Archive for May, 2009

Dissection Final 2009 – the Lines!

May 30, 2009

One final picture – a teaser for those who share my hunger for ‘just the facts, ma’am’, a relief for those of you who have found these last few posts a trial of too much meaty reality.  Conceived by Todd Garcia, realized by David Lesondak, with some of yours truly in there for the actual arrangement.  There’ll be a video tour of this available later this year with any luck:

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These are the Anatomy Trains myofascial meridians we took from ‘George’ over the last six days.  To my students: can you identify them?

For you others, these abstracted shapes are an unfamiliar way of seeing the body in motion / stability.  From the left: Superficial Front Arm Line, Deep Front Arm Line, Superficial Front Line, Deep Front Line, Superficial Back Line, a bit of the upper posterior Spiral Line, the Back Functional Line, the Deep Back Arm Line, and the Superficial Back Arm Line.

Not shown (viva 2011!): Lateral Line, full Spiral Line, Front Functional Line, and the (new to the 2nd edition) Ipsilateral Functional Line.

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One final note: I have an arse-kicking moment in every one of these dissections; most people do – it’s just too out of the normal realm and confrontive not to.  Although I certainly felt like a proud father to see the concept laid out so concretely on the concrete floor of the lab, my mental sock drawer was rearranged by:

(Isaac Asimov says most scientific discoveries are not acccompanied by the equivalent of Archimedes’ “Eureka!” but a quiter, “That’s funny…”.)

I was taking a postage-stamp-sized window out of the leg’s interosseous membrane to examine under Eric’s microscope.  Before I could even get it out of the leg it turned into gossamer, curled up and shrunk and went all wispy. We put it on the slide, and were able to roll it out a little, but this was true all over the body.  We took a scar from George’s leg, but by the time Eric had tomed it for the microscope, it had disappeared, reorganized out of being a scar.

Conclusion (these conclusions to spiritual events are always banal, but here it is): Structure is contextual, and only contextual.

The scar is only a scar when it is in its milieu of forces around it. The interosseous membrane is not the sturdy fabric we see in Clemente unless it is strung between the two bones.  Long live biotensegrity, and thank you Dr. Stephen Levine, and Tom Flemons, and Phil Earnhardt for sticking to your guns. I have a new appreciation for bones after this and their role in shaping the tissues.  But a strong new appreciationfro the whole, the pattern in its entirety, and its malleability in consciousness, so thanks to Ida for sticking to her guns also, and what the hell, thanks to me for sticking to mine.

But this week, thanks to Todd, David, Eric, and all the other students who supported our work with theirs.

Dissection 3

May 29, 2009

This continues as the most successful dissection in which I have been fortunate to participate in terms of the learning obtained.

• Fabulous group of students who are doing great work (special mention here to Daphne Mosko, who unraveled the foot for all to see).

• Luck with the condition of the cadavers (although Todd may have something to do with this, even though he says he can’t control what they send him).

• Todd’s focus and consummate skill at the table, not to mention his willingness to set aside the conventions of dissection to patiently entertain my ignorant fumblings for a new order.

• David Lesondak’s skill with the cameras, allowing us to retain the memory for ourselves and share it with others

• Eric Root’s microscopic explorations of the interaction between fibers, glue, capillaries, lymph vessels at various levels of stretch and at various levels in the body, giving us a whole new dimension between gooey and Guimberteau.

• And I am not forgetting Penelope’s informed guidance of the students, Michelle’s slaving over a hot sink to wash away the blood, poop, and fat from the towels, J.C’s willingness to lean over a stinky mass of guts to reveal the mesenteric tree, and everyone else’s cooperating to stop what they are doing to let me video the results of all our work.  Thanks to everyone!

