Poison or Placenta? What’s YOUR Choice….


“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.” ~Paracelsus

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Luckily, my rat poison was in pill form.

Reading the fine print on some meds I had been prescribed, I come across a term that I find…interesting. “Hey Jody, what is “Porcine Intestinal Mucosa?”

“Pig gut,” comes Jody’s flat reply. Right. That’s where I know that word from. Swine.

Japan offers pill form of their unappetizing meds as well.

Japan offers pill form of their unappetizing meds as well.

I think I owe Japan an apology. I recently wrote a blog (see Placenta: Prescription or Placebo) that might have dissed, however slight, the role that placenta-based supplements play here in the Far East. Placenta, as in that gross stuff that comes out as the after-birth in us (female) mammals. But seriously, is making a drug out of that organic matter any worse than using, say, beef lung, pig intestines, or RAT POISON?

Coumadin, Warfarin, Rat Poison.  No difference!!

Coumadin, Warfarin, Rat Poison. No difference!!

Rat poison. I finally get to stop taking the rat poison…more gently referred to as Coumadin…that I’ve been taking for that last 6 months and 10 days. I’m deemed healthy enough to stop my anticoagulation treatment! (see Offshore Okinawa, A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose for some background on my serious illness suffered this summer)

I really hate needles....

Lovenox must be injection. Man I really hate needles….

But that’s only the start. The previous blood thinner — an often used-misnomer for drugs that actually stop your blood from clotting — I, or more honestly mostly my caretaker-extraordinaire beautiful-nurse-wife Jody was shooting into my belly – Lovenox – was made from, no less, the intestines of pigs.

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And the IV drip anticoagulant I was given during my hospital stay in June, heparin, is derived from mucosal tissues of slaughtered meat animals, such as porcine (pig) intestines or bovine (cattle) lungs. Nice how the manufacturers decide to use uncommon nomenclature for such unsavory source ingredients. Coincidence? I think not.

It's surprisingly affordable.  Why do the Rx versions cost so dang much???

It’s surprisingly affordable. Why do the Rx versions cost so dang much???

Coumadin (a name brand of Warfarin), is an anticoagulant normally used in the prevention of thrombosis, the formation of blood clots in blood vessels. But get this: it was initially introduced in 1948 as a rodent pesticide, and can still be found used for this purpose. Urban legend says that the human medicinal benefit wasn’t recognized until some poor Army sap tried to commit suicide by overdosing on the staff, but whose condition was completely reversed by mere injections of vitamin K. And the only reason I knew to even look this up was a nurse-friend of my wife’s, when she found out I was on the drug, said with a large knowing smile, “Oh, the rat poison!”

No taking aspirin to help with those raging headaches.  Wait, about that drinking....

No taking aspirin to help with those raging headaches. Wait, about that drinking….

Warfarin is both odorless and tasteless, and is effective when mixed with food bait because rodents will return to the bait and continue to feed over a period of days until a lethal dose is accumulated. In order for us humans to stay alive while we feed on a handful of pills, we just have to go for weekly blood tests to make sure a “lethal dose is NOT accumulated.”

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So, life comes down to relevance. One animal gives a life so that drugs can be made to save people. One culture develops a fetish for placenta-based products sold, not as the fountain of thick mucuousy-looking-goo which they feature in their commercials, but more as a fountain of youth of sorts. Other medical communities develop life-saving medical drugs, but based on other no-less appetizing parts of other sacrificed animals.

The dichotomy, though, is that relevance is not absolute and is often just two sides of the very same coin. Flipped on one side, a drug kills rodents. But tossing it upside-down and suddenly the same drug, using the exact same biological action, can save humans. Having the coin flipped the right way in my case, I sure am glad to be returned to better health.

May or may not be about Placenta (I'm rusty on reading Japanese), but it's the same idea.  I think.

May or may not be about Placenta (I’m rusty on reading Japanese), but it’s the same idea. I think.

And I’m glad to give Japan a respectful break about their placenta fetish. There actually might really be something to it….

Wheeled Headdress: Motorcycle Helmets in Japan


He has a helmet.  On his sissy bar.  And that's where it probably stays....

He has a helmet. On his sissy bar. And that’s where it probably stays….

