Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Leipzig it's brrrr

Coming to you from Germany, in Leipzig, and the Christmas Market. I'm grabbing my chance with some wonky wifi to show some photos.
In the cold we visited the war monument, biggest in Europe, and left via the Leipzig cemetery. Here were tombstones with the names of those lost in the 1945 air bombing of Leipzig tragically killing people just weeks before the end of the war. This woman with the cane had been eight years old and she remembered running to the underground shelters and how her home escaped fire but the two schools by it didn't.
Cara - Tuesday in Leipzig

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Mayan Long Count

Annamaria on Monday

Don’t worry I am not going to get all New Age and silly on you.  But I have always been fascinated by the calendar in use in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  It is way more sophisticated and accurate than our Eurocentric  culture would have us imagine.  And it may have something to tell us about what the world is going through right now.  Certainly the Mayans predictions have to be every bit as believable as your average recent political poll.  Perhaps more on target?

Note: I am going to use the term “Mayan” here to designate a wider group that includes many communities, like the Aztec and even contemporary  Guatemalan groups that used or still use a version of the Mayan way of counting the days , years, centuries, and millennia.

Second note: the Mayans counted in base twenty—perhaps when they counted they used their fingers AND toes.  Fear not, I am not going to speak vigesimally (i.e. base twenty) here.  After all I am writing for more people than just Michael, our resident mathematician.  Fortunately for me, researchers have already converted the calendar into base 10.

When thinking annually, the Mayans divided the year into 18-twenty day months, with a period of five days that had no name at the end.  They considered these days dangerous, because during them, the door between the realm of earth and of the underworld stayed open, and the evil gods could wreck havoc on mortals.

The part of the Mayan calendar that most fascinates me is called the Long Count.  For reasons no one seems to understand, the Mayans wanted to be able to predict things like the phases of the moon and eclipses thousands of years into the future.  By most calculations, they started the Long Count on 11 August 3114 BC (or BCE, if you insist), which relates to the beginning of human time in their creation myth.  They carved their dates onto stela with their fascinating hieroglyphs.


Scholars have translated the Mayan dates to the Gregorian calendar using astronomical, historical, and archeological evidence.  They are certain they have it right.   The Long Count told the Mayans when one b’ak’tun (creation) would end and when the next one would begin.

A few years back, on 20 December 2012, the world saw the end 13th  b’ak’tun and the next day the beginning of the 14th.  A lot of nonsense circulated at that time that the world was going to end.  Scholars of Mesoamerican culture pooh-poohed all that.   And they turned out to be right.  Since we are all still here.

In fact, the Mayans actually thought the change from one civilization to another something to rejoice over.

Another myth said that these cycles consisted of a period of order and calm followed by one of chaos and difficulty.  And that the last twenty-five years of one and the first twenty five years of next tended to be particularly difficult.

When I first learned about this myth, in the late 70’s, in discussing it with a friend, he thought we would be entering a periods of chaos in 2012.   My assessment was different.  “This past four hundred years or so don’t look like times of order and calm to me,” I said.  “I think we will be leaving chaos and entering order.”  I hope that thinking turns out to be true.  If so, once we get past the first difficult twenty-five years, things may just get a whole lot better.

Which would mean that Susan’s prayer (and mine) of yesterday just might come true by 2037.  If I am still alive then, I will turn 96, the age at which my father died.  I am not too keen on the current turmoil lasting for the rest of my life.  But then, 2012 saw President Obama—our first black President, resoundingly reelected.

Perhaps my hopes will be borne out.  That what we are witnessing now is the death throes of bad forces.  I pray.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Visit to Koya's Sacred Fire

-- Susan, every other Sunday.

In the film The Dark Knight, Batman's butler, Alfred (played by Michael Caine) says that some men's actions cannot be understood by reference to logical motivations.

"...some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money," Alfred says, "...Some men just want to watch the world burn."

These days, too much of the world seems poised to burn, and far too many people seem inclined to light the torch and fan the flames.

Today, however, we're going to light a different kind of fire.

The sacred fire of a Shingon Buddhist goma.

