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TGBC Monthly Challenge - #LookOut

Back in July 2023, Tough Guy Book Club were challenged to get their eyes checked under the hashtag #lookout. Why we had to do this, we were told, was a long story. Here now with permission is that story in full. It's a rollercoaster, full of ups and downs, fascinating characters and painful losses and hard-won lessons.

But hey, we're TGBC. We like those kinds of stories.

Damian Nippard attends the Pascoe Vale chapter in VIC, Australia, along with his brother Tony. He heard about the club on the radio or Facebook, or maybe his wife did. He'd always been an avid reader - Ken Follett, Geraldine Brooks, Hannah Kent. His first book with the club was Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle. He didn't think much of it, to be honest. Darnielle should stick to songwriting with the Mountain Goats.

But Damian wasn't the only reader in the family. His other younger brother Mick Nippard loved a good thriller, something in the style of Alistair McLean. Damian had always worn glasses to read. Mick had flawless 20/20 vision and never needed them.  

These two brothers enjoyed each other's company when they could, because Mick had made his life and career across the sea in Japan. He was a wine importer who lived in the northern city of Sapporo (you might have heard of the beer) with his Japanese wife Miki and their two kids, Riece and Elisa. He owned and ran a little wine bar in a fairytale powder-dusted ski village called Niseko.

One night, Mick was watching TV when he felt something funny in his eye. A bit of a blur, a spot swimming in his field of view. Strange for a guy who'd always had perfect vision. He went to the doctor to get it checked and was shocked to discover that he had a melanoma on his retina.

Australians, as we know, live about twelve inches from the surface of the sun and are more than familiar with the dangers of melanoma, or skin cancer. But even Australians might not know that the surface at the back of your eyeball - as well as retina, macula, rods and cones and all the things that allow you to see - also contains melanin. It's the same pigment that's in your skin and vulnerable in the same ways. In Mick's case, he learned that his spot was greater than 5mm, which meant it was inoperable. The eye would have to be removed.

Mick, understandably, didn't love this idea. He raced home to Australia to see Damian and the family and consult more doctors. They told him that the Japanese would be the experts, in cancer and in eyes.

There was nothing else for it. Mick went home to Japan and had the operation.

Thankfully, bar owner is one of the few jobs - along with pirate captain, Bond villain and Norse god - where having one eye actually makes you cooler. Mick took to wearing sunglasses and a hat all the time. He closed down the bar in Niseko and opened one closer to home in Sapporo (snow glare might well have contributed to his melanoma). He was a well-known and beloved figure, just as comfortable entertaining an entire room as he was choosing the perfect bottle for a single customer. Legend has it that Mick was the first gaijin (the common term for non-Japanese) to have a license to import wine into Japan. [This is him dancing on TV at a Japan-Australia baseball game - PICTURES IF WE CAN FIND THEM].

Ten years passed. We told you this was a long story.

One-eyed Mick continued to run his business, travelling across Japan selling wine and organising pop-up events. He'd also frequently fly back to Australia to visit winemakers and visit with Damian and his Australian family. He had masquerade matched-wine dinners with his former colleagues. He never made it to a TGBC meeting, but we're sure he would have loved it.

Anyone with experience knows, cancer is a many-headed monster. Turns out there's a close correlation between melanoma and liver cancer. It often spreads through the blood to the liver. And for a man like Mick working in the wine business, let's just say his liver already had some battle scars. He discovered that his cancer had spread, the tumours in his liver had metastasised, and the prognosis was not good.

He had several rounds of chemotherapy in Japan, with all the difficulties that treatment brings. Some days he barely had the strength to move, let alone read. As things got worse and worse Mick learned about a revolutionary treatment available at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre back in Australia. He travelled home to chase this last best hope.

They told him he wasn't suitable. There wasn't much time left.

In the end it was about two weeks. Damian and the family were with Mick as he started to fade. Most importantly, they were all working frantically to get Mick's wife and kids out from Sapporo to say goodbye. Even with passport and clearance help from the Australian government, Miki, Riece and Elisa wouldn't arrive until a couple of days too late.

On Friday night, Mick played cards. On Saturday he curled up on the couch, in pain. By Sunday, he was gone.

Now, here comes the important part for us.

Damian Nippard told this story to a certain visiting TGBC Director at the Pascoe Vale chapter meeting, in between beers and discussion of the subtle, tender short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies. Damian was still dealing with the painful news but his message was clear - just go and get your eyes checked. Seriously, it's not hard. Especially for people who have 20/20 vision and have never had a problem or seen an eye doctor.

That, said the TGBC Director, sounds like a fucking good challenge.

So in July 2023, a small army of goons descended on their nearest doctor or optometrist or SpecSavers outlet. They stared into the big microscope machine thing and wore the weird steampunk goggles. They had retinal scans like characters in a spy novel, and got gross pink pictures taken of the insides of their eyeballs. Some of them were old hands, veteran spectacle-wearers like Damian, who has actually had a couple of epithelial debridements, which is a fancy way of saying 'corneas polished'. But plenty of other goons who had always enjoyed 20/20 vision found themselves with brand new prescriptions. Not only could they suddenly see their books better, they looked smarter and more distinguished doing it.

And all of this from a story, told by one dude to another dude in a pub. It probably benefited Damian to tell it, it certainly benefited the TGBC bigwig to listen, and it was unquestionably beneficial to hundreds, if not thousands of men across Australia and all over the world.

That's the power of TGBC. It's the power of stories, really.

It starts with a conversation, or words written down on a page - or indeed, with a glint in someone's eye - and ends with new connections and real change. And that change lasts, because next time you visit your eye doctor, or pick up a book, or look at a perfect white ski slope beneath an endless blue sky (while wearing sunglasses, preferably) you can remember Mick Nippard.

See you at the next meeting. We'll raise a glass.

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