall five-step stone pagoda. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be a new style cemetery that I though was pretty avant garde compared to a traditional Japanese cemetery.

        The business of dying, like the business of living, is in a constant state of change. I don't know who said it first, but I am fond of saying that change is the only constant in life—and who knows about after that? At any rate, dying is a big business here in Japan and it can be very expensive.

typical traditional family tomb
either refuse or deliberately
placed favorites of the deceased
        If you opt for a traditional Buddhist funeral and a traditional cemetery plot and tombstone it will cost several thousand dollars; the exact cost depending on how much of a splash you want make in the neighborhood. One item surprised me when I first heard about it. You have to have a special “name” that is supposed to facilitate your journey to the Pure Land. But you have to pay for it. That's bad enough, but there are different prices for the names—the more you pay for your “name” the easier your journey and entrance will be. Not to mention that all the neighbors can tell by the name how much you paid for it. Of course, they can also tell by the magnificence of your tombstone how much you paid for it, too. Yes, dying is all about status here in the land of Wa.

kotsuage - picking the bones ceremony
        Cremation is the norm in Japan. There is simply not enough land to spare for burial of the entire body. I thought cremation left nothing but ashes, but I received quite a shock when my father-in-law died and I attended my first Japanese funeral some years ago. The family had accompanied the body to the crematorium and were all waiting around chatting and eating and drinking and smoking while ojii-san was being cremated. One of my cousins-in-law was gleefully correcting my mistaken belief that we would get a nice urn of clean ashes when the process was finished. He was clearly enjoying my sense of shock at hearing that the skeleton would be relatively intact when they wheeled the still hot smoking gurney out of the oven...and that we would ritually be picking up pieces of bone with a set of large bamboo chopsticks and dropping them into the urn--known as (kotsuage - 骨揚げ) in Japan.

        Well, I don't know if consciousness continues after death. I certainly hope ojii-san wasn't conscious while we were picking his bones! But, I've heard of a better way of dealing with post-cremation bones. You can have them turned into diamonds. Imagine your surviving loved ones wearing you on their pierced ears or flashing a 2-carat diamond on their finger and saying: “Oh, yes, this is my late husband.” Better than moldering in the ground I say. And, you may or may not be conscious, but people will certainly be conscious of you as a beautiful diamond.

Joey in the Sky with Diamonds

* Life the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Getting Reacquainted 16 -- Plum Crazy

 a few early open plum blossoms

avant garde cemetery veiled by plum trees -
ephemerality and inevitability
     When people think of Japan, they invariably think of the delicate pink snow of cherry blossoms in Spring. But, when you've lived here long enough and the winter chill has pretty much penetrated to your bones, it isn't the cherry blossoms that gladden the heart but the earlier plum blossoms—the real harbingers of Spring If the cherry blossoms symbolize the ephemerality of life, the plum blossoms, for me, symbolize its inevitability.

just peeking out
       When the plum blossoms begin to peek out of their hard little red shells like a white pupil in a red-rimmed eyeball, before they grow into a field of whites pearls against a cerulean sky, you feel drawn like a magnet out of the house and into the country to see them and smell their delicate scent that seems to announce the reawakening of nature from the gray tomb of Winter.

white pearls seem to dance gaily under a blue sky

small arrangement with
left over material
       There are many plum trees within walking distance of our home, one right across the street. It blooms a little earlier than the others since it is directly in the sun and tells when it's time to go plum viewing. During a walk in the area a couple days ago we cut a plum branch and did a seasonal Ikebana in our genkan (entry) in a conventional style. I posted a photo of it in my previous post.

