Writing about my face

Photo by John Hayes

This is my face, as photographed by John Hayes in 2017. It was on the wall at Creative Bay of Plenty for a couple of weeks as part of an exhibition of Tauranga writers. We gathered there one evening for the exhibition launch. It was a bit odd. We normally discuss our writing. That night we discussed our faces.

My writing doesn’t stand or fall on the strength of my face. But hey, if it did, maybe this photo would help. I feel very serious and writerly now.

When you’re interested in creating art of any sort, there’s this weird black hole you can fall into called self promotion. It’s a necessary evil that takes way too much time, especially on social media. You can get sucked into spending more energy trying to remind everyone that you’re arty than you spend creating the art itself.

I’m a very part time writer. I work a full week and more. I have a busy family life with all sorts of extra curricular activities going on. I squeeze writing into the nooks and crannies of my day.

This Ministry of Ideas website has slowed to the point where it needs to go to bed now. I’m still writing, but trying to spend less energy online. Ministry of Ideas will sit here as a record of eight years of stuff I’m proud of.

You can use the tags and the category lists to find poems, essays, music and other general mayhem. Check out my two books, they’re really good.

Thanks for reading.

Run, mad bastards

Run, mad bastards.
Run because you can.
Run because it matters even if it doesn’t.
Run because someone put the finish line over there.
Run after the ghosts of your previous runs.
Run to the unforgiving rhythm of your calculated pace.
Run with atoms exploding in your chest.
Run to the end of your rope and then keep running.
Run through the echo chamber of your solitude.
Run through the soup of your despair.
Run like you’re the sole-surviving runner.
Run with kilometres collapsing behind you like houses of cards.
Run to the finish line that is running away from you.
Run through hot bullets of exhaustion.
Run like the end of an action movie.
Run like the only thing that exists is to run.
Run because soon it will be done and you’ll never have to do this again
ever, for the entire rest of the day.
Run hard, hating it, and call it fun.
Run, mad bastards, run!

 

Marcel Currin November 2018

Writing about running

 

It was a big deal to run 102km. I wrote about my journey on the Foundation Run blog. Starting at the finish line, here are the entries.

Running the ultra-marathon: when training pays off

As I chew through the distance I start to appreciate just how well trained I am for this event…

Mental preparation is as important as physical preparation

For a bit of fortune telling, here’s a preview of the race from inside my head, a snapshot of what I think the day might look like….

Is ultra-marathon training bad for you?

Dude, whatever makes you feel better about sitting on the couch all day…

The big wobble

There’s this moment that apparently hits people about a few weeks before any big event. It’s the big wobble, the jitters, a general freak out…

Little decisions make a big difference

What type of socks? Which colour? Yes, the colour of my socks apparently matters too…

Why am I training for an ultra-marathon?

What on earth made me decide to run a 102km ultra? Given free time you’ll find me writing poetry or playing the piano. Ultra marathons are my wife’s thing, not mine…

Train like the Hulk so you can run like the Flash

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m mixing my superhero metaphors because the Hulk and the Flash are from two different comic book universes…

Taking it one run at a time

The ultra-distance I’m training for scares the pants off me. But that’s why I’m training…

Why that question about kilometres might be wrong

Hill repeats? Interval training? What is this dark magic?

What’s the best shoe for a 102km ultra-marathon?

My feet are on my mind…

Training for an ultra-marathon is more fun than I expected

There’s a lot of pain coming my way, but I’m having a great time. What’s changed?

 

A classical music playlist and how to listen to it

Some friends and I went to a piano and string quartet the other night. I found myself giving hints and tips like “don’t clap between movements” and “watch and listen to see which instrument is carrying the melody”.

Ongoing conversations have led to this, a classical playlist with notes on each piece. I’ve compiled some old notes and added new ones to create a magnum opus of classical geekery. Here you go, Brooke! Read, listen and enjoy.

 

Mozart / Piano Concerto 23 in A, 3rd movement

Mozart practically invented the piano concerto and I’m a sucker for them so there are a few piano concertos in this playlist. A concerto can be best described as a conversation between the lead instrument and the rest of the orchestra (as opposed to a symphony which uses the whole orchestra without any particular soloist or ‘star’.)

The trick is to follow the main melody, which jumps around between instruments. Listen out for strings, flutes and clarinets with some horns hiding the background. The piano will play the tune for a few seconds but suddenly throw it over to a different group of instruments, then back to the piano.

 

Vivaldi / The Four Seasons, Concerto No 2 in G Minor (Summer, 3rd Movement – Presto)

This’ll give you a jolt when it starts but stick with it. I love Nigel Kennedy’s recording of The Four Seasons. The violin sounds so aggressive and tactile. It’s hard to choose which part of The Four Seasons to include on this playlist, it’s such exciting music. The Four Seasons is well known, but if you’ve only ever heard cheap, bland versions of it, you’ve never heard it at all. Nigel Kennedy makes it soar. (This is a more recent performance, by the way, not his famous ‘breakout’ recording where he looks like a clean cut young boy on a white album cover.)

A bit about The Four Seasons. It’s a concerto for a string orchestra (including a harpsichord which you can probably pick out in the background) and a solo violin. The whole work is made up of twelve short movements, three each to represent Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. (You probably recognise this from the National Bank ads.)

So listen for the solo violin playing against the orchestra. The solo starts 44 seconds in. Then the orchestra joins in, then at 1:28 the soloist returns. That’s what you need to follow. And don’t forget to turn it up loud!

 

Vivaldi / Concerto For Two Violins in A Minor, 3rd Movement – Allegro

Another one to keep you awake. Still with Vivaldi, performed by Nigel Kennedy and another violinist. There are two tricks to listening to this piece.

  1. You need to know that there is a string orchestra in the background, and there are two solo violins playing all the fun stuff. Try to distinguish which is which.
  2. Follow the rhythm. It has a basic pulse which you can hear played by the string orchestra. If you find yourself counting to either three or six each time you hear the main pulse, you’ve nailed it.

Even if you can’t follow the rhythm, just try to listen for the difference between the backing string orchestra and the soloists. The soloists kick in at 33 seconds. That’s when you’ll hear one violin doing some fast sawing, and the other doing the fast melody.

 

Max Richter / Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi The Four Seasons Spring 1

Max Richter is a British composer (born 1966). He “rewrote” Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s kind of a tribute, kind of a remix. He’s taking this famous music and playing around with it, but still preserving its essence. I recommend the whole album.

 

Anonymous / Cancionero Musical De Palacio (Royal Music of the Spanish Court)

Just to mix things up here’s a little piece of rock music from sixteenth century Spain, complete with percussion instruments. Listen to this and tell me you can’t imagine it going off on a stage, with mad string solos starting around the one minute mark. (“Rock music”, because I’m picking medieval folk bands were the rock stars of their day.)

If you feel yourself wanting to groove but find the rhythm a bit awkward it’s probably because it doesn’t conform to dance music’s usual four beats in the bar. Here’s how four beats in the bar works: if you hum ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ to yourself, you’ll find the accent happens every fourth beat; “Mary had a Little lamb, Little lamb, Little lamb…”

In contrast, this early music track mostly has five beats in the bar. That means the main pulse happens every five times. Five beats is tricky, it means there’s a kind of secondary pulse, so it goes:

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5,   1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5

Don’t worry too much if I’ve already lost you, just try to find and enjoy the rhythm as much as you can. The point is that you are trying to actively listen for it.

 

Mozart / Requiem in D Minor K 626, 3: Sequentia: Confutatis

This is from Mozart’s Requiem, one of my favourites. He didn’t actually get to finish it before his death, but that’s another story.

The film Amadeus has a wonderful scene in which Mozart is on his death bed dictating this exact piece (Confutatis) to his rival Salieri. The scene is fictional but it is worth watching because it breaks the Confutatis down to its musical components.

The words sung by the male choir with dramatic bluster translate as follows:

When the accursed are confounded and consigned to the fierce flames…

Then the female voices come in, beautifully, with:

…call me to be with the blessed.

Listen to how the music aligns with the words, the female voices providing the graceful contrast against the ‘fierce flames’ of the male voices.

When the voices join together in a rather ominous melody, they are singing:

My heart contrite as if it were ashes: protect me in my final hour.

Actually it doesn’t matter if you don’t follow the words (and besides, they’re sung in Latin.) It’s just bloody good music.

 

Bach / Unaccompained Cello Suite No 3 in C Major, Gigue

Leaping backward a hundred or so years from Mozart, to Bach and his cello suites. He wrote six suites, each with six movements. This is the Gigue – or dance movement.

The important thing to remember is that this is played by one guy with a cello. There are moments when it sounds like another cello is playing in the background. Performed by Yo Yo Ma.

 

Mozart / Piano Concerto No 14 in E flat, 2nd movement

There’s a single note in this piece that made me cry when I first heard it. It’s a high note at 4:53. It works because at this point in the piece we think we know where the melody is going but then that high E flat comes out of nowhere. Mozart was really good at establishing a melody then tweaking it ever so slightly to create something brand new. That delicate surprise still catches me. Such a simple little thing.

 

Rachmaninov / Piano Concerto 3 in D minor, 1st movement

Okay, this is the big one. It’s 18 minutes long and not for the faint hearted but it rewards attentive listening. If I had to take one classical piece to my grave it would probably be this one. It is apparently one of the more difficult pieces to play as a pianist and was also featured in the film Shine. (This is NOT the David Helfgott version, which, although inspired, is technically very muddled.) In case you’re interested, it was written in 1909.

The first thing to note is the beautiful, simple piano melody. We will hear this theme throughout the piece.

1:00 At one minute we get a first taste of Rachmaninov’s busy piano style which melds into the background as the orchestra takes over the melody.

1:49 Notice the 1-2 beat of the rhythm that the piano is playing. If you find yourself nodding or tapping in time then you’ve probably noticed it already.

1:55 The same rhythm but busier now. The piano really gets busy for the next minute. Hidden in here are echoes of the musical ideas that occur throughout the piece.

3:00 Right, everything slows down. Silence is just as important as noise. Then we launch into the next majestic theme.

3:50 A pomp and ceremonious sort of moment. This same tune gets turned into something beautiful by the piano at 4:30.

5:33 Without realising it we are listening to nothing but the piano here. Then the strings join in a few seconds later. This is totally different to Mozart’s style of having the instruments chat with each other; here the piano is the main event, the orchestra provides the lush backing.

6:45 A variation on one of the themes we have already heard.

7:18 …and now we return to our main theme. This time the strings are playing something slightly busier.

7:53 A surprising, ominous build up – listen to what the bass notes of the piano are doing. They repeat this a short moment later. Then the piano gets quite busy. The melody is in the higher notes, it consists of a series of short step ups and step downs getting faster and faster toward the 9 minute mark, building to a crescendo at 9:30 which is maintained for another couple of minutes.

11:30 The beginning of a majestic piece of solo piano. Listening to this you don’t even notice that the orchestra isn’t playing. From here until the end of the piece it’s all about the piano.

12:40 Return of one of the main themes, still just the piano. We are now not even half way through the cadenza. (The cadenza is the pianist’s chance to officially show off. Rachmaninov wrote two versions of the cadenza for this concerto, one big and bold and another lighter and more playful. This is the bold version.)

14:10 End of the cadenza. The orchestra tiptoes in with a flute then an oboe then a clarinet then a french horn.

17:00 And gently back to the original theme again. The end of this movement is surprisingly low key. Even after 18 minutes it still leaves me wanting more.

 

Strauss / Vier letze lieder (Four Last Songs) IV: Im Abendrot

Im Abendrot is the 4th of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. It’s only eight minutes long, but what a sublime eight minutes. It opens with a minute and a half of swooping orchestra before the soprano glides in across the top.

You might freak out a bit when the singing starts. “Ew, what is this old stuff?” But give it a chance. Forget that you’re listening to something that sounds a bit like opera. Forget that there’s no music video to help you through it. Just follow the golden melody through its ups and downs and see where it takes you.

(If this did have a music video to go with it, I can imagine something as simple as a bird flying over ocean currents; the bird would rise and fall with the melody.)

 

Brahms/ Sonata for Cello and Piano No 1, first movement

Ah, Brahms, you slightly miserable, beautiful thing. A late edition to this playlist, and it’s another long one, but I think you’re ready for it. Again, the trick is to listen for which instrument is carrying the melody.

And now, since you’re getting good at this, if you notice that the cello has the melody, try also noticing what the piano is doing to support the cello, and vice versa. That’s where the beauty lies in music, and it’s what rewards repeated listening.

Also, check out the grunty bass notes coming from the cello.

 

Lauridsen/  Lux Aeterna (part 1)

Dim the lights and let this one carry you away. Morten Lauridsen is an American composer, born 1947. This is the first of his four part choral work, Lux Aeterna. ‘Choral’ means that the primary instruments are voices. Yes, this is a choir. As with any other piece of music, you can still follow who’s holding the melody. Listen to how the female and male voices share the melody to create a wash of ethereal beauty.

I first heard this live in 2015 and it totally transported me. The completed work has been my go-to ever since. I once wrote that if I could only ever have one piece of music it would be Im Abendrot from Four Last Songs, (that was after I said I’d take the Rachmaninov piano concerto, so I’m always changing my mind about music…) but Lux Aeterna is probably the winner now.

Rules for not clapping at a piano recital

Not New Year’s resolutions

Why have I been so quiet lately? Here’s a post to make up for all the silence. Featuring poetry goals, te reo, piano and running. Oh, and saving the world.

I set myself some goals at the start of last year. Not New Year’s resolutions, but goals to give me something to work towards, even if I didn’t achieve them.

  • Get a poetry collection published
  • Continue learning te reo
  • Learn Chopin’s ballade No 1
  • Train to run 102km
  • Save the world

That all seems simple enough. Let’s break those down.

Poetry

I started fine-tuning new and existing poems for a collection. It’s a lot of work. I’m very picky about my poetry and I’m a very slow poet. It was a demanding year in all sorts of other ways beyond what’s listed in this post, so realistically this has been bumped to a 2018 goal. Or 2019. I’d rather get it right first time.

I’m trying to not care so much about exposure as a writer – probably to my detriment when I have a book to sell – but you can spend more energy trying to be seen to be a writer than actually doing the writing.

Related to this, here’s a little poem I wrote about craving social media validation.

 Tell me you like it

 Notify me, baby.
 Validate me with your stamps of approval.
 You like it? You like that?
 I check, check again for your cute thumbs up
 your sweet popping smile.
 Acknowledge me, baby.
 I pivot on the tip of your fleeting touch.
 It’s never enough.
 Refresh. Refresh.

Te reo

Learning Māori has become a vital part of my life. I’m loving my te reo journey at Te Wānanga o Aoteoroa. To help consolidate my second year’s learning I captioned my old Star Wars book. This year I’ll be tip-toeing into full immersion. Karawhiua mai – bring it on!

The full Star Wars set is on Facebook.

Piano

I’ve been working through Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. It’s about 9 minutes long, a swirl of beautiful melodies and soaring virtuoso sections. I can play it through with some proficiency but only at Marcel-speed, not Chopin-speed. My current challenge is to make it all hang together musically.

I didn’t much like piano practice as a kid. Now, it’s one of my favourite things. I love crunching my way through a difficult section and seeing it come together, bit by bit, discovering the nuances and musical treasures that the composer placed there. The piano is a private escape for me. There’s nothing quite like it – very different to negotiating the assault of nerves that comes with performing in public.

Run 102km 

My wife and I decided to mark our 20th year of marriage by both training for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon 102km run. I had to do three months of solid strength work at the gym, then we began our running training in July, about when our 20th anniversary landed.

The race is upon in a few weeks, 10 February 2018. It will be my first ultra and Debbie’s third. It seems like an appropriately nutty thing to do together, a symbolic representation of married life, an analogy pushed to its limits.

As a willing sacrifice, most of my early morning writing has been given over to early morning running. That’s why it’s been so quiet here on Ministry of Ideas. I’ve managed to channel some writing into guest posts on the Foundation Run blog. If you want to read all about my training journey, start at the 10 October 2017 entry and work upwards. Or go straight to Why am I training for an ultra marathon?

Save the world

Climate change is the one thing above all else that terrifies me about the future, mostly on behalf of my children. I’m out of patience being polite about it. The world seems stuck in a fog where we’re all acting reasonable about something that is not a reasonable situation. We’re faffing about making conservative plans when we should be all hands on deck with drastic action.

So, I’m trying to be a better citizen of the earth. Where to start? It’s such a big topic that is constantly on my mind. The future requires less meat and fewer cars. Everyone is an environmentalist until they want a car park, it seems.

I’ve been trying to save the world one bike ride at a time. I’ve been adding vegan recipes to my diet. I’m determined that our next family car will be 100% electric. Nothing is simple. Everything is hard. There’s always a compromise. When you’re trying to make meaningful changes, at every turn you find yourself committing little hypocrisies. Small steps, though. Small steps.

I took this photo during a recent king tide. We published it on the city council’s Facebook page. A picture paints a thousand words and also garners tens of thousands of Facebook views.

 

20 January 2018

Mystery of meat

A poem about my brain. My wife often says she can hear me thinking, so I got to wondering what my brain sounds like. Is it a mystery of meat or a steampunk marvel?

Mystery of meat

Early hours and the strain.
My brain leaning hard against the walls.
A glossy squash of hills and gullies
hunched in the dark.
A thick hidden knuckle of sponge
simmering in secret sloop.

What is my brain? A kilo of gunk and goop.
A mystery of meat.
Blind slug. Damp slog of a doorstop.
How does this thing make thoughts?
Does it chew them with soft molars?
Release them like pheromones?

Where is the whirring engine?
It must be there. I hear its relentless cogs
the tick-tocking brass teeth.
Grinding plates and golden gears.
Factory of invention.
Zings of pulleys and springs.

What is my brain? A steampunk marvel.
Metal spinning like tortured vinyl.
Rickety valves sneezing through balustrades of light
and a tiny wild scientist with ecstatic hair
and a flying white coat
who never takes a break except to play the pipe organ
loudly, and always at midnight.

 

Published in Show & Tell – Writing Pictures Drawing Words, a collaboration between Tauranga Writers and Tauranga Society of Artists 2017

 

Fake poetry

Fake poetry

Let me tell you about poetry.
You can’t believe anything these days.
Even this poem is fake. I found it on the internet.
You don’t know if that’s true or not.
Fake poetry is everywhere. Don’t believe it.
People will say they wandered lonely as a cloud.
Clouds don’t wander. Clouds go on patrol.
That is a fact. Don’t like it? Call it an alternative fact.
This is alternative poetry.
How do I love thee, let me check your ethnicity.
Keats is dead so punch me in the face.
These are literary references.
I have the best references.
Believe me. I have the best poetry.
People always ask me about poetry.
Nobody loves poetry more than me.
We’re going to have so much poetry
you are going to get sick of poetry.
Some people won’t like it. Morons!
They are the enemies of poetry.
I’m going to make poetry great again.
I’m going to build a wall of poetry so high
poetry just got ten feet higher.
Twenty feet! I have lots of feet. Big feet.
The man who follows after me will have big shoes.
That’s an alternative phrase.
You don’t fill shoes. You use them to kick.
Kicking is great, I love it. I’m very good at it.
So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow
dazed with pain beside the white
supremacists.
That is more li-ter-a-ture.
I need to spell these things out
because I am very smart.
I’m smarter than the average poet.
There are images in this poem
that are too complicated for most people.
I know images. I have the best images.
A lot of images out there are not great.
Bees knees. Bad image.
I do very well with bees. Bees love me.
But this thing with the knees, I can do better.
My knees have the most pollen.
That is a great image.
Cat’s pajamas. Cats don’t wear pajamas.
Cats are the enemies of pajamas.
You know what I do with cats?
Grab them by the pajamas.
I’m going to make pajamas great again.
This is a great poem.
People love this poem.
People tell me, that poem with those images
that’s a great, great poem.
It never rains when I read this poem.
This is my most successful poem ever, period.

 

Marcel Currin 2017

Awesome interview

The Bay News spoke to local author and poet Marcel Currin about his new book Go Random Strangers You Are Awesome which is a collection of opinion columns he wrote for the Bay of Plenty Times.

How did Go Random Strangers You Are Awesome come about?

The book collects the best of the opinion columns that I wrote for the Bay of Plenty Times between 2013 -2015. I set myself a very high standard for those columns each week, which was that my own writing was never allowed to bore me and it had to be something that people would want to read more than once.

Why did you decide to publish it?

I published the book for my own satisfaction. Writing the column was the primary focus of my creative energy for two and a half years and I wanted to have something to show for it. I continue to meet people who tell me they miss my writing so I figured it was worth putting it out there as a book. Feedback so far suggests it was the right decision.

A risk with this sort of collection is that the articles become dated very quickly, but Go Random Strangers is not shackled to its current events. A view I maintain throughout the book is that we’re all humans and we’re all in this together. That’s possibly a quality that helped my columns to stand apart as cheerful notes of thoughtfulness in a predominantly negative landscape. There’s something warm and generous about the collection as a whole, qualities we definitely need right now. I think it’s going to last the distance.

Where can you buy the book and how much is it?

$25 from Books a Plenty or the Dry Dock cafe. I got permission from the Bay of Plenty Times to self-publish the book on a small scale. It’s not a book that is trying to take over the world. It’s there for my own satisfaction and for the enjoyment of everyone who is lucky enough to get a copy before it sells out. It will eventually join Ministry of Ideas as an ebook on the Kindle Store.

How long have you been an author for?

I published a book of very short stories, called Ministry of Ideas, in 2012. It’s sold out now but is available as an ebook on the Amazon Kindle Store. I’m still very proud of it. It’s the sort of quirky little book I would love to discover and buy for myself.

I’ve been writing my whole life in one way or another. Since 2004 I’ve had poetry published in literary journals and anthologies. A poem I wrote about Memorial Park was once used as an NCEA English exam question. Imagine that, the entire nation of students stressing over my poem at the same time. I’m not sure that’s the best way to get an audience, but it was pretty funny to have people studying my work.

When did you first discover your love for the written word?

I don’t remember ever not loving reading and writing. Credit my parents for all the stories and Spike Milligan poems they read me as a kid.

What is your favourite type of writing genre and why?

I like anything that is written well and sparks new ideas. The words themselves need to be a pleasure. That’s what attracts me to poetry in particular. Both of my books offer individual morsels of writing that satisfy on their own terms.

Artist (a poem)

Artist

Franz came from Belgium
to weave swirls of espresso
around the coffee machine
at Alimento.

He dances with each cup,
waltz
foxtrot
precise yet tender in his choreography.

Swings with a blaze of stubble
flash of an ear ring
sugary beads of sweat.

A painter applying crucial swoops of colour.
Conductor of the most delicate music.

Even in rush hour
stoops to twist the saucer
just so

note perfect.

 

I just rediscovered this poem about a coffee barista. I wrote it over 10 years ago and I can’t remember where it was first published. I feel like I had a conversation about it with the editor of Poetry NZ at one point, because he helped fine-tune the ending, but I can’t find any issue where it appeared. Oh well. Here it is anyway. It’s nice to be reunited.

First tummy bug

Something different about his cry
two wide eyes in the dark
the tang of sick scratching the air.

Stripped off in the bathroom
his sticky blond hair at odds with the night
sleepy cheeks thrown wide awake

and his heart, like a mouse
or smaller, and just as quiet
flip-flopping somewhere

pumping his life to fingers, toes
—such a short journey
unswaddled by jackets and sweatshirts

sneakers and jeans—
tonight there is just the slope of his chest
the slump of a puku

a smooth little bottom standing clutched and clean
and his fluttering heart
silent, naked and sweet with sick

beating above a puddle of pyjamas
as he waits while I check the shower
against the strange new cold.

First published in takahē

Results from the inaugural and mostly failed midnight cat haiku competition

Last week I tweeted about my cat yowling at the door in the middle of the night.

Most tweets wither and die but I got a reply from Adrian Schofield who for some reason was also awake in the early hours. He tweeted: “There has to be a haiku in that.” On a whim I thought, sure, why not, so the next day I issued a haiku challenge.

I’m not exactly a Twitter giant and this was a random, lonely tweet that got lost in the wilderness. Adrian shared it on his Facebook page, so the few entries that did arrive came via Facebook. Accordingly, I’m going to award the prize to Adrian for moral support. Some fun offers though. Here they are.

Feline in the night.
Bellows out til dawn is near.
Will she find the rear?
Knock knock dumb human
I’m waiting here, don’t you know?
Look down…look down…look!

This would have been a strong contender:

Who are you kidding
No one knows how haikus work
Cats suck anyway
I summon thee slave
heed Snuggles the Destroyer,
Lord of the back yard
Not feeling too flash,
Want to blow chunks on the rug,
Come on let me in!

Notable entry from a 14 year old:

Oi please let me in,
I'll claw my way in you know,
You giant arsehole.

Painting with words:

yowl yowl yowl yowl yowl
yowl yowl yowl yowl yowl yowl yowl
yowl yowl yowl meow
You never feed me.
I'll meow while you slumber
Don’t mess with me.

This last one came via my own Facebook page and is arguably the best entry, but I know this guy and he already has a book. So Adrian still wins. Judge’s decision is final.

Belligerent cat
Immovable man. And still
A little door waits

Cumulonimbus

Look how firmly it sits
on whatever glass table spans the horizon.

A continent of billowing sunlight
shifting walls of explosion
mountains stacked upon mountains.

It is the most definitive thing.
It is loaded with the thrill of its own weight.

How did such boldness arrive unannounced?
Where does it hide the slow churn of its gears?

I want to rap my knuckles against its secrets
step through its corridors
feel the pulse of its engines.

Massive harvester of the air. It gathers up silence like a bomb.

 

First published in takahē 2016

Sapiens

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is the best, most enjoyable and most depressing book I’ve read for ages. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time.

The full title is Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. It charts the course of humanity from our early days fossicking around as hunter gatherers to our current position as blithe conquerors of the planet. Harari weaves together a lot of familiar information in new ways that thrilled me, depressed me and terrified me all at once.

The thread of the book seems to be that our bumbling trajectory through history was inevitable. Sapiens doesn’t allow us much room for hope. Nevertheless, I finished the book determined to live a bit better in my own little way, whatever that may look like. At each sad or damning new point in the book I thought, we can do better than this. Overall, it made me want to be a better human.

How to be a better human?

I don’t actually know how to be a better human in way that is effective beyond my own small circles of influence. I am in despair about many things that our species has done and continues to do. I will probably look back on 2016 as the year I lost a lot of hope, particularly in terms of climate change and our impact on the natural world.

The answer is not to wind the clock back in some sort of idealised rejection of modern society. We can’t go back to hunting and gathering because our relationships with the land and our food sources have changed too much already. Besides, you can’t watch Doctor Who or play the piano as a hunter gatherer. (Civilisation isn’t all bad, is it?)

Reading Sapiens made me pause to appreciate what I have, not in terms of material comforts, but in terms of my friends and family. All the riches in the world can’t replace a happy marriage. The joy I get from watching my 8 year old doing a hilarious dance would be the same whether I lived in a mansion or a mud hut.

One thing I wasn’t expecting is that Sapiens has nudged me back to considering the subjective welfare of animals. I thought I had made peace with my meat-eating self, but that might be up for review again. Dammit.

It’s also made me think more about the way I eat, just in terms of variety of diet. Meh. I should probably learn to garden. Get my fingers back in the earth.

I’ll leave it there for now. The rest of this page is purely for my own scrappy note-taking. There are plenty of concise and insightful summaries elsewhere. (Here’s one by James Clear.) I needed to make my own notes to help me process what I’ve just read. Here goes…

Hey, cool: we weren’t the only humans

From 100,000 years ago until around 13,000 years ago there were at least 6 different species of human hunting and foraging around the planet. We weren’t the only ones. By 13,000 years ago homo sapiens – that’s us – were the only ones left. We won by interbreeding, genocide, or a bit of both. Plus some good survival skills thanks to our superpower.

Our superpower was the ability to create fiction

Neanderthals were pretty smart too, but they lacked our superpower. A neanderthal could say “careful, a lion” but a homo sapien could say “the lion is the spirit guardian of our tribe.” Common myths and imagined realities were the glue that helped us organise ourselves and cooperate in ever-increasingly large numbers.

Imagined realities? That’s right, we made everything up

When the author of Sapiens talks about imagined realities, he’s referring to things that would not exist unless humans had invented them. The development of our society relied on everyone accepting concepts like money, nations, religion, laws, human rights. These ideas hang together because we collectively choose to believe them even though they don’t exist as objective realities in the natural world.

It blows my mind to pause for a moment and go, huh, from a strict biological perspective speaking, there’s no such thing as a nation or human rights. Human rights are not something that exist in biology, they’re just a concept that we all agree to agree on. (This is a challenge to the argument for objective truth/morality.)

Thanks to this ability to invent abstract myths and concepts, we were able to change our own social behaviours very quickly, much faster than the sluggish pace of natural selection. As a result homo sapiens became the deadliest species on earth. We took over the globe at an exponential rate. Everywhere we went, plants and animals suffered. They continue to suffer, not through hate but through indifference. Many sections of the book made me feel sad and guilty. We’ve destroyed a huge amount of megafauna and biodiversity along the way. Did you know Australia used to have its own lion? A marsupial lion, with a pouch, no less! And America had native camels.

Agriculture wasn’t such a great idea

The agricultural revolution was effectively the invention of long working weeks, poverty, disease and poor nutrition. We didn’t domesticate wheat – it domesticated us. (An excellent companion book on this topic is The Story Of The Human Body.) But hey, agriculture was also the invention of society as we know it. I can hardly complain, sitting here at my computer with electricity, running water and classical music at my fingertips.

Agriculture, empires and scientific revolution made us what we are for better (comfy chairs, medicine, art…) and for worse (slavery, extinction of megafauna, miserable chickens, climate change…).

On the brink

We are now at the point where we could potentially change our own biology – if we don’t destroy the planet first. The problem is, as history suggests, we’re not particularly good at planning ahead. We don’t know what we want. We don’t even know what we want to want. We are driven by convenience and pleasure, at the cost of anyone and anything around us. We have stumbled blithely through history as all-powerful gods who never quite realise what we’re doing until it’s too late.

Final sentence of the book: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

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More scrappy notes on Sapiens

The Cognitive Revolution took place around 70,000 years ago. The big deal here was our ability to invent fiction. We were able to organise ourselves in increasingly large groups. To do that we needed to be able to cooperate in ways that exceeded our biological impulse. Put 1,000 chimpanzees in a room and you’ll get chaos. Put 1,000 people in a room and it’s very different. Why?

Everything from then on has been built upon imagined realities. Human imagination built networks of mass cooperation. Imagined orders.

Biologically there’s no such thing as human rights or the declaration of independence. We collectively agree to believe it. The imagined order is embedded into our world. eg individualism is built into our living spaces: a modern teenager has a bedroom with a door. This is a modern concept, quite different to medieval society.

Every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order.

  • Objective: exists independently of human consciousness and beliefs, eg: radioactivity, gravity.
  • Subjective: depends on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual.
  • Inter-subjective: exists in the shared imagination of millions, eg: law, money, gods, nations, human rights, companies, brands.

Invention of writing.
Because human social order is imagined, we can’t preserve copies of it in our DNA. How did humans organise themselves in networks of mass cooperation when we lacked the biological instincts to sustain such networks? We created imagined orders and invented scripts … writing – to store data outside of the brain.

The downside of all this was that it divided people into make-believe groups and hierarchies. Fear of pollution has biological roots (to avoid disease carriers) but was exploited in imagined hierarchies.

Biologically, nothing is unnatural. If it is possible it is natural. (No culture has ever forbidden women to run faster than the speed of light.)

Money is the greatest conqueror in history. Everyone needs to believe in money for it to work. It is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap. Osama Bin Laden railed against American but still believed in American dollars.

Hunter gatherers were the original affluent society. They lived on the road, roaming for food. Short working week. We know nothing about their lives so shouldn’t write them off.
Back and forth in their home territory. They had lots of knowledge of the natural world, in fact, evidence that their brains were bigger than ours. Were not dependent on a single food source, so had lots of variety, whereas farming produced an unbalanced, limited diet.
Hunter gatherers roamed in small bands that could not sustain epidemics. Most infectious diseases were transferred from domesticated animals to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution. ( Smallpox, measles, TB…)

We were the deadliest species. Everywhere homo sapiens went, megafauna went extinct. Could be a coincidence, but there’s definitely a consistent correlation.
Eg. Australia was the land of marsupials: animals that carry their young in a pouch. They had a marsupial lion, a giant 2 ton wombat and giant kangaroos. All disappeared about the same time hmans arrived 45,000 years ago. America had giant sloths, sabre-tooth cats, mammoths, native horses and camels. They also disappeared around the time humans arrived. (In Asia and Africa, megafauna evolved alongside humans so learned to be more wary.)

Invention of Agriculture: the luxury trap.
People worked harder. Number of children increased. More food was required. Limited diets. Weakened immune systems. Permanent settlements: hotbed for diseases. Reliance on single source of food. Vulnerable to drought and thieves. Human dependence on cereal cultivation. In a way, we didn’t domesticate wheat … wheat domesticated us!

Invention of agriculture meant that home turf shrunk from entire territory to small plot: artificial islands. We were stuck there, accumulating more things. This was the invention of worrying about the future.

Animals were big losers. Wild chickens life span: 7 – 12 years. Cattle life span: 20 – 25 years. Wild cattle roamed as herds with complex social structures. Mother/calf bond. Today domesticated animals get slaughtered for economic reasons. (Kill it as soon as it reaches optimum weight.) We treat domesticated animals like machines as though they have no subjective feelings or emotions.

Industry: everything becomes mechanised, even plants and animals, which stopped being viewed as living creatures and were instead treated like machines: devoid of sensations and emotions, incapable of suffering.

But animals still have subjective needs. Industry takes care of objective needs while neglecting their subjective needs. “A need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.”

Empires rule over distinct peoples/cultural variety. Empires are a mix of good and bad – what is “authentic culture”? It’s impossible to isolate pure culture from imperial influences. Eg if you rail against the British Empire in India, you’re left with the Mughal Empire, which was a Muslim empire that took over the Gupta Empire, the Kushan empire, the Maurya empire …
“All cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.”

The arrow of history moves from local to global. History is heading towards a global empire.

Religion started off as animism.

  • Animism: local (belief in a rock spirit, a tree spirit) Humans were just one of the many creatures in the world.
  • Polytheism developed with the Agricultural Revolution. Saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans. It effectively exalted humans as well as gods. Polytheistic religions have a supreme power or deity but usually devoid of interests and bias. People pray and deal with the partial gods, so there’s no conflict. I can bargin with my god of war and you can bargin with yours. I can bargin with my god of rain and you can bargin with your god of sun.
    Polytheists didn’t usually try to convert others.
  • Monotheism developed out of polytheism.
    Just as animism survived under polytheism, so polytheism survived under monotheism, eg pantheon of Catholic saints.

Science was the discovery of ignorance, where we admitted we don’t know stuff. In science, everyone agrees that if new evidence emerges, theories need to be revised or discarded.

