Mmm- mmmmy Corona!

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace Have no delight to pass away the time, Unless to see my shadow in the sun And descant on mine own deformity. And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determinèd to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days. 

– Act 1 Sc 1 Richard III- Shakespeare

cue: heavy bass drum + tom n snare intro                                                                                    cue: bass riff                                                                                                                                        cue: Strat intro

mm “M-m-m- my Corona!”                     Wooooooo!

… you get the idea – I think…

But how am I determined to prove a villain? The days are certainly fair and well-spoken of. Yes, there is nothing much to do in this weak piping time of peace. Quarantine is quarantine, after all – even though supermarkets, trains, planes and automobiles are liberally peopled. A lock down it ain’t. At least not here in Tokyo.

It is voluntary, you know. We are counting on your sense of social responsibility, that you stay at home, and if you do go out, that you maintain social distancing of 2 meters or more. News reports show data collected from cell phones, that the usually well peopled places such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ueno are peopled less by a substantial 75%. So the question is, what are the 25% doing gadding about and frolicking whilst the rest of “us” (responsible beings that we are) are subjecting ourselves, and our imprisoned loved ones, to yet another cute parrot video on YouTube.


“Mommy, mommy…Look at ME!”

Wot? Again? Didn’t I look at you just before? Why do you insist on ALL of this attention? – repeat on loop….

How do I know this? Teachers keep in touch with students at home via the various apps designed for just such an event and get to see into numerous homes. Mostly these recorded video conferences have in common the cameo appearances of younger siblings (often screaming and crying), bedraggled mothers, a background of plastic junk-toys liberally scattered to all corners and….. not a moment of peace.

“See you later. Bye-bye…. nice to see you!” – click.                                                                   Thank God for that!

Online classrooms are the perfect classrooms as there are no behavioural issues to contend with. The Jakes, Dylans and Lukes stay at home and are the responsibility of those who chose to bring them into existence in the first place, rightly so. There is the freedom to walk away and to leave what is yet undone to another time. There is though one fly in the ointment, as there has to be, and that is the almost constant pull to the fridge to graze once more on last night’s apple crumble, or to gaze wistfully at another absolute necessity in an online catalogue and click the “buy now” button before reason kicks in. Weight is rapidly found or regained and spaces, once enjoying the luxury of emptiness, are now filled with trinkets the results of impulse.

TBH, what is being highlighted by these Corona Times is that online schooling is fully possible. The tech tools are there to facilitate it. And…. well that is about it. There it is. There is absolutely no need for schools any more as all curriculum can be delivered safely to homes via bots and vids. No more sick puking kids scattering their germs to their peers trapped and herded together in classrooms. No more of any of that communal stuff, actually. Why bother with all the fuss?  It really does show us that the idea of “school” is probably well worn out and can be quietly shoved aside for a more open laissez faire approach to education, life in general and..everything else.

Kids at home more would lead to greater interaction between neighbours. Greater interaction between neighbours would lead to a strengthened community, inclusion, caring, sharing and less need for speed. We are learning that there really is no need to go out shopping. There is contentment to be found in a simple walk with family, taking time to connect meaningfully with friends, and sharing thoughts with a quiet mind given space to ruminate.

There is an end to everything.

Watch, observe and be…


Every morning when I awake, I am reborn. The self of yesterday is a memory that functions as a useful guide. The habits and routines I have in place make a certain amount of automaticity evident. Get up, meditate, walk, shower, coffee n breakfast (or not)… and so on. If, however, I were to take a snapshot of “my world” at exactly the same time every day, we would find differences at all levels from the gross to the minute. The larger cycles of time, season and date are obviously in play, but so too are the day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute and second by second swirls of energetic movement that ensures that we live precipitously balanced on the edge of an abyss of constant change in which absolutely nothing endures. Even “I” appears to be a fiction.

We could say that the only reason we do not all go barking mad at once, is that we are taught to believe that what we experience as reality is stable and reliable. However, when that belief is undermined through the myriad types of loss we face through the simple fact of living and being alive, then fear and anxiety can send us into a tailspin. We suffer because what we are emotionally attached to, and invested in, is ephemeral.

A friend of mine once scoffed at the idea I gave voice to that all human endevour is due to desire. It is desire that propels us to seek comfort when we are uncomfortable, to eat when we are hungry, to socialize when we are lonely, to create stability and order where chaos reigns. The basic desire to fit in with our peers will work to modify our behaviours so that we become “like them,” rather than risk the chance of being outcast and susceptible to the vagaries of the environment. The trouble is though, that as we expend efforts to fit in and fulfil our desires, that we become thoroughly attached to the idea of a separate and individual self with unique personality traits, ideas, opinions and possessions. There rises the idea of “mine” as opposed to “yours” – or further definitions that divide the “us” from the “them,” with perceived differences in statehood and religious beliefs having expressed themselves in conflict and war.

