Traveling with Bashō

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) in a Print by Hokusai

I cannot help but see myself in this haiku by the great Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō:

Another year is gone—
A travel hat on my head,
Straw sandals on my feet.

Two weeks from today, I will be in Mérida, Yucatán, reacquainting myself with the world of the Maya. In many ways, Matsuo Bashō is the poet of travel. His book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is the ultimate vade mecum for a traveler. The record of a 1,500-mile journey through the main Japanese island of Honshu, it captures with great beauty and subtlety the joys and sorrows of a life on the road.

The sound of a water jar
Cracking on this icy night
As I lie awake.

The extreme conciseness of the haiku form can lead to poetry that is brilliant—or banal. One has to somehow put two ideas together (as the ice and the sleepless traveler) with an absolute minimum of embellishment. Ah, but when it succeeds!

On the withered grass
Shimmering heat waves rise
One or two inches high.

I will, as usual, travel with a blank notebook. I would love to compose haiku relating to my upcoming journey to Mexico. It’s possible, but, alas, not likely. Even though I don’t usually go out evenings (except in Mérida), I will probably find myself too busy reading from my Amazon Kindle, which is fully loaded with hundreds of works of literature and history.

 

 

Foreign Lucre

Painter Diego Rivera on Mexico 500 Peso Bank Note

Before visiting any foreign country, I always like to get a supply of banknotes in that country’s currency for the first few days of my trip. So today I headed to Bretton Woods Currency in Brentwood to pick up a couple hundred dollars worth of pesos. The act of handling another country’s currency is always a magical moment for me: I suddenly feel the reality of my impending vacation—in this case, exactly two weeks from today. I got three denominations: 500 Pesos, 200 Pesos, and 100 Pesos.

My favorite is the 500 Peso note, which shows painter Diego Rivera on the front and his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, on the reverse.

 

Mexican Patriots Miguel Hidalgo and José Maria Morelos on the 200 Peso Note

 

Nezahualcoyotl, Pre-Columbian Poety and Ruler of Texcoco

Above are the 200 and 100 Peso bank notes. I was intrigued by the figure shown on the 100 Peso note of Nezahualcoyotl, “Coyote Who Fasts,” who died some fifty years before Hernan Cortés landed at Vera Cruz with a party of conquistadores.

In the article on him in Wikipedia, I read the following interesting description:

Unlike other high-profile Mexican figures from the century preceding Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire,  Nezahualcoyotl was not Mexica;  his people were the Acolhua, another Nahuan people settled in the eastern part of the Valley of Mexico, settling on the eastern side of Lake Texcoco.

He is best remembered for his poetry, but according to accounts by his descendants and biographers,  Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl and Juan Bautita Pomar,  he had an experience of an “Unknown, Unknowable Lord of Everywhere” to whom he built an entirely empty temple in which no blood sacrifices of any kind were allowed — not even those of animals. However, he allowed human sacrifices to continue in his other temples.

Happy New Year [Insert Year]

The Calendar Is Nothing But an Overlay

In general, I am not big on public holidays. And New Years Day is probably my least favorite. In the past, I have tended to answer the usual enthusiastic “Happy New Year” with the off-putting, “Only a fool celebrates the passing of time.” I am no longer invited to New Years parties, but then none of my friends hold them any more.

Here I am, three weeks away from visiting an ancient society which depended heavily on the calendar (the Maya), while I tend to pooh-pooh the whole idea. I do not read any retrospective articles on the year that was or watch any TV programs that fill the same function; and I most certainly do not stay up past midnight to usher the new year in. I rather think the new year can usher itself in: It knows where the door is. I will not drink any cocktails, and I will probably be abed by 10 pm.

I have no particular feelings about 2019. It had its good points, and it had its bad points. Trump is still in charge of the White House and he hasn’t yet canceled the Bill of Rights. (Maybe this coming year….)

Politics has no magic for me. On one hand, elections involve people who make promises, but really want to exercise power and/or accumulate wealth. And even if my candidate wins, I will likely be disenchanted after a few months—because I forgot this simple fact.