The goma, or fire ceremony, is practiced by the Shingon Buddhist priests as part of their regular morning observances. Some temples perform the goma daily; at other temples, observance is less frequent but no less a vital part of Shingon practice.

While visiting Mount Koya (the heart of Koyasan Shingon, one of approximately 18 Shingon denominations, or sects, worldwide) I had the chance to spend the night at two Shingon temples, Kumagaiji and Ekoin, and to observe the fire ceremony at each temple.

The front gate of Kumagaiji

Although I normally refrain from photographing sacred rituals and spaces, the priests at Kumagaiji (and Ekoin) invited us to photograph, record, and share our experiences.

The goma is unique to Esoteric Buddhism, and involves the lighting of a sacred fire which represents the wisdom of the Buddha and is intended to cleanse (by burning) the root of peoples' suffering, enabling them to thereafter release themselves and their concerns to the Buddha's teachings.

Before the ceremony, worshippers write their prayers and wishes on wooden sticks, which will later be used to feed the sacred flames.

The wooden sticks (center right) upon which we wrote our prayers.

Both Kumagaiji and Ekoin performed the goma immediately after the morning prayer service. The morning service was conducted in the temple's hondo, or worship hall. When the service concluded, we walked from the hondo to a nearby, smaller temple building used specifically for the goma.

The goma temple at Kumagaiji

Inside, we removed our shoes and climbed to a platform where visitors sit to watch and participate in the goma.

A raised area at the center of the platform provided a place for the priest conducting the ceremony to sit and also held the bowl and other ritual implements used for the sacred fire.

The priest tending the sacred fire during the goma.

Behind them, an altar held images of the Buddha, including Fudō Myōō, sometimes also known as the Buddha of Compassionate Fire. (Fudō, the Immoveable One, is an important deity in the Shingon pantheon - and you'll be hearing more about him from me in future posts.)

Fudō Myōō, the Immoveable One

During the ritual itself, a priest prepares and lights the sacred fire, which rises several feet above the bowl as it cleanses and consumes the sticks (and prayers), transforming them into smoke.

The goma in progress. On the right, a priest plays the taikō.

A second priest beats a taiko (drum) and both priests chant specific prayers throughout the fire ceremony, invoking the Buddha's compassion and praying on behalf of the participants, their ancestors, and others on whose behalf the ceremony is conducted.

As the flames begin to die, the priest fans the sacred fire with a book of sutras.

Fanning the flames with sutras.

According to Shingon Buddhist belief, the act of burning the sticks does not, of itself, guarantee that the prayers will be answered or that individuals will cease to suffer. Shingon teachings also require individuals to seek and accept the Buddha's help and protection.

Fudō and other wisdom kings at the entrance to Kumagaiji.

Although I am not a Buddhist, I found the ceremony compelling and moving, and emerged from it touched by both the prayers and the cleansing qualities of the sacred fire.

Some people may want to watch the world burn with negativity, but I dearly hope that we -- as individuals and as a nation -- survive the flames and create a world cleansed of suffering, in which people strive to understand, respect, and love one another as individuals, celebrating our differences instead of reviling those who do not share our experiences and our views.

In fact, that was my goma prayer.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Greece, Brexit, the Populist World, and US


I sat down before my computer on this post-Thanksgiving morning with the intention of reciting all the reasons we have to give thanks on a macro level—a tough task considering the state of our world.  On a micro or individual level, it’s very easy:  just look at our families, friends (yes, even EvKa), and good health—puh, puh, puh.
But in looking broadly at our world, all that came to my mind was a French phrase, “Oy vey” (please check with Cara for the correct pronunciation).

So, I decided to take a look at Ekathimerini, Greece’s equivalent of The New York Times, to see what’s happening back in the old country.  Alas, I found little encouraging there to write about, but I did come across an article entitled, “The Post-Populist Pause,” by Nikos Konstandaras, a managing editor and columnist for Ekathimerini and contributing opinion writer to The New York Times.

