Maki – short story

Maki stood casually in the doorway of her home, watching the distant crows peck and fight noisily at the garbage mound in the far field. In mid-flight, they seemed like black swirling gnats on the expansive azure sky. She enjoyed the otherwise quiet time before everyone else awoke, guarding it jealously and wrapping herself in a comforting cloak of stillness that would cling to her throughout the remainder of the day.

She knew Grandmother was awake, eyes staring up into the still darkened roof space above her. From the doorway where she stood, Maki could almost make out the shape of the old woman’s sparse form, lying in the cot on the raised sleeping platform. She knew too, that her bony hands would be clutching and grasping ceaselessly at the worn threadbare blanket that provided her a comforting link to her past. These days the old woman preferred lying down, it seemed it was less effort. Sometimes, though, she would crank her old frame out of the cot, and creak about wearily; cussing and swearing, harmlessly bumping into the world about her.

Turning her attention away from the inside of the house, she heard the sword smith at his fire. Creaking foot bellows pumped by his adoring acolytes and, eventually, she saw thin wisps of smoke break out of the smoke stack, uncurling like newborn dragons released into the morning sky. Soon the tap-tap-clang of metal against metal on anvil would fill the air, providing a background to the day at the base amongst other sounds. The master was a predictable man and a slave to a steady routine that, ironically, had made him the creative and productive powerhouse of the village. All accomplished with an unassuming and silent modesty. Watching him at work was like watching minimalist theatre. Each step controlled and calculated, deriving maximum results from minimum effort. A philosophy in motion. Letting the metal work and shape itself, he became the tool, the metal working him, forming the spirit within as much as the metal without.

Looking to the middle-distance beyond the smithy and, it seemed, in front of the bevy of clamorous crows, she saw another form bending over harvesting grain. It was still early and yet she knew that he had probably been up since before sunrise. It had been a good year, sun and rain aplenty. Seeing him reminded her of their brief tryst 3 years back. He had been strong and serious, yet gentle inside. Somehow though, it hadn’t worked out between them; maybe too much in common. Time had passed and these days he chose to keep himself apart. In a way it was better because his distance, self-imposed though it was, had had a simplifying effect. She had agreed at the separation at the time and hadn’t insisted, even for the child’s sake. But, still…

On the horizon, she noticed a plume of black acrid-looking smoke curling into the still morning air; possibly someone’s house. She could imagine the panic and the commotion, but she had no friends or relations over that way, so there was nothing really to worry about. There was no sense in complicating life. Turning her back and stepping into motion, she took the brush broom from its hook on the outside of the house, and started sweeping the packed earthen floor. Regular right to left, step back; right to left, step back; right to left, step back; turning, left to right, sweep, stoop and gather. The previous day’s straw had a slight dampness to it, but it still burnt well in the fire. Crackling, popping and spitting occasionally. She took fresh straw from the bale in the corner and scattered it generously on the floor. It was dry and smelled of the summer sun. Steam rose from the cast iron pot on the hearth in the centre of the room. The rice porridge was nearly ready and just needed seasoning with some dried seaweed, fish-flakes, salt and a dash of fresh curd.

She removed the pot from the fire and placed it on the wooden bench to cool and reminded herself to move it back slightly as either the old woman or the child, might bump it off the edge, and over themselves. The child was now two and a half-years old and would soon receive her name. Maki was looking forward to the rituals and the celebrations afterwards, not because it had any spiritual significance or meaning to her, nobody really cared about that any more, but simply because it would be a welcome break from the routine humdrum of daily life, and it was also a way to more closely knit family and friends together. Even though most children these days survived easily into their teens, it was a reminder of when it was common to lose one in three children to a disease of one sort or another. The first naming was an important milestone, and that the child was by that stage strong enough to meet the challenges that life offered.

She thought about possible names. Certainly the child was headstrong, stubborn and willful, but there were also softer qualities there that provided a balance. A name that reflected the child’s nature would be ideal. Nothing too unusual though. She’d have to give it more thought. In the meantime there was the more pressing problem of paying for the Naming ceremony. Maki didn’t like the priests and thought they were charlatans and leeches, living off traditions and the fears of the community. Was there a choice though? Could she just name the child herself and be done with it? Grandmother would never approve, and nor would the members of the village council. Still none of them had offered to help her pay for the ceremony. Maybe it was time to get the father involved after all. It could also lead to a drawing closer, but she didn’t hold her hopes that high.

There must be another way.

