Dancing for the Dead

Two Little Girls in Kimonos Dancing to Honor Their Ancestors

Two Little Girls in Kimonos Dancing to Honor Their Ancestors

This last weekend, as in most years, Martine and I attended the Obon Festival at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. It is a joyous affair, especially when one considers all the dancing is to honor one’s ancestors who have passed on to the other side. According to Japan-Guide.Com:

Obon is an annual Buddhist event for commemorating one’s ancestors. It is believed that each year during obon, the ancestors’ spirits return to this world in order to visit their relatives.

Traditionally, lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the ancestors’ spirits, obon dances (bon odori) are performed, graves are visited and food offerings are made at house altars and temples.

In West L.A., aside from services in the temple, which we didn’t attend, most of the festivities revolve around good eating and the traditional bon odori dances. Present were Japanese from over a dozen nearby Buddhist temples from as far away as Oakland and Visalia. Many Japanese go from one temple to the other during the multi-week Obon celebrations. As separated old friends from different areas greet one another, it adds to the gaiety of the dancing.

As I have written before, my favorite food item is the pork udon noodle soup on which I sprinkle some Shichimi Togarashi, a Japanese red chili powder with black sesame seeds and various herbs and spices.

Goes Great with Udon Soup!

Goes Great with Udon Soup!

In all, I had two bowls of the stuff, which made me feel downright good about my ancestors and happy to be there at the Obon festival. I hope to continue going until such time as I join my own ancestors.


Favorite Actors: Raizo Ichikawa

Raizo Ichikawa in His Role of Kyoshiro Nemuri

Raizo Ichikawa in His Role of Kyoshiro Nemuri

The most famous Japanese actors appearing in samurai pictures are Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai. There is also a third name, far less familiar to American audiences: I am thinking of the late Raizo Ichikawa (1931-1969), star of jidai-geki productions from the Daiei Studio.

My favorite character he played was that of Kyoshiro Nemuri, a.k.a. “The Sleepy Eyes of Death,” a Japanese born of a Christian father during a black mass, He is also referred to as a Son of the Black Mass. In his films, he regards the Christians baptized by the Portuguese as hypocrites.

His signature sword move was the Half-Moon Cut, against which his opponents were all but powerless. Note the strange cross symbol on his costume.

Raizo as Kyoshiro Nemuri

Raizo as Kyoshiro Nemuri

Now that I am semi-retired, I would like to pick up as many of the Kyosiro Nemuri films as I can find. It wouldn’t be too difficult, but I would definitely need English subtitles.

During the 1960s and 1970s when I went downtown with friends to the Sho Tokyo and Kokusai theaters (which played nothing but Daiei films) on an almost weekly basis, I always considered myself lucky to see Ichikawa in any role, but especially as Kyoshiro Nemuri. The directors of the series included such names as Kazuo Ikehiro (the best), Kenji Misumi, and Issei Mori.

Unfortunately, Daiei and most of the other Japanese studios disappeared during the obscene run-up in real estate values from 1986 to 1991. More’s the pity. During the 1960s, I believe that the best films that were being made anywhere were the Japanese samurai pictures. And Raizo Ichikawa was, to my mind, the best of the actors.

Unaccustomed Cool Breezes

Burton W. Chace Park in Marina Del Rey

Burton W. Chace Park in Marina Del Rey

As the siege of hot, humid weather continues throughout Southern California—fed by moist monsoonal clouds from Mexico—it behooved me to find someplace where I could be cool. There is one odd little park in Marina Del Rey which is on a small peninsula surrounded on three sides by boat channels.

For some reason which I cannot understand, even on the hottest days of the year, a cool breeze is always blowing. On Sunday, Martine and I spent several hours there with Bill and Kathy Korn. Today I went by myself, taking a new Santa Monica Big Blue Bus line (the #16) that takes me from within three blocks of where I live to within three blocks of the park for a measly half dollar.

Once there, I found myself a bench in the shade and proceeded to read Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation by Laura Silber and Allan Little, and also parts of a Henry David Thorough essay called, simply, “Walking.” I had my earphone and MP3 player as well and enjoyed a concert of Peruvian folk music.

It was, altogether, a good afternoon. I must do it again a few more times this summer.


“I Hate That Kind of Guy”

Emile Griffith Kills Benny Paret in the Ring on March 24, 1962

Emile Griffith Punches the Life Out of Benny Paret in the Ring on March 24, 1962

I have just finished Norman Mailer’s essay for Esquire about the third Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston match on September 25, 1962. It was entitled “Ten Thousand Words a Minute.” As Patterson was knocked out a couple of minutes into the first round—so quickly that there was widespread disagreement about the number of punches that connected—Mailer wrote mostly about the coverage of boxing by the press and other matches.

What I remember most about the essay was Mailer’s description of an earlier match, between Emile Griffith and Benny Paret in March of that year. There was a lot of bad blood between the two boxers. Paret was on record as saying “I hate that kind of guy. A fighter’s got to look and talk and act like a man.” At the weigh-in before the fight, Paret touched his opponent’s buttocks and called him a maricón, in English:  a “faggot.” Griffith was enraged.

