Tag Archives: hawaii

Who In Their Right Mind Moves to Pahoa?

PahoaOffering

I’ve always had a rebel streak in me. Got it from my dad, a grown man who relished finding ways to break rules without technically breaking them.

Dad liked to say he didn’t “play according to Hoyle,” a reference to the famous book of rules for card games (see According to Hoyle). Clueless at the time about the Hoyle reference, I knew from context what dad meant: he liked to do things his way.

How dad navigated our expressway tollbooths speaks volumes about him, and by extension, me. He’d always have exact change in hand when pulling into what was then considered an automated tollbooth (long before the days of ipass scanner technology). He’d toss in his coins without coming to a stop, punch the accelerator, and race toward the tollbooth red light, his goal, to trip the alarm before the light turned green—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

And on the rare occasion the green light beat dad to the punch, he was visibly disappointed, a lost chance to stick it to the man–or at least tweak him–without technically breaking any rules.

I still remember asking dad why he did it. His answer was borderline blasphemous: “I don’t have time to wait for the goddamn light to turn green—I’m a busy man!”

And with all due love and respect to my dad he was full of shit; he blew those tollbooth lights because he didn’t play according to Hoyle.

These moments are still etched in my memory forty years later. And even with all the teenage relationship issues I had with my dad at the time, every time he’d trip those annoying tollbooth bells, I remember thinking he was about the coolest guy in the world.

With that kind of role model it’s no surprise I turned out the way I did. And not so outlandish that I ended up in Pahoa, a place where folks don’t play according to Hoyle.

From Outlaws to Barefoot Hippies With iphones

BarefootHippies

Pahoa has an outlaw reputation that was well earned back in the 1970s and 80s during its pakalolo heyday. Pakalolo (literally, “crazy weed”) is still around of course, but the heydays of yore are well behind Pahoa–for reasons beyond the scope of this post.

Hoyle and his rules notwithstanding, Dad wouldn’t have liked the old outlaw version of Pahoa, nor would he have been thrilled with today’s version either; way too many hippies for his liking, and not a single tollbooth to violate.

But dad would surely have appreciated the historical significance of Pahoa Town, and grudgingly acknowledged its funky Bohemian charm.

PahoaTown

Interestingly Hawaii’s own locals are harder on Pahoa than most mainlanders. Shortly after moving here it surprised me to learn that Pahoa’s reputation extended to our neighboring islands. I still remember exchanging business cards with a client in Honolulu who, upon seeing my Pahoa address, asked with tongue in cheek, “Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?”

I’ve even heard of folks born and raised in nearby Hilo—just 30 miles away—who have never in their lives been to Pahoa Town, not even the Puna district, because of the bad rap we get. So bad is our rap, that even Dog the Bounty Hunter’s crazy wife Beth once warned viewers that, “Puna is a place you don’t want to be after dark.”

There’s a story behind Puna’s outlaw reputation, a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the “Wild East” days of Pahoa Town are well behind us, but the reputation lives on.

Last time I ventured into Pahoa there were no outlaws, no bounty hunters, just some barefoot hippies drinking lattes and gazing at their iphones. (But let’s not tell Dog and Beth.)

TinShackDrnks

Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?

Pahoa2

If my circle of friends is any indication, people in their “right minds” actually do live in Pahoa, but they tend to stand out. The good news is, Pahoa tolerates normal people too.

For context it’s worth touching on local demographics. In addition to the native Hawaiians, Pahoa and the surrounding area is populated by locals of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, many of mixed heritage, many third and fourth generation Japanese. Being that this is their turf and all, the local folks would logically represent “the norm” in this context–which by default makes the rest of us the oddballs.

The area has also had a new influx of transplants from around the world over the past decade, mostly from the mainland. Last I checked Caucasians are still in the minority in the Puna district, and that’s fine with me, as my former life in Japan taught me to embrace being the only white guy on the block.

PunaDemographics

It’s useful to think of Puna locals as a completely different culture, richly diverse, but generally much closer to Asia than mainland U.S.A. The fact that the locals speak English can almost lull you into thinking otherwise, but deep below the familiar linguistic surface, culture gaps abound.

To an outsider–even folks from Honolulu–the Puna district seems like a strange, exotic foreign country. But most Puna locals I know, within the context of their own cultural norms, tend to be a socially conservative lot. So let’s forgive them for thinking us newbie transplants are a little strange and not quite right.

KarateHouse

Pahoa1

But all bets are off for the rest of us who moved here in search of Hoyle-free horizons. We colored outside the lines of our respective cultures, and were just crazy enough to move to the world’s most isolated landmass at the foot of the world’s most active volcano. I think Pahoa is a better place for it.

After living through two disasters in just the past three months, you’d think I’d be ready to pack up and run for the hills. Amazingly these disasters have had the opposite effect: after being on the receiving end of so many kindnesses–through hurricane Iselle and now this sputtering lava flow–I’ve fallen deeply in love with my community.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Pahoa has more than its share of warts: crime, poverty, alcohol and meth addiction, spousal abuse, homelessness—the same stuff we had back on the mainland. So if you’re looking for trouble in Pahoa–or anywhere in Puna for that matter–it’s easy enough to find.

But if you’re looking for good-hearted people who have your back when the power goes out or the lava hits the fan, well, they’re even easier to find, and sometimes they find you. (Learned this firsthand in the aftermath of Hurricane Iselle, when on three different occasions during a 5-day power outage, folks showed up at our front gate with free ice, two of them complete strangers.)

No matter what happens with our ongoing lava flow, no regrets moving here: so much good has come to my family, so many new friendships formed, such a rich, meaningful life we live. Did I mention the weather is awesome? No, we’re not going anywhere.

And if my dad were alive today he’d tell me what a dumbass I was to live at the foot of an erupting volcano in a house anchored to a concrete slab sitting in the path of a lava flow. If he put it that way I’d have to agree with him. But I’d remind him that I don’t play according to Hoyle either, and he’d understand–at least I’d like to think so.

Stay tuned for more ramblings on Pahoa. If you like classic rock from the 60s and 70s, check out these two jams we stumbled onto in our town’s main parking lot behind Luquin’s one lucky evening.

Akebono

We ended up hanging with a bunch of old hippies, the real deal. (Unlike dad, I’m totally chill with the hippies). Together we took a musical trip down memory lane while we lamented the passing of Pahoa, now looking like a premature eulogy with the flow front stalled. But here’s what things looked like from town back then!

Plume2

What the clips below mean to me, is that Pahoa has the magic–the mana–to make a group of strangers hold hands and feel like old friends. (And please forgive the dark image, I took this at night with an iphone; but hopefully the spirit of the moment comes through):

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

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Glimpses of Culture Through a Lava Flow: Bomb the Crater or Clean Your House?

