18 February 2024

Fourth Time's a Charm?


In fourth grade — or perhaps it was a fifth grade as my mind is a little hazy on exact dates — I started playing the clarinet. It wasn’t my first choice… It wasn’t my second choice… It wasn’t my third choice… In fact, it wasn’t my choice at all!

A few years before this time, my father had bought my mother a piano. To this day I’m still not quite sure why. I never actually saw her playing it and I wonder a bit if it was originally some kind of peace offering. But, whatever the motive, it eventually just became another piece of household furniture. However, not before I had to suffer through two painful years of piano lessons. To be fair, I’m sure the teacher disliked me less than I loathed my sessions with her. In hindsight, I can say that never took well to instruction. Maybe those two years had something to do with it.

Being a pianist at any level was not in my future, but I did eventually want to join the school band. So, dutifully, my mother took me to a musical instrument shop where the proprietor asked me what instrument I wanted. I said proudly — because I had been dreaming of this moment for days, if not weeks — I said: "A trombone!" He looked me up and down as if fitting me up for something uncomfortable, and drolly stated: “Your arms are too short.” Crestfallen I was. He then asked what my second choice was. Second choice? I had no second choice so sure I was of walking out of his stupid store with a brassily gleaming bazooka of a horn. But, suddenly it came to me: "A bassoon!" He looked at me dolefully and said “We don’t carry those in this shop.” Doubly crestfallen I was, but, waving away my disappointment, he persisted: “What’s your third choice?” What? A third choice…hmmm…okay "An oboe!" said I. Looking at me as if I was the biggest pain in the ass since that last kid who came into the shop, he exclaimed, with proper authority, “That’s too complicated for you.” I didn’t know what to say at that point and was on the verge of giving up when, he — ever helpful chap that he was — said “play this” and he handed me a clarinet. Mind you I have never had anything against the clarinet. In fact, I quite enjoy hearing it played, especially by somebody who can ... ah ... actually play it. But it was not my first, second, third, nor even my fourth choice and yet here it was: black and white with shiny polished keys and in my hands. Defeated but still glad I was going to join the band — at least for the next four or five years (again dates are a bit fuzzy) — my parents put up with my squeaking and squawking and squonking. Somewhere around the eighth grade I finally hung up my clarinet and added "professional musician" to "stand-up comedian," "football quarterback," and "astrophysicist" to my growing list of as 'careers I shall not pursue.' Sadly, perhaps, though for whom one is not quite sure.

Is there a moral to this tale? If there is, perhaps it is: rejection may build strong character, but not necessarily strong lungs nor a sense of rhythm. 

16 March 2016

Meglomaniacs and Monuments

...'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'... 
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

The preening and braying of the megalomaniacal have been well documented in stone and brick, concrete and steel from times Classical and Egyptian to Modern and Bombastic. Neither the so-called barbarous past nor the equally so-called civilized present have had a monopoly on the erecting of egotistical edifices. Indeed, for as long as there has been building, men (and men are the main offenders here) have been squandering their lands' resources -- human and otherwise -- in grand structures of self-adoration.

In the year of George Washington's first State of the Union address (1790), King Bodawpaya, sixth king of the Third Burmese Empire, began his vain-glory project at Mingun. Just a short eight years before, Bodawpaya had gained the crown by disposing his nephew. Sounds like a relatively mild transition, and this is the impression that one would have if your only source for history was Wikipedia. But dig deeper one must if one wants to get closer to the truth of things. In fact, Bodawpaya had his entire family -- men, women, children, babes in arms -- and their servants burned alive. Realize that Burmese princes and kings in those days had many consorts and consequently tens if not hundreds of children. (Bodawpaya himself had 62 sons and 58 daughters by about 200 consorts.) Therefore, we are speaking of an unspeakable number of relatives executed. So much blood was shed that he abandoned his palace at Ava (south of Mandalay) fearing that it had come under an evil spell. It had of course. One generated by him. Regardless, he shortly there after began a massive stupa and pagoda building program in order to acquire enough karma to ease his way to nirvana.

Bodawpaya was a fervent Buddhist who proclaimed himself the messianic Buddha destined to conquer the world. In this self-anointed capacity he ran a-foul of and set about persecuting the Buddhist community at large. He also made drinking, smoking opium, and killing animals punishable by death. Oh, and he built many pagodas and stupas.

