The Omen

January 22, 2019

Two weeks ago I did something out of the ordinary. I got my hammered dulcimer out of the closet under the stairs where, Harry Potter-like, it had been concealed for 25 years, a creature of long neglect. A few minutes later I had located the tripod that supported it, two hammers, and a tuning wrench. I tentatively struck this string and that, slowly relearned some of the note patterns on each bridge, the locations of scales, and to my utter astonishment, music not only came out, the dulcimer was still mostly in tune. You are a wizard, Jim Fyhrie! You built instruments to last.

After noodling around in different ways for 20 or 30 minutes I screwed up my courage and went hunting for the Big Blue instruction book that had guided my hands 33 years ago. The bookshelf in my office? No. The attic? Not as far as I could see. (One always needs to hedge their bets when it comes to our attic.) Other bookshelves? The piano bench? The music basket next to the piano? Zilch. And so, after the initial rush of inspiration had worn off, the dulcimer went back into its case (but not back into the closet), the tripod was folded up next to it, and I began contemplating my next move.

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August 1, 2018

I have always wanted to know how things work. It has almost been like an addiction and it drove me into college thinking that I should study physics and learn how things really work. That fragile bubble didn’t survive my first quarter of college, a casualty (in part) of my extremely weak high school math-physics background, but the desire to know how things work survived and it was never limited to the physical sciences.

So last April I opened 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann, a big, thick book that my brother (bless his heart) had sent me for a birthday some years past, and I began to dig in. I say “began” because the task was a daunting one. Mann’s book is so stuffed with dates, names, places, and stories that it has a heft and girth that make it stand out on my shelf of “light leisure” reading. I had to think twice before shoving it into a bike bag or briefcase. But even though it got left at home more often than not, this wasn’t a necessarily bad outcome. The book was large enough that I couldn’t easily buried it under other papers or forget where I had laid it. So after four short months (and many detours into other books and magazines) I turned the last page. Hurrah!

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The Ladies’ Got Game

July 27, 2018

Three months ago I dog-eared an article in the 16 April 2018 issue of The New Yorker, “Game Plan” by Louisa Thomas. The article asks the question, “How far can Becky Hammon go in the N.B.A.?” For the uninitiated, sometimes basketball fan like me, this question makes no sense. Women don’t play in the NBA so what are we talking about? But as I read the article I learned that Rebecca (Becky) Lynn Hammon, who had been a WNBA star point guard and had played for the Russia in the Olympics, had also been hired by Greg Popovich, the legendary coach of the San Antonio Spurs, to be one of his assistant coaches. Could Hammon become the NBA’s first female head coach one day?

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July 26, 2018

Quiet by Susan Cain is a self-help book. This is not at all my favorite genre (I’m going to excuse the thick stack of spiritual reading I’ve done in the past two decades) so why did I read it? The short answer: for work. I teach a large class every fall and I ask my students to do group work during class. I had noticed from the beginning that students responded to this in different ways, ranging all the way from “let’s go!” to quiet acts of resistance such as not engaging in discussion with others, and not infrequently moving one’s chair an extra 8-12” away from the rest of the group. I had not been prepared for resistance so I asked a mentor for advice and she directed me to Quiet.

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A Legacy of Spies

July 18, 2018

A Legacy of Spies is John le Carré’s latest, and most likely final, installment in the George Smiley series. The novel is set more or less in the present so the main Circus characters of previous books – George Smiley, Control, Bill Haden, Jim Prideaux, and Alec Leamas – are either dead or long vanished into the mists of retirement. This is even true of the story’s main character, Peter Guillam, who appeared in earlier novels as a young delivery boy/can-do assistant/and possible (some day in the future) disciple to George Smiley. Peter (Pierre, Pete) is long retired too and living on the marginally sustainable family farm in Brittany that had been his childhood home before WWII. A letter arrives from his old spy service demanding that he return to Britain at once to render assistance (what kind? to whom?) and for reasons financial and legal, he dare not refuse. Then, once he has presented himself at Circus HQ, he becomes the classic “captured spy”, susceptible to imprisonment, torture, being “turned,” escape, and God knows what else.

To reveal more about the story would be telling. So I won’t.

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“Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.”

This greeting, the opening sentences of Ruth Ozeki’s novel, give no hint of the darkness that lies on the greeting’s other shore. Nao, a Japanese teenager, speaks from the pages of her diary, and will on the very next page unveil a young life filled with shame and torment. Her parents, the love-hate pillars of many a teenager’s life, are emotionally distant and dealing with their own not-so-private suffering. The friends that Nao had grown up with during her Silicon Valley childhood have, after Nao’s sudden return to Japan, dropped her in two or three taps on their Facebook pages.

But Nao’s diary is not simply a diary of hurt. It is also the slowly unfolding story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, “a nun and a novelist and New Woman of the Taisho era” and Nao’s growing relationship with Jiko. (Two footnotes accompany this text in the book. Footnotes in a novel? Odd, but their presence cheers me. For the past 6 months I have been adding one footnote after another to the book I am currently working on. I tell myself, practicing my side of a debate that I expect to have one day with my impatient co-author, that if a novelist can write a footnote-sprinkled bestseller, surely two computational chemists can plant footnotes in their textbook?)