“What do you call a motorcyclist who doesn’t wear a helmet: an organ donor.”  ~David Perry

“If you think you don’t need a helmet, you probably don’t….” ~Unknown

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The Japanese have an incomprehensible habit involving their motorcycle helmets: they fail to fasten them to their heads.

So I’m driving home from the Marina where I teach scuba diving, a short drive, perhaps no more than about a mile and a half. However, the road traveled on this particular journey is the main north-south thoroughfare on Okinawa (“Hwy 58”), and the specific stretch of pavement reaching to my home neighborhood lacks red lights, stop signs, and allows some of the faster driving on Okinawa…at a blistering 60 kph, roughly 40 mph!

So on my drive there’s a guy who is bending down at the shoulder. As I close at the speed limit (this stretch of road is well-known for speed traps), I realize he’s retrieving a helmet, and when his “beanie” half-head motorcycle headdress is squarely in his hands, he starts to run up the sidewalk with the flow of traffic.

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My eyes curiously project to his likely destination, and notice a woman, a tiny Japanese girl, who is barely holding up what is considered here a true motorcycle, but at home would be more akin to a large dirt-bike. I pass her, seeing the strain of keeping all 300 pounds of that bike upright and off the ground, and watching in the rear-view mirror, I see the bike’s operator finally reach his certainly-soon-to-be-dropped mechanical steed.

And just as this spectacle is disappearing from the limits of my sight, the dude jumps back on the bike and places his helmet squarely on his head. Backwards and unbuckled.  And takes off down the road, his passenger giddy with delight…the helmet just waiting for the right gust of wind to be castaway, again.

Me emulating Okinawan helmet use.  Notice the bike is NOT moving....

Me emulating Okinawan helmet use. Notice the bike is NOT moving….

In 2013 there were 4,373 road fatalities in Japan (compared to our 33,000-odd annual road deaths), a total that the Japanese consider “excessively high,” even though it’s their 12th year of steady decline.  The Japanese government has responded by taking measures to reduce the number of annual road fatalities to fewer than 3,000 by 2015, in line with its goal of making Japan’s roads the safest in the world.  They are already pretty ding-dang safe.  At least in a car.

What's wrong with this picture:  no dog helmet!

What’s wrong with this picture: no dog helmet!

Thus, one of the “Priority Issues” that is being addressed in Japan’s 2014 Spring Road Safety Campaign include the proper wearing of helmets: of the 760 persons who died in Japan in 2013 while riding a motorcycle, just under half suffered head injuries even though 94.9% of the riders were “wearing” their helmets. A solid 33% of these unfortunate souls lost their helmets at impact. Primarily because they were either improperly fastened (think backwards or way up high on their heads) or not fastened at all (think straps dangling down swinging freely in the wind).

Okay, the cops wear helmets.  But apparently don't know how to use kickstands....

Okay, the cops wear helmets. But apparently don’t know how to use kickstands….

Now let’s be perfectly clear: there is a mandatory helmet law in Japan, for both driver and passenger.  And there is even a bicycle helmet law for kids under 13.  What I can’t find is the actual text of the law.  I have been told, in classic urban legend fashion, that the law only requires motorcycle riders to have a helmet, not actually wear it or fasten it….  Seems too ludicrous to be true, but it’s also oddly Japanese-enough to be totally believable.  Whatever the case, the police here in Okinawa seem to either be oblivious about helmet use (or the law), or simply look the other way.  Or perhaps helmets really don’t need to be buckled and/or fastened….

An actual pic of a Japanese 2-wheel rider course booklet.  Stretching seems to be more important than helmets!

An actual pic of a Japanese 2-wheel rider course booklet. Stretching seems to be more important than helmets!

As an aside, there is another facet of Japanese automobile operation that would make most Americans’ skin crawl. Although front seat seatbelt use in Japan is well over 90%, it is not uncommon to see children on the seats of both driver and front-seat passengers, even sitting on car’s dash!  Jody and I both cringe every time we see such a tragedy waiting to happen.

What's wrong with this picture?  No, not the lack of helmets or riding backwards.  No one in Japan has a bike this big!!

What’s wrong with this picture? No, not the lack of helmets or riding backwards. No one in Japan has a bike this big!!