In addition -- as every megalomaniac with power must do -- he had other peoples and lands to conquer. To the west he quickly toppled the Arakan empire and enslaved tens of thousands of people to labor on his grand karma-building scheme. He then looked east, got greedy and invaded Siam. However, the Thai warriors (or their leadership) were of a different caliber and Bodawpaya was chased back across his borders, to eventually start his mega-stupa project at Mingun.

Located a mere 11 kilometers from the royal capitol of Mandalay, the otherwise insignificant village of Mingun became the center of the Burmese world for seven years. Tens of thousands of unfortunates slaved away trying to fashion what would have been the largest stupa in the world. (A stupa is a reliquary monument.) The planned height was to be 500 feet but in 1797 one of Bodawpaya's astrologers proclaimed: "Once the great pagoda has been wrought, the dynasty will come to naught." Likely this "revelation" was fashioned in order to prevent the empire from further descending into catastrophic debt (vast sums of silver had been expended) as well as to quell a growing, restless population, tired of toiling for one man's karma. The stupa was left unfinished, a giant, 150 foot tall crumbling pile of bricks periodically rocked and fissured by earthquakes -- including a particularly vicious one in 1839, which also toppled the heads of the two gigantic royal chinthes (lion-like creatures) into the Irrawaddy River.

In a way, the prophecy of that nameless astrologer eventually came true. Bodawpaya's annexing of Arakan put the Burmese next door to India and the then expanding British Empire. Over the next 60-plus years, increasing friction between the cultures led to two wars and finally a third Anglo-Burmese War that Burma was never foretold to win. In 1886 Burma disappeared as a country not to re-surface until both the Japanese were defeated and the British packed up and went home: 1948.

Today, with a new president taking office and the military hopefully in permanent decline from political power, Burma -- since renamed Myanmar -- is a peaceful land to tour. Its widespread and impressive monuments are there for the exploring and viewing. Its history a more or less open book. 

Megalomaniacs come and go, varying by their relative degrees of atrociousness, but united in their solipsism. We never seem to stop spawning them as power and desire are an intoxicating and bewitching brew, especially so for those with no sense of history and a every sense of self. Trust too that today's Bodawpayas will bray and preen, conquer and build, eventually to go the way of all, with perhaps a monument or two for future travelers to wander through and photograph.

... Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Irrawaddy River Approach to Mingun
Rump-end of Earthquake-Damaged Chinthe
Entrance to the One Extant Shrine of Mingun Pahtodawgyi
Earthquake Damage of Bodawpaya's Stupa
South Facade of Bodawpaya's Stupa (Mingun Pahtodawgyi)
More Earthquake Damage
West Facade
Panorama View from Top of Ruined, Incomplete Stupa

The Irrawaddy River and the Rear Ends of Damaged Chinthes
Photo-Ops for Monks
Monks Just Wanna Have Fun, Too

27 August 2013

Takk Fyrir

I’ve written before about the importance of learning even just a little bit of the language of the country you are visiting. 

From a practical purpose, of course, being able to ask rudimentary questions as well as read the occasional sign helps one get from point A to point B. Additionally, the culture of a land and its peoples are wrapped up and bound by its dialects. Know a bit of a language and you are closer (if even marginally) to understanding a people. 

You also better represent your own country (remember: we are all ambassadors) if you don’t travel with the hubris of the colonizers. Did the 19th century British take the time to learn even a few of the Indian tongues once they conquered that sub-continent? Did the French, Germans, Portuguese, Italians and Flemish bother with the various African dialects when they part-and-parceled that diverse and sprawling land? Do we Americans – the current capitalist-consumer winners of the economic wars of the last 50 years – do we make the effort to understand a modicum of where we travel? Some do, of course, but most do not.

There is another upside to being able to communicate with the locals. One not centered on us. One that did not occur to me until my flight back from Iceland.

Icelandic – despite being an Indo-European language – is a difficult language to learn, much less master. This was our second trip to the far northern volcanic island and admittedly six years ago I did a much better job of studying up on the language before our departure, despite this time buying a new book and CD learning tool (more on this in another post). So, for this journey, I was equipped with just a few phrases.

A simple takk fyrir – thank you – was one of them.   

Seeing the momentary joy accompanied by a smile flick across the face of a waitress, an immigrations officer, the hotel receptionist, as I said takk fyrir was worth the small price to learn it. 

It’s a cost of admission we can all afford.

Rainy Scenes Seen Around Reykjavík...