If all this sounds deeply cynical, remember that I am a cynical person. I have seen some three quarters of a century pass by my eyes. There has been love, there has been despair, there has been failure, there has been modest success, there has been hope, there have been disasters. I came close to cashing in my chips in 1966, but I am curiously in fairly good health at the present moment—even if I can’t count on it to last.

So I will still wish you all a Happy New Year, but know that years are all ineluctably mixed. I think Spock had the best greeting: Live long and prosper.

 

Looking Back at Christmas

The Grier Musser Museum in Los Angeles

The Pico-Union District of Los Angeles is a tough neighborhood with heavy concentrations of Central American immigrants. Yet there on Bonnie Brae Street lies the Grier Musser Museum with its huge collection of antiques and seasonally related memorabilia. During the key holidays of Halloween and Christmas, there are fascinating exhibits of decorations, music boxes, pop-up books, greeting cards, postcards, and other popular culture highlighting the present and past.

Although Martine and I have visited only during those periods, there are also special exhibits for Valentines Day, Chinese New Years, and Independence Day.

Susan Tejada with Christmas Elf

On Saturday, we spent several hours viewing the Christmas exhibits and chatting with Susan and Rey Tejada, the owners (and inhabitants) of the museum. Christmas is now safely in the past, but it was nice to see the constantly growing exhibits that Susan has collected. They represent what we all want the holidays to be like, far from the mayhem in the parking lots and department stores in mega-malls which it has become. Visiting the Grier Musser Museum gives you a picture of what we all want Christmas to be like. It’s actually a nice feeling.

 

Reservations

Archway at Entrance to Santa Elena, Yucatán

I am frantically trying to get reservations to hotels in Yucatán—much later than I usually would. It is all due to the problem with my left knee. I wanted some assurance that it was not the beginning of a condition that might rapidly get worse. As a result, I am making reservations a month or so later than I usually would. Unfortunately, a lot of the places I wanted to stay have already been booked, even for such a small town as Santa Elena, which is midway between the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. I may have to spend big money to stay at the Hacienda Uxmal at the ruins, where I stayed twice before in 1975 and 1992—that is, if I can.

No doubt I will find something. It’s just a little more work than usual.

The Luxurious Hacienda Uxmal Across the Street from the Ruins

 

 

Favorite Films: A Christmas Story (1983)

Scott Schwartz as Flick and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie

It’s refreshing that a film produced as late as the 1980s has become a legitimate Christmas classic. Seeing it repeatedly has not diminished its appeal, even when seen in bits and pieces on TV channels that played the film for 24 hours straight.

The director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, is a filmmaker who has not produced anything else that comes up to the standard of this, his masterpiece. I have read Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and loved it. As good as the original story was, the film was better. The direction of the actors, particularly the child actors, was as good as anything I have ever seen.

Peter Billingsley Faces Jeff Gillen as Santa

There is another reason I love the film. Although the story is set in Indiana, scenes were set on Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent most of my childhood. I remember the Christmas parades there, and particularly the Christmas display windows at Higbee’s Department Store, which is clearly identified in the film. Other scenes may have been shot elsewhere, but most of the exteriors reminded me of Cleveland. Even Ralphie’s school looked exactly like Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten and half of first grade. (I never finished first grade, but let that be our little secret.)

If I were the one scouting locations for A Christmas Story in such a way as to reflect my own childhood, I would not have done any differently than the producers of the film. That’s why every time I see this film, I am taking a trip down memory lane.

 

Another Xmas Under the Belt

Wishing You a Glorious Etcetera Etcetera

I have seen a lot of Christmases. Like birthdays, they don’t seem to as magical when one is older. I celebrated Christmas Eve by spending five hours putting together a tasty beef stew, served with a crusty artisanal baguette and a bottle of Egri Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood of Eger”) Hungarian red wine. It was the best stew I ever made. I remember sometimes cooking myself a stew (accompanied with red wine) back when I was in my twenties and alone for the holidays. So it is a tradition of sorts for me.

Like my brother—though nowhere as good as him at it—I find cooking to be one of my favorite creative outlets. So I will translate this into a Christmas wish for those of you who come across this post:

May you and your loved ones find joy in what you do and with whom you share it, in the coming year and always.

What may or may not have happened in Bethlehem some two thousand plus years ago has cast a long shadow. I take from it some useful lessons, but not the whole package. I am content with that.