Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Can You Haiku?

October 27, 2008

One of my more obscure hobbies is writing English language haiku and a related form called "haibun" that combines poetry and prose writing. For a definitions and explanations of these forms, see http://www.hsa-haiku.org/archives/HSA_Definitions_2004.html. Without getting overly complicated, let's just say a true contemporary haiku isn't the rigid 5-7-5 syllable poem you learned about in grade school. Hopefully examples like the following offer a flavor of for the simplicity and elegance of these forms, which seek to stay true to the spirit of the original Japanese haiku and haibun popularized by poets such as Matsuo Basho.


Hundreds of pinwheels spin in the autumn wind, each one next to a small statue of Jizo, who watches over the souls of stillborns, miscarriages, and aborted fetuses. The images stand in long rows: three deep, one row higher than the next; each with a large, round head, closed eyes and pursed lips, tiny hands with fingers extended, palms pushed together in prayer. Some are bare stone, but most are decorated, commonly with a pinwheel, a knit cap, and a bib. Many have caps bright red yarn; on others, only a few gray tatters remain. I stop to contemplate an older Jizo, its features worn almost entirely away by wind and rain. Someone has tied a new bib around its neck.

At one end of the line of statues stands a large bulletin board of sorts, on which hang many wooden tablets. Each bears a hand-written message. I read a few in English: "Little baby: We are so sorry we could not keep you. Please forgive us." "Dear one: We will always love you."

temple bell--
a wisp of smoke curls upward
from the incense stick


Thousands have leaped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge. One man, who survived, tells his story: "I told myself that if someone--anyone--bothered to talk to me, to see if I was okay, I wouldn't jump." Near the middle of the span, a woman stops him and asks, "Would you mind taking my picture?" He takes her picture. She says, "thanks," and leaves. Then he jumps.

lone gull . . .
the cold sting
of the steel rail

And a few of my most successful haiku:

faint stars
the cabby speaks
of home

40th birthday
the leaves just beginning
to change color

another soldier . . .
the sound of wind
through a hole in the fence

Tulips and the Stock Market

October 24, 2008

I’m planting tulips today and thinking about the stock market. Like most people, we’ve watched the value of our retirement savings and investments plummet over the past several months. Stocks we bought as much as six or seven years ago are now worth less than when we bought them. All we can do is wait and hope that, in three, four, or five years, they’ll climb back to break even.

But back to tulips. When we built our home and installed the yard a few years ago, we didn’t bother to truck in topsoil for the lawns and flower beds. So, the soil remains a dense clay, shot through with construction refuse and stones of all sizes. Still, I make slow but steady progress planting the bag of 90 tulip bulbs we bought at Costco a few weeks ago.

This new bulb planter is a cool thing. I jump on it—like a shovel—and, if I’m lucky and don’t hit a rock, I can push it 4-6 inches straight down, twist it, and pull up a perfect cylinder of firm, dark earth, cool to the touch despite the bright sun on this Indian summer day. In goes the bulb—fat, round, and waxy smooth—and then the dirt, back on top. I should use gloves for this part, but I hate the feel (or the “un” feel) of gloves, so I use my hands, crumbling the soil over each bulb, tamping it down, then pushing the mulch back in place. By the last bulb, my back aches and my hands are stained and rough.

So, what's it worth, anyway--my modest investment in bulbs, the newfangled planter, dirty hands, a sore back, and two hours work on a Saturday?

A lot, apparently, if one believes the accounts of the “tulip mania” that gripped Holland in the year 1637, where a single bulb of the Viceroy variety traded for two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tons of beer, two tons of butter, 1,000 pounds of cheese, a complete bed, a silver drinking cup (and, one suspects, a partridge in a pear tree)—heady stuff for a simple flower that originated, not in Holland, but the high steppes of Central Asia.

The economist Robert Schiller and others have identified the wild speculation in tulip prices in Seventeenth Century Holland as the first recorded speculative bubble, which brings my garden musings full circle.

I’m no economist, but if I understand speculative bubbles, they are driven less by intrinsic value and more by a desire to get something for nothing—that’s the “speculative” part—to get rich off of some particular fad. To buy, say, a bulb or a stock or a piece of property for an outrageous price and sell it for an even more outrageous price to the next guy who comes along. Since the price becomes, rather quickly, entirely divorced form the true value of the particular object, it will inevitably fall back to earth and leave someone holding the bag, which usually happens with stomach-in-your-throat kind of speed, like the first big drop on a roller coaster.

And that’s the beauty of planting tulips in the Fall. There’s no speculation here. For a modest investment of time, money and effort, I’m guaranteed a great return in about six months. Tulips are one of my favorite flowers. I love the vivid splash of early color, the graceful curves of the blooms, and the way the petals cup the light and warmth of the sun in early spring. That’s a result one can bank on.

(Note: photo courtesy of northofsweden, available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/northofsweden/favorites/)