I’ve been saying for some time that the populist mood in Greece that drove Greeks to elect Alexis Tsipras Prime Minister would haunt those in the EU who bred this round of populism through their callous insensitivity to the suffering brought on by EU imposed austerity measures.  Indeed, it’s populism that drove Britain in its Brexit vote, and populism that threatens to upend governments in upcoming elections on the Continent. Whether on the right or left, populism seems to rule the day in Europe.

No, like virtually everyone else, I completely missed the populist vigor in our own electorate that led to the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States.  Yes, I just expressed that in writing. J

Konstandaras’ column succinctly summarizes how the West got to where it is, and the results of populist expressions at the ballot box so far.  As for where we’re headed…well, let’s just say there’s hope. Maybe.

Here is Nikos Konstandaras’ column, “The Post-Populist Pause.”

One day we may look back at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 as the relatively peaceful eye of the cyclone, the pause between an age that is ending and another that is beginning in anger and division. The only certainty is uncertainty – from our own country to the ends of the earth. In Greece we have learned how to live in crisis; maybe we don’t know any other way. For many years we have believed that politics is the art of saying much, doing little and letting “life” take care of things. Because we don’t expect to shoulder any responsibilities, we set our targets high, and when, inevitably, we miss, we excel in excuses – blaming foreign forces and their local lackeys.

The tragedy is that instead of Greece improving, major countries are following a similar course. It is not just the wave of populism changing communities and politics – for populism has always been a significant part of politics – what is worse is that this wave has no objective rather than following nebulous promises for the restoration of past grandeur. Many voters are drawn to demagogs’ calls for a leap into the void, thinking that in this way they can cut the Gordian knot of reality.

The Greeks were the first to believe that rejecting the old meant the solution of their problems. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s dramatic turn last July, after six months of wandering around the barricades of an imaginary revolution, marked his surrender to a reality that would not bend to his will. Since then, his government has battled to deal with a crisis that was worsened by SYRIZA’s illusions, while day by day popular anger grows. Developments do not end with an election. When the search for solutions (or implementation of reforms) is not a priority, problems lead to dead ends. Like every other government before it, this one, too, thought that the fact of its election was the solution to all problems, and that if anything went awry, others were to blame. Now Tsipras is thinking of calling elections again. Defeat may relieve him of the cares of office, victory will gain him more time; neither will solve any problems.

The government of Britain followed a similar awakening, and the new US administration will do the same. Brexit will not be painless; wherever the British government turns, it discovers that the ills caused by the divorce from Europe may be worse than those it was supposed to address. Donald Trump seems to be realizing now what his election means. Already he appears to be backtracking on some campaign excesses but we still cannot tell what kind of president he will be. The few weeks before he moves into the White House seem like the quiet moment that will be forgotten quickly in the storm. The coming referendum in Italy, presidential elections in Austria and France, parliamentary elections in the Netherlands and Germany, and many other polls, will show the strength of populism. After the voting, we will see its weakness.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Crime, Cookery and Craic


Welcome to Book Week Scotland

                                                   a wee  Shetland pony looking for food

Usually, it's a very busy week for me,  a 'trying to be everywhere at once' type of week. But thankfully the gods were looking after me this year. I wasn't keen on wandering too far away from home.

                                                And pulling a face when it did not get any

My big gig was on Monday night.

An actual Ghillie Dhu

At  twenty to two I was on my way to Edinburgh to the Ghillie Dhu to  to interview/arbitrate/ referee a chat between Ian Rankin and Mark Greenaway.

                                               the Ghillie Dhu at its most grand

Ian, you might have heard of before, he is one of those Scottish Crime writer chappies.

 Mark is an award  winning chef. I hesitate to use the  words 'celebrity chef' as he would hate that expression,  he is an unassuming guy, very passionate about food and about Scottish  food and local produce. He knows all kinds of things, and talks in that lovely way that really enthusiastic people do - suddenly I was immersed in a world where I couldn't speak the language.

                                 I have spent my life doing the wrong thing with a mandolin.

                                                    Both these above are mandolins!

Never mind the stuff you can get up to with an espuma gun!

                                                Mark, ready  top create!