Yesterday the traditional calvarium cuts were made to reveal brains and dura; today will be largely show-and-tell as we bring things to a close, so here are a few of the pictures from the last couple of days:

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Fascia, fascia everywhere, nor any drop to drink…

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The lower half of the Superficial Front Line (SFL) – this guy had some quads on him!  Very hard to retain the fascia going over the tibia on this specimen – it was there and came up fine and clear, but as soon as you bring it away from the underlying bone, in seconds it curls up and dyes like a hairdresser.  Even the interosseous membrane between the tibia and fibula – surely a strong, bilaminar, tough-stuff structure – almost disappears into gossamer as soon as it is removed.  Long live biotrensegrity! (This is a convincing correlate of the tensegrity concept – funnily, it gives me new appreciation for the role and shape of bone in stretching the tensegrity into shape – Grandma’s orthogonal rack, I believe Ron McComb callled it, referring to Ida Rolf.)

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The upper Superficial Front Line from the pubic symphysis (left) up through the rectus (and yes, he had a diastasis – spreading of the linea alba – like a pregnant woman, but this fellow was ‘pregnant’ with overeating) to the SCM on the right.  The kicker for me came in the middle, which we preserved on his right side only.  Some of my readers will know I have puzzled over the connection between the rectus and the SCM in the SFL, searching through sternalis (which despite the great example in the pervious post is often too flimsy to serve) and the sternal fascia (which works, but is too narrow to convey the full mechanical force.

So this time we left the proximal portion of the pectoralis major in place.  This created a great connection, but would break the Anatomy Trains ‘rules’ since the muscle fibers of the pectoralis run counter to the direction of the line (expressed by the rectus and SCM).  So imagine out surprise when we turned the specimen over and found plenty of vertical fascial fibers embedded into the posterior side of the pectoralis.  Anatomy Trains rules may be made to be broken, but this was victory enough for me: Anatomy Trains rules! (maniacal laughter echoes down the corridor…)
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The Superficial Back Line from a fresh-tissue cadaver.  This specimen, relaxed, measured 81 inches; the cadaver, relaxed, stood at about 5′ 7″ or so.  Fromt left: Epicranial fascia from eyebrow to nuchal line, erector spinae (and some transversospinalis) to sacral fascia, the isthmus of the sacrotuberous ligament leading to the hamstrings intertwined with the gastrocs and around the calcaneus to the plantar aponeurosis.

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And finally, a first: The Deep Front (core) line from a fresh tissue cadaver.  Deep toe flexors at the bottom, joined across the back of the knee to the adductors across the groin with the psoas complex (from here on up we have both sides) to the diaphragm and mediastinum, and finally up to the bat ears of the temporalis muscle joined to the jaw.  The mandible and hyoid are the only bones in this specimen, and there are no breaks from the inner ankle to the underside of the skull. This ancient creature lives inside us, one and all.

Thanks again to one and all.  This was such a team effort.

Dissection 2

May 27, 2009

We have now finished four days of the dissection project, and I am very pleased with what we have got.  The students have been great, Todd has been a steady worker, following my crazy ideas and making them real, and David Lesondak has been literally on top of things (often atop a swaying stepladder) to document both process and product in video and in photos.

It is very interesting how some things are possible in one cadaver, and impossible in another.   Bodies are so variable.

Here’s an example of the upper posterior Spiral Line we were able to dissect out of George (we name the cadavers, not their real names – it’s amazing what affection you have for them as you learn about their lives through the ‘track’ they have left – their physical form.  Millie is heartbreaking with her painted nails but no uterus; drooping transverse colon and a wicked-looking plate in her head that resulted from a brain surgery we haven’t been able to expose the cause of yet.  Richard has bad dental work and a twisted spine and a collapsed chest, but strong legs.  George has no teeth at all, but this seems not to have dimmed his appetite; we had to flense the fat off from him, and his guts were very full.  He is without a gall bladder, an operation which left many adhesions in his belly.):

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On the left is the splenius capitis and cervicis, the gap in the middle shows where we were able to dissect a connection between the splenius capitis and the rhomboid minor, but were unable to get a clean fabric connection between the cervicis and the rhomboid major – a connection we were able to get easily (well, not easily but cleanly) on our previous encounter with a fresh-tissue cadaver.

