And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Only in My Dreams
I have been restless at night the past couple or three days --that supermoon perhaps disturbing my sleep-- the moon that I wasn't able to observe because the weather is rainy and cloudy, which also makes my arthritic wrist ache, giving me an excuse to avoid housework (not that I need an excuse). They said the moon--like a new and improved product--would be 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than usual, in a display that hasn't been seen! This is almost as underwhelming as the announcement of the new thinner iPad (way too much like yin hygiene advances) sporting two useless cameras (to me anyway) and nothing else much different. Same old moon. Same old iPad. (I'll wait to upgrade when there's a real USB port and Flash, thank-you. But do I love the one I have. A shame I forgot to take it and its 3G connection with me to the office when the IP network connection went down last week.)

There has been an unusual correlation of full moons with solstices and equinoxes this year. I didn't realize that until I noted that today is the vernal equinox, a moment of perfect (solar) yin/yang balance. The emphasis of the yang full moon must be what has made me itchy and plagued by dramatic dreams. (Surely earthquakes and tsunamis and nuclear disaster and escalating war activities in the Middle East have nothing to do with it!)

Or it is my decision to return to China in May for what seems to be becoming an
annual qi adjustment? Assuming that Japan will not go completely out of control in a nuclear way, I am waitlisted for flights (routing through Korea, home of the ultra-attractive Song Il-Guk, right). My travel agent (not at right) was in hyper-crisis mode, dealing with exit flights out of Japan, refunds for cancellations of tickets. I am confident that my plan will work way or the other. Compared to all that is going on in the world, my ability to get a seat seems quite trivial. Life has its rhythms beyond my control; sometimes, like now, they are more dramatic and jazzy than others. It would be foolish to make a Tao-inspired trip and be anxious about it. Life is just one big waitlist anyway.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Causes and Effects

I'm it because I was watching CNN at 3 a.m. Friday, yesterday, in anticipation of the faint ripple of a tsunami that panicked Hawaii for a few hours, creating a school holiday and not much else. Is that why, as I am reviewing images of the devastation and ongoing threats of horrible destruction on Honshu in Japan (that recall images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), all I can do is alternate wiping my eyes with exclamations of "Holy shit!" and "OMG." A week after my little sake and shochu adventure, and days after my Ash Wednesday observance, reality bites. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Going with the flow?

When warning sirens went off around here at 10 p.m. Thursday, I turned off my wuxia drama to see what was going on. I'd heard about the Japan quake (and one in China too, on the Yunnan-Myanmar border) earlier, and paid attention to the warning. We are not in an inundation zone, so I just made a note to be alert at 3 a.m. when wave effects were expected. Titillated by the tidal surge in Japan, Hawaii people were out lining up for hours to buy gas and water and groceries just in case (even though we live in a hurricane prone zone and are constantly reminded to BE PREPARED with water, food, batteries, and first aid supplies). The Wizard was up monitoring the situation -- he had a responsibility to his organization -- but I just watched (rubbernecked). Observing the paltry local ripples on TV for a while, I went back to sleep, glad I was not a newsman interviewing a disaster specialist in the wee hours.

Which was was mildly entertaining. A geophysicist with the Tsunami Warning Center who was answering questions for the media kept going in and out of the building (which happens to be well within the inundation zone). At one point, looking jazzed on caffeine, finding some meaning in his life in the kind of excitement his profession studies but doesn't really want to see, he said, "I come back out here to talk to you because it's crazy in there." He was doing all he could to avoid saying "no problem" for Hawaii--it was up to the governor to finally announce that nothing was happening, and all the schools and clinics had closed for no reason.

The effect on me was just a restless night; the local consequences were all totally unrelated to the actual event. In the morning, our AT&T service was down. The Wizard's iPhone wasn't working and I confirmed that there was no service with my iPad. Probably too many people tweeting. Lesson learned: maintain the landline.

But now, trying to comprehend the devastation in Japan from the tidal surge across land I have flown over, terrain that always looks like a tidy model train layout, is overwhelming. All of the silly discussions and speculations I've been indulging in about politics and spiritual development seem a little trivial. History --or geophysics--repeats itself. And we are still at the mercy of nature, complicated by man's efforts to control it. No one wants to see this:
Scanning a Child for Radiation Effects

I would rather be reading Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things that Go with that child.

But not with these images, below, truly scary and speaking for themselves, not toybox clutter, and lacking the cute mice and cats and dogs in a world where nuclear reactors don't explode and kids have to be evacuated or pulled from rubble or found by sniffer dogs.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Po Me

Feeling very deeply the shift in cycles, I wonder if I will find time to visit a sanctuary of the Catholic variety to have ashes imposed on my forehead today. (I'm supposed to drop off taxes at the accountant's; his office is right next to St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral; I could have a death and taxes moment, and then visit Dragon Gate bookstore, where there is a Tai Seng sale going on.) Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite of the liturgical events in the traditional Christian calendar, kicking off 40 days of contemplation of what it means to live in the material world. (Miss you, St. George.)