Mark has written a beautiful cookery book called 'Perceptions', about Scottish cooking and how it is perceived abroad. ( not very well as far as he is concerned.) He is keen to get away from the ‘sick old man of Europe  image that Scots have with their diet – highest rate of all kinds of diet related diseases. The consumption of  deep fried mars bar and deep fried square sausage really rockets the cholesterol.  Mark wants to explore the fantastic recipes that  can be created  from the flora and fauna of this country- and we have plenty to be proud of. In the book he explains how the low level of sunshine and the high water table ( rain) means that everything takes time to mature, and therefore the flavour is deeper and richer.
                                                  The Ghillie Dhu ready for us....

Then he puts a twist  on the recipe, and then another twist on that.

As well as being packed with recipes and how to this and how to that without getting your fingers cut - especially with a oyster knife as oysters carry and very nasty type of bacteria and the cut, nestling in the skin fold between thumb, very often gets left to fester into a full blown septicaemia - Mark also writes about his career as a chef, right from the first day when he sank his arms into the sink as a kitchen porter… and was still there twelve hours later.
                                                        more than five a day  on here, it has an olive on it!

No matter how deep the conversation went culinary, it always reverted to death and murder. 'Oh Mark,  I do like the way you serve fresh prawns in a bowl of solid ice. A lethal weapon if ever there was one.' 
me, mouth open, in charge!

 I am a bit weird ( full stop ) food wise. It's a source of fuel, not an entertainment,  I do not like animals being degraded  so that  we can eat them ( a view that  most farmers and those involved in commercial animal welfare tend to  agree with ) . I can't stand chefs like Heston Blumenthal.. sticking spikes through mice and making a Christmas tree out of them...well I think that is what he was  doing.

                                                        cooking squirrels!

 But Mark is not like that, he knows exactly where every animal he cooks has  come from, exactly. He knows where every vegetable, every herb has been grown. he has cultivated ( pardon the pun) family farms to supply his kitchens,  some of those farms are run as social placement units for the vulnerable in society, to give them skills and trade, just help them get back on their feet.

There is non point in asking him for something out of season if it is out of season, if it's not fresh then you won't get it.

I asked him  all kinds of incisive questions , like OK if you are such as expert on Scottish cookery, why are there no recipes with Irn Bru?  Then Ian came up with his irn bru recipe… a glass of irn bru with  a vanilla ice cream floater and  then grated Mars bar on top of that.

                                          The inner cover of the Perceptions cook book  is full of his original notebooks, all stained and squiggled.

 I asked both of them what they would do with a mandolin? Play the instrumental bit on the middle of Maggie May or slice tomatoes finely, If you answered both, you may go to the top of the class.

 No questions were off limits, What is the point of celery I asked him. He struggled to come up with an answer. Ian suggested you can put it in a bloody Mary. I explained how a bloody Mary can provide 4 of the British government's five fruit/veg a day recommendation… ( lemon, potato, marmite, tomato—easy!)

                                         Mark getting on the bus, me in the queue

The bit I found  really interesting was where he talks about the creation of a new recipe – works of art in his case.

He takes inspiration from everywhere – a starting point, an idea, something else he has seen , eaten… something he had read,  saw on the net.. and it all mish mashes about in the back of his mind and he tries this, he tries that. It might be right, it might be nearly right. Then his team of chefs  look at it and suggest improvements …. And finally after many, many attempts – a new dish is born.

 And he talks about it in exactly the same terms and with the same passion that a  novelist talks about their plotting process. I think Mark starts a new creation as a plotter, but in reality is a panster!

There was a sense of slaving away them stumbling on something  rather marvellous.

                                            me,  nicking something off the table.

The book is beautiful, full of  lovely photographs by Paul Johnson,  I would have liked to have interviewed him about the ways and means of photographing food like that.

Mark at the front, me at the side.

And no, that's not eggs in the egg box. That  would be far too simple.

Caro Ramsay  25 11 2016

Thursday, November 24, 2016

But what if?

Michael - Thursday

I’m in northern Queensland on a bird watching trip. I think you'll agree that the Buff-breasted Paradise-kingfisher was worth the 10k miles of travel!

Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher.
Photo Ian Wilson
This is tropical Australia—superb rain forests and humidity close to 100%. As soon as the temperature drops a bit, it starts to drizzle; half an hour later the sun is out and everything is full of steamy life again. Here's a picture of the ‘garden’ in front of the house we rented near Kuranda, north of Cairns.

It’s pretty hard to spot birds in the forest because it’s so dense, and it’s impossible to see animals unless they come out into a clearing. The Cassowary is a case in point. These flightless birds stand 5 foot high and they live in the forest, but you seldom see them through the thick foliage. (We were lucky and saw a couple out near the road.) I suppose one of the things about mystery writers is that they always look at anything unusual with a touch of but-what-if. With the forest so dense, much of what goes on there must be secret. What about murder? How long would it take to discover the body? Would it ever be discovered? The undergrowth is too thick for people to bash through, maybe a dog?

Another thing about mystery writers is that we know that our readers expect believable plots and characters. Coincidences exist in real life, but it’s bad taste to use them as a plot resolver. So how about this story? Two people, both members of a French group exploring the Barrier Reef off Cairns, die at the same time while snorkeling. Both apparently had preexisting medical conditions, but snorkeling isn’t particularly strenuous. It would be easy to believe one death—tragic and surprising though it would be. But two deaths at the same time? Of two unrelated people who had been fine on the trip up until that point? Then add a scuba diver drowning only a few hundred meters away a couple of days later. No mystery writer could have coincidences like that and get away with it. However, there’s an obvious and entirely believable explanation—suggested by a specialist and immediately rejected out of hand by the tour operator, the company operating the snorkeling boat, and the tourism minister.

At this time of the year as the water grows warmer, this coast gets an influx of ‘stingers’ – small jellyfish-like creatures with poisonous streamers. There's not much hope of spotting them; the most deadly could fit onto your finger nail. Some feel like nothing more than a tingle, some can leave a nasty welt and burning pain, and one can kill.

Irukandji are tiny
The poison of the Irukandji jelly fish streamers takes some time to work, but then causes heart problems and ultimately cardiac arrest. People swimming in these waters ought to wear special ‘stinger suits’ – mesh material to keep the creatures at bay. One of the two French tourists was, the other wasn’t. Sometimes people prefer wet suits which aren’t as effective against the stings.  I don’t know what the scuba diver was wearing.

Stinger suits -
note that faces and feet aren't covered 

Consider your verdict. An unfortunate Irukandji attack as proposed by the expert. Or coincidence as proposed by the tourist personnel—who have no vested interest in making people believe that the reef is absolutely safe, of course. And what if one wanted to murder someone with a weak heart using an almost undetectable poison? A mystery plot opportunity. Just don’t kill two characters the same way at the same time!

Lake Eacham. Idyllic?
There’s been another mystery up here too. Lake Eacham is one of the spectacular crater lakes that grace the Tablelands – higher country inland from Cairns. Formed by repeated volcanic explosions as a result of magma being forced out under water, they are very deep and surrounded by thick forest. Some eighteen months ago a man out on a kayak disappeared here, believed drowned. Under the conditions prevalent at this lake, the body was expected to float to the service after around ten days. It didn’t, leading to speculation that the body was somehow wedged below the surface—perhaps in a passage joining with another lake. Yet there is no evidence of such a passage and expert divers here deny its existence. One went on searching the lake without success for weeks after the incident.

A few weeks ago some swimmers found the body on the shore of the lake. No one suspects foul play and that’s the end of the true, tragic story. Only the experts are puzzled about the strange length of time the body remained hidden under the water and about what eventually brought it to the surface.

But let’s play but-what-if. Suppose he didn’t drown—after all the lake isn’t usually rough. It turns out the man had an alias (true fact). Perhaps other things were going on, perhaps he faked his death, but perhaps the bad guys found him and closed the loop, dumping his body in the lake weighted with stones, expecting the weights to come loose in due course – eighteen months in this case. Probably forensics could tell, but who would look that closely? I’m not suggesting for one moment that that is what happened, I’m just discovering a plot in a tragic true event.

I’ll finish with this spectacular Curtain Fig. A murder took place here too, but no humans were involved. What plots does it bring to your mind?