On the right is the many fingered serratus anterior.  Please note the strong connection between the rhomboids and the serratus – here is a clear picture of the rhomboserratus muscle.  Here’s the kicker: the scapula has been removed from this specimen, and it does nothing to separate the rhomboids from the serratus.  Note please that I am not saying that the rhomboids or serratus don’t connect to the scapula; it’s just that they also have a strong (strong! literally) fascial connection behind the scapula that is seldom if ever listed in the books.  The scapula could easily be moved 1.5 inches either way on the rhomboserratus without the profoudn side of this connection being moved.

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Here is a brilliant (I can say so, Todd did it) dissection of the Superficial Back Line from toes to nose up the back of the body – planter fascia to the left, epicranial fascia to the right.  This specimen measured 81 inches (206 cm) when laid out relaxed.  George measures about 5’7″ (67 inches, 170 cm).  This increase of nearly 20% is partially due to the addition of the plantar fascia to and epicranial fascia to the length, partially due to the straightening of the primary and secondary curves this line traverses.

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Finally, the Superficial Back Arm Line.  In this case we included the trapezius on both sides (easily dissected together, though you can see the holes in the very thin aponeurosis  between the middle trapezii), with the rest of the line running down the right side only: deltoid, lateral intermuscular septum, and his strong extensors (maybe he rode a Harley?) leading to the backs of his fingers.

Everyone is punch drunk on this fourth day – the initial enthusiasm worn down by the smell of formaldehyde, the vague aroma (and accoutrements) of a butcher shop, the bending over the table, the exacting and slowly progressing work.

Meanwhile, in the background, we are working toward my goal for this workshop: the Deep front Line from ankle to jaw in a fresh tissue extraction.  Stay tuned.

2009 Dissection

May 26, 2009

Twenty of us have gathered at Todd Garcia’s Laboratory for Anatomical Enlightenment in Denver – mostly KMI practitioners, but with a good smatteirng of movement teachers as well.  Todd has brought in a retired podiatrist, Penelope, who is helping us all with dissection, especially with the feet.

I cannot give you any photos or video rushes (we’re heading for a ‘new and improved’ dissection DVD by the end of the year, though).  This encounter with a gift of our form from the dead is always deep – my own death and that of those I love always comes up – but I am leaving those issues for later or another spot.

For those interested, here are a couple of highlights from our first couple of days:

1) We’ve been having trouble getting the upper Superficial Front Line to go from the pubis to the mastoid process without significant ‘holes’ (places where the fascia is so stuck down to the underlying bone – in the SFL case the sternum and the sternochondral joints with the ribs).  Jeff Mahadeen, Gerald Brasile, and Jackie Wayda, however, found a specimen where the sternalis was so hefty that he was able to dissect out an SFL intact with no holes, just like the first edition says it is.  This is funny to me, because we had been so unsuccessful with this to date – the sternalis is often absent or too fascially flimsy for the job – that I left it out of the second edition.  Now, suddenly, thanks to Jeff and this donor, I have an excellent example of what I originally proposed, but abandoned when the ugly facts did not fit my beautiful theory.

Here’s a beautiful picture to fit my now ugly ducking theory – thanks to Jeff, Jackie, and Gerald!

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2) Todd, working with speedy patience as always, took out the first example of the Back Functional Line from the fresh-tissue cadaver.  From the latissimus across the throacolumbar fascia to the gluteus on the other side.  I have not gone for this line before because it seemed so ‘obvious’, and Vleeming had already detected a line of tension in the fascia from latissimus to contralateral gluteus.  But it was interesting nevertheless how difficult it was to get the connection across the midline where all the fascia was tacked down to the buried lumbar spinous processes.  The resulting specimen was good, but more flimsy than the connection from the splenius to the contralateral rhomboids farther up the spine.