27 April 2013

Travels with Oka-san | Acres of Sushi

Our second day in Tokyo is to be an abbreviated one as our evening destination is the shogunate shrine and burial grounds of Nikkō, slightly less than two hours by train north of the capital. But before jumping on that train, we rise early to visit the world's largest wholesale seafood market: the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market more commonly known as Tsukiji Market.

It's a relatively short walk to the Tsukiji area (Tsukiji means "reclaimed land" as the land was originally 'reclaimed' from Tokyo Bay in the 18th century) but first we need to work our way through the maze of modernity of Shiodome, once again. The sky is overcast, which lends a bit more of a leaden atmosphere to the looming skyscrapers.

If you get to Tsukiji (meaning the market, not just the area) early enough, around 5am, you can try to get in to see the tuna auctions. This is supposedly a scene worth seeing, where thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of maguro and toro are auctioned off. We are not there near early enough for that, but that's okay as there are over 45 acres of stalls, and tanks, and fish, and more fish to wander through and explore.

What a wonderful place and experience for fish lovers! Or, rather, for those that love to eat fish. A huge, swirling mass of activity confounds one at first. Small cars and forklifts zipping hither and thither all the while trying to avoid buyers with clip boards, vendors with handcarts, workers riding bicycles balancing boxes, and tourists with wide eyes and cameras. There clearly must be some order in the seeming chaos but I just let my eyes pull me along.

From clams to snails to eels (live and not), blowfish, shrimp and flash-frozen tuna, uni, tako, anago and ika and hotategai and things I have no idea what they are....it goes on and on and on. I take hundreds of photos and the more I wander, the hungrier I get. Nothing puts me off my growing appetite. Not the squirming baby eels and not the bloody maguro carcasses. Certainly not the fugu or kazunoko.

Our hunger finally gets the better of us and we venture to the outer market area where there are a dozen or so small (tiny, actually: 7-10 stools each) sushi restaurants. We have an incredibly fresh sushi breakfast. (Sound good to you? Perhaps not, but to this day, it is still one of the best and memorable breakfasts.)

Why does the market not smell of fish? It really doesn't. Could it be that because of the combination of extremely fresh, flash frozen, and packaged seafood, the thousands (tens of thousands?) of fish just do not have a chance to go off? That may be the case, but I don't want to test the theory in the midst of summer!

By late morning it is clear that the 1000's of workers are wrapping up for the day so we move on and eventually end up watching some kind of strange activities at an elementary school. Strange to me anyway. The children are all wearing white shirts and white caps with black shorts for the girls and white shorts for the boys. There must be different teams and what differentiates them are brightly colored gloves. There is some kind of quasi-organized, pseudo-choreographed jumping and hand-waving accompanied by lots of smiling and mugging and grinning. Then it is down to the serious business of running track. I can only speculate that the previous gyrations and gesticulations were a bit of cheer-leading. I can only guess.

Prior to heading to our hotel to gather up our belongings for the train ride, we briefly stop at the very Southeast Asia looking Buddhist temple of Tsukiji Hongan-ji. We didn't go inside, though it is supposed to nice.

It's been a bit of whirlwind Tokyo visit but with acres of sushi behind us — minus quite a few ounces in our bellies — we are ready to move to bright greens and lacquered reds of Nikkō.  

Shiodome Highrise

Shiodome Highrise

Shiodome Highrise

Mollusks and other Delicacies

Ikura, salmon roe

Clams, etc...tasty looking, no?
One of my favorites: Uni, or sea urchin roe

It takes two to wield a maguro bōchō

Buyers and sellers

Unagi...barbequed eel...ummmmmmm

It glistens, must be fresh but not sure what exactly it is

And yet more Unagi!

The expensive, deadly and supposedly very tasty fugu or puffer fish

Miles of fish aisles

Weave your way through the boxes

Colorful seafood goodness, packaged and ready to go

Gotta love that tako (octopus)

I think the difference in color indicates cooked (dark red) and fresh

I ate sea snails once at a sushi restaurant in Berkeley...an 'acquired' taste, shall we say

"Everyone act normal: the health inspectors are here!"

Ika (squid) or perhaps cuttlefish in their own ink

Flash frozen tuna

BIG tako

The hurdy-gurdy business that is tsukiji
Mind your fingers
It is big and serious business

Our breakfast spot

Another one of the small restaurants in the outer market

Directing tsukiji traffic

A local tsukiji elementary school

Too much fun, apparently

Not sure really but they are having a good time

Yes, and more of that hand-waving business

Check out the determination on these girls' faces
Tsukiji Hongan-ji

A fitting billboard end to our tsukiji experience