Yes, yes, yes, I can hear all the hardcore bikers screaming about their “right” to NOT wear a helmet. Something about freedom and such….  I am a biker and I wear a helmet.  Arguing against such laws is as silly as claiming that the Civil War was really a war of northern aggression and a violation of states’ rights….  I don’t really care what other bikers choose to do.  As long as I don’t have to pay their medical bills or disability (and therein lays the rub).  However, what is clear is that helmets do reduce injury and potentially help avoid fatalities.

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Whatever the case, I really wanted just a few seconds with the helmet-challenged guy who stars in the opening of this blog to explain this: fastening your helmet, besides providing some measure of safety (however little), would at least avoid having it fly off your head, thereby leaving your bike in the care of your 90-pound Japanese girlfriend, who will, sooner or later, certainly drop your ride since her feet can barely touch the ground….  Maybe that would make a little more sense about wearing motorcycle helmets…in Japan!

What's wrong with this picture?  Riding in a skirt, while sexy, can be quite dangerous!

What’s wrong with this picture? Riding in a skirt, while sexy, has to be dangerous to her naughty bits!

Temple Transcendence: Zen Meditation in Kyoto


“Meditation is the soul’s perspective glass.”  ~ Owen Feltham

“All of man’s difficulties are caused by his inability to sit, quietly, in a room by himself.”  ~ Blaise Pascal

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“The idea of ‘empty mind’ is impossible,” our pragmatic Zen Buddhist Meditation Master started.  He continued, “More appropriately, you should strive for a state of ‘NO MIND’.  Accept what is and what cannot be changed; do not attempt to ignore that which cannot be ignored.”  He continued, this time more profoundly, “Concentrate on now, not the future or the past.  TODAY IS THE YOUNGEST YOU’LL EVER BE.  Things done today impact EVERYTHING downstream.  It is not about karma; rather, it is about refraining from placing judgment or valuation of good versus bad.  There are only actions and impacts….”

Not how to meditate.

Not how to meditate.

Thus, our dabble with authentic Zen Meditation (“zazen” 坐禅, literally “seated meditation”), started, and boy was it a pleasant surprise.  Jody and I decided to stay in the Buddhist temple Shunkoin during our recent trip to Kyoto, Japan, which provided a class and orientation on Zen mediation (read about our stay here:  Serene Sanctuary).  I can tell you that this experience…wait for it…enlightened us!

Geeks need love - and meditation - too.

Geeks need love – and meditation – too.

“Who can empty their mind?  It is an impossible task!  Random thoughts, noises in the environment, emotions – all these things are impossible to block,” Rev Takafumi continued.  “Quite the contrary; let these thoughts and sensations flow through your mind which is always full.  But, strive to separate judgment, categorization and valuation to such thoughts and sensations.  Hence, the idea of ‘no mind’,” he continued.

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Reverend Takafumi Kawakami leads the meditation services at the temple.  He serves as the Temple’s Vice Abbot, and is a Kyoto native whose family has a long history at Shunkoin.  The wonderful thing about relating with and to Rev Kawakami is that he was educated in the United States, where he worked and obtained dual degrees in religious studies and psychology.  So, not only is his English almost fluent, he is well versed on Western lifestyles, cultural norms, and societal expectations.

Reverend Takafumi Kawakami

Reverend Takafumi Kawakami

“How can you meditate in pain?  That is totally not the point!”  Our meditation master continued, “It’s hard for almost everyone to hold the full lotus position (Kekkafuza), and still hard for most in the half-lotus position (Hankafuza).”  The lotus position, in which you usually find statues of Buddha posed in, is only for the very flexible.  The half-lotus position was recommended by our Master, but then only if there was no pain or discomfort experienced.  He provided mats (zabuton), cushions (zafu), and even chairs for those with bad knees.

The Temple's Meditation Hall

The Temple’s Meditation Hall

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation whipped green tea and sweetsThe Temple provides a Zen meditation class and Temple tour daily, which combined, take about 90 minutes.  There is a quick reception where introductions are made, and then everyone proceeds to the meditation room in the back of the temple complex.  Keep in mind that this is an authentic, old and historic temple, and as such it lacks insulation.  The meditation room was heated, but a bit drafty.  The walks through the temple passages to get to the meditation room and during the follow-on tour are not!  Luckily for us, hot maccha (also spelled matcha) green tea and Japanese sweets were served after the tour.