She looked around her small living room and scanned for things that she could sell. She used everything. The few ornaments she had were too valuable for her to get rid of. They probably weren’t of any significance to anyone else, they just helped her to remember times and people. That after all was the treasure of life. She looked at her gathering kit and decided that she’d try the forests for mushrooms. They’d be very scarce this time of year, but she may be in luck if she went early enough on a damp morning. Had it been the right season, she could have cut and gathered bamboo shoots to steam. She’d marinade them a little, steam them and then sell them at the market. But that was just an idle thought. She would think of something. All in all, she had about 5 months before she would have to pay for the ceremony. The priests were at least patient about payment; as long as it came before the actual day. Whatever happened, she’d look into inviting a few of the other women along and make a pleasant time of it. It was hard work in the forests, but friends always lightened the load. She was looking forward to it already and decided to ask Kimiko at the market later on that day.

There. The child was awake.

Her daughter tumbled out of her cot and came running to her. So full of energy and life, driven by a curiosity that often got her into trouble with her elders, but also endeared her to them. Maki remembered the time just recently when the child had found a sudden interest in making little pottery items from cow dung. She had been quietly absorbed in the artistic rendering of her dung pots behind the stables that housed the neighbor’s animals, totally unaware that her absence was causing some commotion and worry among the adults. She could have wondered off, again, and fallen into a well, or into the river, as children are prone to do. Grandmother had eventually found her behind the stables adding water to her dung mix. The child had succeeded in almost covering herself with excrement and needed a thorough wash before she was admitted to the company of adults. She was very proud of her creation though and gave it to her mum in a very serious manner that mimicked the adult gift giving ceremony. That had been priceless!

Maki looked at the child’s gift to her – a miniature dung pot – and held it in her hands before placing it carefully back on the window sill. It was one of those items that meant absolutely nothing to anyone else, and yet it managed to contain all those precious memories in itself. How were we to remember those golden moments in our lives without these prompts, she thought. Life was just too long to rely on the workings of memory alone, there had to be keys to unlock those experiences and bring them back to mind. Maki was keenly aware of that fact and often made a conscious effort in these quiet mornings, to review the histories of the objects contained in her growing collection.

Not now though.

She caught the child in her arms and breathed in her warmth and life. What joy this child brings! She never thought that it could be possible to feel such a connection, such a bond. At times she became anxious at a possible loss, but she soon drove those thoughts out of her mind. There was absolutely no use in becoming overprotective of children. They were here to learn to live after all. Keeping them from experience, whether that was good or bad, was not a role that Maki thought was hers. She involved as many people as possible in the child’s life and ensured that she lived as fully as possible.

“Mama, I’m hungry..”

“So, what’s new? Do you want to eat a horsie for breakfast?”

“A horsie?”

“Yes, a big fat juicy horsie!”

The child giggled and squirmed. Was it possible to hold still? She always seemed to be in motion. The energy was constant. Only when the child slept was there a possibility of peace for her body. Even then though, as she slept, she would dream. Maki had watched her. The child’s eyes would move behind her closed lids as if they were following phantoms. There was another world inside of the child to which she had no access, she could only imagine what her child dreamt of.

Maki and child walked giggling to the kitchen area. She put her down and rummaged around for a bowl, spoon and ladle. Then dipped the ladle into the cooling porridge and scooped two spoonfuls into the bowl. She loved the raw feeling of the earthenware in her hands. It had been made especially for her and she had sat watching its form appear on command from the potter’s fingertips as the wet clay turned on the wheel. She had seen the pot swirl into life before her disbelieving eyes. How could something so beautiful and practical rise out from within a ball of wet clay? She had marveled at her friend’s skill and rejoiced, when after the firing, the bowl came forth in its glory.

“There you are my child. Take the bowl in both hands and go and sit next to grandma.”

“I don’t wannoo..”

“I thought you said you were hungry?”

“I don’t wannoo sit by granma..”

“Oh, really…. mmmm? Well, then sit where you want”

She took the bowl in both hands, waited as Maki placed the spoon in the porridge, and then walked over and sat next to the smiling old lady.

Grandma had been watching intently all the while and gave the child a playful tickle under her chin as she came and sat next to her on her sleeping mat. The old lady was frail in frame, but her mind was usually sharp and alert. There were times though, Maki noticed, when she drifted off into what seemed another world. Her mother existed more and more in another space and time. Sadly, it made her think that the old lady’s death was drawing closer by the day. Perhaps the only thing that kept her going these days was the life of the young child in her care. Maki wished that her grandmother would live to see the child through the first naming ceremony in a few months time. She knew as a certainty that the old woman would not survive to see the seventh year of the child and that filled her heart with sadness.