LavaStreet

Kalapana lava flow (photo by Kurumi Sullivan)

A contrived reality show couldn’t be more compelling. Survivor’s got nothing on this. If I made documentaries or movies or even cheesy reality shows, I’d be camped out in Pahoa right now.

Since yesterday our friendly neighborhood lava flow has advanced a paltry 50 yards, the continuation of a gradual slowdown that’s been happening over the past several days. Just days before that the flow had advanced a whopping 150 yards in a single day, and right before that it had stalled for almost a week. There’s no rhyme or reason to this flow.

And the longer I observe the flow the more I’m convinced it has a mind of its own, although I might just be losing my mind. This flow has given me a serious case of lava fever: it’s the ultimate mystery story because no one has a clue–not even our smartest scientists–how it’s going to end.

What I’ve learned in the past month about this particular flow (besides its unpredictability) is that it not only burns a swath of land in its downhill path, it also creates compelling human stories. Throw into the mix two distant cultures dealing with it in completely different ways, and the intensity level goes off the charts.

That’s what happened at a recent County-sponsored informational meeting on our lava flow conditions here in Puna. It was surely not intended, but the meeting ended up showcasing some mesmerizing cross-cultural exchanges. Thankfully Big Island Video News was there to capture the highlights.

Whatever your personal beliefs, life doesn’t get more real and compelling than this. And if cultural anthropology happens to be your thing—even if it’s not—prepare to be enthralled.

The embedded clip at the end shows a segment of the town meeting that followed the County’s presentation on the lava update, during which time those in attendance were invited to ask questions of the Civil Defense Director and Geologist from Hawaii Volcano Observatory. I can only speak to the footage on the linked clip since I wasn’t at the gathering in person. My guess is that some folks actually did ask questions during the meeting.

But not so for the folks in the clip. Well, technically they asked questions. But the questions were just thinly veiled attempts to give advice: Could we use D9s to divert the lava flow away from town!?

And the Hawaiian speakers on the clip were less concerned with asking questions, and more concerned with refuting the notion of messing with the volcano in any way, shape or form.

Keep in mind that the Civil Defense Director has stated publicly numerous times that no attempt will be made at diverting the flow. The stated reason for the county’s stance is the danger of unintended consequences: any attempt at diversion could conceivably create more damage to residential properties that are not currently in the projected flow path.  (And just imagine the liability issues!) The Director also mentioned, as he should have, the cultural sensitivities at play with Native Hawaiian religious beliefs.

As you’ll see, based on comments made subsequent to the Director’s remarks, the County’s stance against any kind of lava diversion apparently didn’t sink in with everyone, as the Director had to repeat it more than once during the question-and-answer period. (I think you’ll agree that he handled it with grace and impressive restraint.)

Bomb the Crater or Change Your Bedding?

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”—Genesis 1:26

As I type this a molten lava flow creepeth upon the earth just five miles uphill from my neighborhood. And as far as I can tell, no man has dominion over it.

What’s so fascinating about this slow-motion disaster, is how differently folks are dealing with it. And it’s a testament to the power of culture in driving not only our respective behaviors, but in predisposing how we choose to view events like these.

So it didn’t at all surprise me that someone from my cultural tribe would suggest diverting the lava flow—or even bombing the crater as the third speaker suggested. As a guy who stands to lose a lot should the lava keep coming, I completely get the rationale. Why would thinking people passively stand by and watch their houses and businesses go up in flames?

In contrast, some of the Hawaiian responses (certainly on the video and in local online forums) are completely counterintuitive to my culture’s way of thinking. The last Hawaiian to speak in the clip, Pi’ilani Ka’awaloa, did in fact make it a point to invite “tutu Pele” to come to her house!

As a product of the West, it’s a big cultural stretch to understand exactly where Pi’ilani is coming from. But as fate would have it, there’s a story behind the story to help us understand.

With lava in the news, a local TV news station recently ran a special segment in their newscast on Pi’ilani. The gist of the piece is that on three different occasions lava flowed up to her family’s home and stopped. Pi’ilani explains what her mother told her when lava reached their driveway:

Mother: “What do you do when an important guest comes?”

Pi’ilani: “You clean the house, mow the yard, change the bedding.”

Mother: “We are getting ready for a very important guest…And if the guest wants to stay at the house, the house is there. And if she doesn’t want to, then she can leave. But at least we made an offer.”

Putting literal interpretations aside, truth and humanity are clearly behind the symbolism. Woven into Pi’ilani’s mother’s words and actions is a resignation that the flow is going to do what it’s going to do no matter how she might feel about it. From that assumption she chooses to transform a devastating event, completely out of her control, into a positive experience within her control, by welcoming the encroaching lava as “an important guest,” rather than casting it as an antagonist.

(On a personal note, I’m learning firsthand that there’s an added psychological benefit to staying in a routine. Mowing your lawn, cleaning your house, changing your bedsheets and other mundane tasks have a way of keeping folks grounded and focused during times of stress and uncertainty. I’m still sane so it must be working.)

And this brings us to the essence of the gap: does your culture predispose you to repel lava flows with bombs and D9s? Or welcome the lava as an important guest? And why such starkly different responses to the same phenomenon?

Here are some of the key cultural drivers at play:

-My culture has traditionally put man above nature, and with that position comes license to control and manipulate it as he chooses. Hawaiian culture on the other hand, sees nature as a manifestation of divinity, and man as subordinate to nature’s whims, especially to those of the volcano.

-My culture separates God from nature. As an offshoot of a desert religion, the traditional Judeo-Christian view casts nature as a foe (albeit an unconscious foe), an antagonist to be feared, battled, fled from, and overcome. This metaphor of nature as foe is so deeply ingrained in the Western mindset, that bombing a volcano doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. Traditional Hawaiian culture in contrast is shamanistic; it animates nature with spirits, and believes nature to be alive and conscious. The notion of bombing the crater is blasphemous.

-My culture believes that man can “own” land; Hawaiians believe that they are “children of the land.” This explains why the Western mindset laments the prospect of losing land to the lava flow, while Hawaiians believe it was never our land to begin with, and that we should all just be thankful to Tutu Pele for allowing us to live here as long as we did.

At the risk of stating the obvious, these are some incredibly wide gaps to fill. Some are too wide to even try. The trick is figuring out which cross-cultural connections are possible, which are not, and setting realistic priorities accordingly.

Where Does the Twain Meet?

Cross-cultural cooperation is the art of the possible.

It’s possible to not focus on issues beyond your control (like trying to change the beliefs of others).

It’s possible to respect others’ rights to believe what they want without accepting those beliefs yourself.

It’s possible to focus on common ground and cooperation for achieving mutual benefit.

All these are conscious choices that must be made by all parties involved for any kind of cross-cultural cooperation to happen.

Even as someone who is not a follower of Hawaiian spirituality, the Hawaiian justification against diverting the flow based on religious grounds is a non-issue with me, as it should be with everyone else.

