The other day…

… I was thinking of Paul. It has been just over a year since he lost his battle with cancer. It’s one of life’s difficult things to lose a good friend, and frustrating to be miles away in a distant land when it all unravels. Not that anyone could have done anything. Cancer has a way of surreptitiously inserting itself into an unsuspecting life and then spring forth catching everyone unaware. It elbows its way into our lives and becomes part of the daily conversation, our routines, our thoughts. It takes over the lives of those who have it and of those closest to them. Not a jealous mistress, but a tyrant that demands our strength, saps our energies and then spits us out without as much as a “thank you.”

I realise that all I have are snippets and images dimly remembered over a span of thirty years, and that pasting them together can never really hope to constitute a complete person. How I perceived Paul is different to how his family did, or how his partner and daughter do. But this is the same for anyone; we play different roles in our day to day lives and present a different image of ourselves in each. It leaves me wondering if anyone really does have a complete picture of anyone. Are we, as individuals, aware of the variations we project of ourselves? Is the “self” an enduring concept?

Stretching the memory back to my university days, fires the neurons that contain Paul’s files that are stored in the vaults of my brain. Somewhere along the line I had picked up the notion that it would be a good thing to learn to play the classical guitar and that is what I did to the point of obsession. As a musician, it was a late start for me when I compared myself to the other music students who had been born with clarinets in their hands or had been playing the piano from special womb inserted devices and such. I struggled to make any sense of what I was doing, and it was obvious. Halfway through the B. Mus, I decided enough was enough and changed streams to English Literature and that is where I found my home. The classical guitar training and the rigour of playing up to six hours a day have had some benefits, and one of the greatest has been the people I have met and the friends I have made along the way. Paul was one.

I remember very clearly the first time we met. Steve, a bass playing friend, dragged me away from my never-ending solitary guitar practice to go to visit Paul, who at the time was studying biology at university. In the foothills of Brooklyn was wedged an interesting and half-finished home that Paul, his brother Tim and his parents inhabited. It was built around a courtyard and had the potential of being something bigger, but I think the idea of finishing the project became less important as time went on.

On first appearance Paul looked exotic and reflected his Greek ancestry. He was going through his winklepicker phase and he sported a fine black velvet pair as if they were natural extensions to his feet. Probably red or lime green jeans to go with an odd shirt, a mass of black hair, pointy unshaven chin, beaky nose upon which were perched hideous thick black framed glasses through which beady and always interested eyes peered. When I think of Paul, somehow there is also a link to an image of a black crow majestically strutting and cawing raucously through life.

Another memory linked to that first impression was the presence of cheese. Paul liked his cheese. The bluer, runnier, more putrescent, gag inducing the better. As I walked in to his house I noticed a cheeseboard proudly displaying an assortment of various milk derived products in differing states of decay. I balked at the invitation to partake in the runny accoutrements on the board saying that I didn’t like my cheeses blue, runny, goat derived, sheep induced or otherwise.

“You don’t like much, do ya!” Paul uttered as a blunt, direct statement rather than a question, whilst helping himself to a slice of blue. His persistence in including examples of the above in our various interactions over the years has led me to develop an appreciation of the finer aspects of the putrescent, especially when accompanied by liberal sloshings of wine. I note that the initial shock of the smell of ammonia is quickly softened by the rich round taste of aged cream, but the knowledge that the brevibacterium linens that is responsible for the smell of many blue cheeses, as well as foot and other human odours, still lingers questioningly in my mind, no doubt to be dealt with further at a later stage. All good, for now though.

I think the reason for that first introduction was that Paul wanted to learn to play classical guitar, and even though I protested at being too busy to do so, he insisted that he wouldn’t take up that much time. He was my first ever student, and through him I began the path that eventually led me to become a teacher further down the track as my aspirations of musical fame dwindled in the stark reality of competition from younger and more able musicians.

The weekly lessons were more or less protracted chat sessions helped along by the now ubiquitous wine and cheese. As a student Paul went at a challenge with the initial charge of a sprinter rather than the mindset of a long distance specialist. He learned some initial scales and fingerings, introductory studies and how to play a Carulli waltz, and that was about as far as it went. I did try to get him beyond those early bits and pieces, however he seemed satisfied with the semi mastery of Carulli until in the end I had to ban him playing it because it was nerve wracking to listen to, especially since there were learned mistakes that had become ingrained in the performance of it, as sometimes happens. He learned it well, however, as years later when we met up again in Sydney one of the first things he did was to play the waltz – mistakes and all.