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On the right you see the latissimus dorsi, connecting to the right humerus.  In the middle is the superficial lamina of the thoracolumbar and sacral fascia.  The hole is where is was tightly tied to the PSIS (where your dimple is above your bum).  On the left is the gluteus maximus, with the connection into the iliotibial tract (top left) and the lateral intermuscular septum between the vastus lateralis and the biceps femoris (lower left).  Can’t see the difference?  That’s because they are part and parcel of the same fascia.

Eagle

May 17, 2009

My eagle is back!  “My” eagle – like you could own one, or like everyone else around here doesn’t consider it ‘theirs’.  But I am alone on the river these days: no fishermen are setting traps yet, and no other sailor is stupid enough to be out in the spring chill that still grips the sea like a twist in your knickers.

So it feels like mine alone when I got close to the tip of Hodgson’s Island, with a slate-grey wind laying me sideways on the water, I take one hand for the wheel, and one for the binoculars, and sure enough, there’s her china-white combed-back head poking up out of the massive branchy nest she returns to these last five years.

“Hello!” I call, “Welcome!” and in answer she rises from the nest and with a few strong beats of her square wings is out in the wind above my sail, dancing on the air as the boat rocks ‘tween wind and water below.  After a minute she swoops up and reels back to her nest and the eggs, but I have been honored, and I tug my forelock in recognition.  I swear she nods to me as she lands, but that may be a conceit.

Last year, one of her offspring almost settled a couple of miles up in our cove, but I saw forty crows in the shoreside trees join forces to scare him off from building his nest, badgering him and making it impossible, until he moved on.  Maybe this year they’ll relent.  I would say ‘damn crows’, but these intelligent birds serve a lot of purposes here, I am just sorry they don’t appreciate eagles.

Still thin on this coast due to the accumulation of DDT in the shells, we treasure our raptors, our ospreys and eagles, even as they get more numerous again, and are obviously considered ‘pests’ by the some like the crows.  Seagulls really are the best flyers, but they are garbage eaters and dockside shitters; there’s nothing like the soaring regal eagle to command the sky.

Japan: End notes

May 16, 2009

At home in Maine, every third person drives a Subaru Outback or Forester, noted for their all-wheel drive, good clearance, slow rusting, and of course – this being Maine – their frugality with petrol.  In my whole time in Japan, I saw one Subaru.  More Toyotae and Lexi than you can shake a stick at, including many models not on offer in the States, but what it is with Subaru – just an exporter?

And what’s with all the BMW’s and Mercedes?  Even a few Audis and VW’s.  Guess a German car is status, but surprising when the quo is so good.


The Japanese hotels have an interesting innovation I have not seen anywhere else: no matter how long and steamy your shower, a square area of the mirror over the sink stays clear of fog.


Quan asks me why I am so enthusiastic about Japan, and do I want to live there?  No, at my age, I don’t want to move there, but we could certainly take a couple of pages from their book to live a better life here.  Two examples:

On the last evening, I raced to a department store after the class to do some shopping.  The store announced itself to be closing, and then closed.  Nevertheless, a small army of four women stayed after to wrap the presents I had dithered over and finally selected.  Not a word about staying late, not the slightest feeling of imposition, every box done impeccably, and then we were bowed out the security elevator, no tip accepted, no trace of resentment.

The next morning I checked out with an hour to kill, but could reliably leave the hotel staff my bag, jacket, and backpack, containing easily accessible money, passport, ticket, and computer, secure in the knowledge that all of it would show up at the appointed time at the other end of the hotel complex where the airport bus left, everything intact.  In fact the jacket had been carefully folded and put in a plastic bag. Try that in Johannesburg, St Petersburg, London, New York, or LA.

Of course, the expectations on me for service are high as well, and the reason I was late for the store was the number of book signings and questions to answer and photos to be taken after the class.  Though I was tired and eager to be done, I likewise stayed without resentment to serve the students.  These are long days though – I did get sick when I got home, readjusting to the cold salt air, the half-a-globe time shift, and the in-your-face rough-and-tumble that is North American culture.  Goodbye, Japan, and thanks for the memories, and the vision of a culture that actually considers life from the point of view of the other person.