Science, colonialism and capitalism. Most new colonies were established by private companies, not governments. (eg British East India Company in India).
Slavery and animal cruelty were driven by money, purely economic enterprise. Not hate, but indifference to suffering. Free market, supply and demand. This is what happens when growth becomes the supreme ‘good’.

Capitalism was the invention of credit. Before credit, the pie remained the same size. With capitalism the pie is always growing.

Industry led to excess. The birth of consumerism. The opposite of most of history, where the poor were frugal and the rich were extravagant; now we buy buy buy. Supreme commandment of the rich is “invest!” Supreme commandment for the rest of us is “buy!” Accordingly, consumerism is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they’re asked to do.

Objective happiness is the same, no matter where or when you were born.
“Mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysees don’t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no different to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X.”

Towards a new species of human:
– tinkering with our genes, a super race, an objective hierarchy.
– cyborgs
– inorganic life; a computer brain – would it still by definition by homo sapiens?

What do we want to become?
What do we want to want?

 

My new book is really good

I decided to review my own book. Turns out it’s really good. It looks great and there’s something interesting to read on every page. Every time I start flicking through it, I get sucked into reading a chapter in full.

That’s pretty weird, because I have spent hundreds of hours with these words already and you would think I would be sick of them by now. Instead, it amazes me that I wrote these articles. I can’t believe I churned out writing of such quality every week.

Go Random Strangers You Are Awesome brings together the very best of my weekly newspaper column, which I wrote from 2013 – 2015.

A risk with this sort of collection is that the articles become dated very quickly, but this book is not shackled to its current events. Yes, the world has changed a lot since 2015, more than any of us could have anticipated. The strength of Go Random Strangers You Are Awesome, though, is that it transcends its moment in history. It is much more a book of broad themes: creativity, generosity, thoughtfulness and what it is to be human. There’s something warm and cheerful about the collection as a whole, qualities we definitely need right now. I think it’s going to last the distance.

Also, it’s just a really good read. Right from the start, when I set out to write the columns, I had a high standard in mind. I refused to write anything that would bore me upon subsequent readings. That effort is evident in these pages. I’m super proud of the result.

So yeah, this is not so much a review as a skite. My book is awesome.

I’ll make it available as an e-book next year. For now I’m selling it quietly in Tauranga. This book doesn’t want to conquer the world. It’s just happy to be here.

It’s for sale in Tauranga at the Dry Dock Cafe and Books A Plenty. If you live elsewhere and want a copy, we’ll have to figure out a way to make that happen. Contact me here.

And if you prefer something a bit more esoteric, there’s also this:

Ministry of Ideas thumbnail

Why Grim Tales was a highlight for 2016

Of my publication successes this year, one I was most proud of had nothing to do with me. Normally anything I write is the product of my own whimsy. This time it was not about me at all.

Grim Tales is a book of dark fairy tales that is a collaboration between The Incubator and Tauranga Women’s Refuge. Writers and artists were tasked with transforming real life stories of domestic violence into lavishly illustrated fables. The result is a beautiful book. It’s worth every cent and all of the profits go to Tauranga Women’s Refuge.

As one of the writers, I was paired with Deborah, a survivor of domestic abuse (credited in the book as Debbie). We were joined by Skye, our illustrator. My task was to condense the essence of Deborah’s story into a fable, a ‘grim tale’, which Skye would then illustrate.

None of us knew each other. We gathered for an afternoon at Deborah’s house to hear her story. She told us things that she had never spoken of, ever.

It is difficult to convey how much respect I have for Deborah. She trusted two strangers to reinterpret some of her darkest, most painful history and make it public. If you had been a victim of domestic abuse, would you trust a stranger – a male – to rewrite your experience as some sort of artsy fairy tale? Would you trust someone else you had only just met to illustrate it for publication in a coffee table book?

The writing was hard work. The subject matter was sensitive. I was handling someone else’s life. It’s not something I wanted to mess up.

The fable I ended up writing is called The girl who lived with a storm. I made it an exercise in symbolism rather than a biographical account. I didn’t want to focus too much on the violent details. That seemed like the easy path for a writer.

As I worked on it, Deborah’s story became less about the violence, and more about the crime of silence; crimes of the people around her who knew something was wrong, but didn’t speak up.

It was also a story of bravery: Deborah’s resilience, the gentle, unsung heroism of one person who did speak up, and the Women’s Refuge people who were there to wrap their arms around Deborah and provide a place of safety. This became even clearer to me at the book launch when the women who are featured in the tales stood boldly in the spotlight. Rather than a parade of horrific experiences, it was a showcase of astounding strength.

The illustration that Skye did for the story blew me away. Holy wow. In fact, all of the artwork throughout the book is stunning. Grim Tales belongs on any coffee table; the stories are grim but they are not explicit. The artwork and design is beautiful. The book as a whole is a labour of love, an uncompromising commitment to artistic excellence. I’m proud to be associated with such quality.

For copyright reasons I’m not including the story here but you can catch some snippets of it in this piece from Seven Sharp. It’s not my story anyway; it’s Deborah’s. I was merely privileged enough to be the writer who got to nurse this particular tale into its current form.

Some things I learned through this project.

  • If you think something is wrong, speak up.
  • Light scares away the darkness. I have noticed that each time Deborah opened up about her story, her dark past seemed to lose a little bit more of the power it once claimed over her life.
  • Grisly details are important for the police and the justice system, but the most important points for everyone else are that all domestic violence is wrong,  every level of domestic violence wreaks havoc for those who experience it, and none of it should be tolerated.

Grim Tales plays a small part in pulling back the curtain on domestic violence, not to glorify the terrible things that happened, but to affirm the dignity and strength of the survivors. It was a privilege to be involved in such a significant a project. Grim Tales drags something nasty out of the shadows and reveals the staggering, beautiful strength of the women and Women’s Refuge.
Grim Tales
The Incubator
Tauranga Women’s Refuge
Seven Sharp interview with Deborah
Radio NZ interview

Life, a toast

Life, a toast

Here’s to life
to homemade soup
to warm strings of bacon
in a hot winter mouthful
pea skins pressed
like helmets against your tongue
the taste of the earth.

Here’s to life
the lavish spread
a planet-load packed
with laughter, loss
the whole peculiar lot
this wild shebang of circumstance
spinning our bumbling jumble of questions
relentlessly around a cold hearted sun.

Here’s to love
to the end of the world
to youthful passion
the gallop, the turmoil
of too many words in an email
all of history’s heart beats
compressed into the zing
of that first light touch.

Here’s to friendship
to friends turned lovers
to lovers who stay friends
to the bite of grief
grinding teeth
white knuckles and fairy tales
wrestling with reality
over the weet-bix.

Here’s to hardship
to the crunchy stuff of life
to cuddling your kids
on a confounding night
here’s to sand-speckled bottoms
of toddlers on beaches
squeals of delight
playground fights
boys along bridges
their glistening backs and white teeth
bombing the raucous deep.

Here’s to our breath
our very last
released on a sharp clean bed
or sprung upon us
with violence
here’s to the final thought
the risk of it all
here’s to the risk of it all!

So raise your glass
old woman, old man
raise your cup, your mug
your warm can of beer
you on the bench with that matted grey beard
you in the church raise your greasy chalice
of Anglican port
your shallow shot of watery Baptist juice

you downtown raise your arty farty coffee
your plain cuppa tea
your ninety nine point nine percent fat free
sugar filled fruit drink
you in the dairy raise your supercharged fizz
your milo
your vodka and too much red bull
your milk, your wine
here’s to life, here’s to it all

the end and the beginning
the joy and the heartache
the hardship, the hugging
the lives that we’ve lived
and the lives that we’ve missed
here’s to squeezing the last drops of juice
from the core
of this rough ‘n’ tumble ball of existence.

Amen hallelujah breathe deep surf hard pour another
here’s to grasping
you can never quite grasp it
here’s to life, to being part of it.
To life!
I’ll drink to that.

 

First published in Byline 2016

Bohemian Rhapsody

Had a crack at playing and singing Bohemian Rhapsody on the ukulele. Man, I really need to get me a new vocalist – the singing is pretty rough. But it was fun putting this together so here it is, for what it’s worth. This is my uke’d up version of Jake Shimabukuro’s instrumental version, which I tried last year.

Ngā Marama: singing the months

I wrote this little song, Ngā Marama, to help me learn the Māori months. It’s kind of dorky, but did the trick. The weather this weekend has been gloriously wet and I managed to hermit myself enough to mess around with Garageband and iMovie. It was a nice escape. Learning te reo is still my favourite thing, along with coffee and poetry. And music. And Doctor Who. And my family. Okay, lots of things are my favourite things. Here’s my song.

For anyone wanting to play it, the chords are super easy, by the way. I sing it pretty high though, so you might want to transpose it down a bit.

C      F
Kohitātea (x2)

C      F
Hui-tanguru (x2)

Em            F
Poutū-te-rangi

Em             F       G
Poutū-te-rangi

If you’re doing it in a classroom, the song could work pretty well as a leader sings/group echoes format for the C-F section, then everyone joins in with the E minors. The timing just gets a bit trickier for the final verse where the two Whiringas start on the on-beat, hence the extra couple of bars in between. You might fill the gap before Whiringa-ā-nuku with a big fat: “tahi, rua toru, whā!”

Dishwashing Olympics

Dishwashing Olympics

It took me a while to realise they were watching. I thought it was the radio until I noticed that the radio wasn’t turned on. But the voices were there, commentating. Another careful manoeuvre, they were saying. The plate goes in … look at the sheer efficiency of that scrubbing, not a moment wasted. He absolutely maximises every movement to get the best result.

Certainly, Jim, I agree with you, and he’s definitely been rewriting the rules ever since his breakout performance in 2008 when he shifted into the smaller kitchen division, that was when the world of dishwashing really had to sit up and take notice.

Absolutely, Nigel, that performance catapulted small kitchen work onto the world stage. And we should expect to see a classic turn here as he approaches the saucepans, here it comes … Yes! There it is, the double handle swap, his signature move, allowing the small pot to be stacked cleanly under the larger one. Showing us again what a master he is not only of the wash and stack but also of that so often overlooked part, the selection.

I agree and you’ll notice as he works through the pile, his total command of the bench space. The small kitchen is like a chess board, you always need to be working several moves ahead. The quality of what we’re seeing here is what you get when you bring bench preparation into the event itself.

Oh! What a superb move with the frying pan! A master class in dishwashing, really, the elegance and sheer fluidity he brings to every kitchen!

And here comes the rinse. We learn something every time. A virtuoso, Nigel. A virtuoso.

This is a story from Ministry of Ideas, available on the Amazon Kindle Store

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Land of giants

Last of all we pay homage to the children
warm fruits tucked in their beds
where sleep’s thick potions have pickled them tender
mid-wrestle with blankets and teddy bears.

Scrunched, folded, spread in their pyjamas
fingers curled against the night
droplets of breath in the cavernous silence
these are the little sleeping giants.

Terrifying giants
swollen with upset.
Happy giants
chortling in secret corners of their kingdom.

Conquerors of chair legs
lords of dusty raisins
rickety-thumping through the house
they slam slow doors into mountain walls
hurl proclamations down hallways—
songs that bounce and spark in the air.

Hushed so, we almost lose our balance
in the giddy adventure
the drift of sleep
in the softness of little ones
fiercely recharging.

 

Looking through my archives, I realised I’ve never posted the poems I wrote for the Exchanges poet/artist collaboration I did with Timo Rannali back in 2005.  I wrote Land of giants and Timo did the painting below in response. My interpretation of one of his paintings resulted in the poem Angel plays jazz. Thanks to Timo for allowing me to publish my ancient snapshots of his paintings.

Timo Rannali - Land of Giants (2005)
Timo Rannali – Land of Giants (2005)

Angel plays jazz

A cool sound
the herald of hope
a glint of brass
the first lick of light
swings across the smoky stage
luminescent over our heads
a note
suspending our breath
our hearts—
               slow blues uncoiling
slithers over flats & sharps
slippery scales with flecks of gold
off-notes resolved into colours
piercing the dark

we dare to tap our feet

 

This poem was written as part of Exchanges, a poet/artist exhibition that we did back in 2005. My poem is an interpretation of ‘Set Free’ (see below), a very personal painting by Timo Rannali about his family history. I offered Timo the poem Land of giants for his interpretation.

Timo Rannali Set Free 2005
Timo Rannali – Set Free (2005)

Learning Māori puts a menemene on my kanohi

The Māori language class I’m taking is the most joyous part of my week. Everyone is there to learn. Everyone is welcoming.  It’s a diverse bunch of people from all walks of life and nationalities. It is a bubble of positivity, a respite from the exterior world of cynicism and politics. It is a glimpse of the New Zealand I want to live in.

Te reo is great fun. Did you know that Katikati means “nibble nibble”? I’m loving the language. I take delight in pronouncing words like Tauranga and Otumoetai as correctly as I can in casual conversation. You have to move your cheeks a lot more deliberately to get the pronunciation right. It’s like talking with a bubble in your mouth. English is a much flatter sort of language in comparison, especially the way we squash our vowels in New Zilund.

One thing I’ve noticed is how firmly Māori cultural values are embedded into the structure of the language. Whakapapa and heritage are woven through everything to identify your relationship to the people, places and things around you. For example, the way you refer to someone older than you will be different to the way you refer to someone younger. There is no generic word for sibling; my brother would call me his ‘tuakana’, meaning older brother, and I would call him my ‘teina’, meaning younger brother.

So Māori Language Week is 4 – 10 July, what better time to wrap your mouth around some vowels. Here are a few random phrases and sayings I’ve enjoyed learning. Straight to the fun stuff. You can go elsewhere for the basics.

He toki koe. You’re sharp. (Literally, you’re an axe.)
Ka mau te wehi. Awesome!
Kei roto a Han Solo i te waka ātea. Han Solo is in the spaceship.
Kei te pukumahi ahau. I am busy.
Kei muri i te rakiraki. Behind the duck.
He waka eke noa. A canoe that we are all in with no exception. (We’re all in this together.)
Ko te reo te taikura o te whakaao mārama. Language is the key to understanding.

It’s good to be learning te reo. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I think every New Zealander should get the chance. That’s an argument for more te reo in schools. Here are a few other things I’ve written previously about te reo and related topics.

Happy to be a little pakeha
Calming our cultural nerves with Māori language
What makes a Kiwi?
Grappling with the Treaty of Waitangi
Battle of Gate Pa: Does local history matter?

Finally, the te reo course I’m doing is via Te Wānanga o Aoteoroa. I recommend it.

Three favourite sentences

I have a new favourite sentence. It’s the opening line from The Lie Tree by Francis Hardinge:

The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth.

What a great first sentence for a novel. The sound of the boat’s movement through the water is visceral.

That sentence joins two others in my small and entirely subjective pantheon of favourites. The others that have leapt out at me are this line from David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green:

The cow of an awkward pause mooed.

And this, from a fight scene in Tibor Fischer’s novel The Thought Gang:

Suddenly, I smelt broken nose.

There are many wonderful sentences in the world. There are many wonderful phrases. I didn’t set out to have a list of favourites; these are just some that I have particularly enjoyed and remembered over time. I think it’s the way these sentences surprise and delight me. They use sound and smell as well as visual images. They’re sentences that I want to keep. They represent to me the pure pleasure of reading and writing. They make me want to write more.

Time out

Beyond the slap and punch of the breakers
I arrived at that wide rolling calm
where strangers swap stories
between the fall and rise of the horizon.

A boogie-boarder told me of a wave
right here at Whiritoa
that had curled like a tongue
over the flaming lozenge of the sun.

The way he described it:
a spiritual collision,
the golden vortex,
sunset roaring at the tube’s exit.

He flippered into a ride and I hung out the back
considering each moment
until the ocean spat me forward
into a complicated morning.

Standing on the shore
I found my breath
and thought of you,
the sheer terror of your neckline.

 

First published in Byline 2015: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from Tauranga Writers.

See also:
What holds the world together

attractive planet

Women of the attractive planet

 

Suddenly nothing (piano transcript)

I’m very grateful to my younger-self for writing out the piano music to this song that I recorded in 1998. It’s actually quite a simple piece when you break it down, but still a very effective composition I think, so for anyone interested, here’s the transcript.

Suddenly Nothing piano (8 MB)

The song was on a CD I made called Very Lemon Water. Much of the singing embarrasses me now; I’ve put the bits that don’t make me cringe too much on Soundcloud.

Rena versus the ukulele (revisited)

With an announcement that the Rena wreck is to be left on the Astrolabe reef, I was reminded of this video I made a few years ago. (If the kids are watching I recommend the family friendly version instead.)

My anger at the Rena may have cooled off a bit since the initial crisis. I’m philosophical about the wreck staying put, on the assumption that it’s not an ongoing source of pollution and that it would be even more disruptive to shift it. I had a glimpse of how hard those salvage guys worked in the early days. It’s not as simple as towing away a car that crashes into your back yard.

I view it like a health crisis or any other bad thing that happens in life; you should manage the fallout but sometimes it is more damaging to fixate on turning back time. Scars become part of us, they help us grow. We are a different community as much as the land is different after the Rena – in many ways for better as well as for worse.

All of the above is uninformed gut feeling. I haven’t read through the commisioners’ report, and it’s easy to say when it’s out of sight, out of mind.

Discovering I made a difference

The tall kid sat at the piano and, with no score, played the most captivating and musically assured piece of the day. We were at my 7 year old son’s end of year recital. My son was a star, obviously, as every parent’s child should be. But this tall kid was the standout.

About halfway through his performance I figured out why he seemed so familiar. I had last seen him 11 or 12 years ago; he would have been 5 years old at the time.

I approached him and his mother after the recital. I didn’t expect either of them to remember me.

“Did you start your lessons at the Technics Music Academy?”
“I did,” he said. Then a moment of recognition.“You’re … Marcel.”

I was his first keyboard tutor. “We were talking about you just the other week,” said his mum. “You were a role model. You were one of those inspirational teachers. You used to draw funny little pictures in his music books. He was devastated when you left.”

I was his tutor for less than a year. I remember him as an incredibly shy kid. He hardly said boo. I had no idea if I was connecting with him or not.

That magical moment when you realise you made an impact in someone else’s life.

Everything we do counts for something.

What a satisfying day this turned out to be.

 

See also: Little things that make a big difference

Beethoven with mistakes

I had a brief fantasy that I’m a concert pianist. It turns out I’m not, but this was a fun night. Performed at a staff concert, I had another crack at the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I’ve written about this piece before, once or twice, and in a poem too. Here I am trying to play it again with some unintentional improvisation along the way. I was frustrated afterwards (and during) because I can play it so much better at home, but as a friend pointed out, I would need to practice for bazillions of hours to perform at concert level. It’s true: I’ve only played this piece for a few zillions so far.

What holds the world together?

The way their blond hair hums in the sunlight.
The way their faces find new expressions
for every syllable.

The way they want to unwrap the universe:
What are caterpillars made of?
What holds the world together?

Today we danced in the living room
and fell on the floor in a family heap.
Puffing little tummies, fluorescent giggles.

My wife caught my eye and it lit upon us
how warm and unquotable the world is
when pressed against your cheek.

Then the afternoon slipped into the past.
Perhaps this is why I write.
To clutch at the light as it turns through my fingers.

 

First published in Byline 2015: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from Tauranga Writers

A 91 year old man translated me into Māori

Yesterday I received a handwritten letter in the mail – an actual letter in the actual post – from a man who wrote his age at the end with a cheeky exclamation mark: 91!

His letter read:

Dear Marcel, I belong to a very small tutorial class (3) of Te Reo aspirants. We each present a small korero every Thursday. I chose to translate portions of your One Last Opinion as I have always enjoyed your kupu.

He enclosed a photocopy of his speech. Note that he has made corrections by sticking smaller pieces of paper onto the main page. My wife said it makes her feel really good about humanity to know that a 91 year old is learning Māori. For me, there are so many warm fuzzies involved here that I don’t quite know where to start.

Te reo Marcel

Signing off

On the track to Taranaki Falls at Ruapehu, my friends and I came across two elderly men deep in discussion. They walked ahead of us slowly, absorbed in their topic. One of them stopped suddenly in the middle of the track and squared off against his friend to emphasise a point. “And I’ll tell you why,” I heard him say as he waggled his finger.

We sidled past. The two men laughed when they realised their debate was blocking the track. “Just solving the world’s problems,” one of them said amicably.

As we left them behind, my friends and I agreed we hoped to be like those two old guys one day, cheerfully solving the world’s problems with smiles on our faces.

I haven’t cracked it yet myself, but I remain a cheerleader for amicable disagreement. It’s one of the things I have tried to do as a columnist, at least. We can get so easily caught up with who is right and who is wrong, with who screwed up and who didn’t, when a bit of respect and a willingness to listen probably goes further than winning the argument in most cases.

Nothing is simple. Everything is complicated. There are two, three, four sides to every story. Just when I think I know something for sure, I discover another angle. It is humbling and it can make lobbing my opinion into the public domain nerve-wracking at times.

I have written 123 opinion columns since March 2013. It is a pleasant surprise to discover that I was capable of having that many opinions.

None of those opinions arrived easily. My invisible critic is kind of a bully. “You don’t have anything new to say,” he will jeer. “Go on, justify yourself. What makes you so special?”

Writing is fighting. I fight with the blank page, I fight with the sentences, I fight with my own insecurities. My inner critic drives me to excellence and to the brink of tears.

As it turns out, I fight most often in my pyjamas, early in the morning, before work, at my writing desk. Coffee helps.

So this is my last column. (Here’s why.) I will probably still get up early to write because that’s how I finished my book of short stories a few years ago. (Blatant plug: my book is on the Amazon Kindle Store and I keep my other stuff here at www.marcelcurrin.com.)

I am looking forward to reclaiming my headspace. I might start by writing some more poetry. I have not written enough poetry lately.

Regrets? Hardly any. I regret using the word ‘toast’ in a piece I wrote about climate change.

I regret not mentioning my colleague Rachel in any of my columns. I’m pretty sure she was going to buy me a coffee if I did. Maybe even a coffee and a custard square.

I regret not being able to tell every single person who gave me feedback that they helped encourage me into my next week of writing just when I felt I had nothing of value to contribute.

My inner critic insists I have no more entitlement than anyone else to express an opinion. He is right. I am not the resident authority on anything in particular. I am just a guy who works particularly hard in his spare time at putting the best words in the best order.

It is a rare privilege to have been entrusted with this public platform for two and a half years. I am grateful for the opportunity. It is a responsibility I never took lightly.

Hopefully I managed to put the best words in the best order most of the time, and maybe generate a smile or two along the way. Life doesn’t have to be all punch-ups and bitterness. Humans are precious and the world can be beautiful. This has been fun. Thanks for reading.

More: Soon I will be an ex-columnist

Taranaki Falls
Taranaki Falls

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 4 September 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Apes in progress

A little drawing I’ve been working on. I have this grand idea to draw an entire orchestra. I would call it Orchestra of the Planet of the Apes.

It’ll be a lot of drawing though. But who knows, I have a bit more time in the early mornings now…

Soon I will be an ex-columnist

…and I’m fine with that.

For the past few weeks I have been getting used to the fact that my weekly column in the Bay of Plenty Times is coming to an end. The news came with a quiet but respectful email to inform me that, following a major review of columnists in the region, my column is to be discontinued after 4 September.

I indulged in a bit of disappointment and then realised I’m actually looking forward to the end. It takes a lot of work – a lot of work! – to get each column across the line, all in my spare time. I’m realise now how tired I am. My main problem is my own high standard: I have always refused to submit anything that bores me.

I know that a lot of people out there have been reading my stuff. A few times lately I have been recognised by strangers who tell me they read my column every Friday. The disturbing thing is that they probably recognise me from my profile pic, which I never much liked.

My official columnist mugshot.
My official columnist mugshot.

Of course, being recognised by a few strangers doesn’t automatically mean everyone has been buying the paper more, or even reading it online. I don’t yet know the reasons for my column being discontinued. It may be that, quite genuinely, they want a different flavour of opinion. Or it could be a drive for more cost-efficiency across the Bay of Plenty papers (which would be kind of hilarious given how much I don’t get paid.) I would love to discover that there’s been a high level conspiracy against me. That would be fun.

I need to point out that the Bay of Plenty Times brought me on in the first place. They didn’t have to. I’m grateful that they did.

I’ve had a good time and I’m massively proud of my work. The unsung hero of all this is my wife. She was always my first and most valuable barometer for whether I had nailed a piece of writing. She also had to put up with my creative moods that were crammed into an intense cycle and replayed every week. (“You’re always much happier on Thursday and Friday.”)

So tomorrow my last newspaper column will be published. It’s a bit like the final episode of a TV series: the finale is never as quite satisfying as the second-to-last episode because it has a slightly different job to do. But I’m happy with it.

Determined to exit on a strong note with my second-to-last episode, I spent at least 20 hours in total on last week’s column about depression. I finished the first draft on the weekend, then decided I wasn’t ready to broach that topic in public so I wrote something else entirely. It was okay, but lacked punch. I returned and rewrote the depression piece. The feedback I have since received totally validates all the effort. It reinforces an important lesson: always write the stuff that is burning inside you.

Where it all started: Tomorrow I am a columnist.

Semicolon tattoo

I’m not a tattoo guy but I really like the idea behind the semicolon tattoo. It is the superhero story of punctuation; the humble semicolon called to greater purpose.

It began with the Semicolon Project, an American movement wanting to launch an ongoing conversation about depression and mental illness.

The idea is that the semicolon represents a point where the author could have ended their sentence but chose not to. As a tattoo, the semicolon becomes a symbol of hope and determination.

This little tattoo evidently carries more weight than a mere passing trend for those who get it. One description I read said that the tattoo is a reminder to pause, breathe, and keep going.

I think it is incredibly powerful; a simple punctuation mark that is being used to drag depression out of the darkness and into the light.

Depression is not a logical illness. It doesn’t care if you’ve won Lotto or just scored a date with an All Black. It is a chemical rebellion in the brain that has utter disregard for anything good that might be going on outside.

One of the most unhelpful things we can say to someone who is depressed is: “Why? What do you have to be depressed about?” They probably can’t answer those questions because depression is its own boss and doesn’t need a reason.

Depression is not sadness. Sadness is what happens when something sad happens. People get sad all the time for all sorts of valid reasons.

Depression is more about feeling mysteriously drained of vitality. It is a lack of momentum. It is gumboots filled with porridge. It is living on dial-up in a world of ultra-fast.

Depression makes everything bland. It is a mono earplug. It is fish and chips with no salt.

In the secret world of the depressed person, death can become a morbid preoccupation. A bit like buying a new car; if you’ve been looking at Hondas, you start to notice Hondas at every intersection. In the same way, the depressed mind goes shopping for gloom and notices darkness at every corner.

It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wanting to die; it is simply a detached curiosity, a dull fascination.

It is not until people are clear of the fog that they realise in retrospect just how opposite of normal that dark thinking was.

If you ever find yourself in such a space, be assured that it is not normal but that the sunlight will return. You just need to get some help; it’s not something you can easily navigate on your own.

This is why the semicolon symbol has the potential to be so powerful. Whether it thrives as a tattoo or ends up on T-shirts doesn’t really matter. It is a mark of solidarity and a note of encouragement, a reminder that the grey weather is not permanently fixed in place.

I read a fascinating account of a West African exorcism, as told by Andrew Solomon in an excellent book of true stories called The Moth. Partly for research, Solomon submitted himself to the ndeup, a ritual that casts out the evil spirits of depression with ram intestines and chicken blood and drumming and spitting and dancing. The whole thing sounds completely bonkers.

As part of the ritual, an entire village took the day off to offer him raucous support. Solomon didn’t buy into any of the spiritualism but he did experience the cathartic power that came with being cheered on by the community in the sunshine.

The best treatment for darkness is a dose of light. If a simple semicolon can help draw back the curtains, even a tiny bit, so much the better.

Fly, little semicolon. Save the world.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 28 August 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Playing through a power cut

Power cuts make me think about the end of the world. The more I think about the end of the world, the less I want to watch TV and the more I want to play the piano.

A few weeks ago a meandering cat short-circuited itself on an unforgiving part of the Otumoetai electricity substation. The resulting pop took the poor cat’s nine lives all at once and plunged 10,000 homes into darkness for an hour.

Worse than the power cut was losing Wi-Fi. No matter, I lit some candles and played the piano. The piano is my favourite machine. I love the resonant quality of it. I find myself at my most content wrestling with a Beethoven sonata late into the night. I was disappointed when the lights fizzed back on.

My piano is roughly the same age as me. It has never needed a software upgrade. Notes written 300 years ago are still compatible with my model.

That’s not to say I don’t like modern technology. My laptop is my second-favourite machine. I use it every day. One of my best decisions as a teenager was not cutting corners in typing class. I am an ace touch-typist. I can type ‘ace touch-typist’ faster than I can regret pulling a phrase out of the 80s.

I used to write mostly by hand. I have 30 notebooks filled with scrappy poetry drafts; page after page of lines refined without the benefit of copy and paste.

Gosh, my handwriting looks terrible these days. I need to write with a pen more often. The other day I wrote something with a pen and I actually tried to double-tap a word to select it for deletion.

The last time I kept a handwritten journal was over ten years ago. One of my final entries describes a large man I met who told me he had 32 steel plates in his body after earning 63 broken bones from years of motor racing. Rubbing his sore neck, he said, “A bit of acupressure should do the trick. It’s like acupuncture without the needles. Works quite well in conjunction with the right oils.”

If that conversation had happened today, I would have channelled it into a Facebook post. Instead of maintaining private diaries, we are now more likely to catalogue our lives across social media. That is notably different to writing in a journal. I wonder what our new digital habits will do to our cultural history over the long term.

I have a book called This Is Not The End Of The Book in which Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere chat about the end of the world. Carriere says: “Lose electricity and you lose everything, for ever. But even if our entire audio-visual legacy were to be lost in a power cut, we would still be able to read books in the light from the sun, or in the evening by candlelight.”

One day I will no doubt own a Kindle or another such e-reader. It will be my convenient little friend. It will lead me to exciting new reading. But my relationship with an electronic device will always be different to my relationship with a solid book.

I like books because I can share them. I like flicking through the pages. I like the smell of the paper. There is something about the smell of a book that an electronic device can never replicate.

I’m not trying to start a fight between old and new technology. I am quite obviously torn between them. I think we need the best of both.

However, if the end of the world begins with a power cut, I want to make sure I still have something to do. A piano and a pile of books will be a good start.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 21 August 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Happy meat

I know a guy who stopped traffic to save worms from being run over. He spent an hour rescuing what he said was “all the worms in Mount Albert”. Later that night he interrupted his evening run to carry a weta off the road. He’s the genuine deal: a vegetarian, plant-eating, insect-saving champion of invertebrates.

Another friend of mine had an ant infestation and was trying to figure out how to send them back outside. She refused to kill them.

Me? I would have driven straight to the supermarket for ant poison. I would have run over any number of hapless worms along the way.

I need worm saviours and ant protectors in my life: passionate people who challenge my assumptions about what is important in the world. Even if they appear slightly unhinged doing so.

Five years ago I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer; a think-piece on the ethics of killing animals for food. I can’t remember why I decided to read it, having never given animal welfare much thought. Animals are animals and some of them are tasty. What’s the problem?

Eating Animals didn’t quite turn me into a vegetarian but it did slow me down. It made me consider that a fish probably doesn’t fancy being stabbed in the face any more than I would. We assume that only cuddly creatures feel pain and that it doesn’t matter how a fish feels.

I found myself working through a range of arguments for and against eating meat. I started at the callous end of the scale where the miserable existence of a caged chicken is completely irrelevant. That chicken is merely a dispensable means to a delicious end.

At the other end of the scale, all life on earth is sacred and important. What right do we have to force other creatures into industrial systems of pain and death for our own convenience? It’s enough to make a guy feel guilty right down to his leather insoles.

I eventually settled on a position where I have accepted my meat-eating place in the circle of life but I only buy free range. That’s right, I only put happy animals out of their misery.

I’m aware of the contradiction. Every position is riddled with inherent hypocrisy.

The line I have drawn for myself shifts around a bit, but at least I know where it is. The most important thing is to have given it a bit of thought.

It is also important not to be too rigid. We all change our minds.

I am pretty good at changing my mind. On the one hand I am quick to trust in scientific principles over anything that smells like conspiracy or quackery. On the other hand I don’t want to get so entrenched in my views that I miss out on the bigger picture.

Mark Plotkin gives a TED Talk called What the people of the Amazon know that you don’t in which he describes how a shaman healed his foot where western medicine had failed. He also points out how a shaman uses three rainforest plants to treat something called leishmaniasis, a “really nasty protozoal disease” that afflicts 12 million people around the world.

My usual instinct is to disregard any sentence with the word ‘shaman’ in it. But there is so much more to the world than my own limited experience. That’s why I need friends who view things differently to me. I need someone to suggest that maybe those silly little worms are an important part of the planet we all share.

Sometimes the best response is, “dude, it’s just a worm.” But other times – more often, I suspect – a better response might be, “Wow, stop everything. Check it out. It’s a worm.”

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 14 August 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Art is not your enemy

If you consider yourself to be an advocate of the poor and the disadvantaged, please know that you are not alone. Please also remember that the art community is not your enemy.

We each have different strengths and passions. In one part of town you will find thriving sports clubs – soccer, kayaking, and gymnastics clubs filled with people who are giving up their time to help children unlock their sporting potential. Elsewhere you will find champions of business – people who are exploring ways to encourage new investment into the city.

The whole point of living in a community is that we rely on each other’s diverse talents. My neighbour fixed our washing machine; I made a fun video for his son’s birthday. Both are legitimate contributions to our collective quality of life.

The community needs your passion for advocacy. We need you to harness your burning drive for equality to make sure that society doesn’t tilt too far against those who can’t help themselves.

The community also needs people who are passionate about the arts – people who can envision creative projects that will enrich the world we live in.

Social causes and arts projects are not mutually exclusive.

Two days after the Hairy Maclary sculptures were unveiled on the Tauranga waterfront, someone vandalised the lawn in front of the statues. They spray-painted on the grass: “Feed the kids. Eat the rich.”

It seemed a lacklustre protest to me. What was the point? “Eat the rich.” You mean, like cooking them? How does this vague act of paint-scrawling help anyone’s cause?

When you are angry about something – such as the widening gap between rich and poor, as I presume our grass vandal was – it is easy to seize upon art projects as symbolic scapegoats.

Are those sculptures really your enemy? They were funded by a whole range of different individuals, clubs, businesses and organisations. It is not a straight-forward case of “spend the money on hungry children instead of building that sculpture”.

Most people might agree that we have issues with poverty and inequality in New Zealand. There is a growing chasm between rich and poor that we should all be concerned about.

I don’t know how to fix those problems. My skill-set nudges me toward creative endeavours so I need other people to work to their own strengths. Together, we fill in the gaps. That is how everyone wins.

We are all doing our bit where we can. It takes a community to grow a city.

The people who put their energy into bringing the Hairy Maclary sculptures to life have contributed to the wellbeing of the city in the best way they know how.

Those same people need you to contribute to the wellbeing of the city in the best way you know how. They would not stand in your way.