Mailer ruminated on the confrontation:

The accusation of homosexuality arouses a major passion in many men; they spend their lives resisting it with a biological force. There is a kind of man who spends every night of his life getting drunk in a bar, he rants, he brawls, he ends in a small rumble on the street; women say, “For God’s sakes, he’s homosexual. Why doesn’t he just turn queer and get his suffering over with.” Yet men protect him. It is because he is choosing not to become homosexual. It was put best by Sartre who said that a homosexual is a man who practices homosexuality. A man who does not, is not homosexual—he is entitled to the dignity of his choice. He is entitled to the fact that he chose not to become homosexual, and is paying presumably his price.

In fact, Griffith was bisexual. He designed women’s hats. But at that particular time and place, he was inhabiting his own closet. He came into the ring for blood, and in the twelfth round, he took his revenge:

In the twelfth, Griffith caught him. Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him eighteen right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin….

And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,” and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him. He began to pass away. As he passed, so his limbs descended beneath him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.

Paret was rushed to the hospital in a coma, where he died ten days later without ever regaining consciousness. You can see the climax of the fight on YouTube:

The Fall of Rome

Cole Thomas’s “The Course of Empire”

Cole Thomas’s “The Course of Empire”

That’s the title of this poem by W. H. Auden, dedicated to his friend Cyril Connolly:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

The Fisc refers to Britain’s tax agency, also known as The Inland Revenue.



Fast and Furious

Too Many Tragedies

Too Many Tragedies in Too Short a Time Frame

It seems that flags have been at half mast for so long— beginning with the Dallas police shootings—that one no longer knows which disaster is being commemorated. With the 24-hour news cycle, the shootings are coming fast and furious, and the border between events is being blurred.

When one big news event happens, it triggers a news orgy in which the particular story fills all the news time until it is abruptly replaced by the next disaster. I cannot help but think that all the breaking news stories work on the minds of disturbed individuals, making them think that a mass shooting would be a good idea.

I don’t think the perpetrators do it with suicide in mind, but, hey, their minds don’t work all that well anyhow. The San Bernardino shooters, for instance, thought they could stage a getaway. If one is unable to reason well, one gets a certain amount of magical thinking going that, once “the point” has been made, an escape path is possible. Killing multiple human beings with a Bushmaster, however, is so traumatic that it isn’t likely that the shooters could waltz out of the slaughterhouse they have created.

So I never ask why the flag is at half mast any more. It might as well always be at half mast. I wonder if the person who raises and lowers the flag even knows.


Euripides and Moderation in Love

The Greek Playwright Euripides (480-406 BC)

The Greek Playwright Euripides (480-406 BC)

On the Laudator Temporis Acti website, I ran into two quotes from Euripides which go a long way toward explaining the genius of the ancient Greeks.

From the David Kovacs translation of Medea, lines 627-641, comes these lines:

Loves that come to us in excess bring no good name or goodness to men. If Aphrodite comes in moderation, no other goddess brings such happiness. Never, O goddess, may you smear with desire one of your ineluctable arrows and let it fly against my heart from your golden bow!

May moderation attend me, fairest gift of the gods! May dread Aphrodite never cast contentious wrath and insatiate quarreling upon me and madden my heart with love for a stranger’s bed! But may she honor marriages that are peaceful and wisely determine whom we are to wed!

I am reminded of the truth of this observation from a birthday party I attended many years ago. An acquaintance whom I will not name, in the middle of all his friends, gave his bride thirty pounds of potatoes, one for each year of her life. Their love match had clearly turned sour, and the party broke up early after his shaming of his wife.

The next lines come from Euripides’s Iphigeneia in Aulis, also translated by Kovacs:

Blessed are they who with moderation
and self-control where the goddess is concerned
share in the couch of Aphrodite,
experiencing the calm absence
of mad passion’s sting. In love
twofold are the arrows of pleasure
golden-haired Eros sets on his bowstring,
the one to give us a blessed fate,
the other to confound our life.
I forbid him, O Cypris most lovely,
to come to my bedchamber!
May my joy be moderate,
my desires godly,
may I have a share in Aphrodite
but send her away when she is excessive!

I, too, could have been in this situation had the beautiful young pediatrician I was pursuing had turned around and acceded to my passion. But she didn’t, and I found someone better—though I did go through a few rocky years in the interval.


Serendipity: Just Try and Destroy Armenia!

Young Armenian Soldiers

Young Armenian Soldiers

The following is a quote from author William Saroyan, whose novel The Human Comedy I am currently reading. It comes from a short story called “The Armenian and the Armenian.”

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered. Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if the race will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.

I Am Disappoint

Poverty Certainly Abounds in Buenos Aires’s Villa 31

Poverty Certainly Abounds in Buenos Aires’s Villa 31

Yesterday, I did a little bit of research on travel in Ecuador on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree website. There I encountered the following complaint from a user called nemo_dat:

I’m a month into a two-month stint in Ecuador (enjoying a nice break between assignments). It’s my first time in South America and unfortunately I’ve been disappointed so far. I need to decide whether to stick it out in EC [Ecuador], go elsewhere in South or Central America, or perhaps cut the trip short and return home.