“What were we to do though?” thought Maki. “Do we stop life because of the pain? Do we cease to love because we know that we lose those whom we love?”

She knew the answers already.


Joe didn’t make it. When I first saw the tall, pimple-faced teenager, I thought that he looked out of place. He had the long blond locks of a surfer, or more likely an urban skateboarder, and a distant hungry look in his eyes that made you think he wanted to be somewhere else. He was there as usual for breakfast and lunch on the fourth day into the course, but when the rest of us were having a tea break at 3 pm, I noticed that his bags had gone. He seemed to have left in a hurry as his futon was left unfolded with the bed linen strewn in a mess on top in seeming protest. Retreats are not for everyone.

When I first arrived in Japan many years ago, I had been expecting to find a plethora of Buddhist temples offering Zen meditation. Having been introduced to the practice of meditation through martial arts, I was looking forward to weekend retreats in the mountains under the watchful eye of an experienced and enlightened roshi, however, I quickly discovered that most temples around Tokyo were graveyards or tourist attractions that acted as cash cows for generationally rich Japanese families. I learned, for example, that the famous bronze statue of Buddha in Kamakura is owned by a family and that they have their residence on the grounds, but out of sight from tourists… as is their fleet of luxury vehicles.

In Kyoto there are some temples that advertise classes to give tourists a “taste of zen.” It usually means a quick tour of the temple, sitting down for 20 minutes of guided meditation, and then finishing up with a cup of bitter green tea. I met one monk who said that Zen was one of Japan’s best known exports, but that there wasn’t much interest in Japan; people in cities just did not seem to have the time to commit to regular practice. He himself had travelled to the United States for his training and when he returned to Japan he had hoped to start regular weekly Zen meetings, but on the night that I was there, there were only the two of us.

More recently, a weekly advertisement indicating Friday night zazen kept catching my eye in a local Tokyo newspaper. Finally, after months of dithering, I mustered enough energy after work to head out to Ueno on the Yamanote line. I found the temple in amongst office buildings about 10 minutes walk from the station and when I walked up the stairs to the fourth floor, I was surprised that the meditations were led and organised by a long-time Tokyo resident from the US. Again, the spacious hall was filled by the two of us.

So too, an annual weekend retreat in a temple in Shizuoka held over the Golden Week, is organised and run by a British monk living in Tokyo. When I attended, I found the temple staff were Japanese, and apparently ordained monks with the full robe outfits and shaven heads, but they seemed more interested in listening to enka, watching the horse races on the kitchen TV and drinking beer. Very little, if any, sitting in the dusty adjacent meditation hall. To them we were probably just a bunch of Japophile foreigners intent on an “authentic” Japanese experience. At one time we persuaded the head monk to chant a sutra for us and bang a gong, but then that really did have the effect of making me feel like a stupid tourist.

I had given up on the idea of finding a place to meditate in Japan, when one day a Facebook friend of mine announced that she had just been on a ten-day Vipassana course in Chiba, which was only two hours from my home. I looked online at the course web page and was surprised when I saw what people were going to do. Ten days of meditation, getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and going through to 9 o’clock at night. There were some breaks for lunch and rest, but it still meant ten hours of intensive meditation each day. I was shocked and wondered if I had the mental strength needed, but I decided to enrol in a course in the heat of summer and waited for the time to come.

I never have much need to get out beyond the city fringes. The large sprawl of Tokyo takes some time to get out of – whether that means going west towards the mountains or east towards the coast. I did have an idea of the rice fields and forests that lay beyond the city due to our numerous trips out to Narita airport, but the other parts of Chiba had remained a mystery until this time. Once beyond the city of Chiba itself, the land becomes an intense summer green that is not often associated with Japan. Extensive stands of bamboo, manicured rice fields in which white herons stepped through on stilted legs, small towns and one-hut train stations. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the train itself seemed to slow down and take on a more spaced out and casual approach to the earlier frenetic clickety-clacking within the city. Here there seemed an extra noise or two… clickety-clackety-click……. clickety-clackety-click. There was space to sit down on the seats. There was time to look out of the windows.