There will always be disagreements. It doesn’t need to get nasty. If you disagree with an arts project (or a sports project, or any other project), disagree constructively. Be informed and respectful in your critique.

Advocacy and activism should not automatically require you to make a new enemy every time you don’t like something. There is nothing to be gained from one part of the community attacking the hard work of another part of the community.

Remember, we’re all in this together. You might even find you have more friends than you think.

(By way of disclaimer, I was not involved in the Hairy Maclary project, but seeing the end result, I kind of wish I had been.)

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 7 August 2015. Reproduced with permission.

The deal

“Here’s the deal,” said the Sheep. She seemed bigger today, staring down through shaded glasses. She pushed a slip of paper across the table: one sentence hammered out in Goudy Old Style.

I said, “Really? There’s no other option?”

Her grin was thick with yellowing teeth. “We could always return to the periodic shaving and docking of your entire species. It’s your call.”

I picked up the pen. “Can’t believe I’m bargaining with a sheep,” I said.

She chortled. “Baa-gaining, that’s a good one. I may just take that too.”

 

First published in National Flash Fiction’s Micro Madness 17 June 2015.

Calming our cultural nerves with Māori language

“There is no Pākehā way of saying Māori words.”

By now you may have seen Finnian Galbraith’s Youtube clip ‘The importance of correctly pronouncing Māori words’. If not, the tail end of Māori Language Week is as good a time to watch it as any.

Finnian posted his school speech online on 20 July. When I last checked it had nearly 290,000 views.

Finninan makes an appeal to basic respect. “People hate English being pronounced incorrectly, especially their names, but yet, is it fine for people to go around pronouncing Māori names incorrectly?”

He cites Taupō as one of the words we commonly get wrong.

I grew up in Taupō and don’t think I ever said it the right way. The sloping twang that everyone used was so familiar and comfortable, it barely registered with me that Taupō is in fact a Māori name.

Oddly, I never had trouble pronouncing the full name correctly: Taupō-nui-a-tia.

Finnian’s plea is hardly new, but the novelty of being reminded about Māori pronunciation by a respectful young white chap, standing politely in his school blazer, somehow makes it more of a wake up call.

If that kid can say Taupō properly then I suppose I should too. It’s not hard; we just need to juggle some vowels. The first syllable should sound like the thing at the end of your foot and the second syllable should sound like the thing at the end of your dog: “Toe-Paw”.

The same goes for Tauranga. “Toe-wrunga”. It is a word I pronounce self-consciously at times. Getting it right has nothing to do with it being difficult. The only barrier is a lifetime of habit and my own misplaced hang ups.

(continues below)

In his video Finnian says that correct pronunciation will become second nature to New Zealanders if Māori lessons are made compulsory in primary schools. Just an hour per week, he suggests, with the goal that every student leaves primary school with the ability to have a simple conversation in Māori.

That would be great. I would love to see the next generation of New Zealanders fluent in conversational Māori. I would love for it to be perfectly normal to hear at the supermarket: “Kei hea te Whittakers?”

A young generation fluent in te reo would add depth and richness to our national culture. It would be transformative. It could make us the envy of the world.

I can only think of upsides to learning the basics of another language – regardless of which language you invest your time in. Māori is a wonderful language. It is vibrant, expressive, poetic, and also very funny. When I took te reo at university (a skill I am still trying to reclaim) I noticed that ordinary English statements can take on mischievous twists when rendered in Māori.

It is important to remember that New Zealanders share a common heritage, a collective history with all of its bumps, bruises and misunderstandings. As Finnian says in his video, “You live in this country and therefore should be proud of your country’s heritage and should try and preserve it.”

The best way across any cultural divide is through the language. Te reo is uniquely New Zealand’s language. It survives as a national treasure, as a living language. It is the secret weapon that could calm our cultural nerves and draw us together far more effectively than any new flag.

All Finnian Galbraith wants is for kiwis to try a bit harder to look after it. “What matters is that you are trying, and that creates an atmosphere where others will feel okay to try as well.”

The least we can do is have a go at pronouncing Tauranga correctly.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 31 July 2015. Reproduced with permission.

No atom of risk connected to this scam

Incredible news, everyone. I am heir to a business tycoon who died in 2008 along with his family in Myanmar. His attorney-at-law now needs my help to release US$6.4 million that is trapped in an overseas bank account.

This was revealed to me in a letter sent from Spain. According to the letter there is “no atom of risk connected to this business.” The poet in me appreciates that nod of eloquence. It almost makes up for “the urgency of this claim have prone me to send you this unsolicit response.”

This is the first time I recall getting one of these letters in the post. They more often arrive as spam email from a Nigerian prince or from a Russian love interest I never knew I had.

I find it hard to believe that anyone falls for this kind of scam. The gambit seems so transparently dodgy. But then, 6 million dollars is a lot of money to risk missing out on. Sometimes a brief flash of “what if?” is enough to turn the most cynical of us into suckers.

Fortunately it is easy to throw away a scam letter or hit delete on an email. More aggravating are those phone calls we get at dinnertime: “Hello I am calling from Microsoft. There is a virus on your computer.”

They are not calling from Microsoft. They are liars who are trying to panic me into letting them prowl through my computer. It is akin to a fraudster who turns up on your doorstep and fools you into giving him a spare house key. Don’t let him in. Slam the phone in his face.

Phone scams like this infuriate me on behalf of the vulnerable people that probably do get sucked in. If in doubt, hang up. It is socially acceptable to hang up the phone on scammers.

Sometimes I play along by pretending to follow their instructions while I’m actually just washing the dishes. When I get bored I tell them I have a Mac, not a Windows computer. At that point they cut the line.

Other times I pretend I can’t hear them. “Hello? Hello? Are you there?”

Mostly I can’t be bothered and I hang up straight away.

It is more difficult to cut off genuine telemarketers. They begin by sounding like someone I should probably know, so I say hello and then it is too late – I am caught in their opening spiel. Telemarketing spiels are crafted with meticulous care to make them hard to interrupt.

I had a call recently where the telemarketer said: “You don’t need to pay anything upfront. All you have to do is answer yes to my next question and your 12-month membership will start immediately along with a free 6-month subscription to the magazine of your choice. So, Mr Currin, does that offer sound good to you?”

I’m sure there are evil social scientists in laboratories cooking up new ways to manipulate people into making snap financial decisions over the phone.

I resent their sneaky tactics, even for worthy causes. Charities do it too. “Are you aware of the plight of the blind orphans who lost all of their teddy bears in a warehouse fire?” All of the guilt in the world then gets funnelled into their killer question: “So, Mr Currin, can these children rely on your help today?”

It forces you into a corner: No, they cannot rely on my help today because I am quite obviously a horrible, selfish human being.

You find yourself justifying your family’s financial situation to a total stranger.

There is no subtle way for a charity to ask for money. If they don’t ask we won’t give. I understand that, and I believe charity is important, but my general rule is never to commit to any purchase, donation or decision over the phone. Especially at dinnertime.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 24 July 2015. Reproduced with permission.

A zero-hour contract is the worst boyfriend

Zero-hour contracts must be a bit like having the worst boyfriend ever. It’s that guy who wants his girlfriend on tap whenever it suits him with no thought at all for her wants or needs.

A zero-hour contract is where I employ you to be available whenever I require but I don’t have to guarantee you any work. It betrays an attitude where one person assumes all the power and the other is forced to stick around through sheer lack of options.

Zero-hour contracts have traditionally applied to low paying jobs in places like fast food chains. A phrase that seems to follow this topic around is ‘the country’s most vulnerable workers.’

The Government has proposed changes to the laws around zero hour contracts to give these vulnerable workers more protection. The Labour Party and the Council of Trade Unions don’t think the changes go far enough.

Sitting in the relative comfort of my middle class upbringing, I find it sad that the discussion needs to be had at all. Why would anyone set up conditions for their employees that are fundamentally unfair?

I am trying to imagine the kind of employer who thinks zero-hour contracts are a good idea. I imagine he is slightly overweight and has a brand new car that he drives with casual disregard above the speed limit. He swings through the supermarket to buy a $30 bottle of wine and thinks nothing of it.

He has strong opinions about how the Government should support the interests of business owners and he shares those opinions liberally when friends come around to throw a few scotch fillets on the barbeque.

I don’t aspire to be that guy although I wouldn’t mind his car and the scotch fillets. I am a middle class father who went through university on a student loan and then got a job. Along the way life happened, as it does for everyone, but despite the hardest moments I have never needed to stare real hardship in the face.

This zero-hours contract thing gets me thinking more critically about New Zealand society. It is uncomfortable thinking.

I have been following a series of single page comics about privilege and inequality by New Zealand artist Toby Morris. His comic is called The Pencilsword. Look it up online, it’s excellent.

In On a plate Morris compares two children: Richard, whose parents are doing okay; and Paula, whose parents are struggling. The comic tracks the little inequalities in their respective circumstances that lead to Richard assuming he has earned his good fortune all by himself. “Less whinging, more hard work I say.”

It is easy to decide what is fair for society when you are the one making decisions from a position of comfort.

In Inequality Tower Morris represents all the wealth in New Zealand as a 10-storey building. In this scenario the richest 10% of the population own the entire top half of the tower. The poorest 50% of the population are crammed into just half of the ground floor.

I find that statistic confusing, shameful and disheartening all at once. Is this really the country I live in? If we are all part of the same national community then surely this is my responsibility as much as anyone else’s. But what can I do?

Morris ends Inequality Tower with: “When you come across something really wrong in life you have two choices. Ignore it and walk away, or get help and start fixing it.”

He concludes: “This is me yelling for help.”

The rich worry about whatever it is that they worry about. Those of us in the middle worry about whether to subscribe to Netflix or to Lightbox.

Meanwhile there are people who worry about living week to week. I don’t think anyone should be comfortable with that.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 17 July 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Angry people

Why do people get so angry? It makes me mad.

It is the hardest thing to maintain your composure when someone you are speaking with takes an abrasive turn. That flash of anger always catches me by surprise. I never quite know how to deal with it. Very suddenly this is not the conversation I thought I was having.

We can be an angry species at times. Parents get angry on the rugby sidelines (which I think is ridiculous and unnecessary). People bring anger into meetings. Strange and savage things happen to the human psyche when we queue up for closing down sales.

Occasionally in my day job – or sometimes just at the supermarket – I meet people who harbour smouldering fires behind their eyes. You can tell they are looking for an argument.

I think some people enjoy being angry. They relish opposition. They arrive angry and they plan on leaving angry. They treat everyone they disagree with as the bad guy. It never solves anything.

Yet I understand the dark sweetness of that feeling. Life is unfair and people are complicated. Outrage can feel really good. It is the sort of righteous wrath that fuels many furious phone calls to customer service centres. I bet we’ve all made at least one of those phone calls.

Last year I got angry with our insurance company. It was a situation that wasn’t their fault but over a number of months the insurance company became a symbol of injustice. I had to remember that the woman on the other end of the phone was not my enemy. She was just doing her job. She probably had a family and a mortgage and a lack of sleep, just like me. I wasn’t going to help my cause by making her day worse.

It is my lifelong quest to master the noble art of amicable disagreement. I truly believe that it must be possible to have a pleasant conversation with someone you fundamentally disagree with. We are all humans after all. Why make an enemy when you could be making coffee instead?

That’s my ideal anyway. What actually happens is that I get defensive. When the other person bristles, my blood does a nasty little jig and I feel that fight-or-flight response kicking in.

I have to work hard not to match their tone or get sucked into distracting side issues. Arguments are not well-scripted dialogues that unfold in a logical fashion. They flinch and break off down rambling alleyways.

I know a few people who are unfazed by other people’s aggression. They are the Zen masters of difficult situations. They bring marshmallows to a knife fight and no one gets hurt. I wish I could do that.

The rest of us inevitably get swept away by the tension. Things escalate or end awkwardly. Later, in the middle of the night, we think of the perfect retort. “Aha, I’ll get them next time.” We save up our retort and lob it into the next available conversation.

So it may be that the person who is snapping at you is just trying to make up for lost ground from a previous argument with someone else.

I often make the mistake of assuming that other people are as reasonable as me. At least, I like to think I’m pretty reasonable. Perhaps I’m not. I do try to aim for a degree of level-headedness, even if I don’t quite get there in practice.

Anger and outrage have their place. Anger is the fuel for essential change where it is needed.

That doesn’t mean we should let our anger do the driving. Anger should power the engine but it is respect that should steer the conversation. Respect, a bit of Zen calm and maybe some marshmallows.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 10 July 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Climate change of thrones

Planet Earth sits in the doctor’s office nursing a high temperature. “You’re very sick,” says the doctor.

“I feel fine,” says Planet Earth. A hacking cough follows. “Okay, I admit I’m a bit under the weather. I’m working on it. Changing light bulbs and stuff. It will sort itself out.”

The doctor studies her notes on the computer screen. “No, it won’t sort itself out. The tests are all saying the same thing. You have the worst carbon problem I have ever seen.”

“Don’t panic, Doc. I’m definitely aiming for a low carbon future. I just need to make sure it’s a smooth transition.”

She shakes her head. “You no longer have time for a smooth transition.”

Planet Earth coughs again. “It’s under control. I just have to set a credible long-term emissions reduction target.”

The doctor sighs. “That’s a long-winded way of saying you’re doing not much at all. Where did those words come from?”

Planet Earth says, “Got it from one of my governments’ websites. New Zealand, I think.”

“And what is New Zealand doing to reduce their carbon footprint? Are they showing political leadership or are they mostly leaving it to individuals?”

Planet Earth shrugs. “They have some nice roads. And a pretty flag.”

“That’s the problem right there,” says the doctor. “More talk and no action. When I meet patients who are on the brink of a heart attack I tell them they need to change their lifestyle today, not next year.”

Planet Earth leans over and starts scratching a leg. “Blasted rash.” The doctor peers in for closer look. “And now you’ve got another case of activism. Look at them, protestors climbing all over your parliament buildings. Not surprising, the way you’ve been carrying on as though the problem doesn’t exist.”

“The protestors are no bother. I just brush them off. It’s easy enough when they’re breaking the law.” Planet Earth spits into a tissue.

The doctor is silent for a moment. “Do you watch Game of Thrones?” she asks.

“One of the most popular shows on Earth,” says the Earth.

The doctor says, “A political scientist called Charli Carpenter once suggested that Game of Thrones can be seen as an allegory for climate change. In Game of Thrones there’s that army of zombies, the White Walkers, gathering strength in the north. They represent the impending climate disaster that no one takes seriously because everyone else is too busy with their politics.”

Planet Earth shrugs. “I like Game of Thrones. The little guy is funny.”

“You’re still not taking this seriously. What do people do when there’s a massive storm coming? Every decision revolves around limiting the impact of that impending storm. This carbon crisis you’ve got should be no different. Why are you so complacent? Climate change should be woven into every facet of decision-making at the highest levels.”

“I told you, I’m working on it.”

“Vague references to carbon reduction targets are not enough. Look, I don’t run a country. I can’t fully appreciate the tensions that governments of the world grapple with to keep their economies afloat.”

The doctor sits back in her chair. “But I am looking at a beautiful planet that is rapidly killing itself. Climate change should warrant more priority, don’t you think?”

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 3 July 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Small flat white for a coffee snob

Coffee? Yes please. I’ll have a small double shot flat white.

That small size is really important. Please don’t order me a large flat white. I’m here for the coffee, not the milk.

When it comes to coffee I’m a bit of a snob. Some people are able to cheerfully smash their way through any old cup of dirt. I wish I could be that indiscriminating. I’m the guy who still avoids the cafe that served me a bad coffee several years ago.

I have a stovetop espresso at home and I have a plunger on my desk at work. I make a pretty decent plunger coffee. The secret is not to make it too watery, not if you want to preserve the flavour.

It’s all about flavour. If you ever see a report that ranks cafes by what they charge for a large double shot flat white you should run away as though someone just offered to warm your cappuccino in the microwave.

Newspapers seem to go through a regular cycle of running unscientific coffee surveys. There must be a more meaningful way to explore the price of coffee. In the meantime I suggest that it is neither fair nor reliable to compare cafes by the cost per ml of their largest serving. All you are comparing there is milk.

Most cafes serve flat whites in cups that hover around the 180ml mark. Some go smaller, a few go larger. Takeaway cups are usually around 200ml. That is the very limit of how much extra milk I want messing with my two shots of coffee.

Now let’s compare those sizes with the large flat white. A large takeaway cup starts at around 320ml. All of that extra space is nothing but milk.

Loading up your coffee with more milk might make the drink last longer but it dilutes the flavour. Everyone values that flavour differently. I prefer my coffee to taste like coffee.

I haven’t quite managed to scale the hipster heights of the short black. I love the notion of the short black, that little cup of dark magic adorned with incantations of golden crema. It feels like the sort of coffee I should be writing poetry with.

But I prefer a bit of milk. Not too much, hence the small double flat white is my favourite. The smaller the better, in fact, with the same two shots of espresso.

Compared to that, the large flat white is little more than a hot milkshake. If a milky drink is what you are after, that’s okay. I won’t judge you. We all have different tastes. You can even put sugar in your coffee if that’s the way you like to spoil it.

Just don’t be using volume as a blunt measuring tool with which to cast your judgement. That would be like assessing wine according to the size of the glass with no consideration at all for the actual wine.

The large double shot flat white should only be used to assess value for money if you are at one of those all-you-can-eat buffets where the food looks amazing but tastes like corn flour.

Coffee is an expensive indulgence, to be sure. Today my regular habit costs me $4. Some cafes are pushing the price of a small flat white up towards the $5 mark. That is definitely a deterrent, but on the other hand if the coffee is amazing it becomes a worthwhile treat.

I am happy to pay for the expertise of the barista who knows how to get my coffee just right. Good cafes know that if they get the coffee right, customers will forgive many other sins. Woe betide the café that gets it wrong. The price for a good coffee might be high, but the price for a bad coffee is even higher.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 26 June 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Love and tears in a man’s world

For a quick lesson in how to sabotage your own credibility see Sir Tim Hunt.

Speaking to a gathering of senior female scientists last week, the British biochemist said, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

The response from female scientists was swift and sarcastic, most notably on Twitter.

Amy Remeikis tweeted a photo of Marie Curie with the caption: “I’m really glad that Curie managed to take a break from crying to discover radium and polonium.”

Sonja Vernes tweeted, “I made it through these brain dissections without falling in love or crying. Phew!”

Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winner, has since resigned from his position at University College London. British commentators are now arguing about how unfairly he has been treated. London Mayor Boris Johnson has stepped in to defend him

Sir Hunt says he intended for his comments to be received in a light-hearted way. Perhaps, but it appears he still meant sincerely what he said lightly. His apology that followed in an interview on BBC Radio 4 was more of the “I’m sorry I got caught” variety: “I’m very sorry I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists.”

He then tried to explain his position by reaffirming his original statements in a slightly different way.

“It’s terribly important that you criticise people’s ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears it means you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing except getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”

I think we should agree to criticise the idea rather than the person. Let’s do that with Sir Hunt’s own ideas.

He said, “I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science.”

One of Sir Hunt’s central ideas here is that it is easy to fall in love with other people. That idea seems reasonable. I’m not going to challenge it.

Another idea offered by Sir Hunt is that it is easy to fall in love with Sir Hunt. Lacking any reliable data, let’s overlook that one for now.

The idea that really demands scrutiny is his implication that if there is ever an inappropriate romance in the workplace, it is the woman’s fault for being in the room. Sir Hunt apparently lives in a world where the sole function of a woman is to wander around swooning over every man she bumps into.

If we dig deeper into that idea we start to unearth more than just one man’s ego-driven assumptions. We find an entire society that is constructed by men, for men.

Sir Hunt might learn something from Adam Savage, the Mythbusters presenter. In talking to his teenage son about pornography, Savage said, “the thing you’ve got to understand, bud, is the Internet hates women.”

It may seem heavy-handed to bring porn into this discussion but I see it as symptomatic of the same male-centric worldview that Sir Hunt’s ideas are entrenched in.

Savage explains, “If you could look into someone’s brain the way you search the Internet, and the Internet was a dude, that dude has a problem with women.”

I think Sir Hunt’s comments reveal the gentlemanly face of that same fundamental misogyny. It’s a man’s world. Light-hearted or not, that view deserves to be challenged.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 19 June 2015. Reproduced with permission.

See also:

Man flu versus woman flu
Fifty Shades of Grey is cinematic junk food

No compelling reason to change the NZ flag

I still don’t think we have been given a compelling argument to change the national flag.

It is not the money that bothers me. It is the timing. Why now? What’s the rush?

The flag conversation has unfolded like an excitable father bursting into the kitchen and suggesting to his family that they change their surname.

The kids reply, “Yeah that would be cool. Let’s change our name to Skywalker.” It is always fun to consider other options.

The next day Dad comes home with some official papers. “Hey kids, instead of building that third bedroom, I spent the money on this application for a new surname. What do you think?”

The kids say, “Whoa, we didn’t think you would do it straight away. Why is changing our name so important all of a sudden?”

“Great question. Let’s discuss that while I fill out the form. Do you want to be the Obamas or the Windsors? ”

“Wait, slow down. Can’t we talk about this first?”

“Don’t panic, kids, it’s not a done deal yet. You can still change your mind.”

“But you’ve already spent the money.”

“Totally worth it. We’ll get our names carved into a shiny new pole. Isn’t this neat?”

That’s the thing with this flag changing process: it is racing towards an outcome without stopping to ask why.

The Flag Consideration Project is built around the question, “what do you stand for?” We are encouraged to post our response on the standfor.co.nz website or send it back on that little freepost card we got in the mail a few weeks ago.

“What do you stand for?” It should be a noble question but most people seem to be using it as a launch pad for protest. “I stand for not wasting money, scrap this silly flag nonsense,” writes Jacinta Allen on the Standfor website, echoing many similar comments. Then there is my current subversive favourite by Joe Citizen: “I stand for getting rid of any flag. Flags bore me …the world would be a lot happier place if every country had a kite.”

If our leaders genuinely want to know whether we think the flag should change, the question they should ask is quite simple. “Do you think the New Zealand flag should change?”

But they won’t officially ask us that question until after we have voted for a new flag design.

There is an even more fundamental question that probably needs to be asked first. “Do you think New Zealand should remain in the Commonwealth?”

Grappling honestly with the Commonwealth issue would give subsequent conversations about the flag a lot more focus.

It is about asking the right questions first before charging into a design process. The current design brief appears to be “just not the old flag.” That’s no recipe for national pride.

The Flag Consideration Project is dressed up with a veneer of patriotism but it is hard not to feel a bit cynical about the way the process is rolling out.

I agree the flag should change – one day, when the time is right, when we have a better reason than just “meh, the current flag is kind of old.”

There are some good-looking flag designs out there. Will a smart new flag give us something to cheer about as a nation? I don’t know. Less haste and more substance might have made it a more sincere exercise.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 12 June 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Everyone else is better than you

At the Founders Book Fair in Nelson I saw a table constructed of The Da Vinci Code paperbacks.

It struck me as a novel use of an airport thriller. The Da Vinci Code is a functional page-turner but it makes an even better coffee table.

I don’t recall enjoying The Da Vinci Code a whole lot. Still, I wouldn’t mind having written it myself if it meant I could now be an internationally successful author.

What is success anyway? The slippery notion of success is a spectre that haunts me as a writer.

I was asked to speak at a writers’ retreat in Nelson over Queen’s Birthday Weekend. That might be considered a nod of success. I confess to milking it a bit on the flight. “I am a writer being flown down to Nelson to speak to other writers. That’s because I am a writer, you see. Excuse me while I type some writer notes on my Macbook Air.”

Speaking to my fellow writers about the elusiveness of success, I suggested that “everyone else is a better writer than you”.

That’s me at my motivational best. But it is true across all disciplines: other people will always appear to be better, more interesting and more successful than you. It is something we have to get over – unless we want to drive ourselves a little bit mad.

Toward the end of the writers’ retreat a guy called Steve read out something wonderful that he had been quietly working on all weekend. We were collectively overjoyed that he was able to share such a great piece of writing. I wished that I had written it myself.

People are brilliant, aren’t they? I am in awe of what other people can do. Even on my best day there will be someone else producing better work than me.

No, I take that back. “Better” is not quite the right word. The work that other people produce is not necessarily better; it is simply different.

It is important to make peace with that difference. Other people are not me and I am not other people. We each contribute our own vital piece of colour to the grand patchwork of human creativity.

Some years ago my friends moved their family to China. I thought, “How brave and interesting. I have never lived overseas. I must not be very interesting at all. I just live in Tauranga.”

That word “just” is a whimpering little device that should be eliminated wherever possible. If you drop the word “just” from most sentences you will find an affirmation instead of an apology.

I live in Tauranga. I am who I am. I do what I do. There is no “just” about it.

Besides, I once moved to Invercargill to live. That is equally as interesting as moving to China.

I am still learning how to appreciate the present moment rather than forever fidgeting about things I hope are over the horizon.

That doesn’t mean I don’t need a plan for where I’m headed. It is about having the confidence to enjoy offering my best without feeling intimidated by what I see other people achieving.

My wife often has to remind me that I get to write things that lots of people read every week. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

I was once told of a family that reads the Bible at the breakfast table most mornings except for Fridays. On Fridays, the family reads my column together instead.

Well, if that’s one way to measure success I’ll take it.

 First published in Bay of Plenty Times 5 June 2015. Reproduced with permission.

How to listen to classical music

Hush please, for I am about to discuss classical music. I will compose this in four parts. Remember to hold your applause until the end. That is the number one rule with classical music: do not clap until the whole piece is finished.

(i)

Part one opens with a live performance of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, performed by the Scholars Pro Musica and the Opus Orchestra at St Mary’s Catholic Church last Saturday evening. It was glorious, a testament to the calibre of local musicianship. The best recording in the world can’t replace the tactile sounds of a live orchestra and a chamber choir.

My sister, who came with me, found the no-clapping rule difficult. She was busting for the audience to break out of their classical straight jackets and cheer after every song.

Classical music is a bit like golf. The performers need a moment of silence before they tee off. The difference is there is no applause until the full 18 holes are completed.

Hence part one of this composition concludes in silence.

(ii)

Part two is about listening. Learning how to listen is key to enjoying classical music.

There is a great scene in the 1984 film, Amadeus, where Mozart dictates part of the Requiem, a section called the Confutatis, to his rival Salieri. Amadeus is worth watching for that scene alone. Each element of the music gets unpacked and played on its own so you know what to listen for.

Without knowing what to listen for, music becomes a featureless wall of background noise. Music has become so ubiquitous that we rarely pay it the attention it deserves. When was the last time you did nothing but listen to a piece of music? Mozart didn’t write his Requiem to help us fold the washing.

We have grown addicted to the lure of the thumping beat. We pour rhythm over everything like it is tomato sauce, drowning all other flavours.

I like rhythm. And sauce. That doesn’t mean it has to dominate every meal. There are treasures to discover beneath the sauce.

We have now reached the end of part two. Hush please.

(iii)

Part three is set in my living room where I have been working up a piano piece: the third movement of Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata. That final movement is dramatic, stormy and great fun to play. It is a favourite of mine that I revisit every few years. It allows me to pretend I am a concert-level virtuoso. In reality I am a bumbling fumble of enthusiastic rough edges. The intricacies of the piece always beat me.

Yet each time I sit down with Beethoven I find secret pleasures in the music. It might be a nuance that I missed the previous thousand times. It might be a moment of clarity: “Aha, now I see what you’re doing there, Beethoven.”

In paying such close attention to his music, I get to engage with a creative master. I can sense his thrill at the curveballs he is throwing into the composition. What a privilege to grapple with music at that level.

(iv)

There ends part three. For part four, if I could select only one piece of classical music to listen to for the rest of my life it would probably be Im Abendrot, the fourth of Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. Most essentially, I would choose the 1965 recording featuring Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

Im Abendrot is only 8 minutes long, but what a sublime 8 minutes. It opens with a minute or so of swooping orchestra before the soprano glides in across the top.

That is where you really need to start paying attention. Forget that you are listening to something that sounds a bit like opera. Forget that there is no music video to occupy your media-saturated mind. Just follow the golden melody and see where it takes you.

Gorgeous, isn’t it? Thank you for listening.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 29 May 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Beauty is in the eye of the beard holder

It is time to address the poo issue head on. A few weeks ago a study somewhere found faecal matter in facial hair. Actually, it wasn’t a study; it was a reporter who swabbed a few beards. And it wasn’t faecal matter, it was some bacteria that you can find in many places, faecal matter included.

But because it sounds so good, headlines around the world turned this into “there’s poo in your beard!”

Supporters of the close shave gleefully seized this anecdote as evidence that all beards are grotty, dirty things that should be razed from the unkempt face of mankind.

This much is true: some beards are grotty. But so are some people. A beard on its own does not dictate your level of hygiene.

For a quick study in paranoia you can search the internet for everyday objects that are potentially dirtier than your toilet. Cell phones, keyboards, playgrounds, shopping trolley handles and your toothbrush are apparently common collectors of rogue faecal matter.

To access a smorgasbord of other nasty bacteria you should also refer to TV remotes, kitchen sponges, chopping boards, petrol pump handles, restaurant menus and ATM buttons.

The whole world is squirming with filth and faecal terror. Fear not, because humanity has two primary weapons against this. The first defence is our immune system. It’s a pretty good system that has served us well for 50,000 years and beyond.

Our other defence is common sense. You don’t have to do anything drastic like shave off your identity. Just wash your hands. It’s not that hard.

So why do I have a beard? I ask this in response to my fellow columnist Annemarie Quill who lobbed a cheeky provocation in last Saturday’s paper.

“Men of the Bay,” she declared, “shave off the beards”.

What, all of us?

Yes, every single ugly one. Annemarie wrote: “A beard is no more attractive in a man than it would be a woman.” We bearers of beards are, apparently, the armpit-faces of humanity.

I agree with Annemarie. Women don’t suit beards.

But beauty is in the eye of the beard holder. I like my beard and so does my wife. In fact it was my wife who made me grow it in the first place. Right from the start she was my number one cheerleader. I hated the itchiness of the thing. She insisted I keep it. Over time it grew on me and I grew into my new look. Four years later I can’t imagine shaving it off, not even for fashion.

Fashion is something I have never fully understood. If I was ever in the vanguard of a beard revival it was entirely by accident. The current trend may pass and I will probably still keep my beard.

It has some very practical benefits. Number one is that my wife likes it. As a surprise bonus it also gives me more credibility with other people. Almost as soon as I grew it, I noticed a difference in the way people treated me, especially in professional situations. It was as though I finally deserved to be there. What had changed? Facial hair. I was at last a man to be reckoned with.

The time will come when I want to shave off a few years. Easy. The age-changing power of the beard is my secret weapon.

I also like my beard because it saves valuable shaving time. Quite seriously – and I’m not being pretentious here – I consider my beard to be a small contribution to the fight against climate change. As a global citizen I used to worry that I was sending too many disposable blades to landfill. Now I don’t have to throw away as many razors.

Take a bow, bearded men of the Bay. Not only do you look great, but you are helping to save the world.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 22 May 2015. Reproduced with permission.

See also: Attractive persuasion of the rare beard

Man flu versus woman flu

There is no such thing as man flu. We all get sick, some of us just happen to be men at the time.

Man flu normally gets wheeled out as a pejorative term. It suggests that the man is exaggerating his illness, that he is milking a little sniffle. Or that he is a giant wuss.

When I am feeling sick my preference is to get better, not worse. A good way to get better is to slow down, rest up and look after myself.

Man flu should just be called ‘taking sensible measures when you have a cold’.

I don’t like feeling under the weather. I hate the way a cold blunts my sharp edge. That brooding heaviness is usually a sign that something is coming to thump me. Sometimes it passes, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, that’s when I need to call time out. I’m all for consolidating good health.

I have had the most horrendous cough for over a week. Coughing is my least favourite sickness activity. A cough always sounds like it is there on purpose to annoy everyone. I get really angry at coughing. I want to punch my own nasty cough in the face.

The persistent violence of my cough has shredded the upper register of my vocal chords. I have discovered that I can no longer say the word “miaow” without sounding like a donkey. The high part disappears so I can only say “ow”. You know you’re really sick when you are unable to imitate the family cat.

Being a guy who is sick, I get to crash and recuperate while normal activity whirls around me. Call this man flu if you like. I call it trying to get better.

But if my wife is sick she doesn’t get to recuperate the same way I can. I work full time. She works part time. That means she is a lot busier than me because she has the more important job, which is managing the family.

Outside of work she does the school drop-off and the school pick-up. She plans and negotiates after-school activities like soccer practice, gymnastics, swimming and piano lessons.

She tracks down lost shoes, she finds gold coins for school fundraising days, she signs permission slips and she make sure our kids are adequately fuelled and clothed for the week.

She buys new pyjamas, takes the cat to the vet, gets the car warranted. On top of all that she referees arguments, acts as counsellor and head nurse and family nutritionist. This is the way most of the duties fall simply because of our respective schedules. Still, I am one lucky guy. I feel grateful and sheepish at the same time.

So let’s talk about woman flu instead. My definition of woman flu would be when a sick person keeps powering on heroically for everyone else’s sake; someone who won’t – or more likely can’t – stop long enough to properly recuperate.

Sick leave favours the full time worker. If my wife ever needs to take time out she will still keep the house running because I’ll be at work and life must go on. There are not many scenarios where two parents can take the whole day off simply because one of them needs to have a sleep.

Unless she is really super-duper sick with some kind of medical emergency, she can only ever steal a few hours of proper downtime in between everything else that still needs to be done.

That’s not rest and recuperation. That’s woman flu.

It seems unfair to me. Someone should do something about it.

Not me though. I’m feeling under the weather. I’m going back to bed.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 15 May 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Little things that make a big difference

I am a nervous parent. It is my son’s first soccer game for the season. He has just turned nine so everything is bigger this year. The field is bigger. The goals are bigger. Even the seriousness is bigger.

Yes, the seriousness. We have stepped up from the stumbling enthusiasm of last year’s junior league. My son has apparently been graded into one of the top teams. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m up for it.

We have not yet met his new team. When we get to the field there is a circle of boys doing drills. They are already in uniform. They look like they know each other. They look like they know what they are doing. They look serious.

So there I am, a grown man nervous about interrupting a group of small children. But I pretend to be a confident grown up because I have my son with me who needs to find his team and play soccer.

Some serious-looking heads swivel our way as I explain that this little boy standing next to me is here to join their team. My son is pretty small for his age. He has only been playing for one season whereas some of these kids were born wearing soccer boots. I feel like I am telling the Avengers that they can borrow my Nerf gun.

One of the soccer boys, a kid with long blond hair, steps out of the squad. With genuine warmth he says hi to my son and tells us we need to see a guy called Jeff at the edge of the field to get a team shirt.

It is not a big deal. It is not a ground-breaking moment. It is not something that will ever make the news. It is just a simple interaction, one kid casually welcoming another kid into a soccer team.

A short time later my son has a massive grin on his face because he is playing soccer with his peers. He looks like he belongs on that field. He is an Avenger with superpowers of his own. The other kids have included him as a natural fit into the team. My adult hang-ups seem quite foolish in retrospect.

After soccer we scoot off to catch the final leg of my wife’s marathon around Lake Rotorua.