I choose to be respectful and focus on points of agreement, in my case, that we should not mess with the flow for any reason. Admittedly my reasoning comes from a different place: I’m convinced that we do not possess the knowhow to do this, as our County still struggles just to design safe traffic intersections. It’s tough to envision these same folks diverting the flow without causing disastrous unintended consequences. There is much debate about whether anyone has ever successfully diverted a lava flow. I’m obviously on the non-believer side of the issue.

So I’m in lockstep agreement with the Hawaiians on leaving the flow alone, and I can’t think of a single reason to initiate a religious debate. It’s not my place to challenge others’ beliefs anyway.

And while I personally believe tolerance is all about showing respect for my neighbors whatever their religious beliefs may be, some folks from my culture struggle mightily to get past their disagreement with indigenous Hawaiian beliefs. The heated exchanges on local forums can be brutal.

But even for non-believers, there are a couple practical reasons to avoid a religious debate: it will not change the Hawaiians’ beliefs, nor will it change the County’s stance. So why bother? It will only serve to alienate people within the community during a time that we need to be sticking together. There are many more productive places we can focus our energies.

Differences aside, I think the County has struck a wonderful chord with the community by making their lava-update meetings an educational event. It is slowly turning all of us–Pele believers and non-believers alike–into amateur geologists.

The community might be scared and divided on some issues, but everyone I’ve come in contact with is engaged and interested in learning about the science behind the volcano. After attending three such meetings in person, these educational sessions with the geologists seem to have had a positive, almost therapeutic effect on the community. It also keeps the focus on something that can truly connect us: shared knowledge.

But Pi’ilani’s appeal at the end of the clip really drives home the reality: we need to put aside our differences and start helping each other if we hope to survive and get past this lava flow as a community. Can’t think of a better reason to link arms and work together.

There’s a whole other discussion on the role of myths in our respective cultures, a subject we’ll handle in a future post. In the meantime, some food for thought from the late and great anthropologist Joseph Campbell:

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Ramblings from the Wrong Side of a Lava Flow

LavaMalama

Plume from the lava flow approaching Pahoa Town

As a kid growing up on the north side of Chicago I never imagined my house might one day be in the path of a lava flow. (Lava only flowed in Saturday morning movies, and usually involved dinosaurs). Never once did I entertain the notion that I’d someday live on an active volcano; it was an undreamt future that, against all odds, somehow came true.

It happened eight years ago when my family decided to trade in the brutal Chicago winters for life in the subtropics. We up and moved to the Puna district on the Big Island of Hawaii, at the foot of the world’s most active volcano. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When lava started flowing from the north flank of Pu’uo’o vent on June 27th of this year, I wasn’t paying much attention, nor were many other people. After all, the flow front was still well over ten miles away, plenty of time and space to sputter out.

So everyone went about their business: homes were bought and sold, progress on the new park and shopping center didn’t miss a beat. Restaurants continued serving food, stores peddled their wares, the town loiterers loitered. Life went on as it always did in lower Puna.

But the pesky flow kept coming. Weeks later it was advancing in an easterly direction with no hint of slowing down. It now had our undivided attention.

Clueless about the subtleties of our island’s topography, I rationalized: it’s clearly going east into the cracks in the rift zone; with a little luck it’ll drain into an old lava tube and come out somewhere downhill, far away from my neighborhood.

And the lesson here is, don’t believe everything you think, especially the wishful stuff. I had no idea.

Living On the Edge of a Lava Flow

For a while we were doing okay, right up until the lava overflowed from those darn cracks, spilled over onto the north slope, and started flowing in a northeasterly direction. It was now headed directly for our beloved town. And beyond Pahoa, downhill just a few more miles, is my subdivision, Hawaiian Shores.

Yikes.

FlowPath2House

Notice the location of my house: I’m living on the edge of the projected flow path. Red arrows are mine to indicate general anticipated direction based on paths of steepest descent. (Source: Hawaii Volcano Observatory lava maps)

And still I was hopeful—or maybe delusional is a better word. But even in the depths of denial I couldn’t help but worry. Surely the flow doesn’t have the legs to reach Pahoa Town…does it?

Well, as of today it’s had just enough “legs” to crawl within a few miles of Pahoa. And based on the topographical information provided by county scientists, it’s now poised to roll right through the middle of town in the general direction of our Post Office. It will literally cut Pahoa in half.

For better or for worse, the flow has stalled for the past several days, but it’s slowly starting to advance again, so who knows? Talking to the folks from the county, all their plans and actions moving forward are predicated on the assumption that the flow will continue to advance, and eventually cross highway 130, lower Puna’s lifeline to Hilo. They urged all residents to plan accordingly.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Waiting for Pele

The downside to our holding pattern is how nerve-wracking uncertainty can be. And yet, we’re always being reminded that uncertainty is part of life. Intellectually we know it’s there, but it feels so good to pretend it isn’t. Slow-moving lava has a way of shoving uncertainty in your face.

And here we are–waiting for Pele.

This disaster is a strange one; so devastating and yet forgiving. It’s all happening in slow motion. On the one hand it will allow nine thousand souls to escape a fiery death in orderly fashion. But it will also leave every one of them to a future that promises only uncertainty. What we know for sure is that no matter what happens, life in lower Puna is about to change forever. Some would argue that it already has.

The worst case scenario for lower Puna would be if the lava ever reached the ocean, a potential reality that would cut off lower Puna from its only remaining direct lifelines to Hilo. In other words, the main highway and both alternate routes on the east side would all be covered in lava, and the twenty-five mile drive to Hilo would become a seventy-plus-mile trek on a very substandard road, at least a several-hour, one-way commute under the best of conditions. If and when the situation ever reaches this point, you can bet there will be lots of houses in lower Puna sitting empty.

We’ve resigned ourselves to accepting whatever Madame Pele throws at us, which we’ve concluded isn’t so horrible. In the event that we lose our home, we take comfort in knowing we’ll live to fight another day. We also know that things could be much worse, and it makes us thankful that they aren’t.

Still, part of me wishes Madame Pele would be a little more decisive here, just so the nine thousand people in my community can move on with their lives.

But we all know that’s not how the fiery lady rolls. Until the flow actually crosses the highway, those of us who remain on the “wrong side of the flow” will continue to flounder in lava limbo.

Life Goes On

Even with all the talk of gloom-and-doom, life goes on in Puna today. The postman just delivered our mail. Folks are hauling their garbage to the dump (now the closest point to the lava flow). The electric company is servicing power lines, our favorite restaurant is still packing in hungry crowds. Many other shops are open too. Even our loiterers seem to be sticking to their routines.

But beneath the façade of normalcy tension simmers, you can feel it. Uncertainty is in the air. People are scared. Some are desperate–they have no place to go if the lava flow cuts off access to Hilo.

But no one knows for sure what will happen, that’s why this story is so compelling. And it’s one reason my wife and I have chosen to stay: we need to watch it unfold and share our perspective, even if it’s from the wrong side of the flow.