       Today we decided to venture farther afield and went to see if we could see any plum blossoms at one of our favorite nature viewing and walking spots, the “Temple of the Dragon Waterfall” known locally as Ryusenji. The temple is at a higher elevation in the mountains than here, consequently the plum blossoms are still mostly in the pearl stage, but a few of the flowers were fully opened. Even that way, though, they make you feel that Spring is definitely arriving. And that's not a trivial thing...

mostly tight buds, but imagine this beautifully
shaped plum tree in full bloom--maybe in a week or two

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Looking Back: 23 – a new Renaissance

original Broadway poster
     Even through tumultuous times everyday life goes on and so it did during my years at UMass. The university was a place that I had been missing without really knowing it. I was, frankly, something of a misfit in my previous life choices. But, here in the university I thrived in a socially and intellectually stimulating atmosphere. It fit, I belonged here as I had not belonged anywhere else before as a young adult. I met people who thrived on ideas without sacrificing the emotional component attached to them. Ideas were emotions and emotions were ideas without the restriction of conventional norms and restraints. It was a remarkable sense of freedom and possibility that no slogans about those concepts could begin to compare. It was like coming home after being lost in a vacuum of conformity, like coming out of a musty closet full of last year's out of style clothes—stepping “out of the drab camouflage into the gaudy plumage” * of a new life. The pot and hash came in, the hair got longer, the clothes got funkier, the grades plummeted (temporarily), the music turned to folk and rock bands and rock operas, and friends were made for life and cherished. God! What a time it was!

        I was 26 in 1967 when I drove my Volkswagen bug to Amherst to begin my Junior year at UMass. I was assigned to one of the older dorms and was feeling a little self-conscious being surrounded by younger but more experienced college students. Attending evening classes at a junior college was a far cry from the world of a full university campus. The university housing administration may have taken that sense of awkwardness felt by older students into consideration in making roommate assignments, because my first roommate was also an older student and a veteran.

        At first it seemed like a good idea, but in just a short time it became obvious that we were not well-matched just because of our ages and military backgrounds. Just as I had been a non-conformist misfit in the Navy, my roommate was a misfit in college. It got to the point where I began to think he was a borderline psychopath, nervous, jumpy, angry and always grumbling about campus life. He seemed to idolize the military in retrospect. I tried to avoid him as much as possible until he eventually dropped out of school and I had the room to myself for the rest of the term.

lifelong friends from university days
        Around this time I met P and we became friends and began hanging out together. He told me about a group of people who got together in a discussion group and asked me if I'd like to attend a couple of discussions to see if I'd like to join. The university was gradually changing from below, from the grass roots with the growing counterculture movements happening on many campuses. Younger, more innovative, professors were attracting interested students to form their own courses outside the traditional course offerings. These discussions were informal and generally unstructured and not for credit, but were animated by interest and enthusiasm.

longer hair and other flamboyant...
...affectations of appearance
        After attending one meeting I immediately joined the group and met two young women, MD and J, who also became friends and who, along with P, have remained so through the years although we may not see each other for years at a stretch. In our meetings, we might discuss esoteric philosophical concepts, the latest advance in computers, how to build a geodesic dome, eat with chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant, build a campfire, you name it! I began to take a deeper interest in photography, while diversifying my formal course studies to include graphic arts, music appreciation, psychology along with my History major classes.

my roommate's wedding in the Berkshires
       I moved to a new dorm and met a new roommate in 1968. MB was also an older student, my age, and a Navy veteran. Although different in character and personality MB and I got along very well. At my invitation he also joined our discussion group and became an active and avid member. I was more or less fence sitting about the counter cultural changes going on all around me, but MB jumped right in, grew his hair and beard, brought dope into our dorm room and without much effort enticed me off the fence into the world of dope and folk music and a remarkable liberation of the spirit—and a neglect of formal classes and conventional university life. I felt really alive but my Major grades dropped to the C range while the more interesting elective classes stayed up in the A and B range. But, “Time it was and what a time it was, it was.” ** It was Aquarius *** rising and we seemed to be rising with a new age of unlimited possibilities, expanding awareness and changing times.

        Some of my favorite music from the era:

        Yes, the times they were a-changin', but not necessarily for the better.