Kamakura Buddha

May 12, 2009

On my one day off, we went out to Kamakura on another series of trains.  I suppose, an hour out of Tokyo by fast train, you could call this suburban, if you think of Brooklyn Heights or Allston as suburban.  I have yet to see anything I would call rural in Japan, but so far I have been on a short leash.

I was wrong a couple of posts ago about those red gates with the curved lintel you see everywhere in both Japan and Japanese art that mark the entrance to sacred space: it is not Todi-I, but Tori-I.  My American ear heard the Japanese ‘r’, which involves touching the tongue to the back of the upper gum at the beginning of the sound, not with the push we put intro ‘dry’, but still: Kaori’s  name – pronounced like the cowrie shell – has a little lingual stop between the two syllables that I had not caught before.

As we passed under the Tori-I into the sacred district, we saw a Japanese Shinto-style wedding (so not everybody is running through the mill at Wedding Island) with such a mélange of kimonos with obis, tuxes with spats, – even one guy with a Mao jacketed suit.

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After skirting the wedding, we washed our hands and saw the shrine, and climbed through a bamboo grove klinking and tokking in the wind to enjoy a cup of real whipped green tea.  Another holy spot had a wet cave full of wonderful and various deities carved into a wall, so I pray to the god of travel for an easy flight home, and the god of health and long life for Quan.  Outside is a wall where people hang those wooden prayers.  This one in Italian touched my heart.

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But the highlight of the day for me was the bronze Buddha.  Cast in 30 pieces 750 years ago and set on a plinth against a hillside, he has a full and strangely sneering set of lips and dangling earlobes and a perfect maha mudra with his hands, but the fascinating part for me – too dark for pictures – was that you could walk inside him, peer behind the curtain, as it were, and see how he was put together.  Amazing craftsmanship to make something so big and heavy work in the first place with such primitive casting technology, let alone outlast the typhoon that destroyed the building around it.

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I am essentially in a large brass gong with the hollow of the head 30’ above me, and, so I cannot resist:  I stand in the center and begin a deep Tibetan chant, adjusting my mouth for the overtones, finding the resonance of the space.  It takes only seconds before I feel the resonance of the head and shoulders of the Buddha, and the sound comes flowing back to me in deep metallic waves.

I could have kept this up for hours, like being inside a huge digeridoo, but this freaks out the other Japanese tourists, who gather their children and quickly leave.  The American rolfer who has joined us for this visit is diggin’ it, but my Japanese companions are looking askance, and the ticket guy is headed in to stop me, so I desist, but what a resonance!  Kaori, outside, could hear it emanating through the walls.

This is the one aspect of Japanese culture I would find hard to take over the long term – the resistance to the individual who steps out of line, who dares to disturb the general peace.  The bright side is that women can walk the streets in peace at 3am; the bad side is that they will not let the crass American bring his open-throated Tibetan depth and Tuvan overtones to break the silence of tradition, and thus they will not hear the Buddha resonate.

Otani

May 12, 2009

The Otani is a pretty rich diet compared to the hotels I am used to.  There is a gourmet shop on the ground floor where we found a single mango for Y8000, or $80.  It is a top drawer mango for sure, twice as big as the usual, with a consistent strawberry-speckled skin, swaddled in a box and suitable for framing, but still – $80 for a single mango?

Behind the hotel is a Japanese garden, a beautiful piece of work with a 20’ waterfall and a tea house.  Not the depth of the one in the Dazaifu Zen center, but pretty damn good for a hotel – and here I can take pictures.  These gardens enhance nature in the way God intended Man to do.  It must take quite a commitment of staff to maintain such a living work of art.

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All over the hotel, staff abound, green uniforms and round hats – my hip flexors have had a workout in concentric contraction and my extensors in eccentric loading just returning the bows I get from every corner of the lobby, restaurant, elevator, and entrance every time I venture from my room.

But night before last, the hotel has filled with black-suited watchers with left ears wired to Central Control, who by last night were tetchy to downright twitchy – eyeing my backpack with a CIA-ish skepticism.  Then forty or so blue suited, high-capped policemen were stationed outside the hotel, and traffic was being stopped and redirected by men in black with white helmets.