The Master's Station

The Master’s Station

zentaka“The point is to take a comfortable position and remain still.  Whether you need a cushion, or to even sit in a chair is up to you.  One can meditate anywhere in any position.  The positioning of your body is just not that important,” the Reverend surprisingly stated.  “Don’t worry so much about the formalities.  People in the West get so caught up in the orthodoxy of meditation that they forget to meditate.”  While the full lotus position places the meditator in a balanced and symmetrical posture closest to the ground, an important aspect of the Japanese floor-based culture, the half-lotus position provides most of the same results.

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We only had 4 in our class....

We only had 4 in our class….

One of the most interesting aspects of our introduction to Zen meditation in such an authentic setting was the discussions about not just the basics of meditation, but of how to incorporate Zen philosophy into your daily life.  “Incense does not cleanse the air!  It’s smoke after all,” the Reverend startlingly exclaimed.  “We use incense to time the segments of meditation….  The most important thing is take a few moments every day to meditate; only then will the benefits be realized over time.”

Meditation mats and cushions.

Meditation mats and cushions.

zenkitties-speedbump-268x300One of the primary tenants of Zen is meditation.  Through remaining motionless and focusing on breathing, one is able to bring oneself into the now moment and detach from previous knowledge and preconception.  The goal is to eventually reach a state of transcendence and to realize the fundamental non-permanence of being.  This means interacting with the world without consciousness of self, categorization, or discrimination.

I meditate on my breathing so well that I don't need a regulator....

I meditate on my breathing so well that I don’t need a regulator….

I was immediately struck by the types of meditation that I do in my own life, although I have never really put them in a Zen Buddhist meditative context.  For example, scuba diving, especially when I have dived solo, approaches such a state of transcendence.  Being in the alien environment underwater, focusing intently on slow controlled breathing with full and deep inhales and exhales, while moving through the water as effortlessly as possible where the sounds of life above on terrestrial earth are absent, allows me to clear my mind of almost all conflict and strife.  Life itself is simply set in a different context underwater where humans really are uninvited.

Hard to focus on thought when riding through such wonderful scenery!

Hard to focus on thought when riding through such wonderful scenery!

Or, when traveling on very long motorcycle trips.  When you ride ~500 miles in a day on a bike, you have more time with your thoughts than you can simply imagine.  No radio, no one to talk to, just the drone of the bike drummed out by earplugs, and the passing miles and the voices in your head.  And after a certain point, I do find that I achieve a state of “no mind” where the voices stop, and this is indeed the very reason why bikers talk about it taking 100 miles for them to “clear their heads.”  It is not comfortable for some people to be so alone with themselves, and cross-country motorcycle trips are not for everyone.  But for those of us that know the magic healing powers of the road and two wheels, it is again due to a related meditative state much like in Zen Buddhism.

It's amazing how relaxed you can get during the climb to altitude.

It’s amazing how relaxed you can get during the climb to altitude.

And perhaps the best example I have is in skydiving, which on the surface is completely counter-intuitive.  For such an action-packed, adrenaline-pumping sport where one literally cheats death every time, you would think there is NO time for meditation.  However, we – my fellow skydivers and I – often find ourselves keeping silently to ourselves on the twenty-minute ride up to altitude.  It’s hard to talk in the plane due to helmets and ambient noise, so most often we sit comfortably with our eyes closed, letting the white noise of the cool rushing wind and drone of the turboprop engine  flow through our minds.  Personally, I find those moments some of the most serene and peaceful, perhaps exactly because of the chaos that ensues shortly afterwards.

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What the Rev Takafumi Kawakami confirmed for me is the central importance of meditation itself, not the formality or framework in which meditation takes place.  Wherever and however you find your way to meditate is not essential; what is important is to just do it, and do it as often as possible.  Small actions today can have dramatic impacts tomorrow.  Meditation is one effective way to exploit acts today so that a better tomorrow can be realized.

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How do YOU meditate in your daily life?