The Vipassana Centre in Chiba is out in the countryside, close to the town of Mobara. Established in 2006, the land on which the buildings sit is an old baseball diamond, complete with netting and run-down disused club houses. The centre members, renovated the buildings as much as possible, turned the largest building into a kitchen/dining room facility, and added temporary toilets and shower facilities. When the first residential courses were held, the participants slept in single pup tents raised off the ground on wooden platforms. All rather makeshift, but it worked. As word got out that there was an active Vipassana centre in Tokyo, more people became interested and the courses became increasingly popular. Eventually, with volunteer help and donations, a large meditation hall, two dormitories and bathroom facilities were added. When I arrived toward early evening, I surrendered my phone, tablet and any other distractions for safe-keeping, sat through the orientation and enjoyed a wholesome vegetarian dinner with my fellows. After this, we were taken to the separate male/female dormitories, and I was shown my space on the floor, given a futon, some sheets, a pillow and made myself ready for the early start the next morning.

To an outsider looking through the windows, meditation must seem like a very relaxed and peaceful thing to do. The reality is that it is very hard work. When sitting on a cushion with legs crossed and eyes closed, the body is held very still and stopped from moving. Over time the breath becomes slower, but the mind and our thoughts are the first things we have to fight with. Usually in our lives, we let our minds run free, jumping from one thought to the next and back again. It really is like a wild animal that needs to be tamed. In meditation, the attention is focused simply on the breath going in and then the breath going out. Every time a thought comes, it is ignored and the mind is re-focused on the spot between the nose and the upper lip and the attention returns to respiration. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Most beginners find that the mind will focus for about two or three breaths before going off on some tangential daydream. Slowly, and with practice, the thoughts begin to slow down and a mental peace begins to appear. There even seem to be moments when there is no thought at all; just a quiet awareness. It is very much like throwing out all the junk and furniture from your room and just living simply on a tatami mat floor. The mind gets cleared of all the clutter, and learns to rest.

Getting up every day at 4 am. wasn’t really a problem. In fact it was one of the best memories from the time I spent there. The cool, early morning air felt refreshing in contrast to the oppressive heat of the day and the full moon that hung on the morning horizon like a white pearl also provided natural light on the path to the meditation hall. Once everyone was seated, the hall filled with silence as minds turned to meditation. The early morning birdsong and the call of insects became louder as the sky lightened. It was the best part of the day.

The physical side of sitting absolutely still during the four intensive hour long sections of the day is an enormous challenge. Again, we are not used to sitting still for a long time and the body will tell you that it needs to move. Your nose will begin to itch, and you will want to scratch it, you will hear a mosquito whine around your ears and you will want to slap at it; you will feel that your shirt or pants are too tight and you will want to wriggle to make yourself more comfortable; but no, you can’t move. Most of all you cannot uncross your legs during intensive practice and this becomes very painful. Try sitting with your legs crossed and back straight and see how long it takes before the pain starts; usually about 20 minutes. Imagine what it feels like to sit for one hour and then to do that repeatedly every day, for ten days. Sometimes the pain is so bad that you want to give up, stand up and go home, like Joe did. It seems endless and it takes over the mind. There is no escaping the pain and it becomes central and foremost to your existence until a point is reached were there is a simple surrender. The body will not take any more pain and lets it go. In my case, I felt as if I had been immersed in a cold waterfall and the pain was washed out of me in a tingling current of released tension and energy. By day five of the course, there is still some pain from time to time, but you know that it is not the unsurmountable problem of before. At the end of the retreat, there is a strong sense of accomplishment, knowing that sitting motionless for an hour is possible.

Another interesting challenge during the ten days was the vow of Noble Silence. Before starting the retreat, a solemn promise is made not to talk or have any contact with another person. It meant that even though there were 60 people on the course, it would feel like you were there by yourself and in your own world. This is important because often people talk without thinking, and just chat because they feel uncomfortable with silence. Silence also helps the mind to become still and quiet. Noble Silence means that the whole day becomes a meditation, even going to the bathroom and eating because you have to control the wish to speak. In an emergency, it is possible to speak with course leaders, but mostly, people spend the ten days in a quiet way. No music, no television, no reading, no writing, no talking.

At the end of the ten-day course when Noble Silence was lifted, people had the chance to speak and relax. It was a rather strange experience because we had been closely together for the duration of the course and yet this was the first opportunity we had to speak with one another. I discovered that some people had come from as far north as Hokkaido and one or two from Shikoku. There was even a young man from Bhutan and a couple of foreigners like myself who had made Japan home. Mostly though, the participants were young Japanese students or new graduates in their mid-twenties. I was surprised at the total number of people on the course and once again thought back to what the young monk in Kyoto told me a couple of years before. He had said that there wasn’t much interest in the practice of meditation in Japan, but maybe this course was a sign that there still is.