Jiko’s presence, her story, and even her teachings on zen, will save Nao eventually. I say this with fingers crossed, glancing at Jizo in the corner, but I can’t really know for certain because Nao’s diary has a story of its own. It has washed up on the British Columbian coast of Canada, part of the great wave of tsunami debris that washed up on North American beaches in the years following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. (A fair bit of this ocean debris, Japanese-lettered fishing floats, packing containers, and more, greeted my wife and I on several of our walks along the beaches between Arch Cape and Cannon Beach, but we haven’t seen anything new for a year or two now.) The diary was kept in a plastic Hello Kitty lunch box (probably as a hiding place and not as a message in a bottle), and the lunch box has done its job, immaculately preserving the diary within. Has time been as kind to Nao as it has been to her diary?

Nao’s diary is rescued by Ruth, a novelist living along Canada’s sparsely inhabited Pacific NW. Torn by Nao’s predicament, Ruth turns amateur sleuth, trying to find Nao’s whereabouts, even navigating her way between the different universes imagined by the many-worlds version of quantum mechanics. (Even without a nod to quantum mechanics, I can identify with Ruth. Like her, I live in the coastal zone of the Pacific NW. My sights and smells, my weather (and the wardrobe that comes with it), the seasonal rhythm of my life, are almost the same as hers. And like her, I have a book to write and I routinely neglect this responsibility, filling my time between waking and sleeping with other tasks, almost any purpose-driven activity really, that sticks its head up and says, “deal with me – I’m important.”)

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The Small Batchelor

June 8, 2018

Sabbatical. The 7th year stretch in a professor’s life. A chance to catch up on sleep, eat healthy, and (more to the point) see my doctors about all of those nagging aches and pains, little and large, that I have been neglecting.

This summer I resolved to do more than the usual amount of light reading so I wandered over to the Manzanita (North Tillamook) library’s annual book sale and grabbed a stack of books. $12. Top of the stack, a 47-year-old ragged paperback copy of The Small Batchelor by P.G. Wodehouse. I had no great hopes or expectations except for this: that this little story would help me start my summer as I had so many times before (see Jeeves in the Offing, Aug 2011) by sliding down a drainpipe, evading the clutches of the law, fruitlessly pursuing the course of true love, only to have all my troubles resolved in the most unlikely way at the last possible moment.

The pleasure of Wodehouse, of course, lies in the language. His words are like the foam on a latte (at least, that’s what I imagine my wife feels as I watch her sip; coffee drinks never touch my lips). Light. Delightful. Mostly air.

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Hidden Figures

May 30, 2018

Hidden Figures, the movie, had been fun. The American Dream, complete with heroes, come true. After we saw the film my wife went right out and bought the book. Read it immediately. Told me, “read it!” Or that’s what I imagine she would have told me if she hadn’t spent nearly three decades dusting around my stacks of unread books, magazines, and papers. I think what she actually said was, “are you interested in reading it?” and that’s how Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, found its way onto one of my stacks.

Did I say the movie had been fun? It was exhilarating! And the book’s front cover, which I think had been the advertising poster for the movie, called out to me. Three confident, smart, accomplished, and determined African-American women striding across the NASA seal as a rocket blasts skywards in the background. Who could resist a story like this?

And never mind entertainment. This is history. True stuff. It’s a sad fact that we live in a time when the occupant of the White House tells us that most of the news we hear, that is, any news that doesn’t flatter him or his beliefs in some way, is made up. Well, the stories in Hidden Figures weren’t made up (the movie does take some liberties) and the book is a highly readable piece of scholarship containing documentation, names, dates, and locations.

Related links:

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Zen at War

May 22, 2018

It should go without saying that when you join or start something new, no matter how old and experienced you are, or how long it has been around, you don’t know squat about what you’re getting into. College, love, children. I didn’t know beans.

This goes for religion too. I’ve been a lifelong skeptic when it comes to spiritual matters (thanks, older brother!), so I always figured I couldn’t be fooled because I basically had no interest or faith. And I had tested this theory many times. Growing up in California in the 60’s-70’s-80’s I was surrounded by Hebrew school teachers, Jesus freaks, and New Agers. Ram Dass (then known as Baba Ram Dass) and Werner Erhard each spent several days on my tiny college campus trying to get our attention. But wherever I bumped into a guru, I took a look, pressed my “that’s crazy!” button, and moved on. So I didn’t think I was “joining” anything when I began practicing meditation a decade ago.

Update: Just saw a review for an entire book on this very theme, “Bow First, Ask Questions Later” by Gesshin Claire Greenwood.

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A few years ago some brilliant soul decided that an annual Miyazaki film festival would draw big crowds of Portlanders looking for somewhere to go on a rainy night. Better than being brilliant, they were actually right. Miyazaki turns them out, old and young. In some years we have even had 2 or 3 different Miyazaki festivals sponsored by different groups.

My wife and I don’t actually need to attend any of these film festivals because we own nearly all of the Miyazaki movies on DVD. But somehow that doesn’t keep us from going to a theater each year to catch two or three on the big screen. A few weeks ago my wife and I visited the recently restored, and now non-profit, Hollywood Theater to see Howl’s Moving Castle. We had seen it before, of course. I’m not sure when or where we were first introduced to the story of the cursed wizard Howl and his variously cursed companions (in a land of witches, it is hard to see how anyone escapes being cursed), but I remember how I sat in my chair, confused, but delighted, tingling with that special pleasure that only certain movies produce. Years on, with several viewings behind me now, the movie’s plot has become more predictable, but no less confusing, and that special pleasure is just as intense.

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