The reality is that when we become aware of our propensity to attach to self, person, place and thing… that we can release ourselves gradually from this bondage through the gentle art of non-engaged observation. Oddly enough what emerges, over time, is not some callous and distant automaton, but a compassion filled nature that loves and nurtures the ephemeral even more. A paradox.

Watch, observe and be.


Meditation – Finally, the real thing!


After many years of following instructions and methods regarding meditation and meditation practice, I have finally discovered the simple reality.

Do Nothing.

Not as easy as it sounds, actually. Especially when at the outset the racing mind has every other intention BUT to do nothing. The path of the meditator is a long one and in these days of the quick fix and minimal attention spans exacerbated by flickering media vying for validation, it is all too easy to set aside sitting on a cushion for protracted periods of time.

The benefits of meditation have been clearly established through numerous randomised control trials that have listed outcomes from lowered heart rates and blood pressure to increased concentration spans and mental clarity. There are some who venture on the path in order to become “enlightened,” however, as we shall see later on, this intent is in itself a trap for the mind created by the mind to entertain itself.

A veritable smorgasbord of meditation styles exist. In the 1960s The Beatles were the vehicle on which Maharishi jumped to promote Transcendental Mediation (TM). The popularity of Yoga and its spread added further fuel, although in the West it is seen more as a system of physical exercise to develop strength and flexibility rather than for its original intent. Buddhism became a popular alternative to staid conservative religions and now has a growing influence globally through the secularised offshoot of Mindfulness. It is cool to be Zen.

So then, what works? More importantly, how do we know that what we are doing “works,” especially when we are doing “nothing”?


Truth is everything works. Kindasorta. Mumbling mantras, prayerful visualised absorptions, bendy asanas, mudras, cold showers, imbibing sacred green teas and munching on weeds. Yes, it all works in the sense that it gives the mind material to play with. There are benefits in all the above (and besides), with the practitioner getting a sense that their spiritual practices are making them better and more godly – all good, if that is so. But…. mind play is mind play – and that is all there is to it.

Alternatively, when the mind is given an object to concentrate on, and then is repeatedly brought back to this object, it will, after some time, become quiet. A quiet, still mind is the diamond find.

The object of concentration is the sensation of the breath. The focus is on the part of the body at which the breath enters and exits the body. Non-judgemental observation of the breath whilst maintaining a peripheral awareness is the key.

Over time, the focus on breath can be dropped and attention can dwell in full expansive clarity. This is the state of being in which nothing is done.

Ruffing It

Keiko, blessed be she, is very fond of dogs. To be exact, she is fond of the West Highland Terrier, or Westie. To be even more specific, she is fond of the idea of giving a home to a Westie, as in reality we do not have a pet to put a name to. We do however have Westie calendars, placemats, dangly earrings, socks with Westie prints, prints with Westie socks and a book of potential names for cute Westie puppies.

The Westie, is a dog that looks strikingly similar to yours truly with white beard, tufted hair, a small nose and pink ears. The only difference, as far as I can tell, being the fact that I wear glasses and Westies do not.

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In the “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dogs” weekly magazine that Keiko subscribes to, the Westie is described as “an endearing little tyke with narry a bad feature.” The descriptors themselves sounding rather appealing until it is realized that “tyke” means “mischievious, stubborn and recalcitrant,” – again rather uncannily like the old codger whom she lives with anyway. Why would she want two of us? Am I not enough of a challenge?

In my opinion, parrots or cockatoos are much more suited to my temperament. I used to pass a caged cockatoo on the way to work in the mornings. It always managed to squawk a cheerie “Ohayo” at me and seemed a happy and well disposed being. The African Grey Parrot is a great mimic and can, apparently, copy the sound of a liquid gurgling and glugging its way out of a bottle. A parrot features in the Tintin comics as Captain Haddock’s unruly sidekick. I spend hours on youtube watching the cute antics of birds bopping and dancing, squawking and chirping, and occasionally swearing at their humans. All good fun. And all good reasons to consider actually having one in the house.

Chameleons are also a possible alternative. They can be housed in an aquarium and kept warm with a heating light. Bugs and insects can be caught and fed live to the famously darting tongue that moves at a speed beyond perception to the human eye. We are slow as turtles in comparison. A friend on mine used to have a chameleon. Note the past tense. The little bugger escaped his (or her) aquarium, changed colour to suit the mat it landed on and was promptly squished by my friend’s wife’s bare feet as she did not see the cunning changeling underfoot. Needless to say, there were squeals and squeaks of mortification, disgust and horror. Also, needless to say, the aquarium now stands empty.

But, dogs it is.

I’m not too sure though. Who do you think would have to get up earlier in the morning to take the beast out for a poop? Who do you think the creature would have as the poop carrier…. and who do you think would be in charge of disposing said excrement? – Hands up….anyone?