Somewhere in our interactions I believe Paul made it his mission to promote a more open and wider mind in those he met through reading classic literature. Both his parents are closely involved in education and are avid readers themselves with rooms and corridors lined with shelves of books as evidence to support that claim. At one time he placed a copy of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in front of me with the command to read it as if doing so would do me good. The only thing I can say about that particular book was that it was a crime that it was ever published and a punishment to have to read it. Life is a short and often tumultuous event in the bigger scheme of things and to have to endure the bleak perspectives of authors who insist on reminding us of our mortality and our shortcomings is not my idea of entertainment. In that bag of authors I would also place Ibsen, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dickens, Joyce and, more recently, McCourt: I tend to lean more towards Beckett and the theatre of the absurd, as in my mind life is but a series of the bizarre and the meaningless in endless repetition. One thing about the above authors that I have to admit to being true: their works do make great draft stoppers.

Once Paul made the move from the pleasant bucolic greenery of New Zealand to the arid dust bowls of Australia our friendship became a series of occasional meetings interspersed by long intervals in which other bits of life happened. It is often said that friendship is timeless in the sense that people can meet after years apart and seem to be able to continue in a conversation as if it were only recently interrupted. So too, in this case with Paul when we met up again as I was making the move to Tokyo and stopped over in Sydney to visit. He was rather proud of his new found home and boasted of the fact that Australia hosts the top-ten most poisonous critters from spiders and scorpions, to larger animals such as crocs and sharks that would bite you in half, and stingers (or jellyfish) that could sting you to paralysis and subsequent death in a matter of minutes. All this as he was leading us on a trail in the Blue Mountains past those very same critters, beasts and stingers mentioned in the previous breath. We stepped gingerly on.

As an individual who marched to the beat of a different drum, Paul involved himself in a variety of projects simply for fun and interest and social engagement rather than any ulterior motive. We had long and impassioned debates, fuelled by wine and cheese, about whether or not altruism could actually exist in this world driven by self-indulgence, greed and desire. Being a subscriber of the latter variety, I instigated a project that we later on referred to as our “Wee Project” with the ultimate aim of retiring rich at an early age, buying a private island in the Bahamas and working on developing one of those even tans that only the independently wealthy have time to foster. The idea was sound and involved developing an on-line reading site that would engage early learners, and those new to English, in progressively more challenging and interesting materials. There would be guided listening, quizzes, puzzles, fiction and non-fiction of all sorts, along with incentives to do better. A grand idea and one that is now a common concept on the web. We made some inroads and developed one story to near completion, but somehow we were both too distracted by life to actually make a concerted effort that would see the project come to fruition. I have a copy on DVD of our “Wee Project” with the voice of Paul uttering “good” at each correct quiz element. It showcases our ideas along with Paul’s skill in things IT which made the interactive elements work so seamlessly.

The notice of ill health was a bombshell. Here was a man in his mid 40s, physically active and fit, in the prime of his life learning from his doctor after a normal annual check-up that he had leukemia. The initial prognosis was positive and due his level of fitness, doctors said there was a high percentage chance that he would be able to meet and beat the canker. Through our skype conversations, I was only a distant part of the ordeal of the treatment that followed. He maintained a positive yet matter of fact outlook and all was looking promising until he had a relapse, after which the picture was grim indeed. At this side, when we spoke, I tried as much as possible to keep things normal with banal conversation, but in my heart I knew the seriousness of his condition.

I stared at the e-mail message from Nina, Paul’s partner, for what seemed like a long time. She wanted me to call her. She told me in her soft tones, that Paul had passed away and was at rest. Even though we knew the day would come, I could not hold back the tears as the sadness at our loss enveloped our lives.

There is no comfort to those who are left behind after a death. Death is brutal in its force and rips to shreds our trust in life. The wounds are raw and stay that way for an eternity. We learn to cope, because we have to. However, one way we can rob death of its power is to remember those who have died and give them space to live with us in our hearts.

I miss you, mate.

Live on.

This won’t hurt a bit

The other day…

…. as I found myself yet again in the waiting room at the local dentist, I began looking back in time at my unfortunate past; certainly unfortunate as far as dental health is concerned.

I would say that over the years that I have graced this blessed orb, my teeth have undergone massive transformations (yes, plural) and I am sure that I have unwittingly supported many a mineral venture with the amount of foreign amalgam that has been cemented to my jaw bone. Long gone are the milk teeth of youth. Long gone, also, are most of the teeth that have replaced them. I am reminded that my brother, after a lifetime of drinking sweetened soda, had all of his decayed teeth removed and now sports a fine set of acrylic choppers. They give him a nice pearly smile when he cracks a grin, but his face caves in when he removes his teeth for the night. Not for me that kind of thing. Not for me.