In a marathon, every bit of encouragement you get along the way is like vital sustenance for the starving, especially in that last 10 kilometres when the body is starting to hurt.

My wife said that there was a guy who followed his partner around the course at intervals blowing a conch shell. It was uplifting for everyone who heard it.

Along the highway I saw a truck with big words painted on the back: “Go Donna you can do it!” Whoever Donna was, I bet Donna did it.

One group took it upon themselves to be the official support team for random strangers. They stood cheering for everyone that ran past. “Go random strangers you are awesome!” said their sign.

They were not looking for any reward. They were just there to add a joyful note into the lives of people they have never met.

In the grand scheme of things it was nothing significant, just like the kid who helped us out on the soccer field. He won’t have had a clue just how much easier he made my day. But that is the point. It is the fleeting moments, the seemingly unimportant ones that send a positive ripple through other people’s lives.

A friendly welcome into the soccer team. A genuine laugh with a stranger. We may never know the extent to which our actions can inject a bit of much-needed warmth into someone else’s day.

We all share this world together so we might as well make it pleasant for each other, starting with the little things.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 8 May 2015. Reproduced with permission.

See also: Good people

War sure is fun when it doesn’t hurt

Ever since ANZAC Day I have been thinking about war and battles and death in the heat of combat. I am not qualified to write about any of this. What do I know of war? Absolutely nothing except that it looks awesome in high definition.

I am a child of Hollywood. My exposure to war is mostly slow motion heroics with wide-angle explosions. I play out my action-hero fantasies by running around the house shooting at my own kids with Nerf guns. “Ha ha, got you and now you’re dead.” War sure is fun when it doesn’t hurt.

I have been swinging wildly between this popcorn view of war and the sombre reverence of our recent ANZAC Day commemorations. And somewhere in between I keep bumping into the obvious ugly truth: war is stupid.

Really, has there ever been such a thing as a sensible war? We use words like tragic and unavoidable, but never sensible. War is the exact opposite of how we ask our children to behave. You can’t work out your differences? Hurting each other is not the answer.

Discomfort accompanies me through every ANZAC Day. On the one hand there is respectful acknowledgement of soldiers who died on the battlefield. On the other hand there is a sense of unease about the futility of those deaths.

A friend of mine expressed similar tension when he described his thoughts about this year’s commemoration day as “a muddle of flip-sides.”

I mutter that war is stupid and then I feel guilty. It doesn’t seem right for me to make simplistic pronouncements from my comfy cushion of peacetime that was paid for with scars I know nothing about.

My grandfather never spoke of his war experiences. Only at his funeral did I learn about his medal-winning courage under fire. When they played the Last Post at the end of the funeral it jarred me because I had never thought of him as a military man. The most I ever heard him say about it was “I lost some of my cobbers.”

His cobbers died fighting the Japanese. It seems strange that New Zealanders once killed, and were killed by, people who are now our friends.

I have a little book called Poems of the Great War that has probably had more impact on me than any grisly movie. In his famous poem, Dulce et Decorum est, Wilfred Owen calls it a lie to say that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country. “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling … you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie.”

Last week in the public library I overheard two elderly women talking about life in London during World War Two. One of them said, “She has post-traumatic stress, like me, even after all these years.”

I eavesdropped just long enough to learn that loud noises, things like trains and thunder, still wrench some people back into the Blitz.

Leaping from one war into another, I have read that an estimated 373,000 children are suffering from emotional trauma after last year’s war on Gaza.

There are enough natural disasters to contend with without the additional violence that humanity heaps upon itself.

In my own simple universe there would be no enemies, just people we do not yet understand.

That’s a naive view, I know. Everything is complicated. Diplomacy is hard. Violence is easy. History suggests we are better at the easy stuff.

From a more recent collection of poetry by a veteran of the Iraq War, Kevin Powers writes, “war is just us making little pieces of metal pass through each other.”

It is hard to find anything sensible in that.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 1 May 2015. Reproduced with permission.

20-Day Drawing Challenge

“Kaboom” Iron Man drawing by James Minson

“Draw yourself as a Simpson character.” Who would have thought Facebook could be so much fun?

It was a simple little event, a 20-day drawing challenge set up by a Melbourne artist who goes by the name SevenHz. He listed 20 different topics, things like “draw something from your childhood” and “redesign a movie poster”. Four weeks of drawing, five drawings per week.

I fell into the challenge by accident after seeing it on my friend James’ timeline. On a whim I thought I would try to keep up with a different scribble of my own each day.

Note I used the word scribble. I am a writer, not an artist. I paint my best pictures with words.

So I gave it a go.

05 Tentacles

Each day I posted a quick sketch on the drawing challenge’s Facebook page.

06 Insect

Most other people’s pictures were downright incredible. I was outclassed on all sides. I should have run for cover.

12 bird video game

I didn’t, because the community I found myself in was infectiously positive. Everyone cheered and commented on each other’s work. The challenge gathered momentum with collective waves of enthusiasm. It became the artistic equivalent of those street dance-offs where everyone, no matter who they are, gets high-fived for busting out their best funky moves.

15a jawa

The encouragement was genuine and it made me want to do better.

11 Nose explorer

Sure, other drawings were more impressive than mine but the generous nature of the community meant this inspired rather than demoralised. By the end of the challenge I was spending hours on my pictures instead of minutes.

17 Napoleon Dynamite

It got me thinking about excellence. Excellence takes a power of hard work.

On the last day of the challenge my friend James did a drawing of Iron Man walking away from an explosion. The theme for that day was simply “Kaboom!” And boy, did James kaboom it. Suddenly Iron Man is the coolest guy in the world.

When people do impressive things it can be tempting to assume that their skill has arrived fully formed. Don’t ever be fooled by apparent effortlessness. Excellence is no accident.

There is natural talent, sure, but natural talent is nothing without lots of practice and preparation. It would have taken James ages to get that picture right. I also know that he has invested hundreds if not thousands of hours honing his drawing skills.

I have enjoyed a few online speeches lately called The Moth where people stand at the microphone without notes and tell a personal story. It looks natural, it looks effortless, but I know that many hours have gone into getting those speeches just right.

Jerry Seinfeld made an awards speech some years ago where he said, “Do you know how hard it was just to write what I’m saying to you right now? It was hard. This took a long time.”

I love that admission because it reminds me that nothing comes easy even when you’re at the top of your game.

There are no short cuts. If I ever want to draw my own super cool Iron Man I will need to knuckle down and invest a whole lot of time into my drawing skills.

Realistically, I will probably keep my scribbling as a whimsical hobby. In the meantime I appreciate the community of artists who welcomed me without judgement into their space.

It is satisfying to note that my boys have been drawing more furiously over the past couple of weeks because they saw me working on my own pictures. Inspiration is like an infection. Excellence is the best infection ever. Thanks, Drawing Challenge.

Marcel Simpson

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 24 April 2015. Reproduced with permission. Totally cool Iron Man drawing by James Minson. (Cool guys don’t look at explosions.)

See also: Natural talent versus hard work

The Bachelor, Campbell Live and TV ratings

A confession: there was a time when I watched an entire series of The Bachelor. It was long ago, I was different person, I’m very sorry and I won’t do it again.

If you’re mercifully unfamiliar with The Bachelor, it’s a show where lots of good looking women compete to marry one good looking guy. For the guy it’s almost too good to be true. There are dates, there are bikinis, and he is allowed to pash as many of them as he can get away with.

Over the course of the series the bachelor narrows his options to a few hot favourites. Intimacy escalates. He meets the prospective in-laws. The grand finale is staged around a heart wrenching choice between two remaining love interests. Which one will he choose? He loves them both. Ooh, the drama and the sad music. Either way, someone will leave with a broken heart.

Like the rules of physics, rules of the heart are predictable. If you put two people in an intimate situation they are likely to develop strong feelings for each other. The format of The Bachelor pretty much guarantees that several women will fall for the same guy and that he in turn will fall for all of them.

Out here in the real world we have social conventions that help people avoid that sort of dilemma. Like, don’t get involved with three women at the same time.

The whole show is based on a contrivance that deliberately manufactures heartbreak for entertainment. I think it is awful.

It is also a rubbish foundation for true love. Let’s put the show’s success rate to the test. Of the 28 different series of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette that have been produced in its American homeland, how many couples are still together? No more than six, apparently. Most of the couples didn’t make it past a few months.

Hopefully New Zealand’s flirtation with this formula has a better ending. If not, hey, that’s showbiz. So long as we are entertained. Entertainment is what it is all about.

Entertainment is why Campbell Live is under scrutiny, facing the squeeze because network bosses are unhappy with the ratings. They want to bring more viewers to the 7pm slot by dialling up the entertainment appeal.

Many people, myself included, are upset at the prospect of losing Campbell Live. We cherish Campbell Live as prime time’s last bastion of genuine, earnest current affairs, even if we don’t always watch it.

Television habits are changing. I sometimes watch clips of Campbell Live on demand but very rarely the whole show.

So we can’t blame the network entirely. After all, what is your job as a network boss? To make a profit. And how do you make a profit? By selling advertising. How do you sell advertising? By getting the best ratings. How do you get the best ratings? By screening what most people want to watch.

And what do most people want to watch? Well, the answer to that question is why the quality of Campbell Live’s journalism is irrelevant to the discussion. Ratings are the most important thing. It is a mere popularity contest and popularity contests usually favour the lowest common denominator.

To insist that we need good current affairs on television is to argue for a principle that, sadly, has no relevance in a ratings-driven business model.

I asked some friends why they watch The Bachelor NZ and they replied, “because he’s hot.”

The more you think about where this leads local television, the more heart breaking it gets.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 17 April 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Put down that shiny screen and pick up a book

It is getting harder to stop and read a book. I blame the digital world. My cellphone is turning me into a frittering hamster. I twitch at every online distraction. I am a junkie and hyperlinks are my drug.

I need to stop. Just stop, turn everything off and read a book. It shouldn’t be hard. Books are among my favourite things. Why am I not stopping to read a book?

There is something pleasantly monastic about the silence of a book. I’m talking about real books here, books that you can buy at Easter book sales, books made with paper and ink. I still think paper books have a healthy future in the digital age.

Reading with a screen is a different experience to reading something in print. No doubt there are people doing studies about the way screens affect our eyes and our brains. Whatever it is they are discovering, I predict that screens and gently humming machines are not as conducive to deep reading as printed books.

Last year Ikea released a funny promotional video for their printed catalogue. It was presented like a parody of an Apple product release. They called it a “Bookbook”. “The Bookbook,” they announced proudly, “comes fully charged and the battery life is eternal. Navigation is based on tactile touch technology which you can actually feel.”

It’s hard to argue with tactile touch technology.

It is interesting to note that we now do most of our writing on screens, but we haven’t yet made the equivalent transition with reading.

People seem to like their Kindles. I have not read with a Kindle. It probably would have been more convenient than the 1000 page novel I lugged around over the Christmas break.

In one of my hyperlinked trips through the internet I discovered a form of text layout that was invented specifically to aid online reading. It is called visual-syntactic text formatting. Each line of text is broken down into small phrases that cascade unevenly down the page. Apparently these cascading columns are easier to read on a screen. In a quirk that appeals to me, the resulting layout looks exactly like a poem. Score a point for poetry.

But visual-syntactic text formatting doesn’t ever seem to have taken off, limited as it is to a few dusty corners of the web. It looks to me like the incomplete start of a good idea. The principle behind it is sound – digital reading is not the same as print reading and therefore should probably be approached differently.

I am not arguing against e-books. E-books are both inevitable and useful, but we might be better to consider them on their own terms rather than pitting them in a technology fight against printed material.

Besides, technology is not my problem. How I am using it is the problem. Social media, emails and texts wink at me everywhere I go. They dress themselves up as items of urgency. I see through their tricks, but they still manage to drag me into their time-wasting vortex.

It is a tumult of backlit information. There is so much stuff: interesting stuff, helpful stuff, useless stuff, but mostly just stuff.

This quote from a blog called Wait But Why sums up the rabbit holes you can get lost in: “Let’s watch a bunch of YouTube videos on creatures of the deep sea and then go on a YouTube spiral that takes us through Richard Feynman talking about String Theory and ends with us watching interviews with Justin Bieber’s mom!”

Too rarely do I switch off the distractions. I need to rediscover my reading habit. I need to take a breather, read deeply instead of frenetically. It is time to put down that shiny screen and pick up a Bookbook.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 10 April 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Bohemian Rhapsody (ukulele)

Mistakes and all, I’m having a crack at Jake Shimabukuro’s uke tab for Bohemian Rhapsody. All variations and duff notes are my own, with plenty of each, especially the duff ones. It’s taken me over a year to get to this point. Not perfect yet, but on the way. Ambient noise and arguing kids not featured due to the uke being plugged straight into my laptop. Watch Shimabukuro’s performance afterwards to see how it’s really done.

Old age and the sunset

Occasionally a sunset comes along that serves as a bookmark, something you can go back to and remember exactly what was going on at that time in your life.

My Dad and I saw one such sunset on a road trip to Taranaki last weekend. We were driving down the coast to visit his mum. It was as though the horizon had been screen-printed with three pure colours: ocean, sky and the sharp silhouette of the mountain. I found myself jealous of the west coast. We have the sunrise but they get the sunset.

Dad and I listened to a lot of sports radio on the trip. Apparently there is a cricket tournament on. An old adage is that radio is theatre of the mind. True enough, I feel as though I got to see the entire West Indies game even though all we did was listen to it. Great catch, Vettori.

My grandmother lives in Dad’s hometown deep in the ‘Naki. She is in full time care, pushing 98 and mostly deaf which makes life even harder than it already is.

A couple of years ago she said, “I’m not really daft. I only pretend – to get attention.” That was a joke of hers.

It is fair to say she has faded since then. Old age is hard work. She lit up when she saw Dad but she didn’t recognise me at all. No amount of explanation appeared to help her understand who I was.

I wasn’t quite ready for that. It’s too long since I’ve seen her, but mostly it is just the twilight settling in.

We found a piano in a remote corner of the rest home, a far cry from the grand piano that once graced her family lounge. I gave her a little recital. I don’t know how much of it she could hear but she kept an eye on my hands and there were moments when her foot got tapping.

We took her for a drive to look at the ocean. We took her for a slow cup of tea. She patiently let us ferry her around. I have no idea how much she took in.

We sat in the sunny rest home courtyard. One of the residents said to us through the window, “How do you get out of here?” We thought she was asking how to get outside, but she continued, “I don’t have anyone. I can’t stand it. Sometimes I just want to jump off a cliff.”

What do you say to that?

There is something entirely unsatisfactory about the way we keep old age out of our line of sight. I don’t think anyone really knows how to deal with it. We smile at it for as long as we can and then we turn away.

My grandmother once said the following words. Dad wrote it all down while she spoke very slowly with long pauses between each sentence: “Think more of the joy and not the sorrow. And don’t take offence. All I can wish for is to get well or die. And I don’t mind which. I’m over the hump. I’m used to it now if people have to look after me. Don’t worry about me. Because I don’t.” 

My grandmother entered her final years with wisdom and laughter, fortified with a life lived generously and free of bitterness. All we can do is trust that those qualities are enough to sustain her as she journeys deeper into the silence, that the moments when she is present are flooded more with love and light than loneliness.

It doesn’t feel right leaving the elderly to themselves. But there is only so much we can do. Eventually we turn away, walk back into our own busy lives, cheer for the cricket team, contemplate the sunset.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 27 March 2015. Reproduced with permission.

A cyclone by any other name

In the build up to the cyclone I found myself wondering why anyone ever thought Pam would be a good name for a storm. “Batten down the hatches, Pam is coming.” My Aunty Pam? She’s not that scary.

The best reason for calling a cyclone Pam is that a familiar name is easier to communicate. It creates a user-friendly shorthand that helps with efficient messaging before, during and after any civil defence event. That’s why cyclone names are chosen to be familiar to the people in each region.

I still find it a bit odd that they attach people’s names to destructive storms. It’s not like they apply the same logic to other natural hazards. “Leading tonight’s news: Earthquake Willie rattles the nation and doctors urge vaccination against a particularly nasty strain of Natalia.”

A collection of all the cyclone names in the world can be found on the World Meteorological Organisation’s website which I looked at to try to understand why my aunty was coming to get us.

The name for any cyclone depends on where in the world that cyclone starts. Each part of the world has its own list of cyclone names. If a new cyclone forms in your region, you name it from whatever is next on your roster.

It must be a drag being a meteorologist when you get to officially classify a tropical cyclone, then you look down your region’s list and realize you have to call it Pam. People who name planets and diseases have much more fun.

Pam was named when it formed in the Pacific region that is monitored by Fiji and New Zealand. Further ahead on the same list are names like Victor and Winston. When you get to the end of the list you start again. In a few years we will probably encounter a cyclone called Frank. I know a guy called Frank. It ought to be a top quality cyclone.

A different list is used for cyclones that originate near Australia. The Australian list has names like Marcia, Kate and Harold. Since New Zealand shares cyclones with Australia and Fiji, our cyclones don’t always arrive in tidy alphabetical order.

Each region’s list operates in a slightly different way to all the other lists. Cyclones that form near Japan and China are named from a selection of 140 contributions from countries in that region. The list includes words for flowers, birds and food.

Some region’s lists are longer, other are shorter. Some specify names for particular years: Waldo is a 2015 name; Winifred is a 2016 name.

If a particularly memorable storm hits, that name is pulled from the list and replaced with something else. There will never be another Hurricane Katrina.

At this point we should clear up any confusion about the difference between hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones. There is no difference – they are all exactly the same storm, just named differently in different parts of the world. The weather system we are talking about here is a tropical cyclone. In America it is called a hurricane. In the north western Pacific and Philippines it is a typhoon. In the Indian Ocean and South Pacific it is a cyclone.

In August last year Hurricane Genevieve crossed the International Date Line and became a typhoon. Kind of like getting on a plane wearing jandals and reaching your destination to find yourself wearing thongs. Nothing has changed but the name.

I grew up never being sure whether to be more fearful of hurricanes or cyclones. Turns out it doesn’t matter. Whether hurricane or cyclone, whether named after my aunty or anyone else, it’s all the same bad weather when it hits.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 20 March 2015. Reproduced with permission.

 

An afternoon spent not drowning

I wrote this last year about something that happened in November. For a number of different reasons it’s taken until now to post it. (All is fine now, by the way.)

A counsellor told me I have post-traumatic stress. He said it is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Apparently my body is still pumping itself with adrenaline every time I think about what happened. That is why I keep flashing back to it. That is why my heart is pounding and my hands are shaking as I write.

Hopefully this feeling only lasts a few more days. I would not make a very good action hero.

Here’s what happened. Two boys, both about 8 years old, got themselves into trouble on a paddleboard that they were sharing. The first lesson here is lifejackets. Always wear a life jacket.

I will call the boys Alex and James. Not their real names, of course. They had paddled a bit further out than was wise, if only by a matter of metres. The water was shallow and they should have been fine but the wind took them.

I was nearby, puddling about on a children’s kayak. I couldn’t fit into the seat so I was sitting on the back of it, my feet dangling over the side. Shorts and t-shirt.

Alex’s dad called for the boys to come closer into shore. Since I was already on the water in my poor excuse for a kayak, I paddled over to them.

Things change fast. Did I mention you should always wear a life jacket? No one in this story is wearing one.

So here comes the wind. It’s not something you notice straight away until you realise it has been building for a while, manipulating things so that by the time I reach the boys we have all drifted quite a distance. Alex is paddling, doing his best, but every stroke is taking them further in the wrong direction. The water is way over our heads and I realise James is crying.

I keep pace and tell Alex to copy what I’m doing with my paddle. He does really well. He manages to swing his board around to face the land but the wind pushes straight back and he is not strong enough to paddle against it.

Suddenly, it seems, we are right out in the harbour. The sky is grey. It is windy, choppy, and we have no life jackets. James is quite distraught and when I get alongside he scrambles onto the front of my kayak. I consider telling him to stay on the paddleboard but I figure anything that helps keep him calm is a good thing. He gets into the seat in front of me and hugs his knees.

I continue to coach Alex. He is silent and he does everything I tell him but his paddleboard is still moving away from me. The distance between his board and our kayak is stretching out. I am getting seriously concerned now. I am trying to get James to sit properly in the kayak. Our combined weight has raised the nose of our little craft. We are wobbling quite a bit and I am conscious of keeping our balance. Waves are starting to slop in over the side.

About now Alex’s dad turns up in an adult’s kayak. He hands me a child’s life jacket and then heads away towards Alex. The wind has already blown Alex even further from us.

I pull the life jacket over James’ head with one hand, holding my paddle with the other. I haven’t yet tightened his lifejacket. Then our kayak tips over.

I am in the water and James is somewhere under the kayak. My first thought is that he is stuck but he pops up. So does his life jacket; it has slipped off. Somehow, with my two hands – I have no idea how I managed this – I grab James, the kayak, the life jacket and the paddle all at once.

James is screaming. I am yelling, “We’re okay, we’re okay.” But we’re not okay. I am not okay. I’m not a great swimmer. I could maybe swim to save my life but I don’t know if I can swim to save someone else’s life.

I am terrified by the sound of my voice. It is rattled and hollow. It is a voice that definitely does not sound okay. It doesn’t sound like my voice at all. I’ve never heard a voice like this, ever.

But I have hold of James. I need to get him onto the kayak because he is panicking and I don’t know if I can keep this flailing kid above the water by myself. I say again, “I’ve got you, we’re okay.” It is pretty much all I say for the next while. I am holding him up with my left arm. This is the moment I often flash back to: I’m in the water, no one is there to save us, and my whole reality has changed in an instant.

I am not even sure how I stayed afloat. Was I treading water? Was I supporting myself with my other hand on the kayak? What I can’t figure out is that when we fell into the water I was at the back of the kayak but somehow James and I have swapped positions and I’m now at the front end.

I have a picture in my mind of the kayak sinking into the black water. That’s not what happened at all, but the image is burned into my memory, perhaps because I so desperately didn’t want it to sink.

That thump of dread – that is where I keep returning. I will be at work, minding my own business, and then wham, I’m back in the water reaching for James with my left hand while clutching for the kayak with my right.

So I have a hand on the kayak. I try to turn it back over, a futile exercise. I push James onto the kayak. He is lying there like it’s a flutter board. I’m really worried it will sink so I edge him further forward to even up the balance.

Maybe it was never going to sink. But it in that moment it was our life support and nothing felt certain any more.

All this time James is yelling, “We’re going to die!” I say, “We’re not going to die, we’re okay.” I position myself behind him like an outboard motor. Now that we are on the kayak I am calming myself down.

I try to look over my shoulder a couple of times to see where Alex and his dad have got to but the movement rocks our precious balance in the choppy water. I have to trust that they have their situation sorted, whatever it may be.

Once I realise that I don’t have the luxury of thinking about Alex and his dad, I completely forget about them. In this moment there is only James and me.

The life jacket and paddle are in my left hand. There is no way I can use either of them. James is still crying. “I wish my Mum and Dad were here. I don’t want to die today.”

I am saying, “We’re not going to die, we’re all sorted here on this kayak. I’ve got you, we’re just floating here and we’re fine.” Or something like that. I can’t see any sign of rescue boats and I am fighting off the notion that James is right, that someone might actually die today. This is all very wrong. I was having lunch with friends just an hour ago. How is it that I am here, in the middle of the harbour, responsible for the life of someone else’s son?

And James is still crying. I can’t use the paddle so I say, “We’re okay, we’re just going to kick our way to shore.” James starts kicking, furiously. He ends up kicking me too and the whole kayak wobbles. I say, “No, you don’t kick. Just me, I do the kicking.” And I kick. I kick like the champion Olympic swimmer I will never be. The land has never looked so far away. I am kicking and I’m wondering how we are ever going to make it because the wind is still blowing against us. I wonder if I should turn and aim for the shore at a broader angle, maybe head down the harbour to get momentum. But James is so upset that I can’t bring myself to point the kayak away from land. Perhaps, more honestly, it is for my own sake that I can’t bring myself to head away from land.

I don’t know what is going to happen. My greatest fear remains that we will be separated from the kayak. James is telling me he is cold. He is higher into the wind whereas I am pretty much entirely in the water. I’m not noticing the cold at all. I’m just kicking.

I am thinking about that policeman who jumped into the harbour to save the guy whose van was shunted off a bridge, how he had to keep the guy’s head above water for 40 minutes with no life jackets. If we lose the kayak, I’m not sure I can do that. Seconds count out here. I still have the little life jacket in my left hand. It’s pretty lightweight.

I have a vague notion that my wife might be on the beach worrying about me. But I have no real thought about her or my own children. I am not thinking about God or death or anyone in particular with any sort of clarity. It’s amazing how your body goes into survival mode. I am detached from everything except water, balance, kicking, not sinking.

I am not sure how long we are there. It might be 5 minutes, it might be 10. It feels like 30. We are on our own. No one is coming. I genuinely do not know how this day is going to end.

It occurs to me that I am supposed to make chitchat in a situation like this, to help distract the other person. This is supposed to be one of those heroic bonding moments. But I can’t think of anything to say to James other than “we’re okay,” and I feel bad about that.

Finally, there is someone else in the distance. He is heading towards us, sitting on a paddleboard. He looks so small and insignificant against the harbour. I’m thinking, do you not realize how serious this is, another flimsy paddleboard is not going to cut it, we need a dingy or a boat or a fucking helicopter.

The next thing I remember is everyone converging upon us at the same time. Alex and his dad have made it back to us. The guy on the paddleboard, who I’ll call Pete, is there. We are a little flotilla of three men and two boys in the middle of the harbour. We are so far out that no one on the shore can tell what is happening.

We get James onto Alex’s paddleboard. This time the lifejacket gets done tightly. Alex’s dad prepares to tow the two boys to shore but first he asks if we should all stay together. Pete and I both tell him no, get the kids in. So off he goes.

I’m still in the water with my half-sunk upturned kayak. Pete hooks it up to his paddleboard. I am irrationally concerned that the kayak will sink and take the paddleboard with it.

It is strange how your brain compartmentalizes information during a crisis, shutting down distractions. It is only in retrospect I realize that until that point I was not once scared for myself. It was all about James.

Pete is towing me. He is working hard because my kayak and I are heavy in the water. Someone else arrives on a much larger kayak. I look ahead to see that Alex’s dad has the boys in the shallows. So they’re safe. And that’s the last I think about them until I am back on land.

I pull myself up onto the front of the new kayak. I barely ask permission, that big blue kayak is safety – I must get to it. I basically do exactly what James did when he first scrambled onto my kayak, which now seems like an hour ago.

There is enough space on the new kayak for me to lie down. It feels like a cruise ship compared to where I’ve just been. My leg cramps. I realise I still have my sunglasses on. We get to shore and I pretty much collapse. My wife is there. She throws a towel around me, later telling me that my whole body was purple. My hands keep shaking long after the cold has worn off. They shake their way through several shots of whisky.

That night the overwhelming burden of ‘what if’ consumes me. ‘What if’ takes on a life of its own, far eclipsing the scope of the event.

All of the clichés are true. I don’t feel heroic. I find the whole thing hard to talk about. If anything, I’m embarrassed and confused. I keep thinking it should have been someone else out there, someone more capable. The best I can attribute to myself is that I didn’t fail.

Ostensibly this was a non-event, a near miss compared with what other people go through. If our little adventure has rocked me this much, how much worse for those in more serious incidents? A entire city was rattled and shaken in Christchurch. I suddenly understand why a doctor friend of mine found it so difficult to process his experience after the Feb 22 quake.

How awful must it be, fresh from tragedy, to find journalists in your face with requests for interviews and photographs? All that attention when you can barely talk about it with your own friends and family.

All week I keep finding myself back in the water, kicking that little sunken lifeboat against the wind, swamped by the feeling that we are not going to make it to shore. A stormy sky and the looming spectre of death. A slow collision with mortality.

It was the strangest, gravest experience I have ever had, yet I can already feel the details slipping away from me. Was it really so bad? We fell in the water, we paddled back. A little fright, but no big deal, right?

My shredded nerves suggest otherwise.

And finally, in case I have not already mentioned this: please, always wear a lifejacket.

Marcel Currin, December 2014

Loving music and the planet at Sundaise

Photo:pushinguppixels.co.nz

Arriving at the Sundaise music festival last weekend, my first thought was, damn, I missed the dreadlocks memo.

My beard was too tidy and my clothes were too mainstream. Even the children looked more hippy than me.

There were lots of children. It was a family-friendly weekend with kids running around late into the night or sleeping on couches next to the main stage.

Sundaise is a locally produced labour of love, a hidden gem of a music festival tucked away on private farmland near the Karangahake Gorge.

The festival describes itself as “a place where music, arts, family and nature all converge for a glorious three day event.” That is exactly what it was. We camped in paddocks of flattened thistles alongside the Waitawheta River. We used composting toilets that were fleetingly shielded by curtains that danced like hippies in the wind – an awkward way to meet new people but it didn’t seem to matter. This was Sundaise: fantasyland of creativity, art installations, breath circles, workshops on edible weeds.

Wandering through all the hippy-ness, I found myself asking three questions. One: where do I fit in this cultural landscape? I wore no visual markers to align myself with anything other than the tribe of the modern middle class.

I suppose I could have thrown on some colourful pants but I saw no reason to be something I’m not. Besides, the only person judging me was me so I decided to accept my singlet-wearing self as a valid part of the festival community.

Photo:pushinguppixels.co.nz
Photo:pushinguppixels.co.nz

Second question: where do I fit in the creative landscape? I was there as a poet and musician but the talent all around me was intimidating. Trinity Roots headlined the festival. Sidewalk Empire, a relatively new Tauranga band, arrived fully formed on the main stage. Swamp Thing blew everyone’s jandals off with their powerhouse blues. There were no dud acts.

In the shadow of all that excellence I read my little poems and plucked my little ukulele and people seemed to like it. It is every artist’s challenge to accept that your greatest strength lies in simply doing whatever it is that you do best. The interesting hors d’oeuvre is just as important to the overall menu as the main event.

The third question I asked myself was: where do I fit in the environmental landscape?

We need to explore new ways of living that are kinder for the planet. Alternative thinking should not be solely the domain of the hippy fringe. We need people working in the mainstream to influence essential changes inside the system.

If I scratched the surface of my inner hippy in any way at all last weekend, it was to further embrace sustainability, one of the central values of Sundaise.

Sundaise excels in the art of hosting a sustainable event. Much of the festival is solar powered. The food markets pay special attention to packaging that can be recycled or composted instead of trashed. As much waste as possible is diverted from landfill.

Photo:pushinguppixels.co.nz
Photo:pushinguppixels.co.nz

I have never particularly liked the word sustainability. For a few years it seemed in danger of becoming a meaningless buzzword.

I hope it is reclaiming its value. We should take sustainability seriously because something wholesale and dramatic needs to be done about climate change.

Swallow this for a national statistic. If New Zealanders collectively stopped sending our food scraps to landfill, the equivalent reduction on greenhouse gas emissions would be like taking more than 118,000 cars off the road for a year.

That would be a good start. Saving the world is everyone’s job. If a festival can inspire us with great music along the way, so much the better. Peace out, dude.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 13 March 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Names for things that don’t have names

In far more serious news, I have been trying to come up with names for things that don’t have names.

One such nameless thing is the little bit of water that collects on coffee cups after the dishwasher cycle.

I know I should be more concerned about whether or not to go to war against Isis, but every time I unload the dishwasher I find myself trying to come up with a name for that little sneak of water that is waiting to ambush the cutlery.

Other languages have names for things that English does not. Italian has a word for the sleepy feeling you get after lunch. Scottish has a word for the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name. A South American language called Yaghan has a word for ‘looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something which both parties desire but are unwilling to do’.

Language is wonderful stuff. It is a shifting, evolving, smorgasbord of creativity. You can’t get too uptight about controlling it. That’s why I enjoy poetry, the way unexpected collisions of words can create new meanings or add nuance to familiar things.

All around us, Maori place names are filled with poetry that we take for granted. I often bike to work alongside the Waikareao Estuary. I don’t think English could ever come up with a name as beautiful as Waikareao.

Broken into its separate components, Waikareao means water, rippling and bright. The combined meaning adds up to sparkling water but the name has far more nuance than that. Think about those early mornings when the sunlight sparkles on the estuary with Mauao in the distance. Waikareao, water shimmering in the dawn. When pronounced properly it even sounds like shimmering water. It is a beautiful name.

Translation can give us some giggly accidents. A friend of mine who speaks English as a second language once said it was nice to get outside for a breath of fresh wind.

The other day that same friend misheard something I’d said as ‘awesome sauce’. So of course, we had to come up with our own meaning for awesome sauce.

The internet tells me that people already use awesome sauce as a single word, as in, “that movie was awesomesauce.” I prefer my own definition: an expression to describe the act of improving something to a point of excellence. “Let’s pour some awesome sauce on that.”

Back to my dishwasher problem, I have decided on a name for that little after-thought of water that gets left behind on the coffee cup. It is a plash. Plash is a genuine Old English word that was once used for puddle. Why not revive it for this specific purpose? Now we can say, “Unload the bottom draw first so you don’t splash the plash on the dry dishes.”

I have not yet come up with a satisfactory word for the gap behind cubicle doors in public toilets. I think it deserves a word of its own, that changeable turning space that requires an awkward amount of negotiation, especially for back packers. Perhaps there is a word for it in Yaghan.

I do have a name for that thing people do when they interrupt you at the kitchen sink. Approaching the sink like a busy highway, they spot their gap and swoop in to rinse a plate or fill a glass of water, never mind that you’re halfway through washing the coffee plunger.

I have decided to call it swinking, taken from a mash-up of sink and swoop. You can use it politely: “Do you mind if I swink in?” Or more aggressively: “Don’t be such a swinker.”

It has broader applications. Several people approach a door and one of them swinks through. Thanks to my new word, you know exactly what just happened. That’s the fun of language. You’re welcome.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 March 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Shot in the face with a smiley gun

The world is coloured with his surprise.
He fills it all with the whites of his eyes.

His grin cracks open like a can of cold beer.
It is the perfect drink,

we are drunk
and there is no hangover.

Farewell Video Ezy

The screen is fading to black. The credits are about to roll. Brookfield’s Video Ezy, my local video store, is closing down.

It’s the end of an era. I realise what a dinosaur I have become. Who still goes to the video store?

I do. A friend called me a dinosaur just the other day as we stood alongside the depleted shelves at Video Ezy and talked about how the world has changed.

Empowered by faster internet speeds and better technology, online viewing is creeping out from the shadows. A once dodgy alternative is becoming increasingly legal, increasingly mainstream. The future of home entertainment is just a mouse-click away.

Yet here I am, Mr Dinosaur, still trundling down to the video store most weeks.

Video rentals have been a big part of my life ever since my dad brought home a VHS player in the school holidays, a large metal box that we painstakingly tuned into the TV via the aerial cable. He hired Monty Python and The Holy Grail and showed us the Black Knight getting his arms chopped off. Ah, the clunk and whirr of cassettes, the madcap scrawl of fast-forward, the white noise of dirty video lines falling down the screen.