Also, as highly social beings, dogs need lots of company and almost constant validation of some sort. My brother was constantly surrounded by his Rottweiler and German shepherd. They would follow him wherever he went seeking his gaze, appreciatively slobbering at being called “good boys” and protectively growling at any passers-by who dared to even glance at him. Dogs are attention sponges. They love to love us and consequently when we are absent the lack of love hurts. I pity the poor pooch left behind in the house for the day as the humans head off for work, school, shopping or play. Apparently they have no concept of time with a minute away being equally as excruciating as a day away. Lets not do this to our best friends shall we?

So. A decision regarding dogs. We can get all kinds of cutesie paraphernalia to show our love for the species and type. We can sing songs in praise of, and write fondly about…but not to have in the house as long as we both have to be away for most of the time.

Start Late… Finish Early

You should have seen him work.

When I walk into his office he is on the phone. He looks up briefly, smiles tiredly and waves me to a seat opposite him while he continues speaking. The language is technical to the point where I quickly become distracted by the view out of the window. Wellington harbour lays resplendent before us. One of the few days per year that it could actually be seen and enjoyed, without interruptions from gale force winds, lashing rain, fog or other meteorological events.

“Unfair!” I hear the Windy City’s two or three supporters cry. “Wellington is a beautiful jewel of a city and every day is simply gorgeous!”

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…well – take a look at the reality..

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… I rest my case.

My attention is brought back to him as he hangs up the phone. We chat briefly, and then he gets another call. People call him and there is usually a sense of urgency in the timbre of the caller’s voice on the other end of the line. There is tension. I realise the tension exists because my Dad is about to retire and his colleagues, realising the wealth of knowledge in his head, are trying to prize every last item of information out of him before his due date.

Before his “promotion” to this desk job, when I visited him at his work in Wellington hospital, he cut a more relaxed figure in jeans and jandals. He had the air of a medical systems engineer who knew what he was doing, and did it well. Indeed, it had been a profession, that for him, had taken him from The Netherlands to Iran, Egypt, Chile, Venezuela, Mexico and New Zealand. Apparently, in Egypt, before moving into medical systems, he had had a hand in designing the lighting system for a smattering of pyramids just outside of Cairo. Not sure what that entailed exactly as I was just one year old at the time and remember nothing of it. As a family we simply tagged along behind.

The move to New Zealand was a decision to leave the ex-pat life behind in favour of a more stable environment for the family. Moving every 18 months to two years does not have a great or positive effect on either continuations of friendships, nor alignment between educational systems. Unfortunately, New Zealand was a total backwater.  Pleasant green fields filled with ruminating and flatulent sheep, where not only did nothing much happen…. it did not happen much repeatedly so. And yet, it was probably the best decision made by my parents on our behalf. Pity the family disintegrated six months after we arrived in Wellington on a cold, bleak winter’s day.

But that is another story. Six months later my Dad is dead.


These days, as I cram myself yet again into an overcrowded Yamanote line carriage here in Tokyo, I often wonder at the other salary men sharing my daily morning journey with me. The largely silent episodes, I hope are a time of personal reflection for them as they are, at times, for me. Each man potentially a zen master contemplating the ephemeral nature of existence. In reality though, each individual has probably gotten up at 5am, had a hurried cup of coffee and a donut before racing to catch the Tokyo train. The run, run, run of every day starts early and does not let up until the return journeys start after 7pm. There is a feeling of resignation in the air, not of purpose. This is done because it seems that it is expected and there aren’t any options outside of this.

In an effort to claim space for themselves, many are intent on the screens of their phones or mobile devices. One hand holding on to a strap or bar for support, the other holding the device. Thumbs have become expert at swiping and texting. Necks have developed the “kink.” The commute gives time to play a mindless stacking game, or a bubble popping game ( to win points), or engage in a first person shooter between stations. Some lucky ones actually have seats. The exhausted among them fall asleep, dip briefly into the subconscious, only to miraculously awaken at their stop and bound out of the train. I see one such fellow run at a mad dash for the escalator, a harried expression on his face.

Can it really be that important? Is this what it’s all about?

I consider that question often as I approach the same age that my Dad died. Perhaps I have a longer life expectancy than him, as I am fitter, less overweight and smoke less than he ever did. However, the news that one of my brothers recently suffered a massive heart attack (and lives to tell the tale), does make me think that perhaps the whole thing could fall apart in the blink of an eye. In my Dad’s case, it was a massive stroke that knocked him out of the field of life.

In one of my previous blogs, I recounted my wife’s mental health ordeal as she battled a major depressive episode. Two years on, she is recovering well and is a living testament to the efforts of the doctors, nurses, counselors, friends and family who rallied around to support her. Certainly our lives have changed because of it. And yet, we are still on the same mill that sent us tither.

Where is the learning?

The reality is that we are still subjecting ourselves to the mindless grinding routines that saw us sliding down the slippery slope towards bedlam in the first place. However, I would like to say that we have become more values driven, and that those values reflect a rejigging of the elements that we have found to be important in life. The choice lies in the space we give ourselves. Time to do nothing much. To read. To sleep. To bake bread. To let the house get messy and leave it. To leave the work at work.