At first I thought it was a bust, but one of the students was up on the news: Putin was in town to have a visit with the Japanese prime minister, and he was staying at the Otani, which is located near the Imperial Palace and the Parliament building.  That explains how many Russians I have been hearing in the halls ever since I got here. (I like Russia on its own terms, but I am sorry: put large, loud, and pushy blatting Russians up against soft, gentle, and unfailingly considerate sibilant Japanese?  I hope they get their island back.)

Megalopolis

May 10, 2009

Megalopolis – ever increasing on this urbanized planet – has more in common with itself than it has with the surrounding culture.  New York is megalopolis with American culture as a background; London is megalopolis with English backdrop; Tokyo is megalopolis with a Japanese flavor, et cetera.  You can get good Turkish food in any of these, or Italian, or Indonesian.  The subway systems must be negotiated in the same way.  The New Yorker might well find it easier to handle the pace and push of Tokyo than the rube from Hokkaido.

This morning the rain has cleared and from this breakfast buffet on the 40th floor the freshened green of the Imperial Palace grounds lies nearly at my feet  (circumambulated on this morning’s walk).  But beyond this one respite, the jumble of concrete – a horizontal human coral – stretches unremittingly for miles in every direction, towers and skyscrapers pierce the air seemingly at random – Tokyo has districts but no ‘downtown’ as such.  But it sure has extent.. This rube from Maine prefers the more manageable scope of the smaller cities, but there’s no denying the excitement.

The first night here we meet at a restaurant called Ninja, and it’s a trip.  Enter through a tiny door (tiny even for Japanese) to be greeted by a black-clad and masked hostess, who leads you with a lot of yelling through a tiny darkened passage reminiscent of a Disney ride with glimpses of gold treasure before the moat bridge lowers for you, a sudden blast of air or other harmless threat, trap doors.  One of my companions really whacks his head, but I manage it unscathed.

What I can’t manage is the menu – a long black scroll in the dim light – ‘I am old, I am old, I shall wear my trousers rolled’ – but I do dare to eat, having abandoned the menu to let Travis and Kaori order for me.  In Tokyo, I will get my penchant for sushi satisfied – order with impunity, it has to be the best.

In the middle of the meal enter another veiled warrior (but with kind eyes), this time to do magic.  Right on our table, in front of six attentive and surrounding watchers, this guy wows us with sleight of hand.  His hands – ever a sign to me of character – are thin, sensitive, and ever so skilled with the cards.  I am so envious, and frankly enthralled as he fools us every time, turning limes to lemons, making one of our water glasses disappear, and reaching into his shirt for the 7 of diamonds that I signed myself and placed in the deck – hell, how does he do that?

The seven of diamonds is not the only thing I have signed – Anatomy Trains just came out in Japanese, so I surely have been signing books – inside left, inside right, on the cover – at every workshop.  So the second night is also exquisite sushi, but this time with Igaku-Shoin, the publishers of my book in Japanese.  Again with Kaori and Travis, we meet in the quiet tatami and shoji screen intimacy of a very small and expensive hole in the wall.  We cannot order, but rely easily on the whim of the chef.

This is more formal, with dark suits and the two-handed presentation of business cards, ceremonial pouring of sake, and despite Mr Sakamoto’s suggestion to ‘Relax, and just enjoy ourselves’, I am on my guard not to make too many gaffes, and also because of problems with the translation.  All who can read both Japanese and English have said that the translation, while technically correct, is too formal, obviously translated, one said almost ‘robotic’ compared the my informal ‘voice’, and large sections of the book have simply been left out for reasons unaccountable.

Present at the dinner is the translator himself, Professor Matsushita.  In Japan, the translator is on a par with the author in importance.  While he was doing the translation (a process which took five years, in the end), he sent me very formal emails with formidable questions on this or that point of anatomy, which sent me scurrying to the books to catch my self-taught anatomy up with his precision.