I’m having a hard time dealing with the air pollution, poverty, and sprawl. I’ve spent the past month in Quito and Cuenca. I left Quito because of the air pollution. I’m happier in Cuenca but was really looking forward to taking a scenic drive through the countryside today to see some unspoiled wilderness and breath fresh air. The scenery was nice in parts but my clothes reek of exhaust after spending the day driving. And while I saw some nice scenery I also saw some truly horrid buildings amidst the countryside.

I’ve been to several less-wealthy areas of the developed world, and while those places can be rough around the edges, I was easily able to find scenery and architecture to more than compensate. I just haven’t had the same “wow factor” in Ecuador.

I chose the Andes of Ecuador because I like mountain scenery and I’m not a fan of heat or humidity (not a beach person). But this isn’t working out. Are there places in Ecuador or elsewhere in C or S [Central or South] America I should consider?

I feel like an ass for saying it, but I think somewhere more “European” might be more in line with my preferences (I know that probably brings to mind Argentina).

Any advice on how to proceed is greatly appreciated.

Actually, I am rather sympathetic with nemo_dat: The fact of the matter is that some people are not cut out for travel in developing or undeveloped countries. Their curiosity is trumped by the discomfort factor, which can at times be considerable.

I had the misfortune to visit Yucatán in the early 1980s during a major heat wave and came down with some kind of tropical illness. I went to the front desk of the Hotel Cayre and asked them to send a recommended doctor, which they did—and promptly. He gave me an injection and wrote out a prescription, which I had filled out at a local farmacia. It did lead me to change my plans. I grabbed a flight to Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the State of Chiapas, high up in the Sierra Madres, and took a bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas, where it was reasonably cool at some 5,000 feet of altitude.

The complaint of nemo_dat is more about pollution and  a certain ratty quality prevalent in many if not most Latin American cities. Martine, for instance, complains bitterly about the broken sidewalks in Argentina and Mexico, which forced her to watch her step at all times. (In 1979, while watching for a break in the traffic at Insurgentes and the Reforma in Mexico City, I fell into a 10-foot ditch; so I can understand her.)

If that sort of thing is a problem, I suggest sticking to the mountains of the First World, like the U.S. or Canadian Rockies, the Swiss or Tyrolean Alps, or perhaps Australia. You’ll find a more “paradise-like” (translated: Disneyfied) environment there.

What you won’t run into there is the poor Aymara woman I met in Puno, Peru—now there’s a ratty city!—who was dragging around her home made knitwear. It was an icy morning at 12,500 feet altitude and I badly needed a scarf; so I bought one from her. She was so grateful that tears came to her eyes, and she stroked my arms as if I were a favorite family member.


On Guidebooks

Occasionally Useful, But Not as a Crutch

Occasionally Useful, But Not as a Crutch

In my forty years of travel, I have run the gamut from slavish reliance on the accommodation and restaurant information in guidebooks to merely supplemental use. When I first went to Yucatán in 1975 and Britain in 1976, I was frankly afraid to go to a place that was not blessed by the footsteps of thousands of tourists before me. Then, little by little, I began to take chances. When I discovered that taking pot luck was no worse than strict adherence—which, in any case, was impossible in those early pre-Internet days when one took one’s chances. Also, I found myself meeting more interesting people.

Now, when I go to South America, I’ll take a Lonely Planet guidebook such as the one illustrated above with me—but mostly for the maps. One cannot always get to the tourist office in time for their freebie maps, and sometimes those freebie maps are not very good.

For accommodations, I now use TripAdvisor.Com more frequently (and I review for them as well). Even the reviews in TripAdvisor have to be taken with a grain of salt, as the world is full of whiners and kvetchers. As for restaurants, I have a number of rules of thumb that have never let me down:

  • Don’t go where all the tourists go, especially if they are backpackers
  • Better restaurants are usually on side streets a bit off the main beaten path
  • If the menu is not in the language of the country you’re in, walk out
  • The best restaurants are usually fairly crowded
  • Eschew all signs of snobbery

I suppose if I were just starting out on my travels, I would probably clutch my guidebook as if it were a life preserver in a storm. But I now know that it’s best to travel by what I call Mexican Rules: Be alert, be willing to switch gears at a moment’s notice, be skeptical.

When my brother and I went to Villahermosa in 1979, we couldn’t find any decent places to stay, because they were all block-booked by oil executives and workers. So we stayed in a miserable little Casa de Hospedaje (which my brother pronounced as “Casa de Hopes-You-Die”). Then we spent hours looking for the bus station, which was not where the guidebook said it was. Finally, we just called a taxi and had it drive us to the brand new bus station on the outskirts of time. Finally, the dinner we had was wretched: My brother’s shrimp had tar on it.

Dan and I enjoyed that trip anyhow: We had a lot of war stories associated with it.