To be at home.

Depression – where to get help..

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We can easily understand physical health and how to maintain it through exercise and diet control. We spend a good part of our biology classes in General Science at school learning about the intricacies of the human body, and how the various systems work. Mental health is something entirely different because of its unseen, intangible nature. A thought is not something that can be held or observed by another. In our intensely private inner worlds, much can be hidden from the view of others. We can appear to be balanced and grounded when in fact the internal reality is the complete opposite. We can see the effects of anxiety in another, so too depression – but by the time the physical symptoms start to make themselves known, the internal mechanisms that cause imbalance have long been churning away.

Big cities and modern life do not lend themselves well to the establishment of meaningfully deep relationships. There is a shallowness that exists simply because we have not had the experience of being deeply connected, or are even schooled in how to begin making networks of support. Look at the many apartment blocks around the central city and notice that the majority are pokey one-roomed spaces offering inhabitants 12 sqm of “room.” No more than a place to dump the body at the end of yet another 14 hour work day. Oddly amusing that these bolt holes have such palatial names as Grandia Lions Mansion, Parkside Place, Graceful Fields… and so on. There is nothing mansionesque about these grim testaments to the torturous Tokyo work day.

The quick and immediate are favoured above the slow and the long. Modern society is driven by the need to produce and consume at an ever increasing and frenetic pace. Technologically, if you do not update or renew your electronic devices on a regular three to six month basis, then you are missing out on possibly crucial developments. You will be left behind the throng of others competing in the thrill of the ever-new. God forbid you would find yourself with a model 3 phone in hand, when the rest of the populace is clamoring at the doors of the stores to get the model 10. Why the fuss? Doesn’t a 3 do the same as a 10?

Suicide rates in Japan are alarmingly high. There is a seasonal pattern evident that is linked to the end of the financial year and the contract renewal period at the end of March. The stress of losing a job and having to find another, without loss of face or a drop in income can lead salarymen at the end of their tethers to take their own lives by throwing themselves in front of a speeding express train. Even the well publicised “clean-up” costs that the remaining (possibly grieving) family are billed with and the massive backlog of commuters that result from each jump are not enough to dissuade the desperate from the final act. Some say that it is done to spite family and “work” in general. Work is such an important part of the modern urban identity that without it many feel valueless, lost and grow increasingly despondent.

Those that do work on a daily basis are on a seemingly endless treadmill leading nowhere except to bills, taxes, sickness and death. What a life! Any deviation from what is considered the norm is frowned upon, and any person with a gift or talent must fight to maintain their integrity in the face of the pressure to conform. There is very little opportunity to do things differently, simply because different implies “the unknown” – and that cannot be dealt with in a society in which trains run to schedule and everything starts and finishes on time.

I am thinking of a previous colleague of mine as I write. A well respected senior member of staff who was given a position of huge responsibility because of his obvious talents in administration. Not a permanent title, but one taken on rotation because of the stresses involved. All seemed to be going well. He displayed courage under fire. He maintained equanimity under duress. Until the time came for him to pass the baton to the next chosen person. The first signs that things were amiss occurred at the end of year party, when his sign-off speech lasted much longer than the normal five minutes. In fact, it became embarrassingly obvious twenty minutes later that he was not going to relinquish his hold on power willingly. There was hope that it was a momentary strain and all would be well at the start of the new year, however, when his outbursts in the staff room became a regular and embarrassing event, he was given a leave of absence that was protracted. No-one really mentioned him again. He was soon to be forgotten and only occasionally referred to, and then in quiet tones, as if he were dead.

Hush hush… seems to be the way to deal with mental ill health. It is a great unknown. The stories that abound of people being unendingly-incarcerated in privately run asylums in rural Japan are shocking because they are based on fact rather than popular myth. The science of psychiatry seems to be in the dark ages here, compared to the more enlightened practices in the West.

As a stranger living in a strange land, the prospect of dealing with emergencies usually occupies a background “what if” that is rarely considered fully. When the shit hits the fan though, it is important to take action. When it concerns not yourself, but a loved one, dear to many, it is even more crucial that the decisions made are life saving rather than the play-it as you go norms of daily life.

Last year the shit hit the fan for my wife.

There are many contributing factors to a breakdown. Those mentioned above in passing related to work, the stress of ageing parents, the blunt reminders of our own mortality and that our time here is finite. Whatever the reasons, the simple fact is that loss of mental health requires the support of many, if recovery is to be successful. Support networks, friendships and relationships are put to the test.

Depression has variations in severity. Many of us can understand some of the darkness that it brings through having experienced brief bouts after a break-up in a relationship, a loss or a disappointment of some sort. We tend to bounce back generally speaking and add the episode to our list of life experiences. The good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful that forms the collage of life. Deep depression is an entirely different fish and one that lurks in the abyss of the lesser known. It is shocking in its transformative intensity. It takes its victim into such terrifying depths of despair that it is difficult to ever imagine being able to return with mind intact.