It seems that the folk who become dentists are either those who have failed at becoming MDs, are sadists, or have taken a completely wrong turn in life and find themselves looking down others’ throats the entire working day, instead of pursuing whatever youthful dream they once aspired to. Perhaps one has to be an embittered failure in order to qualify for entry to Dentistry 101, if such a course exists. Perhaps those who become dentists are of the same ilk as those who used to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others in their youth? None of my friends are dentists.

My experiences with dentists seem to be par for the course, unfortunately. Long periods of waiting in deathly silent anterooms, the whine of the high speed drill, heart palpitations brought about by tension and anxiety, more tension on being admitted to the surgery and walking the few steps passed the ever present smiling assistant (with the bouffant hairdo) to finally arrive at the ubiquitous plastic covered comfy chair.

Why do we dread this experience so?

I’m not sure if it is still the case, but the New Zealand health care system used to provide free dental services to elementary aged students in an effort to improve the dental health of the up and coming generation. Sadly though, the effect of this policy was to instil fear and dread in young hearts and minds. The school dental clinic was referred to as “The Murder House.” When the dental nurse was in session she would send a note to the homeroom teacher to summon her next victim to the chair. As an immigrant to the Land of the Long White Cloud, I had absolutely no inkling of what all the fuss was about. I remember looking at my new friends and classmates with bewilderment and wondering at the sudden look of shock and fear that appeared on their faces once their summons came. Ruddy redness instantly gone and replaced by pallid sweaty fear.

I did find this gem on the web giving the reasoning behind the service:

       “It is to the children of the present day and of the future generation that we look to repair the wastage of this terrible            war. And it behoves us to see that they’re given a   fair chance to develop clean and wholesome bodies without which any nation must go to the wall”

         NZ Dental Association President N Mitchell – 1921

Of course the intent was to benefit the population, and of course the effect was positive when compared to the state of health of the general population in wartime. So too are the advances in care that are obvious from the descriptions of the current incarnation of the service. Not entirely sure which “wall” Mr. Mitchell was referring to back in 1921, but it did remind me of another one later on in time penned by Roger Waters from Pink Floyd.

Anyway, a précis of my first experience…

* The nurse was pleasant.

* The clinic clean.

* The chair comfortable.

* The pain intolerable.

Up to this point I do remember having had some interactions with dentists but not really being able to recall much detail. That suggests that although the experience may not have been pleasant, it was certainly not trauma inducing. At the crux of the matter in this instance though, was the fact that dental nurses never used anesthetic. Maybe they thought that children did not feel pain? Maybe they thought that a bit of pain built character? Maybe they thought about many other things besides their child charges? What I do remember from that first visit was the slow grinding drill that bored into my enamel at about 10 revolutions per minute. I quickly found my back arching and my hands gripping the armrests of the seat and discovered that that seemed to be the most bearable position to suffer in as all previous victims had contributed their angst driven spasms in a similar fashion, thus leaving deep gouges and indentations that proved oddly comfortable.

I thought that once I had graduated from elementary school that my days of pain and suffering at the hands of dentists would be over, but I was wrong. The local dentist, a man by the name of Dr. Scott, was my next pain dealer. I remember being taken to his surgery by my father and also remember asking specifically for an anesthetic so that I would not feel any pain.

“You don’t really need an injection do you?” Dr Scott declared in a loud, overbearing voice; looking at me with scorn and derision as if I were some pitiful wimp.

… utter bastard!

“No…?” I replied meekly. Of course an impressionable kid is going to feel intimidated and respond that way.

… utter bastard!

And so, the pain continued.

In retrospect, I suspect that Dr. Scott did not give me an injection, but charged my dad for it or claimed expenses back through the government health system in order to maximise his fees, however, I have no real proof of that. Needless to say, the pain continued ( I think I said that already).

The list of dentists grew longer over time, and so too did my reluctance to voluntarily visit one. Once I was in complete control of my own destiny after leaving home, I rarely subjected myself to the hands of a dentist unless it was absolutely necessary. Before moving to Japan, one of the last encounters involved a gardener/dentist who was actually out in his rose garden trimming his beloved blooms when I arrived. It felt odd not to be greeted by a friendly, smiling receptionist. Even stranger to see the back door of the surgery wide open to the garden. After a brief wait, I called out to see if I could get some attention. Shortly thereafter, a man dressed in gardening gear trundled up the pathway and greeted me with a warmth due a long lost friend. I had never seen the man before and grew instantly suspicious of him. Where were his other patients? Why did his equipment look like it hadn’t been updated since before the first world war? What on earth was this going to be about?