DVDs eventually came along with their higher quality and their frustrating tendency to scratch and skip. Then Blu-ray. It too will be superseded, but for now I love its gorgeous clarity.

It is for aesthetic reasons that I have traditionally resisted online viewing. I prefer to give films and television shows the best possible chance to woo me with their visual artistry. Why would anyone want to craft a piece of entertainment with exquisite care only to have the audience watch it with muddy sound and blocky resolution? It would be like Beethoven debuting his Ninth Symphony on a transistor radio.

But that is a dying argument because online quality is less of an issue these days.

I suppose the writing has been on the video store wall for a while. Still, it was a shock to walk into Video Ezy a few weeks ago and see their stock on sale. Like the Tin Woodsman I knew I had a heart because I could feel it breaking. Like Ron Burgundy I found myself in a glass case of emotion. My local video store, my go-to source for nearly any film I could think of, was closing down.

Last Saturday they started selling all the new releases. A mob waited outside for the doors to open. I felt sad and hurt on behalf of the store to see all the opportunists, myself included, scavenging among the leftovers of two decades of local business.

My children have more or less grown up at Brookfield Video Ezy. Over the last 10 years they have giggled their way through every Fireman Sam, every interminable Dora The Explorer and every Scooby-Doo on the shelves. We very rarely go to the movies. We hardly ever watch TV. We don’t have SKY. We go to Video Ezy.

The staff have been part of the journey. They got to know the regulars by our phone numbers and we got to know them as the friendly faces on the other side of the counter. There was the girl who left for a career in radio, the guy whose Maori name means ‘beautiful’, the girl who reminds me of Julia Stiles and the guy who, for at least a whole year, genuinely thought I was called by my wife’s name because she had originally signed up our membership.

Interesting times. The way we consume film and television is changing. It’s not the end of the world, it’s the start of a new one. I’m not entirely sure what I will do now. Adjust to the new world I suppose.

Thanks for all the entertainment, Video Ezy. We will miss you when you’re gone. It was a beautiful friendship.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 27 February 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Fifty Shades of Grey is cinematic junk food

It would be unfair to discuss a film before I’ve seen it but I don’t want to watch Fifty Shades of Grey.

I should probably check it out so that I can make an informed opinion. But no, I just can’t face it. For all the hype and intrigue, I am spectacularly uninterested.

My wife couldn’t care less about the whole thing. She giggled her way through the book a couple of years ago after I won it in a radio competition. I was trying to win $500 and I won the complete Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy instead. Stupid competition. So she read the first book to see what all the fuss was about.

By the end she was too bored to cope with the sequels. She said, “If I see the phrase ‘inner goddess’ one more time I will have to hurt someone.” Which just goes to show that Fifty Shades of Grey probably does encourage violence.

I don’t know anyone who has read Fifty Shades of Grey who actually thinks it is a good book. As far as I can tell, people read it knowing full well that it is literary junk food.

And yet they read it. Like an extra naughty Mills & Boon it has swept women off their feet, 100 million copies sold worldwide. The movie was inevitable.

I should say at this point that I once tried to write a Mills & Boon novel. I decided it might be worth selling out my creative integrity if it could in any way fund my poetry habit. Poetry does not sell anywhere near as well as pornography, apparently. My idea was to make a secret living by writing judiciously steamy romance novels under a pseudonym.

For research purposes I got a couple of Mills & Boons out from the library. My resolve failed in the first few chapters. I just couldn’t stomach reading that stuff, let alone writing it. And that was the end of my misguided fantasy.

I once asked a friend of mine why she thought women were going so nutty over Fifty Shades of Grey. She suggested it was the fantasy of being wanted, really wanted, by a billionaire. I’m not sure what was more important, the billionaire or the being wanted. I suspect it was being wanted.

A lot has been written about how Fifty Shades of Grey is a dangerous influence because of the way it glamorises an abusive relationship. Once you hear those concerns expressed by people who have survived genuine abuse, it gets harder to take a charitable view of the film. Those survivor stories need to be told.

And yet I am cautious about giving the film too much credit. Despite all the fuss, the movie is just a movie – by most accounts not a very memorable one. Its big moment will pass and soon we will be worried about the next terrible thing.

Fifty Shades is the cinematic equivalent of KFC’s infamous Double Down burger, that fat-tastic stack of greasy chicken, cheese and bacon. “Don’t buy it,” people warned, “it’s horrendously bad for you.” So, of course, lots of people bought it.

Society’s collective health problems do not revolve around that single, idiotic, burger. What happens if you defeat the Double Down? Nothing. The fast food industry still exists.

Likewise, Fifty Shades is such an obvious target for moral outrage that railing against it almost becomes meaningless.

From children’s cartoons to music videos, there are far more insidious problems with the unhealthy ways that women are represented in the media.

At stake are questions like: how should a man treat a woman? How should a woman allow herself to be treated?

Fifty Shades of Grey forms part of this conversation, but let’s not spend too much energy dignifying one R-rated movie when there is an entire culture at work.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 20 February 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Why getting rid of cyclists is a good idea

I’ve just read a wonderful article at www.peopleforbikes.org about how the city of Seattle is getting rid of cyclists.

People only pretend to like cyclists anyway. Cyclists are a breed unto themselves with their gaudy clothes, their over-developed calf muscles and their self-righteous sense of entitlement.

Actually, I am one of them, those pesky cyclists. I ride my bike to work most days. I ride because I genuinely believe that I am doing a good thing for the planet by committing to alternative transport instead of buying a second car.

That probably makes me kind of annoying. It also aligns me with a particular tribe.

Last week the Bay of Plenty Times reported that some of my tribe haven’t been wearing bike helmets, for shame. Editorials followed. Comments raged. Annemarie Quill opened her Monday column with the words, “I want to like cyclists,” as though it’s really difficult.

As a fellow columnist I understand what she is doing there, but still, this whole us-versus-them thing is never going to get us anywhere. How we talk about each other influences community attitudes from grassroots all the way up to local and national decision makers. In an us-versus-them world any funding for cycle projects is perceived to be at the expense of motorists.

Let’s look to the city of Seattle for a better way forward. They appear to have solved the problem of cyclists by getting rid of them altogether. That’s right, no more cyclists in Seattle.

But I am playing with words here. What they have done in Seattle is to reframe the conversation by removing a bunch of words like ‘cyclist’ from public discourse. Neighbourhood advocates and public officials have been given new terminology that focuses on people rather than modes of transport.

According to a reference sheet published by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, the word cyclist is out. They no longer talk about cyclists. Instead it’s ‘people riding bikes’. There are no pedestrians, just ‘people walking’. There are no drivers, just ‘people driving’.

These may seem cumbersome and almost pointless distinctions, but the results have reportedly been profound in a city that a few years ago was embroiled in a high-profile turf war between cars and bikes.

“Supporting safer streets is obvious once you ditch the vehicle language,” says Seattle writer Tom Fucoloro. He puts it this way on his Seattle Bike blog: “If you think of everyone on the street as a person, discussions go in a very different direction … We all want our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members to get around town safely whether they choose to drive, bike or walk. I don’t love my mom any less when she’s driving than when she’s walking.”

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways was set up in 2011 to advocate for a network of low-traffic streets. But they didn’t brand themselves as a cycling action group. Instead, they branded themselves as advocates for the neighbourhood. The language they promote is deliberately people-centric. Goodbye cyclists, hello people on bikes.

I’m wildly attracted to this idea that small changes to the words we use can influence community attitudes.

Our usual starting point for most points of contention is to define our turf and argue from there about where the other side is going wrong. We fortify ourselves behind our contrived identities – I am a cyclist and you are a driver – instead of focusing together on our common goals.

I want our city to be characterised by a range of safe, low impact and pleasant options for getting around the place. Is that a common goal? Let’s talk about that.

To borrow the parlance of Seattle, I am not a cyclist. I am a father of three boys who works in the Tauranga city centre. I think I will ride my bike today.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 13 February 2015. Reproduced with permission.

Why it took so long to get you these CDs

They live in a box in my wardrobe, safe from mildew and inquisitive toddlers. However, my wardrobe also contains a portal to another world (not Narnia). Immediately upon receiving your post paid envelope (with donation, thank you very much) I went to the wardrobe to get your discs. But (and you’ve probably seen this coming already) as I grabbed the box I slipped into the other world and lost the box! I have since spent quite a few weeks trying to relocate the CDs. It hasn’t been easy because this other world is a pretty dangerous place, not like Narnia where they feed you turkish delight. No, this other world is really dangerous. I’d come home from work each night, kiss my wife and kids goodbye, then dive in for another 8 or 12 hours of mortal peril, usually getting back just in time for work again the next day. It’s been an exhausting period of my life and I didn’t want to worry you so I made up some stuff about ‘forgetting to mail the CDs’. Fortunately though, I managed to find the box, undamaged, and having defeating numerous manifestations of evil along the way, returned triumphant to send you five copies of ‘Very Lemon Water’. I hope you enjoy it. The album is now more than 10 years old.* It was recorded on a bit of a whim when a friend said to me, hey, this studio is offering a good deal, you should get some of your songs down. I said, perhaps, but I can’t afford it, and he came back with all the money that he’d rounded up from various generous people. So it was recorded on the fly and very quickly. I’m totally ashamed of some of the performances and quite happy with others. (Also the sound guy was learning the ropes; I suspect that’s why they had a deal on.) In retrospect I might have been better to spend more time on fewer songs but at the time it was just for posterity rather than a bid to conquer the world. Fortunately I’ve turned out to be quite famous in the wardrobe; as a result of all my exploits while I tried to find your CDs, I’ve become quite the hero. So I have you to thank for that, Brian. Thanks for tracking me down on Facebook and relaunching my superstar status, albeit in an alternate universe in my wardrobe. Happy listening.

* This note, which I found in my archives, is a few years old. Very Lemon Water was recorded in 1998. I’ll send it to anyone for free if they pay for postage, but you might as well just listen to it on Last FM if you’re curious.

Grappling with the Treaty of Waitangi

Waitangi Day, our treasured national day off work. What is it all about, really?

I am 40 years old, born and raised in this country, and I realise to my shame that I have never grappled with the Treaty of Waitangi.

In principle I understand that it is our nation’s most significant founding document, an agreement made between Maori and British 175 years ago, but my limited knowledge of the Treaty is clouded by myths and misperceptions, most of those gleaned from news reports about settlement claims or Waitangi Day protests.

I usually avoid thinking too much about Waitangi Day because it seems suspiciously like something I might need to feel guilty about. That niggle of discomfort means I prefer to disengage from it altogether.

So this week, for the first time in my life – which seems outrageous, I should have done this years ago – I read the Treaty of Waitangi.

There are plenty of versions and helpful notes about it online. It turns out the Treaty is only one page long. It has an introduction, three short statements and an epilogue. I should really be a bit more familiar with my nation’s most defining document.

Despite its brevity the Treaty is not all that easy to read. The English version is a mind-numbing muddle of ornate prose. The opening sentence is over 200 words long, confounding enough when English is your first language.

I found it more valuable to read summaries and notes about the two different versions of the treaty. I already knew that the Maori and English texts were different. I never realised how important some of those differences are.

Where the English version gives Maori “undisturbed possession” of their lands, the Maori version gives them “tino rangitiratanga”, a much stronger phrase. The Maori chiefs thought they were giving the Queen the right of governance, like letting her be a very powerful administrator I suppose, without losing any of their authority to manage their own affairs. Contrast that with the English version, which has Maori ceding to the Queen “all the rights and powers of Sovereignty”.

The tension between the two versions is problematic, as history has proven. Since then, attempts have been made to chart a way through the differences by establishing a range of Treaty principles.

But there is no definitive list of principles, which makes things even more fluid and complicated. So what to do? The easiest option is to mutter that it’s all water under the bridge and take the day off. That is what most of us do on Waitangi Day.

In the interests of not flinching I am trying to decolonise my brain for a moment. Imagine aliens landing on Earth. “We come in peace,” they announce with unparalleled weapons and technology. They write up an agreement for us in their own language and then they help themselves to running the place.

Several generations later their descendants roll their eyes if we try to suggest that maybe things didn’t turn out quite the way they had originally been proposed.

How to move forward? We are a multi-cultural nation in a global society. If only one thing ever changes, I think it should be something as simple as making te reo lessons compulsory in New Zealand schools. For the clunk and grind of cultural friction, language is a soothing oil. “Ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria. My language is the window to my soul.”

Te Reo is rich and expressive, a uniquely New Zealand language. I would love to see the next generation of Kiwis fluent in Te Reo Maori. That alone would make a whole world of difference to the New Zealand of the future.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 February 2015. Reproduced with permission.

The roar of drunken idiots

I spent a large part of the long weekend listening to drunken idiots. I assume they were drunk. I would be concerned if they weren’t. No one is that inconsiderate when they are sober. Or are they?

The idiots were somewhere across the gully from our house. We couldn’t see them but we could hear them roaring.

Drunken idiots often roar, kind of like unattractive lions or bears with tummy aches. Drunken roaring is the young man’s mating call. It is the much less sophisticated version of peacock feathers.

As a mating call I bet the drunken roar is pretty useless. We could make an interesting nature documentary about it, perhaps with David Attenborough as the narrator.

“Summer. The heat of the day. A young human male has just opened his fourth RTD. He puffs out his chest and emits a loud roar. The females giggle, which he interprets as encouragement. The male assumes himself to be the most impressive specimen on display. This is a delusion, fed by the alcohol.”

For some reason drunken roaring is usually fuelled with F-bombs. I am quite fond of the F-bomb under considered circumstances. But not when it is being broadcast across the neighbourhood.

What is it with drunken idiots and their F-bombs? I will be completely unsurprised if one day science discovers that alcohol contains special enzymes that force your mouth into the shapes of swear words.

As I get older I find myself increasingly grumpy at the inconsiderate volume of drunkenness. I fear I am going to become a curmudgeonly old man who huffs around waving his walking stick at anyone trying to have a bit of alcoholic fun. “Quiet please, I’m aging over here.”

There is beer in my fridge and scotch in my cupboard, so I have no problem with alcohol or with those who are able to enjoy it without spilling their integrity all over the place. It is when the roaring invades my family space that I start to simmer and stew, whether it is daytime, evening, or late into the annoying night.

I feel like I should give the noise-makers a break because, hey, they’re young and they’re having a good time. But really? Why should being drunk give you licence to yell obscenities into the street?

I remember the blissful self-absorption of my early 20s. It was a wonderful time when I suddenly realised there were no grown-ups around to tell me what to do.

Ah, the invincible 20s, that golden age of youth when you don’t have to live for anyone but yourself. You are oblivious to the pressures of families and mortgages. You turn up empty-handed to people’s homes and think you are doing them a favour by being their guest.

The world exists solely for your personal entertainment. If a fence is in your way you climb it. If you want to party, you party. Consequences are for old people.

In my early 20s I flatted in a large villa with five other guys. Our cars were parked all over the unkempt lawn. We took no pride or ownership over the house we rented. It was our grubby student palace and none of us thought to care beyond the state of our own bedrooms. When my mum came to visit she refused to use the bathroom because no one had cleaned it for several months.

The neighbours must have cheered when we finally left. “They’re essentially good kids,” they would have assured themselves, “but they were not a good fit for this street.”

Young idiots grow up, eventually. I just wish some of the drunker ones would be a bit less noisy about it.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 30 January 2015. Reprofarkingduced with permission faark yeaaarrrh!

Climate change: Superman won’t save us

Our little planet, our only home, has just had its hottest year on record. Climate change is gathering momentum. So what? Nobody cares. You don’t care. I don’t care. None of us care. Not really. Not enough to adjust our modern fuel-gobbling society in any real, tangible way.

Sure, we buy a few eco-friendly light bulbs or we recycle a bit of plastic and think we’ve done our bit, but at the end of the day we still want new roads, cheaper flights, bigger TVs and fat steaks.

Climate change is like the impending heart attack that we don’t truly believe will ever hurt us. It’s just too hard to put the brakes on. Our way of life is too well entrenched and no one wants to be the first to unpick it.

Fixing climate change is bad for business. It seems unlikely that world leaders will agree on effective, co-ordinated action any time soon.

This is where we need Superman to swoop in and take charge, kind of like he did in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. Yes, that’s a terrible film and I’m sorry to remind you about it. All you need to know is that it’s the one where Superman says to the world, “Enough is enough, I am taking all of your nuclear bombs and throwing them into the sun.

We need Superman to turn up and say, “Okay humans, enough is enough. It’s time to turn this climate catastrophe around.” Then maybe he will suck up the extraneous greenhouse gas with his super breath and spit it all into space.

But there is no Superman. We are on our own. And we have no clear plan to save ourselves other than a vague idea that, somehow, somewhere, carbon emissions need to be reduced.

I want to know what it would look like if the global community took proper action to curb climate change. If humanity actually got deadly serious about it, what would each country need to do and how would it affect our everyday lives?

It is no longer good enough to hope that we will each do our best as well-meaning individuals. We need much stronger leadership from the top. Nations should all be working together toward a specific goal. It’s like we need a reverse telethon for carbon emissions.

Let’s turn this into a science-fiction thought experiment. What would New Zealand look like if we were truly determined to make climate change our highest priority? Which industries might need to shut down? In what ways would our transportation systems need to adjust? How would it impact the distribution of goods and services? How would our eating habits change?

Uncomfortable questions, but I’m bored with hearing about how the world has to urgently reduce carbon emissions. It’s like the human race is a room of overweight people discussing our desperate need to stop drinking Coke, yet no one has the courage to stand up and say, “What would happen if we actually put down our sugary drinks and went for a walk?”

Here, then, is my plan to save the world.

First, we make a really tough, honest assessment about what needs to be done. Then we do it.

Everyone will hate it, but our grandchildren are toast if we keep putting our wallets ahead of the future of the planet. We need to give our leaders permission to make some tough calls.

Or, if we really don’t like the tough plan of action and we opt for climate change instead, then I suppose at least we will have been proactive about choosing our fate.

Make a plan and do it, even if it hurts. That’s my idea to save the world. If you have a better idea please share. Superman is not coming.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 23 January 2015. Reproduced with permission.

2014 in review: not enough reading but plenty of creativity

I sat down to log my favourite books and films for 2014. It’s a mark of how busy the year has been that my list is so short.

Of the few novels I did manage to read, my favourite was The Martian by Andy Weir: an astronaut gets stranded on Mars and has to figure out how to survive. The Martian is essentially MacGyver in space. It’s great fun. The main character, Mark Watney, would be the world’s most likeable celebrity in real life.

I have also been geek-festing my way through a book called Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice and the Socratic Way. It appeals to my dual nerd/philosophical nature. And almost more fun than the book itself is a list of other books from the same series, with titles like The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer and Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge Nudge, Think Think!

What about films? I only made it to the cinema three times this year. Two of those trips were for school holiday movies, but I loved them regardless, in particular The Lego Movie which was my favourite for 2014.

In terms of music, surely the defining song of 2014 has been Pharrell Williams’ Happy. It’s not my favourite song but it just won’t go away. It’s hard to imagine a time when that ubiquitous ditty didn’t exist.

Happy has become my children’s theme tune. It’s our family’s go-to tune for spontaneous dancing and general mood enhancement. There’s even a local version on Youtube: Happy – We are from Tauranga.

Speaking of Tauranga, I’ve really enjoyed getting to meet more of the local creative community this year.

I found myself at a house concert being swept away by the musicianship of Alice Sea and Aaron Saxon. Alice and Aaron are the sort of people who, if you scratch them, bleed music of the highest calibre. Their performance made me weep into my artistic insecurities while at the same time inspiring me to aim for greater heights.

Alice Sea and Aaron Saxon. Photo: James Stanbridge
Alice Sea and Aaron Saxon. Photo: James Stanbridge

And that is the thing about the arts. The more we are exposed to, the more we are inspired; the more we are inspired, the more we are empowered to explore our own creativity.

In the same way that every good book leads to another good book, every piece of creativity generates more creativity.

We have a whole lot going for us in the Bay. For all the glum-dumbery and nonsense that can drag people down, there are passionate people who are making things happen. The Incubator and the Mauao Performing Arts Centre are two local labours of love that are already starting to serve and nourish the creative community in significant ways.

A highlight of my year was getting to play Michael Parekowhai’s ornately carved grand piano at the Tauranga Art Gallery. In that moment I was all ablaze with classical music.

A few months later, over the road at Creative Tauranga, I saw an exhibition by Timo Rannali and Richard Smith, which propelled me to rush home and mess around with an acrylic paint set. Can I paint? Nope. But I had a good crack at it.

This is something else I’ve been reminded about through 2014: everyone else is better than me at doing what they do. But I am better than everyone else at doing what I do.

I am the best there is at being me. And you are the best there is at being you.

On that note, here’s a snippet from Superheroes and Philosophy, quoting Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

Indeed. Have a relaxing Christmas and then be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous in 2015.

superheroes and philosophy

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 19 December 2014. Reproduced with permission.

‘Tis the season of … exhaustion

Is it just me or has 2014 been a really tiring year? Many people I know from all walks of life appear to be staggering to the finish line. ’Tis not the season of joy, ’tis the season of exhaustion.

Maybe we should turn off the internet and reclaim our weekends. The 21st Century is far too busy with its global village and its instant service. Remember when everything closed on Sundays and everyone just chilled out?

With that in mind I’d like to let my guard down. I’ve run out of energy to be cheerful so just for this week I’m releasing my inner grump.

I’ll start with lunch. Lunch is the most annoying meal of the day. Making it each morning before work or assembling it for the kids on the weekends, it’s all a bother. And I never know what I feel like eating. If the fridge is filled with fresh salady things then lunch can be pleasurable but even then it’s still an annoying problem to solve. If the human race were starting from scratch I would try to make lunch redundant.

Children’s car seats annoy me. All those hours I have spent clamouring around the back cavern of the car readjusting twisted snaky seatbelts. Every time the kids’ seats need to be shifted I hope it’s the last time. It never is.

Fixing my bicycle annoys me. This year I have had way too many punctures. That’s because of another utter annoyance: broken glass. People who throw bottles onto the road should be made to walk barefoot over the debris.

Speaking of debris: cigarette butts. Why do so many smokers think they have the right to litter?

Washing the dishes while wearing a woollen jersey with the sleeves rolled up. Obviously this is not a summer gripe, but it still makes my list of annoyances. The reluctance of woollen sleeves to stay rolled above the elbow is one of life’s more miserable domestic irritants.

Introverts frustrate me when I’m feeling extroverted. Extroverts overwhelm me when I’m feeling introverted. I just can’t be pleased.

People who can never be pleased annoy me too.

And negative people. I have a very negative attitude towards negative people.

But I’m not sure this grizzling persona suits me. I think I will leave the proper moaning to our cat who has gone and broken his leg. (More accurately, a dog broke it for him. I am also annoyed at dogs.)

The price of our cat’s new leg could have given us a really good holiday. You’d think the cat would be grateful. Instead he is profoundly unamused by his plaster cast and his hospital cage.

I promised myself I wouldn’t keep writing about my cat but it’s hard to ignore his yowls of despair.

Many people, like me and the cat, are clawing our way towards Christmas with shredded nerves. Even when we get to the break will there be any genuine respite? Or will we be swept into yet more ridiculous holiday bustle? To truly relax is actually quite difficult.

I have decided to start soothing my brain by working on a painting. I’m no artist but it sure is nice to mess around with colours and there are no deadlines.

The other thing I’ve done is to have a bit of vent in this column. There’s plenty more I could moan about, like wasps. And bigotry. And hayfever. Hayfever, now there’s an affliction I would like to punch in the face.

Thanks for indulging me. Hopefully my misdirected little rant has exorcised enough negativity to clear the deck for bells and holly. It’s all positive from here.

Two weeks to go. Bring on Christmas.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 12 December 2014. Reproduced with permission.

But how much can I drink?

I quite enjoy having arguments with myself, especially if one of me has been drinking. Today the drinking me has had a couple of beers and is complaining that he can’t drive home.

“What was perfectly legal last week is suddenly illegal this week,” he is saying. “And did you notice that I pronounced ‘perfectly’ perfectly? See, that shows I’m perfectly fine to drive. I know what my limit is and I’ve always stuck to it.”

“Yes,” I agree. “This new legal limit might take some getting used to.”

“Getting used to? I can’t go shelling out for a taxi every time I have a couple of beers. It’s ridiculous. I’ll just have to not drink. This changes everything.”

He waves his Epic Pale Ale in my face. “What am I going to drink when we go to a barbeque? Fizzy? All that sugar will make me feel a whole lot worse than the two beers I would normally enjoy before driving my family safely home.”

“You can probably still drink one or two of those over the course of an evening,” I point out.

He shakes his head. “No one will tell us with certainty what we’re allowed to drink. All they can give us is a bunch of gobbledygook numbers. What does 250mcg of alcohol per litre of breath mean anyway? All I want to know is whether or not two beers is two too many.”

He is gathering momentum. Even though he is technically sober, I’ve noticed he tends to be a lot more forthright once there’s a beer in his hand. “Drinking and driving used to be completely shameful,” he continues. “A social taboo, an absolute no-no. When you saw the booze bus you knew the Police were out busting criminals, saving lives.

“But with this new lower limit our sympathies will shift. Law-abiding people will be fined. We will resent it like an unfair parking ticket.”

I decide it’s time to cut him off. “The University of Waikato has done some research showing that people who are above the new limit can’t accurately judge their level of intoxication or how well they can drive.”

“But I can say ‘perfectly’ perfectly,” he protests.

“So what? Safe driving requires cognitive skills like response times, memory and attention. The research shows those skills to be compromised once you creep above the new limit. We treat driving casually, like walking, but it’s actually a complicated activity that involves piloting metal missiles through all sorts of variable conditions. Over 22 months the New Zealand Police recorded 53 serious and fatal accidents where the drivers’ alcohol levels were between the new limit and the old limit.”

He feigns a yawn. “You’ve been reading the Ministry of Transport website again. Geek.”

I ignore him. “They have essentially identified the alcohol threshold above which you start to feel awesome and lose your objectivity. It’s a surprisingly low level. If you’re honest with yourself you know that’s true. So if you’re over the new limit you’ll be fined $200 and taken off the road for 12 hours. It’s an expensive slap on the wrist. The penalty for being over the old limit is still criminal charges. What they’ve done is to slip an infringement range of offence under the more serious limit.”

“Still doesn’t answer my question. How much can I drink?” he says.

“There’s a helpful Q&A on the Ministry of Transport’s website. They suggest a cautious buffer of two standard drinks over two hours. But most other agencies have a much clearer message: if you drink, don’t drive, and if you drive, don’t drink. That’s the culture change right there.”

I don’t often get the last word with my drinking self, but I press it home today. “Really, if it saves lives, who’s going to argue with that?”

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 5 December 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Here in the digital future with no CDs

There are two types of people in the world: those who still listen to CDs and those who live in the future.

A few weeks ago our home stereo died. It was a little work-horse system that had served us well for seven years. Nothing lasts forever. The stereo coughed and spluttered and could no longer swallow its food. Thankfully the end came quickly.

We’ve replaced it with an iPad mini. It lies inconspicuously on the cabinet and belts Pharrell Williams’ Happy through a couple of surprisingly grunty bluetooth speakers.

So this is the future. I have to say, it’s pretty cool.

Twenty years’ worth of compact discs sit darkly on the bookshelf. Last month they were an essential part of our lives. Suddenly they’re relics of the past.

This is a bigger transition than the moves away from vinyl and cassette. Physical products with their own weight and presence have been raptured into a digital eternity. They exist as little icons on a screen. That part makes me a bit sad. I can’t hold my favourite CD in my hands anymore. It is no longer a possession.

But the music itself is the same. Douglas Adams had a great quote about books that I think applies even better to music: “Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”

What is music, anyway? We treat it as the soundtrack to our lives. It is the aural air that we breathe without paying close attention. I wash the dishes with Mark Lanegan. I write poetry with Arvo Pärt.

How often do we sit and listen to music on its own terms? Composers and musicians work hard, with intent, to craft songs and sounds that will take us on a particular journey. And what do we do with that artistry? Vacuuming.

That’s partly why I am unnerved by the scope of streaming services like Spotify. There’s something overwhelming about having all the songs in the world at your fingertips.

It’s a bugbear I’ve had ever since people started walking around with 10,000 songs on their iPods. All that choice should be wonderful but something feels out of kilter.

That’s a whole other conversation – what is the value of music? I’m not saying music should never be free or easy to access, but I am bothered by how flippantly we can treat it.

I do like it here in the future though. You can find anything you want. There are more opportunities for musicians to be discovered than ever before. Want to check out the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards winners? A quick search and you can hear them without leaving home.

I feel for the music stores. They must know they’ve been living on borrowed time these past few years. What will I do at shopping malls now? I usually avoid shopping malls except to browse books and music. Now I only have reason to visit the bookshops and the walls are closing in there too.

I’ll wrestle more thoroughly with digital books another time. For now I’m quite fond of Stephen Fry’s quip: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”

Now that we have an iPad in the house we will probably have to learn about Minecraft as well. This is a game the kids are obsessed with. It’s a bewildering virtual universe of mining and blocks and monsters.

Meanwhile, outside in the real world, our boys have been digging two enormous holes in the garden. It’s a serious operation, two months of activity so far. They call it mining. The neighbours’ kids often join in with their own tools.

Some families have Minecraft. We have a real mine. You can’t download that sort of fun for free, not even in the future.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 28 November 2014. Reproduced with permission. 

How to land on a comet

We can all learn something from the European Space Agency. They had a vision for where they wanted to go, they figured out what they needed to do to get there and then they did it.

Their goal was to land a probe on a comet to learn more about the origins of the Solar System. They achieved their goal last week, scoring a first for humanity and making a lot of scientists splutter with excitement.

Landing on a comet is not a zippy exercise like in Armageddon where you just slingshot Bruce Willis around the moon. Nor is it like The Empire Strikes Back where you zoom across the galaxy for a few minutes before reversing onto an asteroid.

The ESA scientists had to plan ahead for a ten year journey through the Solar System, culminating in a complex set of manoeuvres that required their spaceship and its little probe to approach, orbit and land on a comet that was moving at 135,000 kilometres per hour.

This is a project that was given formal approval in 1993. Could we have envisaged landing on a comet in 1993? In 1993 I had no clue what I would be doing in 2014, let alone how to plan it into reality. As far as I was concerned, 2014 was a future that would happen to me whether I liked it or not.

In contrast, people at ESA were proactive about making the future happen on their own terms.

Imagine sitting round the boardroom in 1993 with this on your agenda: “The Rosetta Mission is a proposal to land a probe on a comet. If we start planning now we can achieve this in about 20 years. The estimated cost is a billion of whatever currency we’ll be using by then.”

I admire the fortitude of people who have the vision to take on something like that.

The ESA website points out that the Rosetta project’s total cost over 20 years is barely half the price of a submarine – as though that puts it into perspective. Not being familiar with submarine procurement, I don’t find it a particularly helpful analogy.

The cost is actually a red herring. It’s the easiest thing in the world to criticize a big price tag. The real question is whether the cost is an investment that moves you nearer your goal, or a burden that slows you down.

If you know what you’re trying to achieve in the first place every decision along the way will make more sense.

Fifteen years ago a friend of mine, Steve Hathaway, said to me, “I’m going to make my own TV show about New Zealand’s underwater life.” He was a builder at the time. It’s possible I laughed at him. But he knew where he wanted to end up.

This year the first 10 episodes of his show Young Ocean Explorers screened on What Now?. He is producing a companion book and video series for New Zealand schools and his underwater footage has been used by BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel and closer to home, TV One’s Our Big Blue Backyard. Not bad for a chippy.

If I could go back to 1993 and give myself some advice it would be “don’t sit around waiting for something magical to happen to you. Figure out where you want to be ten years from now. Then figure out what you need to do to get there.”

The classic aphorism here is begin with the end in mind. Look at the European Space Agency and their brave little space probe. They were clear about what they wanted to achieve, and why. That clarity empowered them to shoot for the stars.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 21 November 2014. Reproduced with permission. 

No longer centre of the universe

I have no idea what my cat wants. He squawks like a random parrot for no reason that I can fathom. Does he want more food? A cuddle? Does he want lessons in how to walk in a straight line without swerving under my feet and tripping me up?

Lately he’s been bringing home tiny birds that have been tormented to death. He doesn’t even have the decency to eat them. He’s a fluffy assassin.

The other day our boys rescued one of his newborn birds. They saved it from the cuddly jaws of death and put it in a cardboard box with some leaves. The bird was excruciatingly small. Featherless, it looked like a sad little cartoon.

I’m sure we did everything wrong to save it. We managed to feed it a worm. It had no chance and it died overnight, probably in pain. I felt so guilty.

How significant was that pathetic blip of life in the grand scheme of things? Not very. But it kept me awake, the thought that this little creature was suffering in our kitchen. Just because I didn’t know what it was experiencing didn’t make the suffering any less real for the bird.

I have been thinking about empathy, about how hard it is to view the world through anything other than our own egocentric perspective. That’s because we live in our own heads, not in anyone else’s. It’s not always easy to get out of your own head.

There’s a line in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughy’s character says, “We’re just here to be memories for our kids.”

Interstellar is a huge film. It’s bombastic, confounding and magnificent all at the same time. If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey then you’ll be well prepared for it.

I really liked it. Despite its problems I was totally wowed. Sometimes you have to set aside your inner critic and allow the flawed monster of creative ambition to carry you away.

But that line about parents just being memories for their kids? I’ve been arguing with it all week. It’s an uncomfortable truth. I have decided it’s only half of the story.

My dad told me that as the years tick by he doesn’t feel any older in his head. He said he secretly assumes that everyone else is much more grown up, as though they’ve all turned into responsible adults and he’s just pretending.

I found this amusing and encouraging. Partly because I’m no different and also because it reminds me that while I am busy being the star of my life, Dad is still very much the main character in his own story.

As a kid, you tend to view your parents as automatons who exist outside of normal human experience. Then one day you realize, with a certain amount of shock, that your parents actually have a vibrant life that is filled with the same passions and emotions you had assumed were only invented the year you had your first crush.

Eventually we have to grow up and acknowledge that the universe revolves around more people than just us. Other people matter too, even those who got to the front of the cinema queue before I did. They have as much right as me to buy a movie ticket. Darn it.

When we get too caught up in our own story we either can’t or won’t acknowledge the validity of other people’s situations. That’s when we start treating each other poorly.

I’ve rambled a bit but if you can take anything at all from a murderous cat, a line from Interstellar and my dad’s inner youth, maybe it is that in every sphere of life you’ll be able to consider how the people you interact with might be feeling and then treat them like decent human beings, with a bit of respect.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 14 November 2014. Reproduced with permission.

NZ Flag Idol

A conversation in Wellington. “Righto. We’ve won the election. Now, let’s sort that flag out.”

“Yes sir. There are some important questions we should ask before we change the national flag. Like, what defines us as a nation? What does the flag mean to us in its current form? What would we prefer it to convey?”

“Ha! Those questions are so cute. No, what I’m thinking is that we’ll run a giant talent quest. We’ll get everyone to vote for their favourite new design and then we’ll have a big showdown between the winner and the current flag. Two binding referendums, job done.”