We are so fragile.

Keiko had not yet fully recovered from hip replacement surgery in the summer before having to return to work. She felt unable to concentrate on the tasks before her, or to handle what she felt were normal expectations. There was a quick loss of confidence in herself and an inability to see a solution. Our first emergency occurred at a weekend when regular support services were closed. Darkness had descended so quickly that I felt I could not wait. The emergency department at the Adventist hospital indicated that we could go to see the duty doctor, which is exactly what we did. The doctor could not really do more than the usual “take two ….. and call me in the morning.” The “two” in this case were benzodiazepine of some form or another – and as I was about to find out, a very common prescription given to those in Japan suffering from anxiety.

Sleep patterns became interrupted, some times non-existent. The stress of the stress was beginning to feed on itself. Luckily, Keiko was able to see the surgeon who had treated her for breast cancer two years before. Dr. Mayuko mentioned that the hormone replacement therapy she was on as part of her five year recovery plan may be partly to blame for the sudden turn of events. She allowed Keiko to be admitted to hospital under her care and that of a psychiatrist who visited rarely. The benzos continued with some tranquilising effect, but no other treatment was offered. It seemed odd to me that the psychiatrist was in a sense keeping her distance and was not at all interested in linking Keiko to treatment in the hospital she was associated with. I learned later on, that was perhaps a very good thing indeed.

Keiko came home after a period of two weeks, however her condition continued to deteriorate. It was difficult having to go to work in the morning and leaving her trembling at the door. I really did not know what to do and felt a panic beginning to rise. Where could I turn? How can I get help here in Tokyo when my language skills are at the perpetual level of the beginner?

Friends rallied around. We tried to arrange for Keiko to be in contact with someone at all times so that she would not be by herself. But still there were times when she would be alone and we all feared that she was suicidal. We managed to get an appointment with an English qualified psychiatrist who has a clinic in downtown Tokyo. It was a breath of fresh air in that he offered a planned way out through a known route using a prescribed course of mirtazapine, whilst gradually weaning her off the benzodiazepines that we know now are so highly addictive and only a short term option outside of Japan. However, our hopes were soon dashed when Keiko reacted adversely to the medication and began to spiral down faster.

I began to think that admitting her to care was really the only option left open to me. To date, it has been the most difficult thing I have had to do in my life. We were both fearful as there was some truth to the horror stories we had heard. It certainly did not help at this tender time to have people in the medical field in Japan warn me sternly not to proceed. I seriously considered leaving the country and heading to New Zealand to get help for Keiko. In the end though, after speaking with a psychiatrist friend in Australia and emotional support from TEL in Tokyo, the next step became clear. There was no choice. With the help of a Japanese/English speaking friend and after a day of travelling by car from one hospital to the next we finally found the possibility of admittance at Tama Sogo Hospital.

Yes, it was a secure ward. Patients are closely supervised and monitored. There are rooms where patients that need to be strapped down to stop them from self-harming are isolated. Yes, the route to recovery is through medication, routine, rest, regulated diet and sleep. Yes, they do succeed.

Anyone who has ever had anything to do in a professional sense with psychiatric nurses and doctors knows of the tough love stance taken. From the outset, Keiko was treated with respect and given the space to find the ground again. She was listened to and nurtured back to health by a doctor who seemed freshly out of high-school, but who demonstrated a depth to his being beyond his years. I visited Keiko almost daily and saw the slow turn around happening. We spent time on a intricate colouring-in project that would later become one of our shared treasures. The patients on the ward became close friends and helped each other through conversations that seemed to take the place of counselling. We saw broken people getting well all around us. This was a place of healing. A sanctuary for the mind.

Infinite gratitude.


Wibble wobble

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Penguins are cute!
There is no doubt about it. I know this because I am standing at the edge of a glass fronted tank containing a score of these wibbly-wobbly creatures and watching them wibble-wobble from one fake shit covered rock onto another fake shit covered rock. The fact that there seems to be a rather large amount of excrement and an accompanying acrid aroma of amonia wafting in the air does absolutely nothing to dampen the ardour of the group of junior high school girls I am accompanying on this trip.

“Kawaiiiiii! Mecha kawaiiiiiiii!” they say in unison. Oddly enough, in their blue and white sailor style uniforms they do somewhat resemble the wibbly-wobblers in front of them.

I look around to see if there are any other instances of nature reflecting self, and after a short moment I perceive a grumpy looking tufted penguin standing off by itself, back turned to the squealing adoring schoolgirls. It is called a Rock Hopper apparently, and its tufted hairdo, hunched shoulders and downturned beak all lend it the air of a tired and grumpy English teacher.