“Oh,” he mumbled, after a brief check of my teeth and a cursory prod around the nether regions of my mouth. “It will have to come out. … They will all have to come out… Righto?”

What did he just say? I asked him for clarification, to which he said “Well, they are so far gone it’s not much use keeping them in. The extraction shouldn’t take too long.”



No way!

Probably the shortest amount of time I had ever spent in a dentist’s chair and the quickest exit ever made. I believe I still had the paper bib clipped to my chest as I ran panic stricken out of his clinic, down the garden path, passed the rose bushes, through the rose covered pergola archway to the safety of the bustling central street.

And so.

Here I am.





It will NOT hurt a bit. I know this because Dr. Togashi is an absolute master at his craft. Once I found Dr. Togashi just around the corner from where we live in Tokyo, I knew he was “my” dentist. So much so that even when I had a dental emergency whilst living in Melbourne for a time, I opted to wait and put up with the discomfort until I could make a trip back to Tokyo to get my mouth sorted out by him.

I’m not sure if this is true for all dentists in Japan, but Dr Togashi takes an inordinate amount of care with a patient’s teeth. He can be a little extreme in the slow pace he works at, and the number of visits he requires to complete what other dentists would do in twenty minutes, but now my mouth is a living testament of the best dentistry – period. I know this to be true because on the rare occasion I have had to visit other dentists, they always stand back and appreciate the work of a true artist.

At our first meeting, I had prepared myself for another white knuckled ride, however my tension soon evaporated when I saw his concern at my concern. Even though there was the language barrier to overcome, he made it clear that he always placed the comfort of the patient first. His initial careful explorations were probably the only thing I felt during the entire procedure. He found cavities for sure, but with each one, before giving an injection he would apply anesthetic to the gum with a cotton pad so that I would not even feel the needle being inserted into the gum.

Another surprise to me was that each filling undergoes a careful moulding process that ensures it fits snugly in the space left by the decayed tooth. To do this he takes a mould of both the top and bottom jaws and then sends them away to a dental technician. When, after a week, the moulds return, there is a shiny metallic filling that fits almost perfectly in the required place. A little bit of jiggling, along with some filing down is all that is required for the perfect filling. Superglue sticks the filling to the base and that’s it!


Absolutely fantastic.

Gotta rave about it some more fantastic!


Over the years I make sure that I go to see him every three months, because I know it’s worth it. He has taken ownership of my teeth to the point that he has even taken out some of the workmanlike brick and mortar fillings from previous dentists and replaced them with gleaming metal or tooth like acrylic renditions. Taking my previous experiences into account it is hard to believe that my anxieties and fears regarding dentists have been laid to rest once and for all.

It is good to see that I am not the only one converted to the art of Japanese dentistry. A friend of mine remarked just the other day that he had given up going to see his dentist during his annual visits “home” as it was becoming more expensive to do so. He booked himself in to his local dentist in Japan and was as surprised as I was by the skill and craft evident.

He felt no pain

Recollections of a fool.

The other day

… I was looking through the archives on my computer and came across this little essay on my one and only attempt at freeing myself from any connection with the ground we walk on. Oh foolish boy…

flashback to Wellington, New Zealand 1981.

Finally, after many delays because of bad weather, the day dawned a bright, calm and cloudless blue. Perfect conditions for my first jump. The trip out to the site would still take about two hours though, and having experienced last minute changes in weather before, I didn’t feel the high level of nerves that I had at first. In a state of outward calm, I gathered together my leather jacket, helmet and gloves, kicked over my SR500 and headed out to the airfield to meet up with my fellow first-jumpers.

Motorcycle journeys are interesting in themselves; you, the machine and the road. A road becomes fixed in the mind like a mental map after having travelled it a number of times. An automatic awareness takes over that allows you to think about other things while you ride. Its a bit like our breathing, or our heartbeat in that we don’t have to think about what we are doing in order to do it. My thoughts cast back to the first time the idea of trying out sky-diving came up.

“Why jump out of a perfectly good plane?” is what a pilot friend of mine said to me straight away in reply to me telling him of my idea. I didn’t really have a good answer to that other than it seemed like an adventurous thing to do and that it would break-up the otherwise boring daily routines that our lives often settle in to. There must be something more to life than the endlessly repeated cycle of getting up, going to work, going home, watching TV and going to bed; right? However, if I were telling the complete truth, it would be that I was out to impress a girl, and what better way to attract the opposite sex than by crafting and projecting an image of adventure and daring; but….. that’s another story.