Since the first course, I have attended a further four. I am aware that there is a small core of volunteers who give their time in the upkeep of the centre, prepare and cook the meals, act as administrators and maintain the buildings. There is none of the pomp and ceremony found at working temples, no monks in robes, no fancy raked pebble gardens to contemplate nor statues of Buddha to bow down to. The centre provides many with their first intensive retreat experience and those who return for more, develop an inner peace that stays and is carried within them between times.

I have booked myself in again for the summer.


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.


The other day…

…. we get a call from Mr. Ishii. It’s time to bring the car in for a service and check-up, and yes, he will come to pick the vehicle up, if we give him a time that is convenient to us.

Toyota is a Japanese industrial powerhouse that has its roots firmly in the soils of this land. In 1937, Kiichiro Toyoda shifted the focus of the family loom making business to automobiles and since then the family of Toyoda has been strongly linked to the management of the Toyota brand to see it become the world’s largest automotive manufacturer. Through production method innovation, quality management and firm guiding principles based on the common good, this company has set the standard for others to follow.

It is true that Henry Ford introduced the idea of the production line and the standardisation that that implies. However, think of Detroit and US car production at its heyday and you could also pick out the inefficiencies in the system that led to inordinate amounts of waste from stockpiled parts and components to finished vehicles parked idle in lots awaiting buyers. “Build it and the buyers will buy,” is not an approach that is employed at Toyota. The “Just in time” system in which components and parts arrive at the production line as needed in order to produce a product that is wanted, are at the core of Toyota’s success. Enough parts are stocked to enable assembly, but parts are only replaced after usage and so the need for acres of parts storage facilities is eliminated. The fact that a product is built on demand, also means that vehicles do not sit idle awaiting sale once assembled.

The guiding principles and philosophies of the company as stated on its PR material are not just for decoration. Whenever we deal with this firm, we get a strong sense that they are worthy of trust, take pride in their products and value the customer. This is certainly the case with Mr. Ishii with whom we have had a solid automotive relationship with over the last 15 years that we have been in Tokyo.

To be honest, a car is not really necessary in Tokyo. The train system is so ultra efficient, reliable and safe that taking the option of buying a car and subjecting yourself to endless stop start traffic, horrendous freeway jams and exorbitant running costs seems a total waste of resources. However, the train lines all seem to run to a central point around which other lines radiate out both above and under ground. The quickest route between two points on a map is not necessarily achieved by taking the train, and so a car can be useful. So too, a car is useful around Tokyo in order to get out of the city sprawl to explore the countryside and hills of Okutama and beyond. I can’t really say that I have ever taken the car for a drive in the mountains, but should I be tempted to do so, then the means exist for the desire to be accomplished.

We first met Mr. Ishii when we had saved up enough money to buy a second hand Corolla. His car yard was a short walk from the tiny apartment we were living in at the time and it seemed he had a fair selection of shiny and relatively modern cars on the lot. We were inspecting some of the vehicles on offer, when after a short time a 30s something man in a dark grey suit came up to us and introduced himself as Mr. Ishii, the yard salesman. He appeared to be a rather humble and quiet man who listened carefully to what we wanted without being pushy. He said that within our stated budget there was really only one car that would be suited and that was an earlier model Corolla, which although was only 5 years old, was still considered a “done by” car in Japan. Surprisingly, the car he eventually showed us was a spotless silver, four door sedan that looked almost brand new and had about 30,000 km on the clock. Coming from a land where 30,000km over 5 years seems suspicious to say the least, he assured us that the previous owner had used the car essentially as a shopping trolley and to run occasional errands locally. The car itself was in perfect order and drove like a dream. That was his first sale to us.

I have had some very interesting dealings with unscrupulous car salesmen in the past, probably all connected to the gullibility of youth on my part and the need to make income on their parts. In one instance I fell for a sales pitch that had me buying a Volkswagen Beetle that had been tinkered with by some well meaning but incompetent backyard mechanic, or a series of them. The thing looked great, with its metallic dark blue paint, wide wheels, modified twin weber carburettors and free flow exhaust and on first appearances it was just the car a young guy opts for. After being suckered in to paying the princely sum of $3000, I drove the vehicle home only to find that the more I drove it, the more problems seemed to appear. The racy little steering wheel had an unusual amount of slack in it before actually engaging the steering, the indicators did not work, when the wipers were turned on it resulted in smoke coming through the ventilation system and it seemed that the suspension was being helped along by a brick in the back left hand corner. The only reason I managed to return the VW and recoup the full sales price was that at the time I had some rather hefty friends who could look mean and threatening when called upon to do so. Interestingly the same car was later sold to a colleague of mine at work who confirmed that the electrics were posing a little problem when it rained. Having no recourse to hefty shady friends he seemed stuck with his purchase though. I should have offered him some “heavy” service in retrospect.