I decide to check with the front office to see if the tufted Rock Hopper is up for adoption. I am impressed and want to take him home. At this stage I haven’t considered the amount of trouble that would ensue through having an essentially wild animal sharing my 40sqm space with the wife, the cat, the hamster and me, but I’m sure that it is nothing that can’t be overcome. I remain optimistic until the Rock Hopper being considered for re-homing raises its beak, squawks loudly and releases a stream of foul smelling excrement into the the pool below. Disappointed, I watch the cloud of ammonia meld itself with water and understand why the water is milky white at the same time. I believe it is an epiphany of sorts, but without the religious element.

Instantly, the crowd of adoring sailor suited junior high girls squeal in disgust.
“Eeeeeeh! Yaaaaddaa! Kusssaiiii!!”

And almost equally as quick, I am reminded of the fickle nature of these girls. The “on/off” buttons are actually the same, with one function only being activated at a time- either fully “on” or completely “off.” I also happen to know that they have the collective attention span of a goldfish, so to draw their attention away from the pooping bird, I point out a distant structure silhouetted on the horizon, and barely visible through the slight smog that hangs over Tokyo in perpetuity.

“Look, there’s Disney Castle!” I shout, with what I hope is enthusiasm, however it comes out more as a gargled screech that reveals my true feelings regarding anything Disney. It seems to work though, as the girls, as one, turn their heads in the direction I am pointing squealing in delight. Smartphones and peace signs are produced, group selfies are taken.. and disaster is avoided.

This particular sea- side aquarium located on reclaimed land just next to acres of imported Americana, is particularly famous for having successfully entanked a school of tuna. A difficult and challenging feat as tuna swim fast and over vast distances. How then to keep them in a tank? The answer lies in the screen of air bubbles that rises up next to the glass of the centralised circular tank. The tuna are scared away from the rising bubbles and are guided around the tank in a never ending circular track that mimics the distances they would swim in the wild. Pure genius. The irony of watching these silver torpedoes swim in school formation whilst on a school trip is not lost on me. It could lead to deeper philosphical introspection, however, my students are more interested in the contents of the aquarium shop that sells, among other equally useful items, fluffy mini penguins that can be dangled from their backpacks. I guffaw at their shallow values, and smirk at their need to appear unendlessly cute, however I do buy a fluffy dangler to add to my collection of dangling items for no other reason than being shallow and valueless myself.

Are there more distractions here? Have we seen the octopi? The deep sea crabs? The swarm of jellyfish? Have we touched the rough sandpaper like skin of the shark? Have we noted how the coral seems to sway in the artificial current?

We move en masse to the next exhibit, which has less poop, but an equally cute array of puffins that seem to regard our intrusion with disdain. They remind me of a group of pompous British gentlemen gathered at club attired in smoking jackets and cigars in hand.

“Waduyuwant?” One of them telepathically beams at me, “Cant you see there’s a game on?”
I look around for any signs of a game and notice nothing of importance.
“What game?” I beam back.
“Oh f’godsakes!” the besuited puffin beams back. “Get a life will ya!”

…. rude little bird.

I beam back an image of a chicken carcass slowly turning on a rotisserie spit and stifle a laugh as the rude little bird hops uncomfortably from one foot to another. Got ‘im!

At least the penguins had good manners.

Speaking of penguins, or actually going back to their undoubted anthropomorphic like-ability, there exists in New Zealand South Island a colony of Fairy Blue Penguins. Cute as can be. So much so that the nesting site has become a tourist attraction. It can be found in the once prosperous town of Oamaru, which straddles the main route heading towards Invercargill. A slight diversion to the dockland area brings you to the nesting site the popularity of which is highlighted by road signs indicating that traffic should slow down and drivers be on the alert for any fairy blues attempting to cross the street.

The department of conservation has erected a set of bleachers and a viewing platform to give the humanoids a better view of the daily event which occurs at sunset. When the idea of this particular tourist trap was first mooted, the bleachers were a rickety affair that seemed to have been dragged over from the local rugby ground and unceremoniously dumped at water’s edge. Gradually, over time, various improvements occurred until the latest structure appeared sporting such design elements such as directive lighting, mood music, knick-knack shop and a ticket selling office. There is money to be made from penguins after all! Rather than just standing about without much idea or clue, proceedings have also been allocated their own Emcee who will alert the gathered audience to the penguin’s diminutive frames as they bob up and down in the surf before invading the beach like a D-Day landing. Odd how it happens with such regularity.

At an agreed upon signal from the most experienced (or foolhardy) bird, the fairies body surf the last few metres to the shore and then head at top speed for the shelter of their nests, roughly another ten metres from the water’s edge. No doubt if my Japanese students were in attendance they would utter squeals of delight, a few “kawaiiiis!” and be dancing with the excitement of it all. Notwithstanding their absence, the spectacle of the mini flippered wibbly wobblers, wibbly wobbling their way to their evening homes is an endearing one and well worth the trip for the gathered folk.