For a perspective on the cross-cultural dimension of this flow, checkout Glimpses of Culture Through a Lava Flow: Bomb the Crater or Clean Your House? 

In the meantime, some recent pictures of Pahoa.

Kaleos

My favorite restaurant, their food rocks. Was thrilled to hear the owners say they’ll stay open “until the lava reaches our steps.”

MikesPizza

Ah Mike’s New York Pizza, an enigma. Mike and I had a rough start but I learned to like his pizza and overlook his shortcomings, lol. Mike’s not even there anymore. My wife says we should call it “Not Mike’s New York Pizza Anymore.” Need to eat there at least one more time.

BoogieWoogie

Boogie Woogie Pizza

Akebono

A true relic of the past. Based on current projections, it won’t be close to the flow.

Luquins

Luquin’s, our Mexican restaurant

PelesKitchen

Pele’s Kitchen, a great place for breakfast

PahoaPainting

Classic Pahoa!

Sukhothai

(Blogger’s Note: Through all the sadness and human tragedy associated with this flow, I am completely captivated by this story and can’t stop watching. The flow is creating genuine human drama in our community; a contrived reality show couldn’t be more compelling. We’ll cover the ripple effect of the flow in future posts, with a focus on the cross-cultural ramifications.)

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


kiwala'o

It was going to be a fun gig. Twenty-four hula instructors from Japan were to visit the Island of Hawaii to study traditional Hawaiian Kahiko-style hula from a local kumu hula. Our job was to facilitate communication and cooperation between the local hosts and our Japanese guests.

Upon arrival we placed a lei around the necks of our guests, then broke the Japanese “no-hug rule” with each and every one of them. (Freaked them out a little but made everyone smile.) Next stop was the local hotel where they rested and freshened up for our opening ceremony that evening.

The next four days our guests underwent intensive instruction from the local kumu hula, learning Kahiko basics and the proper chants, culminating in a sacred gathering at the edge of Hawaii’s smoking Halema’uma’u crater where they danced and chanted for Madame Pele.

I wasn’t there to witness the event myself but my better half was. Keep in mind my wife isn’t prone to hyperbole nor is she particularly spiritual. But if you believe her, it was an uplifting, awe-inspiring, emotional experience that ended with lots of hugging and crying.

If this is not a profoundly awesome way to connect cultures, I don’t know what is.

And while the ladies were crying and dancing and hugging and bonding up at the crater, I was busy at home setting up for our final celebration party, the last night before our guests would return to Japan.

We wanted the celebration to be authentic, with a human touch. So we decked out our car port, scrubbed the floor for our barefoot dancers, hired a local band to play traditional Hawaiian music, and brought in local-style food—or “grinds” as they call it here in the islands. We also invited lots of friends so our guests would get the chance to interact with living, breathing human beings outside their own culture.

And the party rocked! Our guests, most of whom weren’t shy about consuming beer and wine, spent most of the evening dancing hula in my carport, a lovely and memorable evening.

When the party was over, the charter bus pulled up to my front gate, our guests danced their way onto the bus, blew us kisses, and headed to Hilo where they’d spend their last evening on our lovely island. (Okay, I blew them kisses.)

The Danger of Gloating

The next day, shortly after our guests departed, we would glimpse our evaluations. Imagine our delight when we found nothing but glowing reviews.  An authentic experience! Exceeded our expectations! A life-changing event! It was perfect!

As you might imagine we were now pretty full of ourselves, and quietly gloated well into the afterglow of the project. Truth is the gig did go well. So well that we continued nurturing relationships within the Japanese halau. Forget that my gut was telling me we weren’t getting the whole story. Hey, when false information says you’re perfect who wants to argue?

Well, on our next visit to Japan we made it a point to visit our new friends in Tokyo and Osaka. As one might expect, our hosts graciously extended their exquisite brand of Japanese hospitality, in both instances taking us out for dinner and drinks. And once again we bonded, thanks to liberal amounts of beer and saké, although sadly no dancing this time. It was yet another step forward in nurturing our relationship. The after-dinner conversation with our Osaka friends in particular turned out to be a breakthrough.

Japan’s East-West Rivalry

For folks unfamiliar with Japan, it’s worth taking a cultural detour here to point out that the Tokyo and Kansai areas—Osaka in particular for this story—represent two distinct subcultures within Japan, a kind of “East-West” rivalry with historical roots that run deep.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that even though I spent all my ten years in Japan in the Tokyo area and have many dear friends who are from there, I absolutely love Western Japan’s Kansai culture.

As a native of Chicago I feel a particular kinship with Osaka folks. Just as Chicago is cast as “second city” to New York, so it goes for Osaka, always lurking in the shadow of Tokyo.

And even our sports teams have parallels. New York has the Yankees, Tokyo the Giants, both winning franchises with a long, proud history. In contrast, Chicago and Osaka have the hapless Cubs and Tigers with just two measly championships between them in the last thousand years or so.

But what I love most about Osakans is our mutual love of breaking rules, an endearing quality that resonates, probably because I come from a long line of rule-breakers myself. This also explains why I enjoy watching Osakans jaywalk with a purpose, ignore “Don’t Walk” signs, and shamelessly haggle at the department store then brag about their cheap score, behavior that describes many of my American friends to a T.

And just to show Tokyo folks that they don’t “play according to Hoyle,” Osakans even have their own escalator etiquette: while Tokyoites stand uniformly on the left, Osakans keep to the right, a brilliant passive-aggressive practice that just radiates defiance.

And last but not least, Americans generally find Osakans refreshing because they are more apt to tell you what they’re really thinking. And if we Americans like anything, it’s knowing where we stand with others.

Why Osaka and Tokyo Clash

So why would Osaka and Tokyo be so different? The widely accepted explanation is that Osaka is a “merchant culture” as opposed to Tokyo’s stodgy “samurai culture.”

The merchant-culture theory feeds the image of Osakans as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth, free-spirited and fun-loving, the opposite of their cultural cousins in Tokyo. At the risk of overgeneralizing here, there is indeed some truth to this characterization of Osaka, as the cultural tendencies are obvious to anyone who has spent time in Japan’s bustling merchant city.

But if you ask  Osakans to describe  Tokyoites, you’ll probably hear words like “cold,” “shy,” “reserved,” maybe even “stuck up.”

Can you feel the resentment? It shouldn’t surprise that Osaka’s resentment toward Tokyo has been building for a long time, thanks largely to the Kansai area’s long, proud, thousand-year cultural history and political dominance—that and the fact that Tokugawa (the shogun famous for uniting feudal Japan under a single ruler) had the audacity to make the Eastern city of Edo the seat of political power from the early 1600s. To add insult to injury, old Edo was renamed “Tokyo” (literally “Eastern Capital”) when the Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868, prompting the Emperor to up and move East. Ouch.