In another instance I bought what appeared to be a fine Holden Torana 1850. The exterior had just been repainted a shiny British racing green and it had a wonderful set of fat tyres on it that made it a must have. I seemed not to have learned from the recent VW experience and this one too was a dud as the carpets took on the task of soaking up all and any water that came cascading through the numerous rust holes in the body whenever it rained. I took the car to a local panel beaters and remember that he actually laughed when I asked him to fix the problem, apparently there was not much metal left to do anything with. I dread to think what would have happened had I had an accident in the thing. Probably the motor would have ended up on my lap as there was no barrier other than epoxy resin between me and it. On the upside though, the lack of metal in the body made the car light and highly maneuverable.

I digress.

What set Mr. Ishii apart was his attention to detail and his after sales service. Always unobtrusive, always polite, always observant and ready to meet our vehicular needs. He rang us when a service was due, he picked up the car for servicing, he supplied us with mountains of brand-stamped tissue boxes and cleaners for the inside of the car free of charge, he sent us calendars and New Year’s greetings; I get the feeling that had I been Jewish he would have gladly attended my son’s Bar mitzvah, if we had had a son.

I suspect that Mr. Ishii cares about the vehicles he sells almost like family members. He appears to have a sixth sense that lets him know when there has been an incident that needs his attention and he also shares with me an inability to comprehend why my wife insists on a tactile approach when driving. Maybe it’s a spatial awareness thing, or lack thereof, but sitting in the passenger seat while my wife hurtles along the narrow Tokyo streets has turned many a passenger into trembling blobs of jelly in the space of 10 minutes. I remember clearly when Mr. Ishii and I went along for a test drive with her. With each approaching car, my wife moved further and further left. Not a problem with that, except for the fact that concrete service pylons are placed in rather haphazard places along the sides of streets in Tokyo; some being almost a step in to the general traffic stream, whilst other are placed firmly against the roadside railings, really there is no pattern. Mostly we watch out for the erratically placed concrete poles, but on this occasion both Mr. Ishii and I were shielding our eyes and bringing up our legs to protect the family jewels, bracing for what seemed an inevitable impact. Luckily it never happened. And equally luckily, my wife was unaware of the trauma she had induced in us. Not sure what he is going to say when he sees the state of our current vehicle which has suffered greatly from the above “keep left” policy, but I will have a box of tissues handy should he need it.

There is no real reason why anyone should trade in a perfectly good vehicle is there? But over the years that we have been in Japan we have owned a series of steeds ranging from a sublime Lexus to the ridiculous, but adorable, current incarnation of the IQ which is really nothing more than a sofa with wheels attached to the sides, a motor plonked in front and more airbags than a mattress showroom. More to the point, Mr. Ishii has helped us with the exchange process along the way; calmly figuring out what he could give us for a trade in, asking what other companies have offered and then equally calmly giving us more on the trade. When the Toyota GT86 came out he saw me salivating over the demonstration model, and knowing my liking for the sporty, he quietly suggested a test drive. However, at the time I was suffering from a lower back issue and seeing how low to the ground the vehicle was, I had to regretfully decline his invitation. I am certain that had my nether regions been up to scratch that day, that I would have driven home in a red sportster and thus proving once and for all the stereotype of the middle aged guy in crisis.

Over the years Mr. Ishii has remained almost unchanged as far as appearances are concerned. It still seems to be the same suit that we saw him in all those years ago, let alone the hair style. What has changed is that our trustworthy car salesman has gone up in the world so that it appears the world about him has changed and he has merely stood still observing it all. From the modest car yard of our first meeting, he progressed to various branches in west Tokyo, and each time there seemed to be more staff for him to manage and more responsibilities to test his mettle. The last time we had dealings with him he was obviously the number one guy at the top of the ladder, yet still he maintained the modest and humble nature that sees us going back when needed. Perhaps he values our return patronage, too, or maybe he doesn’t understand why we are so loyal to him. One thing is certain, he gracefully declines being a passenger on any test drive my wife undertakes.