Once the fairies reach the safety of the tall grasses, they suddenly change their mad dash to a casual stroll. A certain laissez-faire attitude pervades and the feeling of peace after danger overcome is palbable. Urgent squawks, are replaced by happy chirps and contented squeaks. Some even stop for a well earned spot of preening. Rather odd. Rather odd, until the Emcee informs us that the danger the fairies are collectively warding against is the evil in the skies above in the form of the marauding sea eagle that adopts stuka style tactics and dive bombs and straffes the penguins landing below. A nightly festival of blood n guts!

Brave little penguins!

The gathered crowd swells with pride at the knowledge of this daily trial so stoically met. They cast their eyes skyward, scanning the grey clouds for the enemy, no doubt preparing themselves to step in as allies in the battle of the beach. However, the news that the marauding Sea Eagle is long since extinct but that the group protective behaviours remain turns the pride to disbelief.

Stupid birds!

But consider this… perhaps the white froth of the surf and waves is not due to the usual compostion of sea water mixed with air, but “other” materials expelled from the bodies of the assembled fairies in the group angst before the beach assault. Consider also that as a popular surfing beach, some protective cream to guard against the corrosive qualities of guano on sensitive skin may be a sensible investment.

Just sayin’…

Death in Japan


On a man sized tray lay the bones of that which but a short time before had been the body of my brother in law. Taking a pair of long chopsticks, the priest expertly sifts through the skeleton, making comments on the various parts. He pays special attention to the throat bone that has remained intact through the cremation, an auspicious moment apparently, but I’m not sure why.

Tatsu was certainly a round peg in a square hole. I had heard about him, of course. And I knew something of his struggles to gain acceptance from his father. As the eldest son, much was expected from him.

My first and only meeting with him was brief and awkward. It seemed he was always working or on a business trip whenever there were family gatherings. His young son and his wife were there, but no Tatsu. Probably at the cajoling of his father, he made an appearance, but dressed in samurai costume. He had taken some time to prepare the outfit and he took trouble to explain that he had wanted to impress me with his period play. I really did not know what was going on. The icy, glacial stare from father did not help to diffuse the situation at all.

I thought of my own dysfunctional family…..

Tatsu worked in an industry which killed him. The hospitality business is one which demands and encourages the consumption of alcohol which to many Japanese people is more of an apparent poison than to others. There is an enzyme lacking which leads to intolerance. The effects of even a miniscule amount of alcohol send the drinker into an over reactive state that causes immediate flushing along with other symptoms. The irony is that the after work drink, followed by the “second party,” is an inescapable right of passage enforced by the office hierarchy with no party pooping allowed. Be part of the industry that sells the alcohol and you become awash in it yourself. What killed Tatsu at the age of 39 was chronic pancreatitis exacerbated by heavy drinking.

We do not often think of death, do we? We look upon our bodies and the spirit that animates us as being on an infinite continuum. A trip to forever. The reality is that everything that is born, must die and that everything we have, must be surrendered. It seems rather silly then, doesn’t it, that we spend most, if not all, of our lives in the pursuit of things to get, things to have and things to become.


Vipassana II

chibaAn odd thing..

The mind sets before us one distraction after another in a never-ending story about self that seeks to entertain. It swiftly creates these trains of fantasy from snippets of fact, embroiders it further with fictions recalled from memory, adding senses and feelings to arrive at what we so erroneously call “the present moment.”

It all makes even less sense when we realise that the thoughts and feelings we are aware of are already done and dusted, even though a matter of milliseconds – it simply is not possible to think of yourself in any present.

So, here we are then. Mobara. For the sixth time.

Hmmm! Surprisingly good coffee. Unusual as more often than not, stepping out beyond the perimeters of the big city in Japan also means stepping back in time to supermarket shelves filled with dried fish and squid products, white bread and cafes that sell lukewarm drip coffee that tastes like it has been standing in the same forgotten pot for over a month. Not so in this case. I’m sitting in Café Adriano in Mobara and working on my second double espresso Machiatto. I need to tank up on the coffee as I’m about to head out to yet another 12 day caffeine free, vegetarian retreat.

The proprietor at Adriano recognises me from my previous visits and I am hoping he will also notice the bright shining halo about my angelic visage as my impending enlightenment bursts forth and advertises itself to the world and beyond. But no, he looks me over once and says “Ma, chotto” Which can be nicely translated to “Dude, you’re getting fat!” I was about to point out that the dried up looking cheesecake on the counter looked suspiciously like the one he had airing there the year before, but I hold back, waft pleasant thoughts at him and contemplate another coffee.

I look at my watch and grudgingly have to put my third cup of coffee on hold as its time to board the bus. At the bus top, my head pleasantly awhirr with caffeine, the course attendees start to appear from the station. The usual range of products: packs, long skirts, scarves, bandanas, suitcases – as well as the usual assorted range of people ranging from the relatively young, to the old and cranky.