With all this, I am prepared to do subtle battle on a field where I am at a double disadvantage, but instead I am immediately and irredeemably charmed by this old world gentle-man, soft of voice and hands, grey suit with graying hair above it – I have dreamed him before, gold rims and all, and know him right away.  Retired from teaching neuroanatomy, he takes on little jobs like this to keep his hand in.  I think he looks on the job of translating the second edition with puffed cheeks – a lot of work for someone his age, and with less interest given that he has already scoped the concept.

But no substantive business talk is allowed at this meeting-with-eating but for one exception: The surprise is that sales have exceeded all expectations.  For reasons none of us can discern, although they printed 3000 copies, expecting that to hold them for a couple of years, they are in a second printing, having sold 5000 copies in three months – about what we sold in the first year of the English first edition.  They have done a second printing and are preparing for a third.  I suppose the workshops we have done are a factor, but this is reaching a few hundred, not thousands.  Nor is it the publisher’s publicity: they are very pleased that this book seems to be taking them into new niches of physios and movement teachers they had not been able to reach before with their emphasis on the medical market.  Hence we rate the really good sushi.

Somehow Anatomy Trains has struck a chord in the Japanese zeitgeist, and we intend to play the music and see what happens.  It is not easy teaching in such a different ambience, but with Kaori and Travis – awake and savvy bridges between the cultures – handling the vanguard, we’ll see what we can do.

Shrine

May 8, 2009

Accepting the invitation to visit a shrine on the edge of Fukuoka on my half-day-off feels a bit dubious at first.  Already a frustrating morning, I had attempted to get out on the water by taking the first run of the Uminaka ferry across Fukuoka Bay, leaving from the pier on the back side of Wedding Island.  But they had changed the schedule from yesterday to today with the end of ‘Golden Week’, the Japanese equivalent of the Easter break.

Suddenly the crowds have disappeared from the hotel, the German festival has packed up (weissbier and bratwurst and oom-pah music in the midst of Japanese calm made me wonder again how these two countries formed an alliance), and the ferry rocked unattended at the pier – so I headed back to the hotel like a good boy to be taken to visit the local tourist attraction.

All week, Kaori, Yuki, and Masa have been joking about the ‘magic wallet’ that we were given to cover all expenses.  I have managed to spend about $5 on water and a pair of cheap sunglasses, except for an Italian lunch I insisted on covering to thank the generous and enthusiastic Dr Takeda, an innovator who runs the Pilates-based rehab clinic where the seminar was held.  Everything else has been top-drawer food and hotels and cabs everywhere we need to go.

But this morning the purse strings have apparently been pulled tight.  Kaori has already left for Tokyo, Yuki and Masa are visiting a friend, so I am stuck with the young and tongue-tied Shinye to take a series of buses to a subway to a train.  It is a strain to converse here at the best of times – it always is when surrounded by a foreign tongue – but Shinye’s halting attempts at English require a concentration that feels like work in the only few hours I might have been left to my own thoughts.  It’s all been great, but it’s also been 12- to 14-hours a day busy.

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There was a flap a while back when the voice of the London Underground (‘Mind the gap’) made a series of satiric messages that were posted to the internet.  Someone needs to do something similar with the voice that needles your ear in every elevator and station in Japan – she is high-pitched, sing-song, and ripe for satire.  And it takes a lot of characters to say ‘Watch Your Fingers’ – good advice for bodyworkers everywhere, I suppose.  And there’s a No Smoking sign next to the cigarette dispenser. But I am reaching for useful material here. While I smile and incline my ear to decipher ‘subway’ when Shinye says ‘shrubbery’, I am grumbling inside myself that I would have done better to do my souvenir shopping this morning for those at home who think these trips are a dawdle.

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As we board the next train, we pick up Miwa, who just returned from athletic trainer school in America, so communication takes a leap, and the magic wallet appears again when we reach our final station in the suburbs for a delicious bento box (very welcome, I was feeling a bit peckish as well as peevish).