A lesson well learned.

…. of all things

The other day….

…. I was thinking back to the time when I first met him. A 6ft tall, well-built African American in crisply pressed army coloured clothes; short sleeved khaki shirt, darker twill trousers, black leather belt and shined up black shoes. The man was an immediate success to the eye. He bore himself with a sense of pride that immediately set him apart from any company he was with. In a nutshell, Dr. Dave was all about first impressions.

There was a casual confidence about him that made you feel instantly at ease with him. Here was a man who was self-assured, but also welcoming and accepting of others. He was engaging, intelligent and sociable. Meeting the Dr. was like meeting a long lost favourite uncle.

At our first meeting, Dave was 53 years old and working as an English teacher at the school I had just been appointed to in west Tokyo. He had strong connections to the US military and had been a practicing on-base psychologist until he was retired at the age of 45. With Dave, being moved on from the force was impossible; you could take Dave out of the army, but you could not take the army out of Dave – it was part and parcel of the man; his very essence. At his core, Dave saw himself as a battle hardened warrior, a veteran of the field. In his imagination, Dave was at war.

In Japan, with its long history of martial arts, Dave took the idea of the feudal samurai warrior to heart and crafted his self image around it. He took up kendo and would often carry the bulky protective armour and helmet with him. If not that, there was almost always a sleek bamboo practice sword strapped to his back. The ubiquitous shinai was part of his image. Sometimes, with his gear strapped to his back and the sword slung over his shoulder, Dave would put on his warrior face and jog on the road from the train station to the school; on the way passing many bemused students and teachers who would walk the distance in a casual 30 minutes. I soon learned that there was no particular reason for lugging the gear and sword with him other than a “just in case” scenario that constantly played in his mind. He wanted to be ready and he wanted to remain fighting fit. On arriving at his office, he would dump his sparring gear in the corner of the room, where it would stay until the end of the day; well mostly.

We shared an office space with about five other teachers. The desks were crammed together in a small space that competed with books, photo copiers, coffee making facilities and other paraphernalia. Not much space between desks to stretch out or move about in. On one particular day, I was returning from class and as I was approaching our office from down the corridor I heard what sounded like a kiai coming from the room. I had no idea what to expect, but thought that Dave might be at the root of it. I was right. When I entered the office, Dave had his shinai out, his warrior face on, and was practicing his kendo moves up and down the aisle between the desks in an otherwise empty office. At the end of each pass he would utter a kiai and bring his sword down for a strike to the head of his imaginary opponent. I stood slack jawed and in awe of the spectacle before me. Dave was oblivious of me and focused entirely on the battle at hand. He obviously had been fighting for some time as the sweat on his brow indicated. At the end of one particular pass, Dave was a little too enthusiastic with the sword and lifting it high, sent it slicing through the plaster ceiling tiles that popped and lifted from their suspended grid. This was enough to break Dave’s concentration and he looked up to inspect the damage he had done. Then, turning around he finally noticed my presence and offered me one of his warmest smiles. Warrior face instantly gone, he put down his shinai and sat back at his desk, wiping the sweat from his brow.

Unarmed combat was also a passion for Dave. He could speak endlessly about the technologies developed for war and how they were used to kill and maim, but hand to hand, man to man, warrior to warrior, “till death do us part” type scenarios were a favourite. In that sense karate appealed to him, but beyond that there was the gentle art of tai chi chuan. I was never sure why this seemingly innocuous dance, still practiced in the parks of Beijing today, was of interest to Dave, until I understood that the slow circular dance was developed as a fighting style by shaolin monks in ancient China and was at the core of modern day kung-fu. Tai chi utilises the opponent’s strength and turns it back to the aggressor. The warrior in this case becomes a master of the life force called chi and uses his own, plus the opponent’s, to disarm, maim or kill. At the height of his interest in this art, Dave would practice his hard soft moves at any opportunity he got. He would adopt a bent at the knee stance and consciously lower his body a couple of clicks and then begin waving his hands in front of his body in a figure eight move known as “wave hands like clouds” or another one called “grasping the swallows tail” that involved shifting the weight on to the back foot whilst reeling in an imaginary bird by the tail. One of the more memorable moments came when I was disturbed from my preparations by heavy guttural breathing from the end of the room near the office kitchen area. I got up to take a closer look, and there was Dr. Dave with his back towards me, knees bent, hands pushing against the doors of the refrigerator and emitting a dragon breath, no doubt to stimulate the power of his chi from his belly button. I left him to it, slowly edging back so as not to disturb the obvious communion taking place between warrior and whiteware.