We pack ourselves onto the bus with the locals by now very much used to the odd assortment of people and baggage that signal the start of another retreat.

The trip out to the site takes us through the town of Mobara, passed tiny rusty “Snack Bars” with no doubt their own generationally loyal patrons and further out through the rice fields, stands of tall bamboo, increasingly narrow footpath like roads and eventually to what has now become my annual pilgrimage, the Chiba Vipassana centre. Slowly the place is changing. There are some additional dormitories for women, the ablution areas are now more permanent. There is a sense that these folk are here to stay and the regular sixty or so people who attend every month around the year reinforce that.

I have helped out on retreat staff a number of times, now. I know first hand the hard work it takes to prepare the daily meals, keep the place clean and comfortable for the meditators. Yes, it is free to attend – but bills still have to be paid. For a single person to attend a 12 day retreat the costs are around 5,000 yen per day. Bear in mind that you could easily attend, benefit from the experience and simply walk away from it, but it does mean that someone else, somewhere, is paying for your experience. It is called charity.

These days my mind is not engaged in the ceaseless chatter that it once was. I know that there exists a peace beyond the noise. I also know how to get there. Is this due to vipassana practice or is it through inquiry and self-reflection over an extended space of time. When I sit to meditate there is a grounding that takes place. As the mind clears it is not necessary to direct it to sensation or to follow the breath. The taped discourses of Goenka fade into the background and become part of the colour, but not the essence.

A simple surrender to what is, is all that is necessary.

I let go and I sit.

Many thanks for the space.

Many thanks for the opportunity.





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Language is like a jumbled Rubik’s Cube. We know, from having seen solved examples, that it is possible to align like colors with like faces, and through a combination of experimentation and guided mentoring, to eventually arrive at a solution for ourselves. In first language learning, we revel in our own success when the babble around us becomes gradually intelligible and meaningful as the pieces of the cube begin to fit into place. When we become more proficient in language, we strive to express how we feel through our communications and then, perhaps, delve into the feelings and thoughts of others through verse, prose, drama and lyric. Language becomes the basic tool in all of our interactions and acts to bind us together in linguistically cohesive groups. We speak the same language, we share the same culture; we belong. The world makes sense.

We are given a black cube.

We recognize the cube in our hands as “another language cube.” We know that when we solve it, that it too, will open up different worlds and cultures to us. We know how language works from our first successes, but the black blank faces of this cube stare mutely back at us. The rules have changed.

In Japan, efforts to grasp the “new rules” as quickly as possible, has seen the English language parceled into the separate skill areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. In addition, English Oral (listening and speaking), is often taught by native speakers of English in the hope that the plethora of students in each class will magically acquire both fluency and perfect pronunciation by proximity. All seems well and good with efforts to make the new language as accessible as possible, until we realize that the various teachers in charge at each level tend to focus almost entirely on their own language skill sections without any real consultation regarding curriculum and content. The effect of this is to add to the confusion that language learners experience in trying to make sense of the new language. “Good” students do learn and acquire skills in the target language over time, but this is mainly due to their own efforts, motivation and continued determination to succeed, rather than as a consequence of cohesive language curriculum planning.

The key to successful language learning is a cohesive approach in which the various skills are brought together and complement each other. At the planning level, teachers working together using a theme based approach allows students to make connections more readily. The skills may still be taught in isolation and by different teachers, however because studies are thematically linked, vocabulary items, grammatical structures, and content knowledge is recycled and reinforced. For example, at the beginning level at university, a theme based around “Work Culture,” may see students compiling interview questions and interviewing peers about their daily routines, part-time jobs and professional ambitions. This information could then be used to conduct research into work routines and habits of other student cultures. A culminating presentation could require students to present their findings and make predictions about the changing work environment and the possible skills that will be required in future professions. The uniting theme of “Work Culture,” functions to introduce and recycle vocabulary, sets reading/research targets and requires performance in writing and speaking that help to gauge learning as well as providing opportunities for language production.

In the real world constraints exist that work to counteract and limit the best intentions. The best possible situation would see a core of full-time teachers planning and implementing a language program together. What happens in reality is that teaching hours are shared among full and part-time staff, all being driven by different schedules and personal aims. It is difficult, if not impossible, to set regular planning/curriculum meetings with the resulting “curriculum” almost being driven by default by publishers selling ” one-size-fits-all language courses” that are easy to deliver, but not linked to students needs or extant abilities.

 At the very least, though, if we want our students to succeed and become proficient in English in an environment where the constraints of time and scheduling apply, then we must consider suitable alternatives. Two that come to mind are controlling class sizes, and content driven language teaching. Both taken in tandem allow teaching staff to plan and implement comprehensive full-skill language programs, develop meaningful interactions with students in class and allows for opportunities for relevant language use. To make this fully viable, trained and skillful teachers, who are able to accurately gauge student needs and develop curriculum content independently offer the best prospect for success.