Well this naturally stuck in the craw of the entire Western Kansai district and resentment simmers today—albeit mostly in a playful, creative way. Suffice it to say that if a battle of wits ever erupted between Tokyo and Osaka, Tokyo wouldn’t have a chance.

One can only guess that it’s a lot more fun and edgy being a hustling, bustling merchant than an obedient, protocol-following Samurai, although I never tried the latter. Still, the merchant-Samurai angle seems to explain a lot.

With this backdrop, the after-hours drinking party we had with our straight-shooting Osaka hula friends will make a lot more sense. But before returning to our story, let’s examine one more cultural concept pertinent to the discussion.

Official Reality Or the Real Story?

The Japanese have a dualistic concept they call “honne/tatemae” (pronounced “hone-neh/tah-teh-mah-eh”). Think of honne as “one’s true feelings,” and tatemae as “the truth for public consumption.”

It’s a concept that manifests in all cultures, of course. The difference is that the Japanese openly acknowledge the gap between what people say and what they’re really thinking. In America we kind of sweep it under the rug, even though we know deep down it’s there.

With the honne-tatemae dichotomy out in the open, Japanese listeners are quick to discern between a speaker’s honne and tatemae in any given interaction, although it’s a bit of a guessing game even for Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, actually practice honne-tatemae but don’t have a name for it. It’s our quirky way of “looking the other way” and pretending it doesn’t exist. The closest concept to tatemae might be the “white lie” an American tells to spare someone’s feelings. What comes to mind is the standard American response when the host of a party asks a guest how the food tastes. No matter how bloody horrible it may be, most Americans will say it’s delicious just to keep the harmony and spare the feelings of the chef. (With the caveat that when brutally honest friends are involved all bets are off!)

So the real challenge in making an authentic connection with Japanese folks in general, is getting past the tatemae façade and gently coaxing out the honne. There are only two ways that I know of to accomplish this: one is develop a relationship of trust. The other is to go out drinking together.

Drinking is the quickest path to honne.

Honne…Osaka style

So back to our story–there we were, my wife and I in an Osaka beer joint, pounding mugs of Sapporo Draft with a dozen lovely Japanese hula dancers. And the more we partook of the hoppy brew, the more and more transparent our conversation became, and the elusive “honne” gradually made itself known.

Turns out there was, after all, one teeny-tiny little problem with our event—no, with MY event! The one thing my dear wife put me in charge of, the final celebration, left our guests with the proverbial “bad taste in their mouth”: they admitted to us–under the influence mind you–that we overwhelmed them with food, and that they felt really bad leaving so much uneaten. They said it was “mottainai” or “wasteful.”

As the guy who was charged with cleaning up after the party, I can attest that most of the ladies indeed ate only about half their portions. The rest went in the garbage because our guests were leaving early the next morning, and it just wasn’t practical to wrap up their food to go. This was totally on me.

Portion size might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a great example of stumbling over a culture gap with the best of intentions. Ironically, as many deep connecting points that the Japanese share with Hawaii—volcanic island dwellers, shamanistic roots, a this-worldly spirituality with multiple deities (powerful female deities, mind you), and an awe-inspiring reverence for nature–where we stumbled was in the everyday, practical realm of breaking bread: in Hawaii it’s unacceptable to run out of food, so locals go to the extreme and provide massive portions. In contrast, Japan, a traditionally resource-starved culture, sees waste of any kind as taboo.

What our hula friends were telling us in their gentle, respectful, boozy way is that we failed to anticipate the optimum portion-size for them, forcing them to do what Japanese folks abhor doing: waste stuff, especially food.

Shame on me for not anticipating this from the start–I absolutely should have known better. The silver lining is that, thanks to our kind Osaka hula friends, I now in fact do know better.

It may sound strange to describe getting constructive feedback as a “bonding moment,” but it absolutely was in the most tangible sense. As I see it, our straight-talking Osaka friends thought enough of us to respectfully provide constructive feedback, although admittedly it took a few beers to get there. But in my eyes it was a wonderful gift, one that will last me a lifetime. What more can a friend ask for?

But the real gift was being part of an event that connected Japan with local Hawaii culture, and creating new friendships that continue today. Can’t think of a more gratifying way to to make a living.

Aloha nui from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Slack Key & Zen

Been learning the basics of iMOVIE of late. Just for fun I dragged together some pictures we took in Japan in May, mostly nature shots in the Atami area in Shizuoka. On a whim I set it to an instrumental slack key piece a friend of mine composed, played and recorded. (Mahalo Dwight!) The music is your best reason to click on the clip. The pictures aren’t too hard on the eyes either.

Enjoy.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Reflections on the Life of a Kindred Spirit

 

Bonanza!

I met Joe in a bar in Japan called Bonanza. About the size of an American walk-in closet, it was the neighborhood watering hole for the hip rock-and-roll night-lifers in a funky part of Kanagawa prefecture, just fifty minutes south of Tokyo as the train flies.

Geographically and culturally, Yamato was closer to Yokohama than Tokyo. But the town had its own unique flavor of Japanese funk. Bonanza was a direct manifestation of that funkiness. I loved that little dive.

Bonanza’s proprietor (or “Master” as they say in Japan) was Taro. Word on the street was that in his former life, Taro was a chef at a highfalutin gourmet restaurant in Tokyo, and that at the peak of his career he chucked it all to go rogue and start his own bar, pretty radical behavior in Japan, especially back in the day.

And herein lies a mini culture lesson: most Americans would think Taro did the cool thing by branching off on his own, while his Japanese compatriots thought him a bit odd and reckless. This is a natural gap in outlooks between a young country founded by risk-loving crazy people who braved months at sea in rickety boats bound for a place they’d never been–versus a risk-averse, collective, high context ancient rice culture crowded onto a geographically isolated, volcanic archipelago.

Of course we were blissfully ignorant of the cultural ramifications at the time, as we playfully scratched at the surface of Japanese culture. Suffice it to say that as eccentric as Taro could be, he was not so odd by American standards. But to most of Japan, Taro was an outcast. And Taro didn’t mind at all, because he’s the one who cast himself out.

The reader’s image of Taro might be that of a slightly atypical Japanese company man, and that’s probably what he looked like clean-shaven dressed in a tuxedo or chef’s outfit or whatever he wore back then.

But deep inside Taro’s tortured soul, he was a radical departure from the Japanese norm. It started with his appearance but went much deeper. The Taro we all knew and loved was tall and lanky, with an unkempt beard and scraggly hair. He wore the same outfit everyday: Levi jeans with a matching blue-jean vest and baseball cap to (presumably) hide his thinning scalp, something I only glimpsed a few times the entire time I’ve known him.

To complete the visual, Taro looked like a lawless, wiry, bony, badass Japanese biker dude. But in reality he was a harmless curmudgeon who, aside from looking twice his age with a foot in the grave, made great food and played kick-ass music.