I did not observe Mardi Gras last night, unless watching several episodes of Eagle Shooting Heros counts. (I'm up to number 20 of 50. Should get me through Lent.) I marked the waning moments of carnal indulgence over the weekend, unaware of the new moon that seemed to bring me out of a yin funk I'd been in for two weeks. I dined Saturday night with a Chinese friend, an aficionado of things Japanese, at a fine restaurant, enjoying delicate and tasty homemade tofu and a curious Japanese liquor called shochu. We had planned to go to an Okinawan restaurant which features impromptu folk singing and instrumentals by the owner, but alas, the new moon was being celebrated by a private party and we couldn't get seating. So off to Gazen Izakaya where we drank their shochu and sake, reserving my BYOB of Summer Snow, a nigori ginjo, for the next day. I've become fond of this white unrefined sake, shown here, which looks like the booze my mythical martial arts and wuxia heroes toss back while resting from sword fighting and inner cultivation, in quaint inns and outdoor pubs in various ancient dynasties. An Asian holy water, a milky sacrament brewed from water and rice! (Shochu is distilled.)

Last Friday, I noticed that the kolea, the Pacific Golden Plovers, my animal spirit touchstones for the workings of the Tao, are apparently also in tune with the yin-to-yang moon, beginning to change into their breeding plumage; their white yang stripe is developing, contrasting with new black feathers on their head and neckline. Are they also observing some kind of avian Lent before their return flight to Alaska by the end of April? Perhaps come Easter, I will toast their bon voyage with Red Stripe, the Jamaican beer. The first changing bird I saw was at the post office, the day of the new moon, (also my son's birthday) next to Honolulu International Airport; but last night, I also observed several in my own woodland residential complex.

With a clarity of mind brought on by fasting (mostly abstaining from alcohol and, I intend, the free cello-wrapped carbo-loaded snacks in the company kitchen unfortunately just outside my office), I wake early with thoughts of the pos and huns, the collection of Chinese souls which go their various ways at death. Our po souls --seven, or more, of them--are yin entities, and return to the earth; and our three yang huns make their way off to a celestial realm. The huns may join with new energies in a kind of recombinant reincarnation, or not, becoming immortal, depending on one's own spiritual progress through internal alchemy in the corporeal existence. This is esoteric Taoism. I can't speak for its truth, but the metaphors are appealing. This process of transformation takes 7 weeks, 49 days, a little longer than the Lenten fast of 40 days which culminates in Easter, the Western celebration of the success of the hun to overcome the material po.

At 5 a.m., it's easy to slip over the edge when thinking like this. (This is in fact the time I would be meditating in Wudang retreats; I should be now, but blogging is so compelling, and the sliver of waxing moon is obscured by dense cloud cover.) In the Catholic tradition, Lent is a time of reconciliation and preparation, a time to rise above our corporeal natures. This is traditionally done through prayer (maybe this is a prayer), fasting and self-denial. (I could use a slurp of nigori right about now; must go brew coffee.)

I am advised by a certain socially conscious Roman Catholic Brother that Lent is also properly observed, not merely in the "giving up" of something, but by "taking on" a task, or working on a positive character trait. I will look at those "happy" men--the Asian Jew, the Buddhist monk--about whom I just posted, for modeling behaviors: compassion, a sense of humor, and a long view, which I think I have to a degree, can always be ramped up. How easy it is to forgo the Summer Snow (at least a few days in); how difficult to actually change oneself and the world.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is a warning, from my Anglican Book of Common Prayer, to our po spirits. This is a time to work on our huns. And to remember, it's all metaphor for inner grace. With an outward sign of ash.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sleepy, Happy Hawaii

Just days after Hawaii was cited for being home to the sleepiest --or most sleep-deprived --people in the country, and months after Hawaii was once again determined to be the happiest state to live in (though Bhutan holds the global claim), as well as often the healthiest, we find the happiest man in the nation lives in Manoa, the neighborhood adjacent to the University of Hawaii.

A practicing Jew named Wong, with a nice house in one of Hawaii's nicest neighborhoods, he was selected by the following statistical criteria (by The New York Times, via Gallup):
"[H]e's a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year."
Introducing Alvin "Happy" Wong:

It's not clear to me that Mr. Wong knew he was the happiest man in America before he was contacted by the pollsters.

In any case, he has interesting competition. The happiest man in the world is thought to be Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, French translator and buddy to the Dalai Lama. He was scientifically proven to be happiest in clinical tests by the University of Wisconsin! He has some things to say about happiness too. It may be interesting to consider the traits Mr. Wong and the monk have in common. On the surface, it seems not too many, although both have a spiritual grounding.

That must be it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Searching for Life's Meaning

Dessicated Cicada, Dried Orange Leaves,
Water-worn Fragments of Temple Tiles*

How unusual for me, it's been three weeks since last I posted here. (Not counting a couple of weak movie reviews over on my Yin diary.)