Leading up to Jump-Day, the jump master had instructed us carefully in the safe and secure environment of the community centre gym. With our feet planted firmly on the ground, we ran through the features of the equipment first, then talked about exit procedures and finally the steps to take when, not if, a malfunction should occur.

The parachutes we were going to use were old oval chutes that were army surplus and apparently safe. I had had visions of gracefully gliding to earth under a colourful wing-like canopy and landing like a modern superman before the admiring gaze of the gathered crowd; but that hope was dashed when I saw the bulky, camouflage khaki green-grey workmanlike chutes we were going to use. There was no romance here. One comforting feature of these chutes was that they were opened by a rip-chord mechanism that pulled open the backpack containing the main chute after a three second free fall; something that I would be more than thankful for later.

Some more experienced club members demonstrated the way to get out of the plane, which would be a small single engine Cessna with an overhead wing. Placing one hand protectively over the emergency release lever to avoid an interior release of a chute (yes, it had happened to some unfortunate souls who did not live to tell the tale), we were shown how to exit a plane at 3000 feet. Move to the edge of the doorway, reach out with your hands to grab the overhead wing strut, step out with the left foot onto the wheel axle, cross over the right leg and dangle that freely in space. Then, when the jumpmaster yells “Release!” – simply let go and arch your back so that you fall gracefully away from the plane in a stable position allowing the chute to release freely. Simple as that.

We took turns to strap the harness to our bodies and being hoisted up off the ground in order to simulate the conditions we would be facing. We also had to go through the main chute release procedure that would lead to the release of the emergency chute. We were reminded time and time again that the main chute must be cleared and out of the way before reaching for the emergency release. Failure to do so would result in a tangled mass of cables and material with a rather final consequence at the end of the journey.

We all had to sign a disclaimer.

My mind switched back to the present. At the airfield things were tense and nervous. I was placed in a group of four that included the jumpmaster. We packed ourselves into heavy canvas jumpsuits with flared sleeves and legs, crammed our heads into rather flimsy looking white helmets and finished of the look with a pair of plastic goggles to cover our eyes. The chute pack was fitted last and seemed so much heavier than when we had tried it on before.

Did my chute have a twist in the cables, had it been properly packed, was it airworthy, was I stupid to place my life in the hands of an unknown other? Those questions never occurred to me. I simply moved forward in a numb, robot-like fashion to the door of the awaiting plane. It looked small. It was small. We were packed in like sardines in a can, given a pleasant wave by the team members left on the ground and trundled down the taxi way ready for take off.

Once airborne, we circled and circled the airfield to gain the required 3000 foot jump height. It doesn’t sound like a great height and in a jet this is achieved in a matter of seconds after take off. In this single engine plane though, it seemed like forever. Birds were flying faster and I thought at one time I saw a bird land and preen itself on the wing strut of our plane as we struggled to gain height.

My turn to jump came all too soon.

At 3000 feet the pilot switched off the engine, replacing the strained drone of the engine with the eerie whistling of the wind as it squeezed past the fragile frame of the plane.

“Get ready!” shouted the jump master.

I moved out to the edge of the plane. Stretched out my hands to grab hold of the overhead strut, then stood on the wheel axle with my left foot, crossed over the right and dangled it in space; all as I was supposed to do.


I fell.

Not the graceful back bent arch that had been expected, but in a curled up foetal position that indicated my true state. I screamed, I think. I can’t remember. My helmeted head came into contact with the rubber tyre of the plane… or so I was told. I bounced and my body somersaulted backwards – not through some attempted artistic control. Upside down and absolutely petrified with fear, the chute opened after a long three seconds of terror. It opened ok, I think. I can’t remember.

What I do remember is hanging in mid-air in the sudden quiet, looking around and thinking, “Why jump out of a perfectly good plane?”

– switching back to the present moment, I look back with a twisted fondness at that event. I could easily have been killed on that jump. The rip chord could have twisted itself around my neck and pulled my head off my torso. A million things could have gone wrong, but only about 500,000 did. I was lucky.

So much of our lives are spent in dull routine. Days pass by in which nothing really happens, and as a result we don’t really remember one moment from the next. My parachute jump has etched itself in the fabric of my mind simply because the mix of fear and adrenaline worked together to do so.

Do we all have moments like that?

I hope so.