And I am happy to report today that Taro turned out to be much more robust than we had ever imagined, as he is still alive and kicking. I’m told he looks exactly the same as he did 30 years ago.

This walk-in closet we called Bonanza was cozy–dare I say too cozy–for the uninitiated, large-bodied American, certainly anyone new to Japan. If you lived in Japan long enough you either lost your claustrophobia or went crazy, because, well, the whole damn country is cramped. Picture this: take 40% of the U.S. population then stuff ‘em into one-third of California, and you’ve got a good proximation of Japan’s population density.

What this means in the context of our story, is that when a customer walked into Bonanza, no matter where the person sat, he or she was uncomfortably close to whomever was already in the bar, including the Master. It was that small. The saving grace of Bonanza was its great music (an eclectic selection of blues, jazz, rock, country, R&B and more), the tasty specials served up by the curmudgeonly Master himself, and the pretty Japanese rock-and-roll chicks who, on occasion, graced us with their presence.

Hey Joe

Joe and Steve in Bonanza

So there I was, uncomfortably close to my future friend Joe in a tiny dive in Yamato run by a grumpy curmudgeon, with Eddy Rabbit singing “Hey Bartender” in the background. I remember the song because it eventually gave birth to Joe’s nickname, “Hey Joe.” The lyrics explain:

Hey, Bartender  pop the top on another can

Give me ten dimes  for this dollar in my hand

Turn the knob on the jukebox way up loud

I might drive out the whole damn crowd

But I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Hey, Joe  you’re lookin’ at me like I was half crazy

But ain’t you never  loved and lost a real special lady

She was a sweet lovin’ momma she treated me right

I stepped out on her one to many times

Now I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Drinkin’ and thinking about facin’ tomorrow

Sinkin’, sinkin’ in a sea of sorrow Hey, Bartender

Line ’em up down the bar

I’m gonna try  and wash away all these lovin scars

Now don’t worry ’bout me weavin’ I’ll be alright

Show me the door when you close up tonight

Cause I’m drinking my baby off my mind

No don’t you worry about me weaving I’ll be alright

Show me the door when you close up tonight

Cause I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Yes I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Thanks to Joe’s fondness for this song, Japanese folks who frequented Bonanza started calling him “Hey Joe,” as in “Hello Mr. Hey Joe!”

Well, when I walked into Bonanza that day, “Hey Joe” was sitting in a kid-sized chair at a tiny table with his buddy Steve. Both were Sophia University students and, from where I stood at the time, wily old veterans of Japan. I remember they were chuckling about something.

To their credit they didn’t hesitate to let me in on the joke. Joe explained that the chef’s “special of the week” was Taro’s Indian curry rice, which happened to be served in a bowl with a large spoon. Problem was that most Americans who ordered the curry wanted to “show off” their chopstick skills by asking for a set. Taro didn’t speak a lick of English, but wanted to enlighten his American customers about a local custom he thought they should be aware of. So he asked Joe and Steve to translate his message from Japanese to English. Grinning from ear-to-ear, Joe pointed to a big sign hanging above the counter that said:

“Even JAPANESE people don’t eat curry with chopsticks!”

A Love Affair with Japan

Over the next year Joe and I became regulars at Bonanza. In no time we clicked and a friendship was born. And it made perfect sense: we were young, single, happy-go-lucky Americans immersed in Japan in the early boom years of the 1980s, surrounded by classy, hardworking, honest people. In conversations with Joe over the years, we concurred that this was a great time to be young and single in Japan. It was indeed the time of our lives.

So what did Joe and I have in common? Besides the Japan connection, we were both from big American cities–Joe from New York, me from Chicago. We both spent 4 years in the service, Joe in the army, me in the navy. We both graduated from Japanese universities: Joe from Sophia, me from International Christian University. Most important, we both had a fondness for Japanese culture, its people, and a soft spot in our hearts for the Japanese ladies.

That’s where the similarities ended. For the record, Joe was much more popular with the local ladies than I ever was. He was four years older and far better looking than me (which is kind of like being the tallest midget). Oh yeah, he was taller than me too. But most important, Joe had “the look” that, for whatever reason, drove Japanese ladies wild.

I think it was his eyes that closed the deal; Japanese women were drawn to his eyelashes, so long and lush that they almost looked fake. Joe wasn’t just handsome, he was–dare I say–handsome in a pretty way.

Joe’s draw with the ladies in Japan was an interesting phenomenon we had discussed more than once. Joe admitted to me that he had never scored big with American ladies. But then the Army deployed him to Japan, and he woke up the next day a powerful chick magnet. Probably didn’t even realize it for the first few days, maybe even weeks. And it must’ve been heady stuff for young Joe to discover his overnight appeal. Suddenly Joe was a kid, a very nice kid, in an exotic candy store. And the candy was jumping off the shelves into his arms.

Years ago I remember discussing with Joe a related cultural phenomenon that we’d both observed in Japan, whereby certain American macho types who had done well with female compatriots in America, would go to Japan and strike out miserably. Conversely, certain American guys who had limited appeal with American ladies found, for whatever reason, their groove in Japan. Joe considered himself part of that latter group.

Without a doubt some of Joe’s popularity came with the territory of being a “gaijin” (foreigner) in Japan. In some circles gaijin were treated like rock stars, much better than we deserved I might add. But Joe’s popularity was driven to a great degree by the standards of beauty and desirability Japanese women attribute to the “ideal mate,” often dramatically different than their female counterparts in America. During my decade in Japan it wasn’t unusual to see nerdy, shy, baby-faced American guys with drop-dead-gorgeous Japanese ladies hanging off their arms–while the macho cowboys couldn’t buy a fake phone number.

To Joe’s utter delight–to our utter delight–we soon figured out that Japanese chicks simply dig different things than their American sisters. Joe would be the first to admit that this difference worked in his favor.

Now I’m not implying that Joe was a nerdy, baby-faced pretty boy. He actually had a kind of exotic European vibe, like a British rock star or maybe a French tennis player. His chic Euro-look, baby-doll eyes and shy demeanor were just too much for Japanese ladies to resist. Watching Japanese women swarm to Joe was a sight to behold. I always did my part as his running buddy by keeping their cute friends entertained. It was a tough job but I did my best.

From Japan to Tennessee

The fun times lasted until we met our spouses. Just kidding. But in truth, hooking up with our lifelong mates–both classy Japanese ladies of the highest calibre–was a compelling motivation to start behaving ourselves. So after we all firmly tied our knots and secured our marriage visas, we stuck a fork in our party life, and turned our focus to acting like grown-ups.

A career move enticed me away from my beloved Japan in 1987. My opportunity was with a Japanese automotive parts manufacturer building a new manufacturing facility in rural Tennessee. Joe made his exit from Japan shortly after mine with more glamorous aspirations: he and his wife were bound for Las Vegas in search of opportunities in the hospitality industry. It made sense as they were both bilingual, and Vegas was crawling with Japanese high rollers awash in bubble money.