* MacDermot, Rado, and Ragni, Hair
** Simon and Garfunkel, Bookends Theme
*** MacDermot, Rado, and Ragni, Hair

To be continued...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Second Anniversary

     It no longer hangs on a screwdriver. Yesterday, February 7, Central European Time, was the second anniversary of the day I broke my left femur bone as a result of losing my balance doing a yoga exercise. Surgery in Prague resulted in an implant of a titanium pin to stabilize the bone. After a few months of rehab exercises my leg seemed to be almost as good as new.

     Around this time last year, however, my left hip was giving me quite a lot of trouble after a summer of apparently full recovery and travel in Europe and I wasn't celebrating any anniversaries. Over a period of several months I consulted four different orthopedic doctors and was seriously considering surgery to remove the pin which seemed to be causing inflammation and discomfort where the metal met the muscle. The problem was that the doctors here in Japan didn't know what screwdriver to use to remove the pin that they were not familiar with. 

     There ensued a farcical attempt, through email and snail mail, to get the information from the hospital in Prague where the surgery was done. I described this situation in a series of posts entitled It All Hangs on a Screwdriver on this blog at that time. Finally, a friend in Prague went directly to the surgeon who had done the operation and got the information. But, the surgeon here was still skeptical and dissuaded me from having the pin removed. (I was dissuaded because I no longer had any confidence in the surgeon, and preferred not to be cut by someone I didn't feel comfortable with.)

     As a result of that and because of my own inclination to take care of my own body I decided to work at improving the condition of my hip through exercise. Although the hip is not 100% of what it used to be, and being cautiously optimistic, I believe that it has strengthened further as a result of concerted and concentrated strengthening, flexing and stretching exercises plus walking almost daily and swimming once a week. I have reached the point where I can lie on my left hip reasonably comfortably (I couldn't do that without pain before), can walk for longer periods with less fatigue and can do a passable Lotus yoga posture. Of course, I'm keeping my fingers crossed . . . and doing my exercises religiously. But, for now, voila. . .


Monday, February 2, 2015

Looking Back: 22 – Transition

     In a way I had the “good” fortune of being sandwiched between two wars (Korean and Vietnamese) so that my expenses-paid-see-the-world and draft-avoidance-inspired decision to join the Navy (I couldn't see myself crawling through the mud holding an AK-47 over my head) in 1959 was by and large “peacetime” service (except for the major annoyance of the Cuban Missile Crisis when my long-awaited release from active duty was suspended for the duration). There was no GI Bill for Tuition Assistance for 'tweeners' when I was released (thankfully on schedule and sans nuclear holocaust) from active duty in 1962. I paid the tuition for my classes at Worcester Junior College out of my own pocket. Tuition costs hadn't yet gone through the roof in those days.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA
        A GI Bill for Tuition Assistance for my category was passed by Congress during my third year attending WJC. If I could get accepted at an approved four-year institution it would be possible to quit working and attend full time for a couple of years. I applied to Northeastern University in Boston and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. UMass had the double advantage of accepting all 54 of my junior college credits plus a Massachusetts State living allowance assistance for veterans. All systems were go for being able to earn a Bachelors Degree within two years, so I quit my job at Colonial Press and headed for Amherst in the Fall of 1967.

        I was some five years older than most of my classmates, most of whom had entered university right out of high school. Having had prior military service when I matriculated I was not directly threatened with the military draft that was disrupting the lives of many of the young males at the university. By then the full horror of the daily body counts on television, both Vietnamese and American, was in abundant evidence. Students were becoming radicalized, joining the anti-war movement, demonstrating with sit-ins and some taking the desperate measure of going to Canada to avoid the draft. Still others felt it their patriotic duty to support the war. Campus splits began to show in wearing apparel, music preferences, preferred forms of entertainment and intoxicants. You couldn't be on campus in that time and remain on the fence. Perhaps only in sympathy and inclination, but you felt compelled to lean one way or the other. For me it was a no-brainer, although not personally threatened by the draft, my sympathies lay with those who were and who opposed the war on moral, not ideological, grounds. Sadly, the disastrous and enduring results of that ill-starred conflict continue to foment global chaos and erode the fabric of our society in violence and fear today, but I do not intend to dwell on that.

To be continued...