“Won’t that just make it a design popularity contest? Changing the national flag is quite a big deal. We’re about to turn it into NZ Flag Idol.”

“Flag Idol? I love it. Let’s just get on with it. Then we can finally get rid of that pesky Union Jack.”

“About that, sir. I was thinking we should discuss our place in the Commonwealth. Shouldn’t we have that conversation first as a nation, before we change the flag?”

“No, no, let’s just change the flag and the rest will sort itself out.”

“Sir, I’m keen for a new flag too, but I wonder if we are skipping a few important steps here. How about we slow things down and work instead towards launching a new flag in conjunction with a major milestone or a significant national celebration? That would give the whole discussion more purpose and focus.”

“What sort of milestone?”

“Well, as an example, in 2040 it will be 200 years since the Treaty of Waitangi. In 2043 it will be 150 years since New Zealand women won the right to vote.”

“That’s ages away. I want this flag changed now.”

“Then let’s find something else a bit closer. Suppose we do eventually cut our ties with Mother England? That would surely be a natural time to reconsider the flag. The country could even plan ahead instead of having it jammed hastily between elections.”

“It’s not hasty. This is a very thorough and very expense process.”

“Of course, sir. I’m just suggesting that, done well, the launch of a new flag is an opportunity to get the whole nation cheering with pride. I’m not sure that an either/or referendum will unite the country.”

“I’m not trying to unite the country. I just want to give the flag a spruce up. Crikey, why is everyone taking this so seriously? You’d think they died for the flag or something.”

“Sir, many of them did.”

“Yes, yes of course. I know that. But look, they died fighting for the country that the flag represents, not for the flag itself. Can we have a new design and continue to honour the sacrifices that have been made for New Zealand? Of course we can.”

“Naturally, sir, but let’s have that conversation with the public too. My concern here is that we are about to vote on a new flag in isolation from these very real issues. We need a good reason to change the flag, a reason that resonates with the whole nation. We need a reason that declares this is who we are and this is why we love being New Zealanders. Sir, that’s the depth of sentiment that needs to drive a national flag change.”

“Poppycock. All that matters is whether you prefer design A over design B. People will pick the flag they like best and we’ll end up with something most of them are happy with.”

“Is that really the best outcome? When the world asks us why we changed our flag, the only answer we’ll have is: because we kind of liked that other one better.”

“Sounds fine to me. So long as it’s better. Bring on NZ Flag Idol.”

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 7 November 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Strum’n stuff

For posterity, and because I found this in a box last weekend, here is the cover art from my first ‘album’. Back in 1992 when I was in my final year at school I recorded these eight songs on a 4-track machine at a friend’s place. To make the cover I took photos of my own reflection (which is why I appear left handed). Then I spent a few evenings at someone else’s house using their home stereo to copy the master onto a bunch of cassette tapes so that I could sell them for $10 each.

A lot has changed since then but I still perform a couple of these songs; a slightly different version of Humble and pretty much the same version of The Sister Song. Blimey, those songs are getting on a bit! Click on the image to enlarge.

 

 

Good people

There are good people in the world. You probably know some of them. They’re easy to spot because they usually “have a heart” for something. They have a heart for youth, or for justice, or for the poor, or for the environment, and then they go out and actually do something about it.

Me? I have a heart for coffee. Consuming it, I mean. I will go out and do something about getting myself a good cup of coffee.

I try to be thoughtful and generous about the way I live, but I am in quiet awe of those who make it their mission to proactively improve the world.

There are good people like Charlotte Hardy. Charlotte wrote a book of poems as a fundraiser so she could start a free art programme for at-risk teenagers. Her Friday Night Flavour workshops have just finished their first 17-week run at community centres in Mount Maunganui and Tauranga.

When I wrote a book it was so people could say “I really like your book”, whereas Charlotte wrote a book so that she could do something practical to change lives. I am humbled by that. Look up Charlotte’s Ink on Facebook to learn more.

There are good people like Tauranga’s Good Neighbour Food Rescue. For various reasons, supermarkets have to throw away perfectly good food. The Food Rescue team intercepts that food and gives it to charities instead.

Not just a little bit of food. Their original plan was to rescue 12 tonnes of food in the first year. I asked one of the founders, John Paine, how they were tracking and he replied, “You could say we were in front of our projections.” In eight months they have already rescued 14 tonnes. That’s $98,000 worth of food diverted from landfill and donated to local charities.

When I go to the supermarket it is usually to get beer or chocolate – for myself. The Good Neighbours go to the supermarket for the community.

I’m glad there are good people in the world. People like Vicky who coached my son’s soccer team this year. She didn’t have to do that. Thanks, Vicky.

Or the guys who run the ICONZ programme that my boys go to each week. The other night they were dismantling household appliances with the kids. I’d never thought to pull apart a toaster for fun but apparently it’s the coolest thing ever.

I really appreciate those guys’ commitment to run the programme. When I get home from work I want a quiet couch, not a noisy church hall.

It can be trendy to suggest that humans are a scourge upon the earth, that we are nothing but trouble for the environment and for each other. I think that view undersells the amount of effort going on to make the world a better place.

There was the man my wife saw at a city café. He invited in a couple of homeless people and bought them lunch. It would have been easier for him not to do that, but he did it anyway.

It only needs to be little momentary things that inject some brightness into the day. I’d like to hope that one of the ways I contribute is by using words to give shape to intangible ideas. I like to gently prod people’s brains with a thinking stick. Not everyone can do that with ease, just as I’m not naturally inclined to dismantle toasters with 10 year olds. We each do our little bit with what we have. It all makes a difference.

You could fill a whole month of news with examples of people who have touched other lives for the better. There are some really good people among us, and that’s to be celebrated.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 31 October 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Apostrophe abuse

Warning: this page contains language that may offend some people. Brace yourself for obscenities.

I’m talking about punctuation. In particular, offensive apostrophes. You know the ones. They often show up on grocery signboards with chalked messages that advertise cheap vege’s.

Ouch. That rogue apostrophe really hurts. “Vege’s.” Urgh. If you are a lifetime member of the self-appointed apostrophe police, as I am, you will know why vege’s is so offensive.

Even worse: “$2 bag’s of carrot’s”. (Oh, the pain.)

Hot chip’s. (Please, make it stop.)

I acknowledge that those of us who care passionately about apostrophes can be a bit pedantic at times. We really can’t help ourselves. It’s a serious affliction.

Apostrophe abuse shocks us like a bee sting. It wounds like a lover’s betrayal. When we see apostrophe errors we absolutely must fix them, or at least point them out.

Incorrect apostrophes are the wonky eyelashes we are unable to ignore on other people’s faces. We consider it our prime responsibility, our divine mandate, to wrench the world back into its grammatically correct groove.

Wrong apostrophes must be put right. I have been known to correct café blackboards.

Or perhaps we apostrophe police should just get over ourselves? After all, people understand each other fine thank you very much, even as innocent apostrophes are being tormented in broad daylight.

This is a very humbling truth. Most apostrophes that go wrong don’t actually make much difference to anything.

I shudder to say this. Are apostrophes really as important as we like to think they are? Some are useful but a lot of them are plain annoying. Is it Kings Landing or King’s Landing or Kings’ Landing? And who really cares? I have some empathy for those city councils in Britain that have tried to ban apostrophes from street signs.

And yet in my heart I remain a purist. The apostrophe is a tool worth protecting. It gives the written word context and nuance. Consider this famous sentence from novelist Kingsley Amis, offered up as a compelling reason to use apostrophes: “Those things over there are my husbands.”

It’s not all that hard to use apostrophes properly. Take plurals, they don’t need apostrophes at all. If you’re writing about more than one banana, all you need is to add an S to the banana and be done with it.

Bananas. See? No apostrophe. Easy.

The same goes for veges and chips and carrots and bicycles. You don’t need an apostrophe to show that there’s more than one thing. Please, let’s have no more possessive carrots.

It’s that pesky possessive that really ties people in knots. Is it the boss’s offices or the bosses offices or the bosses’ offices? This is where we freak out and start to fling punctuation all over the place in manic self defence.

If you are a nervous apostrophe user, try viewing the apostrophe as a helpful little name badge. It is there to tell you who the owner of something is.

First, spell the owner’s name completely and correctly. Then pin the badge at the end of their name. The bag belongs to Betty? It’s Betty’s bag. The offices belong to the boss? They’re the boss’s offices.

If there’s more than one boss just follow the same process. Make sure you spell bosses correctly then stick the name badge at the end: the bosses’ offices.

Yes, it can get convoluted and mess with your head. But I think it’s worth at least a little bit of effort. This is our written language after all. Let’s use it properly. Long live the mighty apostrophe.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 24 October 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Sex appeal

It’s time for a revamp. Time to appeal to a wider readership. Accordingly, I have decided to write this column with my shirt unbuttoned.

Showing a bit of skin will increase my appeal. If I’ve learned anything at all from a lifetime of watching music videos it is that the more skin you reveal, the better your music sounds. I’m hoping this principle applies to the written word as well.

With that in mind I should probably inform you that I am now wearing a singlet top. Check out my arm muscles as they work themselves over a reflexive pronoun.

It’s a fine line. I have to be careful not to sound like a dodgy phone call. But you should know that if you could see my body right now you would swoon at its mastery of possessive apostrophes.

Yessiree, sex appeal makes everything better, especially creative talent.

I probably need to get my columnist profile photo updated. After all, my mugshot is nearly two years old and it’s fully clothed. That’ll have to change if I am to be the sexiest columnist in the Bay. Although, I think Will Johnston from The Hits may have already scooped that spot with all his female admirers. Sure, he has a radio show but does he write his Bay News column with his shirt on or off?

Or maybe what I’m wearing has no bearing on the quality of my work? It’s hard to say.

I watched one of Kimbra’s new music videos recently, her song Miracle. It’s a really good, fun song that stands on its own, but for no apparent reason she steps into the video wearing some sort of skimpy lingerie outfit that I am unqualified to describe. She does put on more clothes as the video progresses.

I also saw one of Broods’ music videos for the first time. Broods is a Nelson band with big aspirations and they write very pleasant pop songs. They sound delicious, like sparkling wine being poured over a drum machine.

For the past year I’ve somehow managed to hear Broods without ever seeing what they look like. I know they are a sister and brother duo: Georgia and Caleb Nott. So the other day I finally watched the video for their song Mother & Father.

The opening shot is a close up of Georgia’s cleavage. No face, just a long gawk from the neck down. They don’t even pretend to be subtle about it. A lingering shot, as though the camera operator forgot to tighten the tripod and it tipped forward.

I don’t wish to be a Brood-prude. Mother & Father is hardly a dodgy video. It’s not offensive in the slightest. But it bugs me at an artistic level. Why start with that particular shot? What does it add to the song?

Usually I am quite comfortable with a bit of sauciness. There is plenty of room for sensuality and sexiness in the arts. I don’t believe you can make a tidy formula for what’s appropriate because the arts are so messy.

So I should note that I am utterly inconsistent with my prude-o-metre. It swings wildly depending on the hat I am wearing at the time.

Am I wearing my parent hat? High prude score. Am I wearing my bloke hat? Low prude score. Sometimes very low.

Today, wearing my creative hat, my prude-o-metre appears to have swung in a cynical direction.

Here’s what it boils down to for me, and this is the driver for all sorts of artistic choices around issues of boundaries and taste: is it a creative decision or a business decision? Artists live in the tension between those two options.

Well, if I’m ever to publish my collected works, I’d better get started on those sit-ups.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 17 October 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Conversation with my younger self

Tomorrow I turn 40, which is not something I planned, it just kind of happened when I wasn’t looking.

Being 40 is fine by me. It’s not even all that old. The thing about getting older is that everyone around you is getting older at the same rate. Except for Bart Simpson. If Bart had kept pace with the rest of us he’d now be about 35. That’s a bit scary.

It’s also scary when you realise that MacGyver and Seinfield are now in their 60s. Han Solo is in his 70s. Has he always been older than my Dad?

But turning older doesn’t make you feel any older. It’s just a number. You can still be the same young soul on the inside.

At least, that’s what you think – until you talk to people who are half your age and you realise that you have, in fact, grown up a bit.

I was reminded of this when I travelled back in time to give my younger self some advice. He was in his second year at university, tapping out a literature essay on an electric typewriter.

“I am your older self and I am visiting you from the future with my collected years of wisdom,” I announced.

My younger self handled it really well. “Nice beard. Mate, I can’t believe I’m going to grow a beard when I’m older.”

“Thanks. Now look, I’m here to tell you some things that will help you through the next 20 years.”

“How long did it take to grow? Mate, I tried to grow a goatee but it went all fluffy.”

“It took a couple of weeks. But listen, I need to tell you – “

“Am I married in the future? Am I rich? Where do I live? Will they end up making more Star Wars movies? Mate, I bet they’re totally awesome!”

And so on. He kept saying “mate”, which was kind of annoying. He also talked too much. This kid was way too hyped and he hadn’t even discovered coffee yet. It made me realise I like myself a lot more now that I’m 40.

For starters, I’ve learned to be a better listener. Twenty years ago I was dead certain about my own opinions. These days I’m more cautious of absolutes.

I’m also a lot more comfortable in my own skin. I used to wear my confidence as a disguise to hide the fact that I usually felt like the smallest, most vulnerable guy in the room. I was one of the shortest kids in my school right up until sixth form. It took me a while to figure out that being a shorter man doesn’t make me any less of a man.

Thinking about that, I realised my younger self’s bolstery chatterboxing was probably his way of coping with an intimidating situation. After all, right now he was suddenly faced with an older, more self-assured version of himself.

“Relax,” I said to him. “You’re over-compensating. You don’t need to do that with me. In fact, you don’t need to do that with anyone.”

“It’s the beard,” he replied. “It makes you look more grown up.”

“I am more grown up,” I said. “But you are exactly who you are. Don’t ever be scared of that. Look, I’ve got some important stuff to tell you.”

He shook his head. “No need. Our 60-year-old self arrived just before you did. He wanted me to give you this.”

It was a note: We never stop learning. And don’t worry, we all turn out fine.

“Wow. Hard to imagine being 60,” I said. My younger self replied, “Mate, it’s hard enough to imagine being 40.”

Then he added: “Maybe next time just bring me the Lotto results.”

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 10 October 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Zombie state

I am so very tired. It’s so easy to get into deficit with sleep but it’s so hard to get into credit. I seem to be paying off an entire mortgage.

This morning I woke at 2 am because of a squawking cat. I sorted that out, returned to bed and plunged immediately into wide-awakeness. So here I am on the wrong side of dawn writing about how much sleep I wish I had had.

English is a funny language, isn’t it? I can finish a sentence with two hads and it still makes sense. Even better is this sentence: All the sleep he had had had had no effect.

Four hads in a row. Maybe it wouldn’t seem such a thing of beauty if I had had more sleep, but for now I am enthralled by that swathe of hads.

Aside from my lack of sleep, I am tired because life in general feels like a perpetual school camp: constant busyness, all for the greater good of course, but so busily busy. I think that’s why my brain has trouble shutting down at nights.

I once overheard someone say, prior to heading off on an overseas holiday, “I just need to lie on a beach for three weeks and do nothing.” I was gobsmacked. You can lie down? For three weeks? And do nothing? Who has the time to do that?

As it happens I took time off work last week to go on my son’s school camp. It was great fun, but again, very busy.

This is the way of annual leave. You only ever take time off to do something, rather than nothing. Doing nothing is an art we don’t practice nearly enough.

It was a great camp though, jam-packed with cool stuff like rock climbing and slingshot paintball. I don’t remember school camps ever being that much fun when I was a kid. All can recall from my own school camps is being made to do lots of walking.

Just thinking about walking makes me want to sleep.

I was initially unenthused about going on camp as a parent. I really like my own children but the thought of being surrounded by 90 more of them was not a relaxing prospect in the rough and tumble of a busy month.

I have to say though, that after spending a few days with all those kids, I think I understand a bit better why teachers become teachers.

I’ve usually only focused on what I see as the obvious downside to being a teacher, which is that every day you are attacked by zombie-mobs of other people’s children who require constant wrangling.

At camp I caught a glimpse of the upside, which is that teachers work right at the coalface where they get to see little lives being shaped over time.

Children are resilient, passionate and entertaining little creatures. Yes, every child has their own special brand of annoying, but every child also has their own special brand of amazing.

I’m struck by how teachers genuinely care about the kids, even the so-called problem students. It’s also revealing to hear teachers talk off-line about the state of the education system and about the demands that stretch them far beyond their roles as educators. They may go into teaching to teach, but more often teachers become babysitters, social workers, health advisors, counsellors and administrators.

Teachers have my total admiration. I’ll be honest, I think anyone who works all day with hordes of other people’s children must be a little bit mad. But I’m grateful they’re there and they have my respect.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 3 October 2014. Reproduced with permission. 

See also: Teachers are amazeballs

Dirty politics and Doctor Who

I went to the voting booth an uninspired citizen last Saturday.

It was that election campaign. The whole dirty-shmirty politics thing really got me down. I lost interest pretty quickly in who supposedly did what to whom, and how, or why. The fact that there were high level smear campaigns and hacked emails and then more hacked emails and more bleary smearyness … Can’t we do better, New Zealand? It’s like all the bullies from school grew up and put on business suits.

I tried to ignore most of it, but by the time Election Day limped around I was thoroughly depressed at the state of our nation’s power-broking base. Political manoeuvring is fun to watch on Game of Thrones, but it’s a big fat disillusionment in real life.

I want to live in a world where people are respectful and courteous, even in their disagreements. Can genuine integrity exist in the cut and thrust of big business? Does it have any place in the ambitious arena of political movers and shakers?

What depresses me most is that modern society seems locked into a mode of operating that facilitates and encourages power games. It depresses me that there are lobbyists and devious agendas and political machinations. It depresses me that news media feed on the same scandals they decry.

It also depresses me that ordinary people are probably not much better. All of life is politics. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Parliament, the PTA or the church choir. There will always be someone employing underhand tactics to get their own way at the expense of treating others with dignity and respect.

Throw a few big egos into the mix, add some front-page headlines and you have yourself a juicy news cycle. How can goodness survive any of that intact? It’s as though the whole system is set up to make it extra hard for anyone to follow the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule? Treat others the way you’d like to be treated yourself. It should be that simple. But apparently it’s not.

I was reading this week about the personality traits of internet trolls – trolls being people, mostly anonymous, who take undue pleasure in attacking others on the comments sections of the internet.

Psychologists have identified a specific collection of personality traits exhibited by trollers. They call these traits the Dark Tetrad.

Ooh, what a superbly Doctor Who-ish-sounding name. The Dark Tetrad’s four nasty personality traits are: a willingness to manipulate and deceive others; narcissism; a lack of remorse and empathy; and sadism. Sounds a lot like a Dalek, actually. And just as irritating.

These four traits in particular have been shown to register off the scale in people who enjoy trolling the internet. It’s also not much of a stretch to imagine that Dark Tetrad personalities are lurking in all levels of society.

It’s as though the Dark Tetrad is humanity’s greatest enemy, planted here by some alien sneakiness. If only Doctor Who would pop in with his sonic screwdriver and save us.

So now I am going to talk about Doctor Who, which may utterly bore you but I need to cheer myself up after wallowing in the murk of dirty politics.

Over the past couple of years the Doctor Who storyline has grown increasingly bonkers and I wouldn’t have recommended the show to anyone. The plots were convoluted and the whole show kept disappearing up its own TARDIS.

Lately though, with Peter Capaldi on board as the new Doctor, the writers seem to have changed gears. They’re no longer operating in manic overdrive. The last three episodes have been much better-paced. There’s room for genuine intrigue. So far, at least, Doctor Who is back on form and I’m excited about it again.

By all means disagree with me. But when you do, please keep your Dark Tetrad in check.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 26 September 2014. Reproduced with permission.

How dare the creatives keep creating

When I am the world’s most rich and famous newspaper columnist, maybe I’ll finally get that multi-million dollar deal with Apple to distribute my latest collection of writing worldwide. They might even drop it for free into 500 million iTunes accounts across 119 countries, just like what they’ve done with U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence.

Is U2’s new album any good? Sure. It has its moments. It’s not my favourite-ever collection of U2 songs but I’ve enjoyed listening to it this week.

It certainly doesn’t deserve the hilarious uproar that was unleashed across the internet in its wake, most notably on Twitter. Here’s one of the more polite protests I’ve seen:

Finding an unasked-for U2 album in their music collection turns out to have made many people feel violated and downright angry. There’s now an entire trend of “U2 is in my house” jokes on Twitter.

But from what I can see, U2’s main crime appears to be that they are still writing U2 songs. Yes, the bombastic ambition of these ageing rock stars is still intact and they’re still working on their craft.

Even more upsetting, U2 still sound like U2. How dare they. It’s as though people are angry that, after 38 years, a band of musicians hasn’t stopped wanting to be a band.

We are fickle consumers. The use-by date of artists is determined not by them, but by us and our impatience for novelty.

When I am the world’s most rich and famous columnist I will still want to create stuff. There will no doubt be recurring themes and riffs in my work so it will be hard not to repeat myself, but I’ll keep doing whatever I can do to nourish my creative soul.

I’m picking U2 have the same creative drive. There’s nothing about Songs of Innocence that suggests to me they just phoned it in. They’re as earnest as ever, making new music because that’s what they want to do.

Perhaps Bono doesn’t care what anyone thinks because he’s too busy smirking gleefully into his billions? I think that’s unlikely. When I am the world’s most rich and famous columnist I will still feel the terror of starting from scratch on each new project.

I like U2 and I’ve always been a big fan of Bono. I like the way he embraces the absurdity of his rock star success. He’s never pretended to be anything other than a flawed Irish musician who is obnoxiously rich.

I once saw an interview where he defended his political activism by saying something like: “What else are you going to do with this thing called celebrity? I mean, it’s ridiculous. Why would a rock star or sports star be more important than a nurse or a mother? But hey, it’s currency, and I decided I’m going to spend mine.”

If Bono’s politics annoys you, that’s up to you. If you’re concerned about the mechanics of Apple’s disruptive marketing ploy, then that’s an important and interesting discussion to have.

But if you’re an iTunes account holder who is mostly upset because a free album you received is by a band that you’re not all that interested in … Well, really? Is that such a big deal?

Marketing stunts aside, at the centre of the U2 furore is a bunch of guys who like writing songs.

When I’m the world’s most rich and famous columnist, you’ll have to forgive me if I, too, don’t stop creating new material just because you’d rather read something else.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 19 September 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Three words you should never say to parents

I was woken last Sunday by three little boys who jumped onto my bed, with an assortment of inconveniently placed knees and elbows, to wish me happy Father’s Day. It was all very hilarious and cuddly for a while and then I decided I’d had enough.

“Right, that’s it, I’m getting up now,” I announced. But apparently there are rules for Father’s Day. I was told to stay in bed.

“But I don’t want to stay in bed.”

No choice. It’s Father’s Day and there’s nothing better than a lazy morning in bed.

“But … I kind of want to get up.”

Nope. It’s Father’s Day. You are to stay in bed and relax with your three boys who are wrestling each other on top of the duvet and your face.

“Can I at least go the bathroom?” I asked. But that proved difficult, trapped as I was beneath a tumble of orangutans.

A while later I tried another tack. “I’d quite like to get up and have a shower,” I said to no one in particular. I needn’t have bothered. It appeared that I was damn well going to have a lazy morning in bed on Father’s Day and I was damn well going to enjoy it.

Where Mother’s Day is all about giving mum some time off, Father’s Day seems designed primarily for the children’s benefit.

Earlier in the week, my 8 year old had asked what I would like for Father’s Day. I looked over his shoulder at the sea of Lego pieces, the marbles, the army men and the minefield of wooden blocks on the floor.

“What I would really like,” I said, after some thought, “is a tidy lounge.” The dinner table fell into silence. My son said, somewhat meekly, “Or … we could go for a bike ride?”

In the end we did go for a bike ride. And, I’ll be honest, the whole day was great, even the part where I was squashed awake. I’m hardly about to complain that I was force-pampered on Father’s Day.

At least they still want to hang out with me. “Just you wait until they’re teenagers,” I often hear. Apparently my affectionate children will soon transmogrify into surly recluses and they won’t want to spend any time with me at all.

“Just you wait.” Three words you should never say to parents. “Just you wait” is the smug cousin of “I told you so,” only delivered in advance.

My wife and I were sleep-deprived in the weeks after our first baby was born. “Just you wait until he’s on solids,” people said.

We were dealing with a toddler’s first temper tantrums. Inevitably: “Just you wait until he’s a teenager.”

Statements like that are pointless and don’t help anyone. It’s like saying, “I’m older than you, ha ha,” as though that has some sort of currency.

Whatever you are going through right now, at this particular time and place, that’s the thing that matters. Your current situation is real and it is unique to you. No one else has been in your shoes. People who say “just you wait” don’t have a clue what hidden pressures you’re juggling.

My kids are at a fun age. But every season has its challenges and they’re all equally valid.

Just you wait until you figure that out for yourself.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 12 September 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Togs, togs, vehicle, pedestrian, undies.

Hurrah for the official start of spring. It means we’re pedalling further away from winter – and that means more people on bicycles.

I’m not talking fancy-pants speed-cycling. I’m happy for spandex mobs to zoom around on the weekend, but that’s a level of leg-shaving enthusiasm I don’t share.

I’m talking commuter cycling. Pedalling for convenience, fitness and fresh air.

Cycling is my primary form of transport during the week. If I’m not on my bike I’ll run to work or I’ll catch the bus.

Call it my contribution to sustainability. It’s cheaper and it’s better for the planet. And don’t knock the bus. It’s not a perfect system but a growing city has to start somewhere with its public transport. Increasingly, I find myself sharing seats on the morning route, so someone must be doing something right.

Tauranga has a great climate for cycling. I can say that with confidence after having lived at various times in Auckland, Christchurch and Invercargill. Auckland will rain on you for no particular reason. Invercargill will blow you sideways if it gets the chance. Cycling through a Christchurch winter is like doing the ice bucket challenge face first.

I have a fantasy that Tauranga could one day be the cycling capital of New Zealand. It’s a sunny, whimsical fantasy in which everyone pedals around on those big old-school cruiser bikes that are coming into fashion. Do you know the ones? They’re often painted in pastels and their seats are as wide as lounge suites.

We’d have a great attitude coasting to our appointments on those. Ordinary people out and about on funky, laid-back machines. The sounds of the city would be dominated by the whirr of bike wheels and the ping of bells. Our biggest problem would be the lack of bike stands in town.

I weep inside when motorists and pedestrians get into silly public disputes with cyclists. The motorist wails, “Cyclists cause accidents!” and the cyclist retorts, “Drivers don’t pay enough attention!”

I do know that a small number of cyclists can spoil things for the rest of us. There goes one of them now, crashing through the red light at a major intersection.

If you ride a bicycle, have a think about the damage you do when you jump that light. You’ve just enjoyed the use of a cycle lane that has been set apart for your personal use. It probably wasn’t there 5 or 10 years ago, so it represents a seismic shift in transport planning. That’s a shift in your favour.

That new cycle lane has snatched precious real-estate from the majority of road users. Many of those drivers are still learning to acknowledge the rights of cyclists.

Remember that TV ad where the guy shifts back and forth between wearing togs and undies depending on how near to the beach he is standing?

Cyclists have a similar dilemma. One minute we’re pedestrians, the next minute we’re vehicles. We share roads with cars and we share estuary tracks with walkers.

We change status at our convenience, sometimes prefering to bunny-hop off the road to avoid an intersection of busy traffic. This freedom is a privilege that we shouldn’t take for granted.

In a car-centric world, a lot of traffic situations are annoying from a cyclist’s point of view. When you’ve got your momentum it feels like a crime against gravity to brake out of hyperspace for a redundant red light.

But if we want more people to support a cycle-friendly city then we need to show that we’re part of the community, not unruly outsiders.

Let’s not forget that everyone who rides also drives and walks. Cyclists, motorists, pedestrians: at the end of the day we’re all in the same boat.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 5 September 2014. Reproduced with permission.

I went up the mountain and found myself

doubles

At Ruapehu, taken on our annual whisky escape. That’s Kelvin in the picture with me. Nigel’s taking the photo. We drank single malt and enjoyed poetry, particularly this one by Philip Larkin:

Days

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin, 1964

 

Last year’s whisky escape.

 

 

What makes a Kiwi?

I’ve been trying to figure out what defines me as a New Zealander. There’s a definite something that makes me Kiwi, but I’m not entirely sure what that something is.

I fell into pondering this last Friday night during an amazing performance of original te reo songs by Mana Farrell.

I had never heard of Mana Farrell until he stepped onto the stage at Tauranga’s National Poetry Day celebrations. We had already enjoyed an eclectic night of poetic and musical treats at the Mauao Performing Arts Centre. Then, at the end of the night, Mana and his two female vocalists turned up and blew everyone away. Their harmonic collision of crooning operatic songs soared with majesty. We gave them a standing ovation.

Their act was a fusion of class and culture. They sang in te reo and their hands did the wiri – that jiggly fluttery finger thing that often accompanies traditional kapa haka. (The wiri is a mystery to me. I tried to jiggle my fingers at my desk just now. Can’t do it fast enough.)

I was knocked into the stratosphere by their performance. At the same time, I also found myself a teeny bit envious of the deep well of cultural heritage that Maori artists have at their disposal.

Now, it would be silly to suggest that Maori have a monopoly on deep wells of cultural heritage. I’m not saying that at all. But it did get me wondering: what deep wells of cultural heritage do I have?

My ancestry is a hodgepodge of Welsh and other random flavours but my family has never identified strongly with any particular culture other than our own.

What is my culture? I am first and foremost a Kiwi, a New Zealander.

We often hear statements like, “my Maori heritage is really important to me.” You can insert in there any combination of other cultures that are meaningful and true for you. Indian, Dutch, Scottish. We cherish our roots.

My roots are Kiwi.

I’m not sure I have ever said out loud: “My New Zealand heritage is really important to me.” Well, of course it is important, but if I think about it honestly I have to confess that I still can’t articulate exactly what my New Zealand heritage is.

Advertisers would have me believe that being a New Zealander means I should crave Vogel’s bread when I’m overseas. There must be more to being a Kiwi than that. Is it fish ‘n’ chips? Is it barbeques at Christmas? Is it our superior mastery of the flat white?

One thing I know that makes us unique as a nation is the way te reo is part of our everyday lives. We are able to greet each other with a “kia ora” and we understand words like mana, whanau, waiata, and tapu. I wholeheartedly believe that the best future for New Zealand is one in which the Maori language is embraced rather than marginalised.

National identity isn’t something you can define in a single newspaper column and there are as many recipes for what makes a New Zealander as there are New Zealanders.

Perhaps being a New Zealander means something different for each generation.

Who knows? Maybe in centuries to come our descendants will put on their ceremonial jandals and share a traditional meal of battered fish wrapped in ancient letters to the editor.

Then they will lick the salt off their fingers while reciting the sacred greetings of their ancestors: Yeah, nah. Kia ora. Ka pai te kai. Sweet as bro, sweet as.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 29 August 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Googling googols and other fun with words on National Poetry Day

I’ve been googling googols. I like to play with words and it gives me a ridiculous amount of pleasure to write “googling googols” in an otherwise sensible newspaper.

My googol-googling began because I was thinking about my weekly column. I found myself wondering how columnists came to be called columnists. Most newspapers are arranged in columns, sure, but of all the contributors, why were columnists named after part of the layout?

I have this notion that a newspaper editor once said, “Write me something interesting to fill that bit of column space.” The result proved popular, so the editor got the writer to do it again. Appearing in the same part of the newspaper each week, in the same column, the writer eventually became known as a columnist.

Seems reasonable? I am making it up, of course. If anyone has a better theory – or preferably, some actual knowledge – let me know. I did try to google the word ‘columnist’ to see where it originated but all I could find were examples of other columnists far more famous than me.

That’s where I grew conveniently disinterested and started to think about the word google instead.

Google is a noun that we have turned into a verb. We google stuff on Google. We also skype each other on Skype. I wonder if technology is giving us more verbs? It’s quite acceptable to text a text message or to email an email but no one ever said, “I’m going to letter a letter.”

Anyway, while googling Google I learned that the two guys who built it started off with a search engine that they called Backrub. Seriously. They called it Backrub because it searched the ‘back links’ of the network.

Imagine if Backrub had stuck around as the name for what is now the world’s most ubiquitous web search. Today we would get to backrub Scarlett Johansson.

Denying us that giggly fun with a verb, they eventually landed on the name Google by playing with the word googol. While the word googol may look like a spelling error, it’s actually a very large number.

A googol is a 1 followed by 100 zeros. Thanks to the exponential power of freaky maths, it’s impossible to comprehend how big this number really is. Try this on for size: a googol is larger than the number of atoms in the observable universe.

Yes, apparently the total number of atoms in the universe only adds up to a 1 followed by a measly 80 zeros. (I don’t know who counted all the atoms in the universe but I’ll take their word for it.)

Another fun fact about the number googol is that it was named by a 9 year old. In 1938 a mathematician called Edward Kasner asked his nephew what he thought a good name might be for this extraordinarily large number with its 100 zeros. The reply was “a googol”. For lack of a better option, I suppose, Kasner went with it.

In my googol-googling adventure, I discovered that it would also be technically correct to call a googol “ten duotrigintillion”. To me, that sounds like the name Kasner might have got if he’d asked a 6 year old instead of a 9 year old.

Once you have a number as mind-bogglingly big as a googol, the next logical step is to make it even bigger. Behold the googolplex: a 1 followed by a googol zeros. The googolplex is so enormous that no piece of paper in the universe is big enough to write it down in full.

Which is all to say that words are fascinating and fun. Go out and find some words today. Google them, backrub them, enjoy them. Happy National Poetry Day.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 22 August 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Highfaluting, gutter-crawling art is everywhere.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Next Friday is National Poetry Day. But it’s okay if you don’t love poetry. We all love different things.

Of course, poetry is not just one single thing.

A friend of mine, who is Welsh, wrote on his Facebook page, “So my daughter just said my breath smells like Welsh words.”

That’s poetry.

We should dispel any notion that poetry is an exclusive, esoteric, intellectual pursuit. No way. Poetry mud-wrestles with language. It chews up words and spits them out in different colours.

To celebrate National Poetry Day there’s a poetry and music night at the Mauao Performing Arts Centre. The prior evening there’s a poetry function at the Tauranga Art Gallery.

The two nights offer very different poetry experiences. One is free and will be rambunctious and a bit messy. The other will no doubt exude a lot of class, with a $10 entry fee and poets performing alongside the glorious carved Black Rainbow Steinway piano.

With a poetic stake in both events I say let’s embrace the whole spectrum. You can revel in poetry with a glass of chardonnay or you can soak it up with a noisy beer. Poetry can be highfaluting or it can be gutter-crawling. Doesn’t matter, it’s all legitimate artistic expression.

One of this week’s many tributes to Robin Williams quotes him as saying, “I dread the word ‘art’.” Personally I think here are few things more worthwhile than the arts, but I am totally on board with his resistance to any form of cold snootiness.

Williams, backstage before appearing in Waiting for Godot: “No art. Art dies tonight.”