Fortunately for me Vegas didn’t work out for Joe.  I say fortunate because it set the stage for us to hook up again. One evening near the tail end of the 80s I got a call out of the blue from Joe. At the time I was living in Hendersonville Tennessee, a suburb just north of Nashville. Joe and his wife were on the road heading in our direction, about an hour and a half away as I recall. They were in the area to check out opportunities, and needed a place to stay for a few days. We were happy to oblige.

Joe and Yukiko soon took a fancy to Tennessee and the rest is history. Through an introduction arranged by my HR department, Yukiko interviewed at, and was hired by the Japanese company right next door to us. (This was 23 or 24 years ago, and to this day Yukiko’s still there; with her talents, skills and abilities, she probably runs the joint by now.) Meanwhile, Joe tried different gigs before finding his niche driving trucks. My buddy Joe was born to drive.

Now banish from your head the stereotype of truck drivers as ignorant oafs. Based on what Joe told me about drivers he had met on the road over the years, lots of very smart, talented folks are driving for a living, including ex-doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc. But one has to wonder: How many truck drivers in America had a degree in business from a prestigious Japanese university and could speak Japanese?

Some folks might say that driving was a waste of Joe’s talents, but that’s like telling a bird it shouldn’t fly. Joe was doing what he loved and did it well. It was a job that gave him time to pursue his other hobbies and passions in life, one of which was writing. (More on this later.)

My time in Tennessee lasted five years before a career opportunity lured me back to the Chicago area, my hometown. I bid a fond good riddance to Tennessee and never looked back. Tennessee was a beautiful place with lots of kind-hearted folks, but I never warmed to Southern culture. As a “Yankee” from Chicago with 10 years in Japan behind me, the socially conservative mindset of many Southerners was just too large a gap for me to reach across. Gaps would be waiting for me in the Chicago area as well, but they were much more manageable.

And yet my buddy “Hey Joe,” a native New Yorker who, in my estimation was just as socially liberal as I am (albeit fiscally conservative), found his piece of paradise in Tennessee and to my utter surprise, firmly planted roots and stayed.

Friendship Drift

This is the part of the story where Joe and I drift apart. We never had a falling out. In fact I can’t remember ever having a fight or even less than civil words with Joe. With a few exceptions our views of the world have always been closely aligned. We always got along well. We just drifted when the currents of life shifted.

If anyone was to blame for the drift it’s me. Without question Joe put much more effort than I did into staying connected. And as you might expect I’ve got a handy list of excuses: I was focused on building a career and raising two kids; long-distance relationships are tough to manage; and our respective circumstances had changed. And it’s all bullshit.

The older I get the more I realize just how rare good friends are–the one’s who add quality to your life and make you a better person–and how much they deserve a piece of your life for your own sake. In practical terms, with technology and low phone rates even back then, the telephone would have worked fine in bridging the geographical distance. Indeed we talked a few times during the fourteen years I lived in Chicago. But it was always Joe calling me. Never once did I reciprocate.

This speaks volumes about me, none of it good. Looking back I sense now that my reticence may have hurt Joe. I was too busy–not only for him but also for my siblings, other friends from the past, even my own kids. It pains me now to think that my lack of reciprocation in corresponding might have hurt Joe. I know that Joe was good with all this. The kicker is, it was my loss.

A Cheerfully Delivered Punch to the Gut

Joe and I eventually reconnected. Ironically it happened after I put even more distance between us, by moving to my current home on the Big Island of Hawaii. The catalyst for reconnecting was facebook.

So for the last several years Joe and I stayed in touch on-line. Then I noticed he had stopped doing status updates on facebook. I was busy myself so his absence didn’t register at first. Then one day (November 9th of last year) Joe finally posted something. I made a lighthearted comment about him being a stranger. Minutes later a message was in my inbox. It was a cheerfully written email that stunned me.

“Hey Tim! Hope you are well. I just want to fill you in on my absence these past several weeks. A few months ago I noticed a lump in my neck that gradually became larger and two weeks ago I was diagnosed with neck cancer after a biopsy. I suspected it was cancer from the beginning and it was confirmed last week.

The doctor thinks it metastasized from elsewhere and tomorrow I will have a PET scan to see where it came from if indeed it actually did. I have not been ill or weak at all and have felt like my normal self since I discovered it in July so it is hard to believe that it is a cancer and not some kind of infection. It just kind of popped up like overnight!

Since I discovered it I have gone on an all natural diet and juicing 1/2 gallon/day along with other herbs and supplements and it seems to have stabilized and even shrunk a bit. It has not gotten any worse or larger, but my lymph nodes are still enlarged.

Regardless of the outcome tomorrow, I will not take any chemo, radiation or surgery as the “cure” rate is only 2% and I’ve seen my brother and friends suffer and die from it. Besides, my research over the years since my brother died has shown that there are natural cures for cancer out there with cure rates above 70%. I will prove if they work or not.

Anyway, I did not want to bother you with this, but I wanted to let you know why I have been a stranger lately. As soon as I know more I’ll let you know and may even put it as my status so the rest of my friends will know what’s going on and the route I am taking to try and beat this.

Take care and I’ll stay in touch. Joe

PS: I am not depressed or anything, in fact I am kind of fired up as now I can prove if the natural route works or not and stick it to the crime syndicate Cancer industry, Big Pharma, and the AMA. And if it doesn’t work? Well, it was a pretty decent life and I’ll have no regrets.”

Needless to say I was devastated. And from that moment forward Joe figuratively held my hand and comforted me while he dealt privately with the consequences.

From the letter above, his courage is evident, awe-inspiring, downright heroic. And his defiance and bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds managed to convince me that Joe just might pull it off. But still I worried.

Cancer and “Natural-Cure” Charlatans

The ethics, politics, scams, and even promise surrounding so-called “natural cures” is beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say that after a substantial amount of reading up on the subject (thanks to Joe), I can say with confidence that while research is uncovering promising new treatments for cancer, most alternative-healing sites on the internet are scams designed to separate sick, suffering people  from their money. Can’t get much lower than that.

This is not to imply that Joe did the wrong thing not taking the “traditional medicine” route. As he wrote in the email above, he saw his brother suffer and die doing conventional chemo, a path he didn’t want to go down.

We’ll never know the outcome had Joe chosen conventional medicine from the start. The reality is it was Joe’s life, no one else’s. It was his decision, and the consequences were his and only his to accept. My job as his friend, as I saw it, was to support him emotionally, and find new information, research and options for his consideration.

Something I Need to Get Off My Chest

In ensuing emails, Joe provided links to “natural healing” sites, all of which I clicked on and studied. And every single click set off my bullshit sensors.