For various reasons including dreary asthmatic weather, moderate illness (even missing a Chinese painting class), and career stress, I have been in quiet retreat with myself. (Still there was an opera, La Traviata, a girls' night out with nice food at Cafe Sistina and pretty music. But without the commitment of a pricey season ticket and female companionship --the Wizard was traveling so missed the Verdi--I might have forgone the show and the very fine martinis served amidst the faux-Michelangelo decor of the the Italian restaurant.)

I have been pensive these weeks, contemplating the meaning of life and vitality (thinking of my father's birthday last week, his 91st, had he not died four years ago)...and in part because my latest Teaching Company course is "Philosophy, Religion and The Meaning of Life,"** which was pretty much my major in college, enhanced by the very interesting available extracurricular activities of the late '60s.

The 18-hour audio course, which probably sets me up to be miserable on arrival at my day-job, is a classic survey of Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought and its implications, within a hero/saint framework (do we live for ourselves or others?) to consider the arguments of figures from Plato and Abraham to Jesus...and Marx, Darwin and Freud, ending with Simone Weil and Hollywood. Last night's lecture on my way home from work, number 20 of 36, on Nietzsche ("The Return of the Tragic Hero") seems to have put me back at the keyboard.

No Buddha or Lao Tzu or Confucius here: Asian thought, which also has much to say about my favorite question, was consciously left out of the course, the way the militant athiests today tend to intentionally ignore the Eastern religious traditions in their rants. The Asian tradition (and Islam) was also largely absent from my undergrad studies as well, except for one survey course on mysticism and the reading of Hesse's Siddhartha in some philosophy class. And the extracurricular decades-long borrowing of The Gospel of Ramakrishna from the humanities library. (I eventually returned it, and I'm sorry I did.) Now revisiting the Western body of thought has been from a somewhat broader perspective; for the past several years I have been deep in exploration of Asian thought, particularly Taoism.

The TC course has really pointed to nothing new for me; when I went to college, at a small "church-related" liberal arts school, it was imperative that we middle-class baby-boom provincials all take a Western Civilization seminar ("Great Epochs in World Culture") on arrival, and in addition, a course on Biblical History. These freshman prerequisites were to expand and correct the narrow views many of us graduated from high school with. There was also a senior concluding seminar called "Integration of Art, Knowledge and Conduct," that was to put the cherry on the top of our education. This was a last ditch effort to dissuade us from those inculcated narrow views. (The actual events of the '60s --civil rights movements, Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock and roll--were probably more effective than that last seminar. Experience was the best teacher, despite the occasional overdose, war casualty, or unintended pregnancy.)

No matter your major, these courses were mandatory. The school at the time distributed its curriculum in three "Divisions." Division One was the humanities (art, history, language, philosophy, theology and religion); Division Three was the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, math). Division Two was the blurry no-man's land, the interface, the "soft" sciences of psychology, sociology, political science and economics, anthropology and...home economics. (My first roommate was a home-ec major; she left the school after her sophomore year to go to a more "party-oriented" university with sororities. Last I heard, she had gotten a job with the Singer Sewing Machine Company.) Apparently this classic Aristotelian division of disciplines has since given way to career-oriented "tracks." As a Division One major (who, in my case, started out in biology but quickly left that world), what jobs could one get apart from continuing in academia or law school? Teaching, journalism (the outcome I was lucky to enjoy, for a time).

So there is a nostalgia as I enjoy the 36 lectures of "P,R & MoF." It is good to have a structured tour of this stuff that I once studied but have not thought of in an integrated way in years. (It must be the appeal of those "learning cruises," also aimed at the demographic the Teaching Company exploits--educated, reasonably well off old farts; nothing makes you feel alive and young like taking a course...without tests and papers. Not the person in the New Yorker cartoon who says to her travel agent, "I'd love to take a cruise, as long as I don't have to learn anything.")

I don't feel like writing a paper (or a blog post) on this course, although I may have something to say later on the hero/saint motif in contrast to Eastern icons. Sage/shaman? Son of Heaven/slave? Enlightened man/wandering ghost?

In any case, this driving study (Commuter Courses) gives me something to think about during the day, when I am bored and blinded by email, spreadsheets and voice messages. In meetings, I look for the heroes and saints (even sages or shamans) in hopes of finding meaning.

And in a saintly attempt, I will begin Lenten fasting come Wednesday, but more heroically to adjust my stagnant liver qi than to earn credit for suffering. I will be thinking about those martinis consumed amid the reproductions of Michelangelo's astonishing naked men at Cafe Sistina. Do I abstain from those martinis for myself or for others? That's a question of the meaning of life.

*I discovered this cicada (a Chinese symbol of immortality) in a brass hulu (bottle-gourd shaped vase, a magical tool in Taoism) I bought in Wudangshan. The tiles were gathered from a stream where fragments of destroyed temple walls had washed down, perhaps from Cultural Revolution damage. The leaves are from an orange that was given to me by an old Taoist hermit. I find some meaning in this "still-life" arrangement.

**Note: If you become a customer of the Teaching Company, which I highly recommend, you can ALWAYS get these courses substantially cheaper than the advertised retail price.