I can apply that sentiment to poetry too, paradoxically, because I love poetry so much. ‘No poetry. Poetry dies tonight.’ You have to love your art enough to take risks with it and set it free from its own convention.

I love the risk that Owen Dippie took with his mural of Vermeer’s Girl With The Pearl Earring. Such a simple yet audacious idea to spray-paint a Renaissance masterpiece onto a wall on little old Cameron Road.

For you, Dippie’s mural might be a work of art, or it might merely be a nice picture, or it might even be a crime against the classics.

For me, it’s a light in the darkness. It’s the one piece of public art that provokes in me the most love for my city.

My heart skips a beat every time I see it peering out from the muddle of the ordinary streetscape. The pleasant surprise I get seeing it each time evokes emotions that I can’t really put into words, but I think that’s the whole point. Art declares to me that life is interesting and beautiful and mysterious. I love that I can have that experience on the way to the Elizabeth Street traffic lights.

There’s a contrary view, of course. That famous experiment where world-class violinist Joshua Bell played his Stradivarius in a Washington DC subway and no one noticed. It raises the question: do we have to be in a palace to properly appreciate the royal jewels?

I love to play classical piano. The optimum place for that is a hushed auditorium with beautiful acoustics and an expectant audience. But earlier this week I listened to a girl play a classical piece on the street piano outside Creative Tauranga. Her tune mingled with the city centre to create a unique moment of human expression that can never be replicated in a performance hall.

What’s my point? There is no true art and true art is everywhere. Let’s gobble it all up, starting with the complementary flavours of poetry.

Malady Poetry Night, 21 August, 6.00pm at the Tauranga Art Gallery (bookings essential, phone 5787933) and Caught In The Act, 22 August, 7.00pm at the Mauao Performing Arts Centre.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 15 August 2014. Reproduced with permission.

What is true art, anyway?

This morning I received an amazing email from someone who read my column in today’s paper about poetry and art.

Hey Marcel, i just wanted to say thank you for your article today. It was the perfect read for what I am experiencing. I’ve observed over the years that the arts often get misunderstood as something that is for a separate group of people. Or far away from what each of us experience.

The truth is there is no separation between Art and each of us, as your article suggests. As a singer/songwriter myself I am constantly questioning things, trying to understand what motivates us and processing what’s around. The arts are a form of expression of all those questions that we come across, that we all carry at our core and the things that spark inspiration. I’m finding behind the to and fro of the guitar parts, beneath the foundation of groove made by the drums and bass and the melody of the keys swirling its way around the lyrics I write and sing … still those questions can be found. They are what urge me to keep searching.

To keep jotting down those phrases that resonate with me or put a song on repeat because truly there is no right answer. Just more questions to be found and more songs to be heard.

 

The email came from Nina Thompson from Sidewalk Empire. I love encountering new creative brains. Check them out:

www.facebook.com/SidewalkEmpireMusic

A case for reading (more) fiction

After dinner our six year old said, “So, Mum, what’s the plan?”

My wife said, “The plan is for you to get into your pajamas and into bed.”

He replied, “No Mum. What’s the plan to make everyone in the world happy?”

A single plan to make everyone happy. How sweet. If only it were that simple.

I suppose we could start by reading more books. My favourite new nugget of information lately is that reading novels makes you a better person.

I’ve seen a couple of articles about this online, all stemming back to an original piece on Time.com by Annie Murphy Paul. Her article ‘Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter And Nicer’ cites a bunch of different studies by cognitive scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists to support this idea that the act of reading fiction equips us to better appreciate other people’s perspectives.

As someone who barely knows what cognitive scientists actually do, I’m not going to argue. Especially because I like their findings. Of course I do. I’m a reader.

I counted up the books that are currently on my bedside table. There are three novels, two poetry books, a pile of comics, a movie magazine and two non-fiction books. I’m juggling my way through all of them at various speeds.

But Annie Murphy Paul’s article makes me think I need to stop flitting between genres for a bit and settle down with one good, solid novel.

To immerse yourself in a book is an experience quite distinct from many of the other ways that we absorb information. We live in an age of short video clips, fast clicks and hyperlinks. Our modern reading environment is rife with scrolling and swiping opportunities.

In contrast, what they call ‘deep reading’ requires an uninterrupted page. It could probably even be an e-book page, so long as the reading is “slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity”. To achieve that you would need to turn off the internet for a while and stop leaping from one thing to the next.

Okay, so I’m immersed in a book. I’m soaked up to my eyeballs in emotional and moral complexity. That sounds lovely. But how does it make me a better person?

By all accounts my brain gets exercise from reading about the emotional situations and moral dilemmas in the novel. Being propelled into the heads of fictional characters increases my real-life capacity for empathy.

I can think of a few people who could do with more capacity for empathy. Life would be a lot more pleasant if more of us were able to appreciate other perspectives.

I don’t mean we have to agree with everyone. It would just be better if we could strive for thoughtful dialogue instead of getting stuck in that awful default setting where everything is framed as ‘them’ versus ‘us’.

There are enough bad guys in the world without us inventing new ones every time we disagree with someone.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett describes it as the “tendency to caricature one’s opponent”.

By way of antidote he offers four steps to arguing intelligently. First, you should try to re-express the other person’s position so well that they say, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Next, you should say which parts of their argument you agree with. Then you should mention anything you have learned from them. Only then are you permitted to say a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If that all seems too hard then maybe we should just read more novels.

Failing that, we could perhaps try my son’s plan for making the world a happier place, which is to smile warmly at the next person you see and hope that they pass it along.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 8 August 2014. Reproduced with permission.

More from elsewhere:

Reading literature makes us smarter and nicer

Being a better online reader

How to criticize with kindness

Women of the attractive planet

attractive planet

 

Women of the attractive planet!
You are our favourite planet.
We welcome your soft sculpted landscapes,
the shifting layers of your unhurried oceans.
All eyes acknowledge the slow swerve of your transit.

Women of the attractive planet!
The earth is humming your tune.
Thumping fires curve in your wake.
You rip blazing holes in the fabric
of the smoking hot universe.

Women of the attractive planet!
Your friendships are warm and scented.
Your conversations glitter with proximity.
We are connected by short and impossible distances.
Can you feel the invisible sizzle?

Women of the attractive planet!
We are cheerful students of your orbit.
The sky is holding its breath.
Colour our space with your complicated beauty.
You are our favourite planet.

 

Since posting here, this poem has been published in Byline 2015: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from Tauranga Writers.

Spider-Man, Palestine, hope and pastries

Unable to adequately process my feelings about the bloodshed in Gaza, I was rescued from my fatalistic gloom by none other than Spider-Man.

Actually, it wasn’t Spider-Man himself, it was one of his enemies, an entity called Morlun who pauses for a moment in one of the comics to sit in a cafe and espouse the value of pastry.

“Do you know why humans are a people of hope? Because you make things like croissants and pastry. Pastry in particular. You make something of astonishing beauty, carefully decorated, fragile, lovely, knowing that the person who receives it will appreciate that beauty only for about two seconds before devouring it.”

Such peculiarly appealing wisdom. In the midst of all the horrible things that I have seen and read over the past few weeks, oddly, it is this little snippet from a comic (Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1: Coming Home) that has given me the most comfort.

Even if it is only for the transient beauty of a pastry, there must be – there has to be – hope for humanity.

It’s good to be alive in our safe little corner of the world. We’re free to enjoy things like the Commonwealth Games (and Spider-Man comic books) but grating with uncomfortable dissonance in the background is the ongoing conflict in Israel. It’s awful. I don’t know what to do with it, if indeed I can do anything at all.

I’ve noticed that the ideological battle lines have advanced into social media. Suddenly it seems a lot of people on Facebook are experts on the history of Israel.

There has been a lot of focus on who is to blame. We take comfort in taking sides.

Given a few smartly produced infographics and videos it’s easy to form an opinion quite quickly.

“Aha,” I say to myself. “It’s pretty clear in this situation who the bad guys are.” It feels good to put a label on the bad guys.

But then I see an equally smart video or a thought-provoking article that challenges my bias. “Oh,” I now say to myself, “maybe it’s not so simple.”

Nothing is simple.

It feels almost distasteful to be forming strong opinions on other cultures from my comfy chair in the Bay of Plenty, here where my biggest problem is not getting to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the big screen.

What do I know about inter-generational conflict? What do I know about rockets and rubble, or the deep-seated religious belief that fuels middle-eastern politics?

“They should just stop the fighting,” I say, as though it’s obvious and easy. The TV series Game of Thrones has some wisdom on that: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

The only thing I do know for sure is that if anyone were to hurt, murder or terrify my own children, I would probably wish my own brand of retaliation upon the perpetrators. Grace is hard. How can I say with confidence that I wouldn’t become part of the problem?

There are reasons stacked upon reasons in the Middle East that I cannot possibly appreciate. Everything is complicated.

Yet everything is also quite simple. People are being killed and it is wrong. Awfulness stacked upon awfulness.

No matter where your sympathies lie, surely human lives are the most important thing.

I return to my Spider-Man comic partly for an escape, but also to be reminded by art that humanity is not entirely lost. If the bad guy can appreciate the fleeting beauty of a croissant then we have at least one thing in common.

Blimey. A pastry seems so trivial in the face of genuine suffering, but it’s all I’ve got.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 1 August 2014. Reproduced with permission.

3-Day Survival Experiment

bacon_egg pie

Could your children survive alone for three days? Some intrepid friends of mine put this question to the test. They let their daughter Lucy, 9, and their son Tristan, 7, look after themselves for three days during the school holidays.

The parents were on hand at all times but they would only come to the rescue in emergencies. Aside from that, the kids were totally in charge of their own laundry, cooking, dishes and even bed times.

A few basic rules were established at the outset. Communal spaces needed to stay tidy and the children still had to ask if they wanted to borrow any of Mum and Dad’s stuff.

“Mum and Dad” are Fiona and Karl Summerfield. Fiona is a writer who blogged her way through the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes. In the weeks and months following the big shakes, her blog Somewhere Writing gave rare insight into what everyday life was like for a family in the quaky city.

The Summerfields have since moved to Nelson where they now apparently conduct social experiments on their children, much to the delight of anyone reading Fiona’s blog.

Her entry the night before the three-day survival experiment reads: “Tonight [Lucy and Tristan] are very confident of their cooking ability and filled with the joy of the idea of setting their own bedtime and having supper. Their clothes are all clean and packed away in their drawers ready for the next three days. Let’s see how the next three days pans out.”

The next three days pan out pretty well, actually. The Summerfields are a foodie family and the kids are obviously quite at home in the kitchen. Lucy and Tristan are savvy enough to plan their meals in advance, which results in an impressive menu stacked with pancakes, meatballs and chocolate cake.menu

Fiona and Karl watch “like UN observers at an election”. They make suggestions where appropriate but mostly keep out of it. When Tristan asks for help to melt the butter for his chocolate cake, Fiona reminds him that he has to do it himself. When eggs break by accident, no one races to the supermarket for replacements.

The most hands-on the parents get is to help with the tamper-proof lid on the dishwasher powder. Fiona writes: “I am sure with their powers of destruction they could have got into it – but I would rather the container still be in one piece at the end of three days.”

Being in charge means the kids are also have to resolve their own disputes. “A big argument arises over the hanging of the washing. Tristan comes to see us, to win us to his side but we tell him they have to sort it out. After some full volume yelling they work out their differences and the job is done.”

By day two the kids are getting tired, having stayed up until 9.30 the night before and Tristan having slept in his clothes to save a bit of washing.

The kids enjoy the experiment but it does culminate in another big argument on day three, with Lucy yelling: “You have no idea how tired I am. All the cooking I have done for you!”

As a parent myself I found the children’s concluding insights particularly satisfying.

Tristan: “Being an adult is actually quite hard. You can’t just stay on the computer all day because you have jobs to do.”

Lucy: “Don’t take parents for granted, they do a lot of work.” She says she now understands why her mum and dad don’t go to bed when she does because there is always more work to be done.

At one point during the experiment Karl suggests, “Being an adult is not as much fun as you think is it?” The answer returns with a unified yell: “No.”

You can read Fiona’s full account of the three-day survival experiment at somewherewriting.blogspot.co.nz.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 25 July 2014. Reproduced with permission.

How To Train Your Haircut

dragon2And so another round of school holidays careens towards its noisy conclusion.

I like school holidays because I get to take my kids to the movies.

Any trip to the movies is a rare treat so there’s a lot at stake. I try to hide it, but I usually get a bit uptight. My body has learned to cultivate a very specific cinema-related tension.

It’s all about getting there on time and getting a decent seat. Getting the right seat is critical. If you were born tall then you probably never noticed the little people behind you who are weeping into their tiny souls because a giant head is in the way.

Fortunately I’m taller now, but that residual panic remains on behalf of my children. I don’t want them to suffer behind inconsiderately tall people the way I once had to suffer during Superman III.

About an hour before the film I get jumpy. My exterior is an ocean of calm, but on the inside I am plotting against each and every person standing between me and the theatre doors.

Our film for these holidays was How To Train Your Dragon 2. We fought off a bunch of toddlers for the best seats and had an enjoyable time listening to everyone else eating ridiculous amounts of popcorn.

The film itself was great fun. My review: it’s not quite as tight as the original, but if you must have a sequel to one of my favourite movies it hits all the right notes.

It’s been a good school holidays, punctuated by varying degrees of sickness, myself included. To inject a little Shakespeare into this page, now is the winter of my discontent made glorious by respite from a cold that has dogged me for six weeks.

Seriously, six long weeks of flubbery glug-headedness. Nothing really debilitating, but exhausting for the length of it. It’s the longest I’ve ever been knocked back. Others have said the same. We seem to have had it rough this year.

If I made any bad decisions during that time you can blame it on my cold. Like cheering for Brazil or giving myself a rubbish haircut.

I usually cut my own hair. I haven’t paid for a haircut for at least five years but that’s probably about to change. This week was my first real disaster. One slightly over-enthusiastic move spiraled out of control. My wife made a noble rescue attempt but the damage was done. I had successfully turned myself into a cartoon.

I looked in the mirror and managed to convince myself I could get away with it. Then I went to work and no one said a word. Not. One. Word. A conspiracy of diplomatic silence. The next day a good friend cheerfully confirmed that I do in fact look like a dork.

So I have come to the end of my pride, the end of the holidays, the end of my cold and also the end of the World Cup.

The World Cup had a strange effect on me, which is that I now think I’m a champion footballer. Kicking that ball around looks really easy from the couch. By the end of the tournament, whenever those world-class players sent the ball awry, I would find myself scoffing that I probably could have done better.

My son and I took a football to Fergusson Park last weekend and I learned otherwise. I suck, and so does my haircut.

Oh well, it’ll grow back. And next time I might visit a proper hair dresser.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 18 July 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Fantasies come true

Found myself in a brief twitter conversation about David Hasselhoff, triggered by this retro pic, and then learned by sheer coincidence that it’s actually his birthday today.

So here’s a very quick story from my book that seems relevant. (Happy Birthday Mr Knight!)

 

Fantasies come true

The day all my fantasies came true was somewhat of a disappointment. They turned up as cars from the television world of my childhood: a black trans am, an orange dodge charger, plus a couple of highway patrol motorbikes. Still totally cool, but a few decades too late.

Your heart rate indicates a notable lack of enthusiasm, the black car said to me in its distinguished gentlemanly voice.

Don’t take it personally but I’m no longer ten years old, I said. My fantasies tend to involve other things now.

What are all these cars on the lawn? called my wife from the deck. She was holding a glass of wine, wearing that blue dress everyone loves. I looked at her and realized I was already doing pretty well in the fantasy-come-true department.

 

Ministry of Ideas thumbnail

Never thought I’d write a column about number twos, but here goes …

Can the power of advertising change a nation’s bathroom habits? If so, it begins with something I did not expect to see on TV this week: Madeleine Sami talking about number twos.

“We all do number twos. I’ve been doing it since day one.” Okay, there’s an opening line I haven’t heard before.

Sami is fronting a commercial for Kleenex that suggests there’s a better way to conduct our business. A fresher way.

“When I was asked by Kleenex Cottonelle to take the fresh test I felt a bit awkward,” Sami says, heading into the bathroom with a shy grin. “But recently,” she continues, “I’ve been re-educated.”

Welcome to the next generation of toilet paper technology: wet wipes.

Hang on. Wet wipes have been around for ages, haven’t they? We’ve just never used them in the toilet.

Sorry, I should stop calling them wet wipes. These are “flushable cleansing cloths”. Very important difference, especially that flushable part.

The Kleenex sales pitch is that dry toilet paper is insufficient without a flushable cleansing cloth chaser.

“They’re lightly moistened. It’s the freshest my bum has ever felt.” Here Sami giggles, having just got to say “number twos” and now “the freshest my bum has ever felt” on TV.

“It’s dry, then wet, for the freshest feeling yet.”

In order to convince us to buy flushable cleansing cloths this commercial has to first broach an icky subject and then it has to start normalizing the idea of, basically, baby wipes for grown ups.

With those hurdles in mind, the ad is a smart piece of work. I’m guessing it’s the start of a much broader marketing campaign by Kleenex. The goal? Sell lots of product. The method? Change our approach to the way we’ve been doing ablutions ever since toilet paper was invented. No big deal.

Only a few weeks ago I heard the very same thing discussed on The TED Radio Hour, which I often listen to as a podcast. It was an episode about branding and they got talking about toilet paper.

Flushable cleansing clothes (“moist towelettes” in America) have apparently been around for a while, but they have never been marketed successfully. Even though, when you pause for thought, they make a lot of sense. This, from UK advertising guru Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather:

“If you look at it rationally, no one will go out in the garden and get their hands dirty, say, re-potting a plant … and go: ‘Gosh I’ve got mud on my hands. Clearly the thing I must do now is rub them very vigorously with dry paper to ensure that they’re clean.’ You’d use water.”

Sutherland’s theme is that advertising is key to changing our perception about the value of a product. If we want flushable wipes to become socially acceptable, advertisers will need to come to our rescue.

He cites the story of the 18th century King of Prussia who re-branded the potato by declaring it a royal vegetable, henceforth to be grown under guard. A product no one would touch suddenly became something desirable that people wanted to steal and grow for themselves.

The Smithsonian website has a great article about how advertisers convinced Americans that they smelled bad in order to boost deodorant sales. Deodorant was regarded with suspicion in the early 20th century. The marketing solution was to re-brand perspiration as a social faux pas. Deodorant took off.

We’ve been rubbing ourselves clean with toilet paper for years. Can advertisers re-brand toilet paper as being too dry for a proper job? It’ll be no mean feat but Kleenex is apparently ready to give it a crack.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 11 July 2014. Rewiped with permission.

You’re not James Bond

Image sourced from Illustrated 007
Image sourced from Illustrated 007

My favourite quote from the last couple of weeks comes from the former mayor of Auckland and governor general, Dame Catherine Tizard. When asked what she thinks of the current Mayor of Auckland, she answered:

“I supported Len Brown when he ran and I still do. I did, however, whisper in his ear, ‘You stupid f***wit’ when I first saw him after that affair.”

That’s how it was written in The New Zealand Herald, with those naughty little asterisks hiding the uncomfortable truth. Much like the way Len Brown once tried to hide his own uncomfortable truth. As Brown found out, you always get found out. Closets have a way of creaking open.

I like the quote because it depicts a good-natured right-royal telling-off. A sincere but gentle scolding delivered with a tinge of maternal warmth. I don’t imagine Len Brown felt entitled to disagree with Dame Catherine’s candid assessment. When you’ve screwed up, you’ve screwed up.

Marriage and faithfulness is on my mind this week because my wife and I are high-fiving our way to another wedding anniversary: 17 years. My standard quip is that it’s been the best 13 years of my life.

That’s a positive, not a negative joke. Every year I deduct some happiness from the grand total on account of a few steep learning curves, but it’s no lie to say that the other years have been genuinely great.

It helps that we really, really like each other. It’s easy enough to love someone, but the hurdles of life are a lot more fun if you are able to like each other too.

That said, I understand how people stumble into having affairs. No matter how much you care for your partner, the sparkle and shine will fade if you grow complacent. Bathroom habits and grocery bills wear down the gloss pretty quickly. We’re only human after all. Throw in some kids for extra exhaustion and suddenly anyone who lives outside your domestic routine looks a whole lot more attractive.

It’s probably a bit like craving KFC. Those secret ingredients play on your mind for many months before culminating in an uncharacteristic moment of indulgence that is followed by instant regret.

The path to this misguided fantasy is signposted very subtly with innocent-looking moments.  An innocuous walk in the park or a casual text message can in fact be loaded with intent, even if neither person admits it, turning those moments into tasty little transactions of illicit intimacy.

In the early days it took me a while to recognise the dangers of these slippery signposts and I ambled blithely past a few of them. I’m older and wiser now and I have a very simple rule: “Don’t be that guy.”

Everyone knows who “that guy” is. He’s the guy who thinks he’s James Bond but in reality is just a married man trying to live vicariously by fabricating moments with other people he fancies. More often than not everyone else can see exactly what he’s up to.

Just because something is appealing doesn’t mean you are entitled to it. I’m not James Bond and, disappointing as it may seem at times, all the attractive women in the world are not waiting for me to hit on them.

I quite often take a step back to observe my wife as though she’s not my wife, just so I can see what everyone else sees. It turns out she’s the ideal woman for me. If we weren’t already married I would totally want to have an affair with her. So I do.

I may not be James Bond but I’ve already got the girl. If I were to pursue anyone else I’d be a stupid f***wit and the former governor general could rightly tell me so.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times, 4 July 2014. Reproduced with permission.

See also:

len smackAffairs are really dumb.

OMG! Reading this will change your life!

click-bait

I started writing this article. You’ll never guess what happened next!

The things I can do with an opinion column will astound you.

What I have to say will stop you in your tracks.

You WON’T BELIEVE how simple it is. It may just BLOW YOUR MIND.

Okay, it seems I’ve just used up my hyperbole allowance for the rest of the year. And I apologise for shouting at you with all those capital letters. It’s very un-newspaperly to write like that. It would have hurt the sub-editor at a very deep level to let them through.

It’s going to get worse though, because I’m writing about a very un-newspaperly topic.

Clickbait headlines are the current weapon of choice in an internet battle that’s being waged to attract the most page views via social media. You’ll be browsing Facebook, just minding your own friends’ business, when you get drawn into a pointless Buzzfeed article or an emotive Upworthy video. All because of that intriguing, irritating headline. Here are some I’ve seen this week.

“What This Guy Can Do With Cardboard Is Absolutely Mindblowing.”

“An 8 Year Old Just Left Me Speechless With His Outlook On A Tragic Situation.”

Welcome to the new world of headline theory, where everything is awesome, astounding, heart-breaking and super freaking urgent.

“These Baby Elephants Play Soccer By Their Own Rules … And It’s 100% Awesome.”

“14 Facts That Will Make You Want To Grab A Beer Right Now.”

“Something Happened 28 Years Ago, And It’s Making Spiderwebs, Birds, And ‘Shrooms Go BERSERK.”

Beserk mushrooms? To be honest, I’m getting a bit bored with it all. It was a good trick the first few times but there are only so many times I can have my mind blown. They’re wearing out all of the superlatives.

Principle innovators in this new turbo-charged era of clickbaiting are the headline writers at Upworthy.com. Launched in 2012, Upworthy take video content from around the web and re-post it under their own banner.

Upworthy succeed because they put so much effort into their headlines. They write at least 25 different options for each headline, then four of those are shortlisted and market-tested before the final version is chosen.

Their stated goal is to create what they call a ‘curiosity gap’. Where traditional headlines try to sum up the story as succinctly as possible, Upworthy’s headlines are more like: “OMG you’ll never guess what!”

They will happily over-promise to generate your curiosity. Or channel the voice of a teenage girl.

“She Takes Everything You Think You Know About Her Sex Life. And Shuts. It. Down.”

So-called ‘proper’ newspapers are largely keeping clear of this approach. But the clickbait is spreading. It’s probably only a matter of time.

In fact, I’ve already taken the initiative by rewriting some of this week’s Bay of Plenty Times headlines.

“You’ll Never Guess How Many People Are Hiding Their Criminal Past. Legally.”

“A Woman And 2 Children Woke To A House Filled With Smoke. What They Did Next Saved Their Lives.”

“And You Thought Knitting Was Boring. Here’s Why You’re Wrong.”

You’ve got to hand it to Upworthy. This style of headline makes you want to know more, hence all the imitators. I actually rather like Upworthy. The content they post reflects a genuine desire to canvas worthy causes. It’s not their fault that every other website is also trying to: Blow. Your. Mind.

But where it’s all headed bothers me. I’m not sure we’ll actually like what happens next.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 27 June 2014. You won’t believe how it was reproduced with permission!

For the most supreme clickbait satire ever see The Onion’s Clickhole.

Soccer versus football and how to fall over properly in the World Cup

Jor_Id van persie twitter meme
Robin van Persie Twitter logo by Jor-ID.com

 

Who’s enjoying the FIFA World Cup? I find the games oddly relaxing. The field is green, the crowd is sonorous and the flow of action is soothing to watch. It’s an ocean of play that ebbs and flows and crashes with occasional excitement against the goal posts.

Just to clear this up from the start, I use the words soccer and football interchangeably. I know some people get a bit snooty about it, as though the difference really matters, but I grew up playing soccer and I turned out fine.

The word soccer originated in England back in the 19th century when rugby and soccer were called rugby football and association football. The nicknames for each became “rugger” and “soccer”, soccer being derived from the awkwardly shortened “assoc football”.

Rugger and soccer. One name stuck, the other didn’t. Probably a good thing because rugger sounds less like a sport and more like something uncomfortable. Either way, soccer is a legitimate nickname for the most popular sport in the world.

My 8 year old started soccer this year. He loves it. For several years I tried to hide the existence of Saturday morning sport from him because, well, it’s Saturday and I’d rather read a book or go surfing. But it’s worth the effort to watch those little shin-pad-clad legs scampering gleefully after the ball each week.

The FIFA World Cup is timely for our family. We’re learning a lot of good lessons about how proper football should be played. Like, whenever you trip over it’s very important to look aggrieved.

There’s apparently quite an art to falling over in football. You need to make it appear that the most egregious crime in the history of gentlemanly sport has been committed against you. If someone trips you, either accidentally or on purpose, be sure to punish them by having a grizzle on the grass for at least a minute.

The off side rule has confused us a few times because in my son’s junior soccer rules there are no off sides. Junior soccer is five-a-side with no goalies.

For the record, I was the most feared goalie in the Taupo under-12s. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. A friend once told me that his team used to say “oh no, Marcel’s in goal” whenever they faced us at Saturday morning games.

It’s quite hilarious to think that anyone was ever in awe of my junior goal-keeping skills because at that age I was not much bigger than the ball, let alone those giant wooden goal posts.

I only recall saving two goals. One I saved entirely by accident with my face and went off crying with a bleeding nose. The other was a real cracker, a heroic dive to the left, my arm outstretched, just managing to tap the ball out for a corner. It was the greatest save I had ever seen in real life. Enough to give me a proper reputation for a little while. Hey, I’ll take it.

I stopped playing soccer when I reached the grade where they let you head the ball. I was very small for my age and heading the ball struck me as an unnecessarily painful part of the game.

It’s great to watch though. That header by van Persie where Netherlands beat Spain. Wow. At that point in the match I decided I was cheering for Netherlands.

I’m not particularly invested in any one team so part of the fun is deciding who to support by the end of each match. It’s a relaxing way to enjoy the thrills of world cup soccer. Or football. Whatever. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s that fabulous FIFA thing. Watch, enjoy, and if you play it make sure you fall over in style.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 20 June 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Thieves and liars: just another episode of Game of Thrones

Remember the dark ages when, if you missed your favourite TV show, it was gone and you couldn’t catch up? Back before video-on-demand, DVD or even VHS recorders, I wasn’t allowed to watch the final episode of BJ and the Bear. “It’ll come back,” said my mum, sending me off to bed. It never did come back. I held a grudge for 30 years.

Having forgiven my mum and moved on from BJ and the Bear, my favourite show is currently Game of Thrones. This is not a programme I would ever recommend to my mother, even though she went through a slightly uncharacteristic phase of watching Jack Bauer torturing people in 24.

Game of Thrones is a gritty, meandering medieval fantasy, riddled with gratuitous nudity and visceral violence. More interesting is the politics: backstabbing with lots of front stabbing. It’s compelling stuff because no character is ever safe. That’s probably why it’s the most illegally downloaded television programme in the world.

Making it illegal to watch TV seems entirely unnecessary to me. There are millions of people around the globe who obviously want to watch Game of Thrones. I’m sure that at least some of them would pay a nominal fee to get their fix legitimately if they could.

Why do they make it so hard for us to behave? Here in New Zealand there’s no legal way to watch stuff like Game of Thrones unless you are prepared to shell out for SKY and their SoHo channel. It’s not SKY’s fault, they’re just making the most of their exclusive broadcast rights. It’s all to do with international distribution deals that I neither understand nor care about because I just want to see who makes it to season five.

I suppose I could wait another year for the DVD, but waiting even a week in the spoilerific land of social media is a logistical minefield. This is the 21st Century. It’s my human right to watch whatever I want, right now.

Not that I’m confessing to any dodgy downloads. I’m squeaky clean, honest … although it’s possible that I know a guy who knows a guy. Possibly. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.

Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone – Especially Ourselves, says that every single one of us will cheat if we think we can get away with it, especially if we don’t have to come into contact with actual money.

Think about it this way. You wouldn’t pinch a dollar from the petty cash draw at work, because that’s stealing. But what if you take home a pen that’s worth a dollar? Is it still stealing? What about using a dollar’s worth of personal photocopying at your work’s expense?

You will have a good argument for why a coin is different to a pen or a bit of photocopying. In the same way, people have lots of good arguments for why downloading sneaky episodes of Game of Thrones is different to swiping a DVD from the video store.

So long as we can justify our misbehaviour to ourselves, we each have a line of dishonesty under which we feel comfortable operating.

“Essentially,” says Ariely, “we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.”

I love that phrase “reasonably honest”, as though it’s the highest level of integrity we can possibly strive for. Personally, I’d like to think I’m better than just reasonably honest but Dan Ariely would say that I’m lying to myself. He’d also suggest that it’s getting easier to fool ourselves into acting dishonestly. “The more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips.”

That’s serious food for thought. I shall need to ponder it carefully – after the next episode of sex and violence.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 13 June 2014. Stolen dishonestly with permission.

Lady Goodness

I’d forgotten this dirty little teenage fantasy exists. It’s something I wrote nearly 10 years ago, first published in Bravado in 2005. It’s dated already; these days the boys in the story would just hover over an iPad instead of a magazine. 

 

Lady Goodness

 

As soon as they got inside they threw her onto Gareth’s bed. She lay there, perfectly tanned in a pale blue bikini. “Behold,” said Terry, “Your first girlfriend.”

“Wow,” said Gareth.

They stood there gazing at her for a moment, then Gareth sat down on the bed for a better view. “Wow,” he said again. He ran his hand across the page to iron out a kink. “She’s hot.”

Terry grinned slyly. “I think she likes you. An older woman too. You could get arrested.”

“Nah.” Gareth blushed.

“Look at her, she’s begging for you.”

“No she’s not,” said Gareth. He looked her up and down.

“Ooh, Gareth, take me now!”

“Shut up, Terry.” Gareth sniffed and straightened his glasses. He glanced around the little bedroom. “Perhaps we should close the door.”

“Afraid Mummy’s gonna come home early?” Terry kicked away some clothes and pushed the door shut.

Gareth gently rested the magazine on his lap. The girl was looking directly at him, her blonde hair draped in strands over her face.

“She’s nice,” he said. “I wish she would turn around. Aargh!” He dropped the magazine onto the bed. “Did you see that!”

“What?”

“She did it again!” They leaned over the magazine. The girl on the page blinked, craned her neck in a slow stretch, and smiled at them. Her body came to life in a slow, luxurious ooze as though it was full of warm honey. She made every move with exquisite care.

“What is this magazine?” asked Gareth, squinting. “Where did you get it?”

“From the supermarket. Nothing special.”

Gareth picked it up and studied the paper closely from every angle. The girl continued to move about on the page. “It must be some new kind of video thing.”

“Whatever it is, it’s pretty damn cool.” Terry touched the paper. “Feels normal enough,” he said, and as he spoke his finger brushed over the girl’s bare skin. She let out an audible sigh.

“Did you hear that?!”

“Do it again.” Another sigh, and this time the girl moved her body under Terry’s finger. “Far out! An interactive magazine!”

“Give me a go,” said Gareth. They interacted.

“Damn, we’re good!”

“She gets lost under my finger,” Gareth complained. “I wish she was bigger.”

“I wish she was in the room,” said Terry. “I’d like to  – holy shit!” The girl was rising through the surface of the paper. The page spilled off her body like thick water until she lay on top of the magazine, a Barbie doll come to life. Not only that, but she was growing, inflating in perfect proportion before their eyes, right there on Gareth’s lap. She stretched her arms over her head and sighed as she grew, the sexiest genie in the world emerging from her lamp. Finally, at full size, she swung her breasts toward Gareth and said simply: “Hi there.”

Gareth appeared to be having trouble breathing.

The girl’s lips spread into a shiny grin. She turned to Terry. “And what’s your name?”  Her voice was warm and smoky.

“T-Terry.”

“Hello Ti-terry.”

Terry coughed. “No, just Terry.”

“Okay,” said the girl. She turned back to Gareth who was blinking furiously. “Gareth,” he said at last. She smiled. “Gareth,” she repeated, then leaned into him with an open mouthed kiss that tipped him backwards onto the bed.

“Whoa, unfair!” said Terry. He reached out to touch her. She didn’t seem to mind. He frowned. “Hey, her skin feels funny.”

Gareth managed to turn away from her lips, knocking his glasses crooked against her cheek. “Yeah, and she tastes gross,” he said.

“Gross? What do you mean?”

“I dunno. Bitter. Inky.”

“Inky?” said Terry. “Here, give me a turn.” He pulled her close and had a good go at it. His mouth worked hard like a fish.

“Oh, Gareth,” she moaned.

“Terry,” said Terry. He pulled away. “You’re right,” he said to Gareth. He wiped off a bit of spittle. “She’s all cold and glossy.”

The girl said, “Oh yes, Gareth. I’m glossy.”

“Terry,” said Terry.

“Who are you?” Gareth asked her.

She sat up and, with a slow movement, peeled a bikini strap off her shoulder. “Cover Girl?” she suggested. “28 Pages of Lady Goodness? Does it matter?” Her finger toyed with the strap. “Shall I take off my top?”

“No!” said Gareth, horrified.

“Hell, yeah!” said Terry. “You jerk,” he added to Gareth.

The bikini fell to the floor. The boys studied her.

Gareth leaned closer. “I don’t get it. Where did they go?”

Terry stood up and circled her slowly. “Weird,” he said. “She’s all blurry.”

“Oh yes! I am blurry,” the girl purred.

“And check out her tummy button!” said Gareth, pointing. It was floating above her stomach. Terry laughed. He folded his arms and glared at the girl. “You’ve been airbrushed,” he said.