Dave believed that the army had a role for anyone and was its best advocate. It provided guidance, discipline, sustenance and a reason for living; even if that reason was the killing of other human beings, the destruction of the environment and the destabilising of enemy economies. He was a true patriot and had the greatest admiration and respect for the members of the marine core, whom he saw as the embodiment of the values that drove him personally. In his classes at school, Dave would not really focus on his students or the task of teaching; his mission was to tell all of the glories of war and the brotherhood of blood. In one case I witnessed Dave telling a class of wide eyed 7th graders about the intricacies of anti personnel mines that were booby trapped and spring loaded so that when activated by a person’s foot they would release an explosive charge designed to explode at the level of the head and chest, thus immediately killing the victim. Tales from as far back as Vietnam to the more recent Desert Storm were told and retold with equal animated vigour as if he had actually been there himself.

Along his life path Dave was at one time married and has a son of whom he is immensely proud. Unfortunately, his marriage did not last the distance and he found himself as a solo dad in Tokyo with the responsibilities that that implies. With not a bitter bone in his body, Dave would recount how his ex-wife had decided to leave him to go to university to develop her career. She did so with his blessing, but left a man who became increasingly desperate over the years to find a new life partner. His charm and natural wit were endearing to many, but did not always work. His method of approach proved to be formulaic and involved impressing the candidate with his doctorate, the name of the university he had attended and the fact that he was writing a book; all true and impressive details that would soften up any would be mate. At one time we were on the look out for a new staff member and were in the process of reviewing applicants’ CVs. We were supposedly combing through the pile of applications to isolate the top 10 candidates for interviewing. One particular CV caught my attention, not because it was outstandingly good, but because it kept reappearing in the “likely” pile, even after it had been moved to the “unlikely” pile a number of times. Over the course of the few days that we were considering applications this happened again and again. It seemed that Dr. Dave was particularly impressed by the candidate and wanted her to be given an interview.

On the day of the interviews Dave was on his best behaviour and it seemed to me, even more smartly dressed than usual. When the candidate in question arrived at the office, he was immediately out to impress like a peacock courting a reluctant hen. He introduced himself as Dr. B, and as we gave her a brief tour of the campus, I witnessed how he took out his well polished trophies to embellish his show and tell. He told her his doctorate was in psychology; she was not impressed. He told her the name of his university; she was not impressed. He told her that he was writing a book; she was not impressed. He told her about his son and how good he was at school; she was not impressed. He even joked with her in his basic Japanese; she was not impressed. By the end of the guided tour, I was feeling almost as hopeless and desperate as Dave must have been feeling himself. In the following interview, the candidate related her surprise at being asked to come in to see us as it was obvious from her CV that she had had no teaching experience and probably her only saving grace was that her English was proficient. We did not tell her that she was there at Dave’s insistence as he was looking for someone to be a mom to his boy. She left the building without so much as a backward glance at Dave who was left standing alone at the entrance looking a little embarrassed with himself.

One final snapshot of Dr. Dave shows his immense respect for the Top Guns amongst us. Dave valued effort, education and excellence. He himself was an epitome of the heights a poor New Jersey boy could aspire to and his rank as a Lieutenant Colonel gave him the respect of many a rank and file soldier whom he related to in a friendly father like manner. Seeing Dave operating in his element made me realise the heart quality of the man. He really did care about the grunts, and they knew it. Beyond Dave’s personal achievements were those who had surpassed all; the cream of the crop, the top 2% of the top 10% and Dave had enormous respect for them. Think of the men who have walked on the moon and list them: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John W. Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. Twelve men who represented the furthest the hand of humanity has stretched to date. Twelve men who not only touched the sky by standing on the shoulders of others, but left footprints on moon dust to prove they had achieved the goal. And when Eugene Cernan came to visit, Dr. Dave was bristling with pride. At the end of the astronaut’s talk to the assembled student body, Dave raced out of the building and placed himself in an intercepting position so that Eugene Cernan would have to walk passed him. As the astronaut walked up, Dave took a step out introduced himself formally with rank and name and asked if he could salute Cernan. Without a single misstep the two men squared off and stood to attention. Dave pushed out his chest, put on his warrior face, looked steely eyed in to the distance and snapped a perfect salute.

“At ease soldier,” said Cernan.