Up from the station is the Dazaihfu shrine (just give each vowel equal value and make the ‘f’ really soft), a Shinto holy site dedicated to the god of scholarship. The first purification begins when you walk under the Todi-I, that square gate with a curved upper lintel that marks every sacred place in Japan – you don’t need a picture of that, do you?  Good.  Then we walk over the three arching bridges over a lake filled with huge goldfish.  We feed these carp and the turtles, who struggle to get anything amidst the faster fish.  The bridges represent past, present, and future, apparently another purification.  By now we are in another world, surrounded by twisting plum trunks and another set of absolutely huge-trunked, 500-yr-old trees whispering deliciously in the spring wind.

The next purification consists of standing in front of a seemingly nondescript little shrine house, until you realize that it has stood there for 400 years, season in and season out, an intricate puzzle box of thousands of pieces of wood without a single nail or fastener from it’s log base to the mossy roof of cypress bark.  You go back and forth between total admiration and an American dismissal ‘These people had too much time on their hands.’

The final purification, inside the last courtyard, is a ritual washing of the hands.  I am guided through the proper order, dipping my wooden cup into the clear spring to wash my left hand, right hand, rinse my mouth (can’t help it, I think about swine flu even though it has yet to reach Japan), and then tip the cup up to rinse its long handle before replacing it.  Thus as pure as I am going to get, I approach the shrine itself.

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The shrine – a sweep-roofed old Japanese construction with gilded carvings – is dedicated to a Master of Rites in Tokyo’s court who was banished here after being falsely accused, and has since become the patron saint of scholarship and plum trees.  (Supposedly one flew from Tokyo to Dazaihfu overnight to give him one last whiff of its fragrance before he died.  The Japanese love these legends and write poems about them.)  He is depicted as a typically severe mustachioed and coiffed fellow seated with his fan.  According to his wishes, his body was placed on a cart pulled by an ox (he and I are both born in the Year of the Ox), and the ox set free to roam.  Where the ox came to rest is where he is buried, right here under the shrine – this is around 800 AD.

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Students come here – Miwa did as a child – to pray to do well on exams.  With no exams of my own coming up, I self-consciously assume the position and pray aloud to the mirror at the center of the altar – interesting symbol for scholarship – for my daughter, who when last Skyped was near tears with the weight of her junior year end-of-term exam prep.  Though I know she will do well, any help is welcome, so I also rub the nose of the brass ox beside the shrine and then rub my head, as I see several students doing this as well.

OK, this was interesting enough, if a bit hokey, but the breathtaking finale was the Zen temple and gardens.  I almost didn’t go – the plane to Tokyo beckoned – but we hurried down a side street and through the wooden gates.  Those who have seen Tassajara or other Zen sites will know the clean clarity of their approach, but this was exquisite.  On the outside was a rock garden, with carefully raked white gravel surrounding a set of 15 buried stones creating the kanji character for ‘light’.  To sit on the bench at the end was to invite the light of the Buddha.

Walk through the dojo (what do Zen folks call their meditation halls?) the air thick with austerity, all dark wood and tatami mats, and single azalea blossom on a shelf angled precisely to a scroll on the wall – and emerge over a garden of arresting beauty.  Stunned, plane time forgotten, I kneel on the narrow porch to gaze out over a sea of gravel raked as waves with islands of sculpted moss and Japanese maples and birches.  One large stone stands in the center with the characters of a poem carved in, a softly trickling fountain with a bamboo spout just audible beside it.

Drink it in – it’s perfect, it’s just perfect, balanced and magic and silent and joyous.  Unlike the excrescences of our cities that I must re-enter after just these few precious moments, it looks like what Man was put on earth to build – praising God and healing humans at the same time, transcending nature without dominating it – creating something like this is a worthy lifetime goal.  About an acre, framed by the temple on one side and a steep curved hill on the other, this is the kind of place that could pull you to the side of your road, lead you to leave your peeved thoughts and useless strivings behind, to purify for real and let the Carver work on you in peace.