With red flags waving and alarm bells ringing in my head, I had a dilemma: tell Joe that he was dealing with snake-oil salesmen and risk crushing his spirit; or play along and hope that either, one, he’s right about the natural cures and recovers, or two, he changes his mind before it’s too late.

I chose to play along. When the natural approach failed miserably Joe went to plan B. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was too late. Joe and I continued our correspondence privately. Then on April 27th Joe called me out of the blue. His voice was raspy, his words almost unintelligible. I was able to follow enough to understand that he had been in a coma for several days, during which time the doctor did a tracheotomy. Joe called to tell me he was doing okay, and that he wanted me to know how much he valued our friendship and thanked me for being his friend. All I could think to do was thank him back and tell him I loved him.

Then I did something that I would come to regret: I suggested that it might be easier to correspond in writing, as Joe seemed to be struggling and in pain. “No pain at all,” he growled, but somehow I couldn’t get myself to believe him. Maybe I didn’t want to believe him? Straining to decipher Joe’s words, my ears weren’t up to the task; I was way too distraught to carry on a conversation anyway. Cutting short the phone call to switch to written correspondence seemed, at that moment in time, like a logical way to communicate. It was the last time I would ever talk to Joe.

Upon reflection it’s painfully obvious that if Joe had wanted to write me an email, he would have written me an email. No, instead he called–in spite of his struggles and the trauma to his throat and vocal chords–because he wanted to talk to me on the phone. I should have listened; I should have comforted him; I should have thanked him for honoring me with such an important phone call. It was a missed opportunity to prove my worth as a friend, a lost moment that’s gone forever.

I struggle now to put my feelings into words. It wasn’t until after we hung up that the reality hit me: Joe had just come out of a coma only to find out he had a tracheotomy, and his inclination was to call me and tell me how much he valued our friendship? I cried the rest of the day.

“It’s Me Against the Cancer Now”

I mentioned that Joe eventually gave traditional medicine a try. He made it through 3 doses of chemo before opting out. In Joe’s own words:

Hey Tim, Just want to let you know that I am back home again. I had decided to try another chemo treatment and went off home hospice care. It was a bad decision as it almost killed me and I was in the ICU again for a week. My blood was so badly damaged by the chemo that I required a 6-pint transfusion over two days. I was so disoriented that I had no concept of time. I’d take five steps and I was out of breath. Never again. It’s me against the cancer now as I am back in home hospice care. However, I am recovering nicely and am back to my old self mentally. Today I had my first solid food in three weeks. It’s amazing how you have to teach yourself to swallow again. Twice I was on deaths doorstep and twice I made a full recovery. Again, it’s amazing what willpower can do. I just hope that, if there is a third time, that it’s not the one to take me over the river. Well, that’s the update from here and thanks for caring… Love ya, Joe

It was the last email I would get from Joe, his courage intact right up until the end. On July 5th my friend crossed over the river. I found out through a post on his facebook wall.

What Happens When People Die?

I’ve had my share of lost loved ones. Every time it happens the same question haunts me: what happened to the person I loved? Philosopher and author Robert Pirsig pondered the same question after losing his son Chris:

“Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where had he gone to? Did he go up the stack of the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? None of these answers made any sense. It had to be asked: What was it I was so attached to? Is it just something in the imagination? When you have done time in a mental hospital, that is never a trivial question. If he wasn’t just imaginary, then where did he go? Do real things just disappear like that? If they do, then the conservation laws of physics are in trouble. But if we stay with the laws of physics, then the Chris that disappeared was unreal. Round and round and round. He used to run off like that just to make me mad. Sooner or later he would always appear, but where would he appear now? After all, really, where did he go? The loops eventually stopped at the realization that before it could be asked “Where did he go?” it must be asked “What is the ‘he’ that is gone?” There is an old cultural habit of thinking of people as primarily something material, as flesh and blood. As long as this idea held, there was no solution. The oxides of Chris’s flesh and blood, of course, go up the stack at the crematorium. But they weren’t Chris. What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of. Now Chris’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center of it, and that was what caused all the heartache. The pattern was looking for something to attach to and couldn’t find anything. That’s probably why grieving people feel such attachment to cemetery headstones and any material property or representation of the deceased. The pattern is trying to hang on to its own existence by finding some new material thing to center itself upon. Some time later it became clearer that these thoughts were something very close to statements found in many ‘primitive’ cultures. If you take that part of the pattern that is not the flesh and bones of Chris and call it the ‘spirit’ of Chris or the ‘ghost’ of Chris, then you can say without further translation that the spirit or ghost of Chris is looking for a new body to enter. When we hear accounts of “primitives” talking this way, we dismiss them as superstition because we interpret ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ as some sort of material ectoplasm, when in fact they may not mean any such thing at all.”

Likewise, the “pattern” I knew as Joe Cyr was much larger than myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.

Now Joe’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, is gone. My heart aches for a man who was a big brother, always sincere, always supportive, always respectful. If there is a heaven, then no doubt about it that’s where Joe is right now. And if there isn’t a heaven, I take comfort in knowing that he is still in a better place than when he left us.

Footprints in My Heart

Of all the people you meet in your life how many become lifelong friends? How many leave footprints in your heart? In my case, I can count on my two hands the friends I trust unconditionally. This means that of all the folks in the world who met me in the last 54 years (perhaps tens of thousands?), their chances of becoming a trusted friend percentage-wise is kind of like winning the lottery. But having a friend like Joe was a lot better than winning the lottery; he enriched my life and made me a better person. Rest in peace my friend.

For some really fun reading on the adventures of Joe Cyr, check out these stories, in Joe’s own words: Pachipro’s Blog: Experiences of a Foreigner Living in Japan

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012 

Bridging Cultures Through Hip-Hop: Hawaii Kids Host Rainbow for Japan Kids

On 12/27,  HAAS Charter School students, teacher Tom Brennan, and our good friends from Center Stage dance studio volunteered their time to spend the day at Kilauea Military Camp with Japanese middle school children from the disaster areas in Japan. Our guests traveled to Hawaii via the “Rainbow for Japan Kids” initiative, a program created by Japan America Society of Hawaii to bring hope and joy to young victims of the Japan disaster.

The HAAS kids were awesome as usual, ditto for the Center Stage dance instructors and students who showed us how to “top rock” and “freeze”.

These wonderful young kids have stumbled onto a powerful truth that no one teaches in college cultural anthropology courses: that hip-hop has the power to bring cultures together, especially when it’s expressed through dance.

The videos and pictures below tell the story. The first clip features dance instructor Tunji Johnson and Center Stage student Rylie “Kid Frenzy” Cabalse showing our guests how to dance with passion.

Here’s another great clip of Tunji entertaining the crowd with a beautiful dance solo:

And of course, the pictures…


Did we mention there was bowling too?

A big mahalo to Japan America Society of Hawaii, Tom Brennan and his students at HAAS Charter School, and all the wonderful folks from Center Stage who volunteered to spend the day with our special guests.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012