“Yes. Airbrushed. And it feels so goooood … Can you make me feel goooood, Gareth?”

“Terry,” said Terry impatiently. “And stop wiggling at me. Here, put this back on. You looked better before.”

He slumped down on the bed next to Gareth. They watched her clip the bra back into place. Every movement appeared to give her extraordinary pleasure.

“She’s still pretty hot,” observed Gareth. He shuffled slightly.

“Hottest thing I’ve ever seen in your bedroom. Sure beats your crappy dinosaurs.”

“What’s wrong with my dinosaurs?”

Terry watched her for a while. “This is crazy. We’ve got the perfect woman in your room and she’s useless.”

“28 Pages of Lady Useless,” said Gareth, sniggering at his own joke.

“Lady Goodness,” said the girl as she rubbed her hands over her body.

“Lady Photoshop, more like it.” Gareth was on a roll.

She leaned over him and looked directly into his eyes. “I want you,” she said. She was so close he had trouble focussing.

“Sure you do. If you were real. But you’re not.”

“I am real.”

“No you’re not. I wish you were real, but you’re not.”

She kissed him, slowly. He gasped.

“Oh, Terry,” she whispered.

“Gareth!” said Gareth, and plunged his lips into hers. His glasses mashed against her face.

Seeing this, Terry reached for the skin on her thigh. “Wow!” he said.

“I know!” cried Gareth.

“Yes!” said Lady Goodness. She pushed Gareth onto his back. “Hey! Unfair!” said Terry. He grabbed her waist. “What are you doing?” yelled Gareth as Terry pulled her away. “Oh, Terry!” she moaned. “Gareth!” said Gareth. “Yeah, baby!” said Terry. He kissed her, she flung herself at him and Gareth was forced off the bed. “That’s not fair, I was first!” he grizzled, straightening his glasses, but Terry was preoccupied. Zips were falling.

“Hey!” Gareth protested. “What are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing!” said Terry between kisses. “You idiot. Oh yeah, Lady Goodness!”

“Oh, Gareth!” she sighed.

“Terry!” said Terry, and dug in, kissing. Her head banged against the wall. She squealed with delight.

“Terry!” said Gareth.

“What?”

“I was first!”

“Shut up. It’s my magazine.”

“It’s my bedroom!”

“You can have a turn after me.”

Lady Goodness looked up at Gareth from the bed and winked. “You can go next, I promise.”

“That’s right, now go away,” said Terry. He fumbled blindly with the back of her bikini top.

“Yes!” she moaned.

“No,” said Gareth. “It’s not fair.”

Lady Goodness rolled onto her side as though posing for a photo. “Why don’t you join us?” she suggested.

“No!” they said at once. Terry pulled her back. “Look, she wants us both. Give me a turn and then you can have her all to yourself.” He went back to work. Gareth fumed for a bit. “She can’t possibly want both of us,” he complained. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She should get to choose.”

“Who cares! She wants us both!”

“I want you both.” said Lady Goodness. Her chest heaved dramatically. “I want you both!”

“No,” said Gareth. “She wanted me first. She should choose. I wish she could choose.” He moved in and tried to touch her.

“Get out of it!” said Terry. “You just want her for yourself!”

“So do you.” They were interrupted by a loud squeal.  “Ewww! Get off! Get off me!”

Terry flinched, confused, as Lady Goodness battered him with her hands. She scrambled to her feet. Gareth reached for her but she screamed and pushed him off. “Ow! That’s my eczema, you grubby little turd!”

“But … you want me!” said Gareth, and tried again. She slapped him away. “What do you think I am?” She looked around wildly, covering her chest as best as she could. “Geeks! You little perverts! Where am I?” Her eyes settled on Terry who lay in a state of awkward unzippedness. “Ewww! Dirty little shits!” She shuddered, and ran out the door.

“Lady Goodness!” Gareth pleaded. “Lady Goodness!” But she was gone.

Gareth screwed up his face. “I don’t get it.”

“You jerk, you spoiled it,” said Terry.

“Me? I was the one she wanted, but you tried to snatch her.”

“Oh, grow up. She wanted us both.” Terry straightened up his jeans. “Anyway,” he grumbled. “What did she expect?” They were silent for a while. Gareth slouched on the bed next to Terry. He began to polish his glasses with the hem of his shirt. “Did she seem a bit shorter when she left?”

Terry shrugged. “Who cares. I was getting bored with her anyway.”

“Yeah,” said Gareth, eventually. The magazine lay limp on the floor where it had fallen during all the excitement, the words 28 Pages Of Lady Goodness still blazing across the bottom of the vacant cover. Terry picked it up. “But look, there are heaps more to choose from. How about a brunette?”

“Sure. If she’s pretty.”

“They’re all pretty, you big dickhead.” Terry flicked randomly back and forth through the pages and finally tossed it open onto Gareth’s lap.

“Behold,” he grinned. “Your second girlfriend.”

 

First published in Bravado, 2005.

 

Scrabbling about for inspiration

“Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” said the author of Ecclesiastes, words that taunt me on days when I can’t decide what to write for this column.

Every day hundreds of thousands of words are dumped into the public domain, most of them inane, some of them smart, none of them ever quite as attention-grabbing as the latest funny internet video.

Who has time to read it all? I am adding to the clutter with even more words that most people have already skimmed past on their way to the next distraction.

Writers are like chefs. We spend hours in the kitchen only to watch the products of our hearts and souls getting scoffed in the commercial break. That’s just the way it is, and we go back into the kitchen to write more because we can’t stop writing.

I would love to write full time, but words are cheap and I’m a family man with a mortgage, so each morning I get up at stupid-o’clock to work on things like this column before going to my sensible job during the day.

My day job is at the city council. I don’t discuss council issues here, partly because it’s contrary to my brief but mostly because I don’t want to think about work at 5 o’clock in the morning.

So here I am, writing: just me, a cup of tea and a sleeping house. No distractions except for a gigantic cat.

We inherited a kitten earlier this year. He started out as a quivering handful of fluff and six months later turns out to be descended from an ancient breed of giant felines. He’s already as big as a regular cat and getting bigger.

The giant has taken to planting himself on my lap when I write, a purring anchor that I have to lean across to reach the keyboard.

Last week while I was writing he decided he wanted to climb out the study window. It was the morning of that sudden cold snap, our first real frost for the winter. The giant’s claws were no match for the icy corrugated roof and he slid away towards the two-storey drop. I threw a blanket out for him to grab. He spun and scrabbled for grip but it was too late.

It was just like that opening scene in Cliffhanger where the girl falls into the canyon. The cat slithered backwards, paws outstretched, eyes pleading with me all the way down into the darkness.

A heart-stopping moment but it turned out he was fine. There are probably scratch marks on the roof. Mostly it was a bother because I was on deadline and my column was struggling for its own traction.

My deadline is Thursday morning. I start thinking on Monday about what might be interesting on Friday. The hardest thing is to come up with something new each week.

It doesn’t help that I’m a perfectionist. I write and I rewrite and I scrabble about like a cat on a frosty roof until I figure out what I’m trying to say.

There’s always a moment where it seems this little collection of words are all that matter in the entire universe. Then I hand it in, Friday ambles by and not much changes. The Earth keeps on turning. People go about their business. Very soon it’s time for next week’s column.

And so it goes. But I have scratched another little mark on the world.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 June 2014. Reproduced with permission. 

Yes, all women deserve a lot more respect

yesallwomen

This is the story of a murderer, a hashtag and a worldwide protest against creepy men. It starts with Elliot Rodger, 22, who was by all accounts not particularly well in the head.

It seems young Rodger had twisted himself into an ugly knot of hate because none of the women he found attractive liked him back.

Tormented by this rejection, Rodger planned what he called “a day of retribution” to punish the women who weren’t attracted to him.

We know this because he posted a stream of misogynist rants on various places online, including a Youtube video which has now been removed. He also emailed a long manifesto to his family and to his therapist.

Then last Friday in Isla Vista, California, he went on a shooting rampage before ending his own life.

On any other day that story might get written off as the tale of one sick psycho in an otherwise sensible world, but thanks to Twitter it became a catalyst for something much bigger.

The fact that Rodger actually acted out his threats captured the attention of women who began to tweet about their own experiences of being threatened by men.

They were joined by more women, and then more. The tweets boomed into a collective protest directed at the entire spectrum of sexual abuse and harassment, from rape to leering co-workers.

The tweets were united under the hashtag #YesAllWomen. A hashtag works like a link. You can put a hash in front of any word in your tweet and it will create a link to every other tweet that happens to be using that same hashtag.

Most hashtags wither and die in obscurity, but some gather momentum and ‘trend’.

For nearly a whole week the hashtag #YesAllWomen sat at the top of the list of trending topics on Twitter. At first I didn’t know what to make of it. ‘Yes all women’? What does that even mean?

The best explanation comes straight from one of the tweets, which reads: “Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled access to her body. Every. Single. One. #YesAllWomen.”

This is where it gets real for us ordinary guys who assume we’re not part of the problem. The story of Elliot Rodger is actually a red herring. The #YesAllWomen tweets were railing in general against men’s sense of sexual entitlement.

Every woman has a story about an icky man. It boils all the way down to the subtle ways men treat women, perhaps without even realising it. It’s the difference between wanted and unwanted attention.

Not all men are to blame, but yes, all women have to negotiate their way through a male-oriented world that can at times make them feel vulnerable or intimidated or just plain disgusted.

I’m happy to go for a run in the evening but my wife is not. Men twice her age have leaned over her with nudges and winks in a supposedly professional work place.

Are they trying to live vicariously through their inappropriate compliments? The line was way back there, buddy.

I’m ill equipped to comment with much insight on this topic. It seems I’ve been strolling obliviously through my male universe without ever pausing to question things from a female perspective.

For that reason alone #YesAllWomen has been a positive moment in the fickle history of internet fads. It has shone a spotlight onto something that deserves to be discussed in the open.

I never realised there are so many creeps among us. Not all men, but yes, all women probably know what I’m talking about. I’m sure we can do better. A little bit of respect goes a long way.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 30 May 2014. Reproduced with permission.

 

Some of the tweets …

The greatest 6.1 list ever

In a random act of self-indulgence I’ve decided to celebrate the 61 opinion columns that I’ve written so far by trying to pick the top 6.1 of them. Here they are in reverse chronological order.

90 years of pure class

I was outrageously nervous about this column about my grandmother because it was completely personal and it didn’t relate to anything going on in the news. One of my early drafts tried to tie it to something current, but in the end I decided to trust in the strength of the topic and it stands on its own merits.

Happy to be a little pakeha

There were some awful, awful letters being published in both of our local papers about Te Reo and Maori culture, which is what prompted this column.

The Valentine’s Day revolution starts here

With my column due to land on Valentine’s Day this topic seemed like a no-brainer, but it was surprisingly hard to write. I remember grappling, writing and rewriting it, terrified it would be just another ordinary Valentine’s Day rant. All those drafts were worth it. Interesting that my grandparents have made this list twice.

Affairs are really dumb

In that first week after Len Brown’s affair broke the news it seemed to me that most of the commentary was going out of its way to avoid engaging directly with the topic of infidelity. I had some very gratifying feedback following this on.

You’re different to me. Go away.

It was actually kind of liberating to confess some the secret fears in this column. Ha ha.

Exercise versus illness

My tenuous nod to current affairs in this column was to mention the Rotorua Marathon. Aside from that it was an indulgent piece of showing off. But given where I’d been, I felt it was justified, and the public response confirmed that’s how it landed.

Gay marriage

Finally, my column about gay marriage should be listed in its own right but since I’ve only given myself 6.1 columns to choose from, I offer the ‘slippery slope’ paragraph in this piece as the token 0.1.

So. Those are the top 6.1 columns. I picked those that seemed to strike a chord with readers.  They seem to represent my more serious or earnest efforts. My list of 6.1 top entertaining columns would be quite different, something like this …

In following my own ridiculous 6.1 rule I had to leave out quite a few favourites. It goes to show, I must have written some pretty good stuff this past year. Please excuse me while I pat myself on the back. And do feel free to buy my ebook.

Ministry of Ideas cover

 

 

Road safety versus The Invisible Gorilla

Road safety campaigns bore me. We shouldn’t need them at all.

‘If you drive too fast you might crash. If you drive when you’re half asleep (surprise!) you might crash.’

This level of obviousness is equivalent to reminding us not to run through the house with scissors. It should only be necessary for juveniles who don’t know any better.

But that’s the problem. Road safety messages are absolutely necessary. Responsible grownups still need to be reminded about really obvious things. ‘If you text while driving it means you are no longer watching the road as carefully as you ought to be, which means you might crash.’ It seems none of us can be trusted to common sense.

As tiresome as road safety reminders can be, I do care passionately about their message to the extent that I care passionately about not getting killed by anyone’s split-second driving error, my own included.

I tend to be a conservative driver, possibly to the annoyance of impatient speedsters out there. Why isn’t that Honda passing the truck on that blind corner? Oh, I’m sorry Mr Audi, it’s because I don’t feel like taking unnecessary risks that will destroy people’s lives today.

There are many creative ways to be accidentally wiped off the face of earth. Car crashes are the most tragic of all freak accidents because they are so utterly preventable.

Here at the tail end of Road Safety Week, let’s start paying proper attention. Put down your damn phone and watch the road.

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read – or rather, listened to because I got it from the library as an audio book – is The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

The Invisible Gorilla investigates the surprising ways that our intuitions deceive us. Take driving with cellphones. We assume that a hands-free phone is safe, because intuition (and now legislation) tells us that having the phone in our hand while driving is dangerous.

Chabris and Simons explain how this intuition is wrong. They present empirical evidence to show that the phone call itself, hands free or not, is actually what creates the danger.

What? Huh? That doesn’t make sense does it?

The ‘everyday illusion’, as the authors call it, is that we assume a phone call is safe so long as our hands are free. But the distraction that matters has nothing to do with our hands. It’s all about our level of attention.

Evidence from a bunch of different tests and from real world examples shows that we miss a terrifying amount of visual information when engaged in a phone call and driving at the same time. Whatever we are doing with our hands is irrelevant to these results.

It’s not the same issue as talking to a passenger in the car, so you can park that objection straight away. Holding a conversation with a disembodied voice on the phone forces us into a narrow band of focus, making us more likely to miss surprises on the road.

They’ve done experiments and crunched the numbers to prove this. Naturally, you’ll assume it doesn’t apply to you because, like me, you are over-confident in your ability to notice whatever is right in front of you. Your confidence is an illusion. They’ve proven that too.

Track down The Invisible Gorilla and read it for yourself. There’s also some good info about driver distractions at www.brake.org.nz.

For now we can probably all agree that texting while driving is a whole other level of bad judgement. I once followed a kid who was texting on his motorbike. Talk about efficient ways to cull idiocy out of the gene pool. Drive safe out there. You never know what’s coming the other way.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 23 May 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Ministry of Ideas cover

Application for a hangover

The woman behind the bar said, that’s your fourth drink, if you want any more you’ll need to apply in writing. She handed me a clipboard with a piece of paper. An application form? I said. She shrugged. New rules.

I took the form back to our table to show everyone. They want me to apply for my next drink, I said. I have to agree to a partial or entirely unproductive day tomorrow. I have to agree to a cycle of sweat and fever-like symptoms, waves of nausea, thirst, dizziness and probable headache. I also have to agree to possible gastrointestinal effects including but not limited to the excessive evacuation of too-fluid faeces or violent ejection of matter from the stomach through the mouth.

Everyone said, eeeww! The bar woman hurried over with a second clipboard. Apologies, she said, I gave you the wrong form. The correct form requires your consent to feel outrageously invincible, to be extra outgoing and twice as hilarious despite potential to say or do things you might regret later and to experience a heightened emotional state of overwhelming love and affection for all of your friends, even the unattractive ones.

Everyone said, sign that one!

Grabbing the pen I thought, all paperwork should be this much fun.

 

A story from my book Ministry of Ideas, now available in the digital realm.

Ministry of Ideas cover

Attractive persuasion of the rare beard

Attention all men who grow beards. You’re cramping my style.

Science backs me up on this. It’s something called “negative frequency dependency”. It means that I, who have a beard, am more likely to maintain my attractive edge if everyone else stays clean-shaven.

Negative frequency dependency is an evolutionary genetics term to describe how rare traits earn more advantages than common traits. Not that I’m an expert in evolutionary genetics. Nope, I’m just a guy with a beard.

It’s not even a particularly beardy beard. It’s what I’d call a snug fit.

I know quite a few guys with similar snug-fit beards. According to negative frequency dependency, the closer I stand to any of them, the less attractive I’ll get because we cancel each other out.

I can stand next to my bearded friend Ben, though. His beard is what I’d call a supernova. It’s an unruly marvel that I like to imagine harbours sage wisdom and magical secrets.

There’s enough variation between our two beards to keep us both competitively attractive, each in our own way.

I’m not making this up. It’s science, straight out of a paper published last month by Rob Brooks and his fellow biologists from the University of New South Wales. Their paper is wonderfully titled ‘Negative frequency-dependent preferences and variation in male facial hair.’

Quite a mouthful. My non-scientist translation is: ‘Why beard fashions come and go.”

The paper describes a simple experiment in which people were shown pictures of men in various states of facial hairiness and asked to rate the attractiveness of each.

The experimenters concluded that a beard is perceived to be more attractive if there are fewer beards around. A rare beard is better. Conversely, so is a rare close shave.

To stay ahead of the attractive curve, all I have to do is make sure my facial hair is doing something different to the other facial hair in the room.

How helpful is this to me? Well, not very. I’m hardly going to launch into a frantic cycle of shaving and growing just to maintain a theoretical level of perceived attractiveness.

More importantly I don’t need to, because everything on the home front is just fine, thanks.

It was my wife who encouraged me to grow my beard in the first place. One morning she suggested I not shave my long weekend’s worth of stubble. I didn’t much like this idea. It was Monday. You should never launch a beard-growing campaign on a Monday.

But she was persistent and for a moment there I actually convinced myself that I had turned into the Wolverine.

The delusion was promptly shattered when I got to work. Negative frequency dependency will do that to you. There was no stubble to compete with me at home.

Growing a beard is a terrifying process. The old “I forgot to shave” excuse fools no one. People know exactly what you’re up to and they all wonder why.

Some guys are able to treat their faces like living canvases, sculpting and changing their facial hair from month to month. That’s never been me. I’d been mostly clean-shaven my whole life, so the sudden appearance of my fledgling beard was disconcerting for everyone, myself included.

I have to admit though, it grew on me. Three years later I still rather like it, and so does my wife. With that in mind, I take back what I said about bearded men cramping my style. Science has some good theories about attraction but a wife can be even more convincing.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 16 May 2014. Reproduced with permission.

 

Ministry of Ideas cover

Ministry of Ideas – the bionic Amazon version

The book I wrote a couple of years ago is now available as an e-book on the Amazon Kindle Store! It’s like a bionic book: We have the technology. We can rebuild it – better, stronger, faster than before.

Ministry of Ideas cover

 

Some samples from the book in this older post.

My thanks to Nick Turzynski from redinc book design who gave the cover a professional makeover. (Nick also designed the gorgeous anthology The Earth’s Deep Breathing in which a poem of mine sits next to a poem by Katherine Mansfield.)

If you like the book, do take the time to give it a review on Amazon. Otherwise no one else will discover the best book they’ve almost read.

Battle of Gate Pa: Does local history matter?

Stop what you’re doing and go to Greerton. It doesn’t matter if you don’t finish reading this column. Just go, right now, to the Battle of Gate Pa exhibit at the Greerton Hall.

Finally, Tauranga has its very own world class, grown up exhibit. But it’s only on until 24 May, which feels like a crime against the city. Something this good needs a permanent home.

Image by Dave Tipper
Image by Dave Tipper

I took my boys to see the exhibit last weekend. We had an interesting discussion on our way over.

“Did the good guys win the battle, Dad?”

 A simple question of awkward complexity. To a child’s logic, if there was a battle then one side must have been good and the other side bad. Just like in Star Wars. It got me thinking of all the times I played cowboys and Indians as a kid, and how simplistic – and probably offensive – that was.

My answer: “Maori won the battle of Gate Pa, but there were no good guys and there were no bad guys. In a war, anyone trying to kill you is generally the bad guy. I think it’s safe to say both sides thought they were the good guys at the time.”

Gate Pa is a rousing story of the underdog. The next time you shop for gardening tools at Mitre 10 Mega, take a moment to reflect that 150 years ago the whole area was a thumping battleground. A vastly outnumbered band of Maori withstood nine hours of the heaviest artillery bombardment New Zealand had ever seen before fending off the British troops at close quarters.

We’re eager to applaud this win against the odds but no one seems quite so chirpy about the decisive follow-up battle at Te Ranga. Any talk of Te Ranga is usually tempered with the phrase ‘land confiscation’, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to a triumphant round of high fives for the winning team.

I find myself wrestling with my own response to those events. What do the battles of Gate Pa and Te Ranga mean for me, a Tauranga resident who can’t claim any deep, historical connection to the land? I resent the whiff of guilt I feel about something I had nothing to do with in the first place. I wasn’t here 150 years ago, nor am I directly descended from any of the people involved.

Yet here we all are, together in the 21st century, buying and selling properties, enjoying our lives in this city that was built upon the outcome of those two historic battles.

Life in the Bay is pretty good. Do I really need to bother knowing what happened here 150 years ago?

Resoundingly, yes, although it’s hard to clearly explain why without sounding trite.

Part of the explanation is to be found, this month at least, at Greerton Hall. Wandering through the exhibit I was struck by the richness of Tauranga’s history.

Gate Pa was one of New Zealand’s most significant battles. It happened in our own backyard and it laid the foundation for a larger story that we have all become part of.

If we are going to participate in the life of this city then we need to know more about that story. The better we understand the forces and decisions that shaped Tauranga, the more respect we will carry into the future as we strive to make Tauranga the best possible place to live.

In beautiful detail the exhibition depicts a founding piece of our collective history with all of its ugly and redemptive moments. It is a generous work that feels like another step forward for the city.

And if nothing else, it’s just really interesting. You’ll know what I mean when see it for yourself.

What, you’re still reading? Hurry up and get to Greerton.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 9 May 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Everything is awesome in Legoland

legostarwars

If you had asked me last week what my favourite toy was as a kid, I would have scratched my head for a while. My matchbox cars? My plastic army men?

This week I can tell you with confidence that my favourite childhood toy was Lego. That’s because these school holidays I took my boys to see The Lego Movie and it reminded me that Lego is awesome.

Lego is so awesome that its name is officially supposed to be written with capital letters: LEGO. But I don’t want to seem like I’m shouting every time I write LEGO so I’ll try to stick with the lower case. Suffice to say that everything is awesome in Legoland.

My first Lego was a colourful suburbia. It was peopled by little faceless men who I enlisted to pilot chunky Lego airplanes, even though the men had no arms.

In the 80s space Lego turned up with sleeker angles and cool blue windows. The spacemen had smiley faces and movable limbs. Space Lego was awesome.

My brother and I owned a grand total of four Lego spacemen. Today my children have a whole universe of Lego men, women, aliens, wizards, ninjas, jedi masters and superheroes.

We’ve become a Lego-centric house. It’s a mandatory gift at birthdays. My boys still think they never have enough, even though they have somehow acquired more than I ever could have dreamed of owning as a kid.

Every trip to the library, they race to see if their favourite Lego books are there so they can bring them home for the umpteenth time to pour over all the Lego they wish they had. In Legoland everything is awesome many times over.

Lego is slowly taking over the world. Their marketing sneaks have created TV shows like Ninjago and Chima for the sole purpose of making my children want even more Lego. If there’s a big movie franchise, chances are there’s a Lego set not far away.

Yet somehow Lego transcends its own blatant commercialism. The name LEGO is built from the first two letters of each word in the Danish phrase ‘leg godt’, meaning ‘play well’. From where I sit (on the floor surrounded by three boys and a big pile of plastic bricks) playing well is exactly what Lego does best. There’s something satisfying about snapping those pieces together to build things, no matter how old you are.

Lego has moved with the times while keeping true to its core vision. It may have sold out to Star Wars and Batman but it hasn’t compromised its ability to play well. Lego pieces today still fit together with the first pieces made in 1958. For all of the merchandising, at its heart is a toy that wants you to pull it apart and create something new. Lego is not a mere consumable. You have to actively engage with it. Lego facilitates the imagination rather than stifling it.

Likewise The Lego Movie, rather than being a cynical marketing ploy, turns out to be a fun, smart, love letter to creativity. I had a great time with this film. It is made with real care by people who obviously love Lego. I can’t wait to see it again.

After the movie my boys danced back to the car singing the obnoxiously catchy theme song “Everything is Awesome.” At home they ran for the Lego and got to work on their own creations.

I’ve always thought good art should make you want to make more art. By that standard alone The Lego Movie is a winner.

This could simply mean the marketing sneaks have won. I don’t care. You should see the Lego car I built. It’s awesome.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 2 May 2014. Reproduced with permission.

 

The above photo is one I took of my boys’ Star Wars lego. And here’s a little twitter conversation with The Lego Movie‘s writers/directors about this column …

Blackout poetry is more fun to write when you’re drinking beer

I’m nearing the end of a three week break from writing columns. It’s been a nice holiday for my brain. In the meantime I’ve enjoyed working on other stuff: poems, stories and a bit of music. Some friends and I got exploring a variety of pale ales and wrote some more newspaper blackout poetry. Yep, that’s the way things roll in my house. It’s probably more fun writing these than reading them, but here are my best efforts.

 

blackout another day

 

blackout survivors straight

 

blackout curveball straight

 

blackout coffee

Warm fuzzy

The column I wrote about my grandmother’s 90th birthday landed really well out there. This letter was published in the Bay of Plenty Times a few days after the column. In a world where it is so easy to do nothing but grumble, I appreciate people taking the time to write in with positive comments.

Inpire letter to ed april 2014

Newspaper blackout

I’ve discovered newspaper blackout poems. They’re fun: you attack newsprint with a vivid to find the poetry almost by accident. I first read about this on the fabulous Brain Pickings site and so last week I bought Austin Kleon’s blackout poetry book. Inspired by a beer and the book, here’s my first blackout poem, scribbled somewhat messily over last Friday’s issue of The Weekend Sun.

Stunts

Stunts blackout poem

90 years of pure class

Breaking news: my grandmother turns 90 this week. 90! That makes her younger than stainless steel but older than nylon and antibiotics.

At 90 she’s still great company, she still lives in her apartment and last year she saved her neighbour from a house fire. Not bad for someone who is the same age as frozen food.

I am the same age as the Rubik’s Cube. By the time I was born my grandmother already had half a century under her belt. (A very classy belt, too. She has always been classy.)

She lived 50 years without even knowing I exist. That puts my egocentrism in its place.

It is difficult watching your loved ones age. My grandfather used to say to me, “I’m starting to totter, Marcel. I don’t like tottering. It makes me grumpy.”

Taffy, as we all called him, was fit and bronzed. He was somewhat of a little battle axe. He broke his neck twice, had a quadruple heart bypass and fell backwards down the stairs to knock a hole in the wall with his head. All with a begrudging sense of humour.

He finally slowed down after his own 90th birthday when his mobility scooter had a traumatic misunderstanding with a van. Life after that was confined to hospital and then a rest home, wedged apart from his wife after more than 60 years of marriage.

On the weekends I would get a call from my grandmother who had wheeled him to the apartment for the day but didn’t have the puff for the return trip. That was my cue to go round and move Taffy from the couch onto the wheelchair then take him several blocks back to the rest home.

The physical intimacy required to lift my grandfather was a rare privilege. Awkward at first, it became familiar and special over time and I miss it. Afterwards I would walk back to Nana’s place and chat with her over a drink, sometimes a beer. (She stayed classy with tea or ginger ale.)

Eventually a stroke robbed Taffy of his speech. I joined him for lunch a few times in the rest home dining room. Tables of old people ate in silence and slow motion.

It gets harder when they can’t talk. It becomes an effort to visit. You don’t take the kids as often because they get bored quickly. You visit slightly less, for a shorter time each time, and each time you feel a little bit worse for being there a little bit less.

It’s ridiculous, topsy-turvy and heart breaking. I’m not sure if modern society has figured out what to do with the infirm elderly. They are real people who have lived real and meaningful lives. Their emotions remain vital and relevant, even if they can no longer get the words out of their heads.

One visit, Taffy nudged his cup of gluggy, lukewarm tea towards me. The drink was thickened to keep him from choking. I know he hated that thickener.

It took a while for him to move the cup, nudge by nudge, around his plate. Then he gave it a final shaky push in my direction as if to say, “Have some tea. Delicious.” When he looked up at me there was a little twinkle in his eye. It was his very slow joke.

My grandmother still has plenty of twinkles in her eye. More twinkles than wrinkles, I’d argue. She’s slowing down a bit; she didn’t want a big birthday bash because it all gets a bit tiring these days.

At least I know she reads the newspaper. Happy 90th birthday, classy Nana. You have always been very loved, and you still are.

coralie and taffy

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 4 April 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Climate change is boring

I am a hypocritical environmentalist. I do a lot of things right but I probably also do a lot of things wrong. I print in colour. I drive all the way to the supermarket to buy nothing but chocolate. I drop food scraps into the general waste bin because sometimes it’s easier that way.

Saving the world can be a real drag. After a while you just want to sloth on a leather lounge suite and watch excessive Hollywood movies on your big, predominantly plastic television.

Some people have environmentalism seeping out of their pores. They exude a deep and earthy passion for all things sustainable. For them, sustainability is more than a mere buzzword or a corporate brownie point. It’s a lifestyle.

I’m not one of those people. Not because I don’t support their causes, but because on the scale of interested to fanatical, I am often more passionate about other things. And that’s okay.

Having said that, I’d like to suggest we should all be at least a little bit concerned about climate change.

The problem is climate change can get boring. Al Gore made it exciting for a while but since then it’s just ice caps and polar bears, blah blah blah. I’m trying to write about it right now and I’m already bored.

Climate change seems at once so remote and so overwhelming. My daily life consists of paying the mortgage, hanging out the washing and looking forward to the next series of Game of Thrones. Nothing I do involves keeping a close eye on global carbon emissions.

And yet warnings from the international science community are growing more urgent. This week members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been meeting to assess the fate of the world. Their report is due out on Monday but some of the details have snuck into the media. One is a prediction that as a result of climate change global food prices will rise dramatically, more than 80% in some cases, by 2050.

If that doesn’t bother you right now, think about how much you’re willing to pay for a cup of coffee.

There are climate change deniers out there, but the data shows clearly that each of the last three decades has been warmer than the last. The decade just gone was the warmest on record.

Last year the IPCC reported that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.”

They also concluded that “human influence on the climate system is clear” and that it’s going to take a dramatic reduction in fossil fuels to curb the rise in temperature.

Fossil fuels. So should I not make a special trip for that bar of chocolate? The problem seems so big and a drive to the supermarket seems so small.

Tomorrow the world celebrates Earth Hour, when we’re all encouraged to switch off the lights between 8:30 and 9:30pm. There’s also an event at the Mount at Coronation Park from 5:30pm with Gourmet Night Markets and solar powered entertainment.

Earth Hour itself is not going to fix climate change. Earth Hour is an awareness campaign, a worldwide symbolic gesture to get people thinking.

We do need to get thinking. If we can change our habits at grassroots level it’s more likely that environmentally prudent decisions will be made at the political level.

No one else is going to save the world for us. Sure, we can wait for China and America to burn fewer fossil fuels, but in the meantime it’s up to us to make a start, no matter how insignificant our first steps might seem.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 28 March 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Happy to be a little pakeha

I have no idea what it is like to be Maori. Nor do I have any idea what it is like to be Samoan, Asian or anything other than the little Kiwi white boy that I am.

New Zealand is my home and it is all I have ever known. When confronted with census forms I don’t much enjoy ticking the NZ European box. ‘European’ feels foreign to me. I’d prefer to tick New Zealander. Or even better, pakeha.

I like being pakeha. The word seems to have snuck out of vogue ever since someone muttered sniffily that it might be derogatory, but for me it’s an identity I grew up with, comfortably and with Kiwi pride.

In my mind the pakeha label anchors me to my country. It helps define me as a white person of New Zealand. In a multi-cultural line up, I’m the indigenous white guy, if there is such a thing.

New Zealand has three official languages: English, Maori and New Zealand Sign Language. I’ve had a crack at learning all of them. A hefty dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language has sat on my bookshelf for the past decade. I’ve worked out how to say “Would you like coffee?” but that’s about it so far.

I took te reo classes at university. I’ve since forgotten most of anything I learned but I’ve retained a healthy respect for the Maori language. It is a language filled with nuance, poetry and humour.

I can’t think of any real downside for a nation that is bold enough to embrace the richness of its own heritage. In fact, I wouldn’t object if te reo was a compulsory subject in every New Zealand school. Maybe that’s too far for some people but it would be wonderful to see a whole generation of New Zealanders able to converse in Maori.

Delving into a language gives you a better appreciation of its associated culture. Some people have no time for Maori culture and that’s understandable. Culture is where world views collide. Differences lead to misunderstandings. It’s hard enough visiting the relatives at times.

My cultural confession is that I don’t like hangi. I also don’t particularly enjoy kapahaka songs. Is that a form of heresy? I love the poetry of the language, but not so much the food or the music.

I did once take part in a proper haka and it was glorious. Our te reo class had stayed for a week on a marae and it was time to thank the hosts with a concert. The women did their singing thing and then we men stepped through with our haka. I was the little white guy at the end of the line, but in releasing that haka I was swept up by a wave of adrenaline that took me completely by surprise. In the spirit of being culturally connected it was a spiritual moment for me.

In many respects I am a cold hearted rationalist. I struggle with the underlying spirituality that informs a lot of Maori tradition. I do my best to appreciate and respect the symbolism of concepts like tapu but it’s not easy because at a fundamental level I am not Maori and I don’t always understand the depth of some of that stuff.

So, mostly, I keep to my pakeha world where my first language is English and my second language is internet acronyms. Imagine if Maori was a natural second language for most Kiwis? I can only see benefits to that.

New Zealand is growing into a multi-cultural society. We’ve inherited fraught histories and bothersome politics, but one way or another the whole motley lot of us have ended up living together in this little land we all call home.

One thing we have that no other country has is te reo Maori. This pakeha thinks that is something to be celebrated.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 21 March 2014. Reproduced with permission.

The Story Of The Human Body review

After writing this week’s column about sugar I finally got around to posting a quick review of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease by Daniel Lieberman. (I find it helpful to review books so that I can remember what I’ve read.)

Here’s my review from LibraryThing:

You could chop this book in half and you’d have two quite different volumes, each totally interesting in its own right. The first part is a comprehensive journey through human evolution. It explores and celebrates how we developed the bodies that we currently slob around in.

The second part investigates different ways that our modern slobby lifestyle affects these bodies that we inherited from our ancestors. A thread running through both parts is the concept of evolutionary mismatch diseases. Mismatch diseases are non infectious conditions like heart disease, obesity and diabetes that were once rare but now flourish in the world of fast food and comfy sofas.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease is a reminder that we are, in fact, pretty damn amazing creatures, and it’s also a cautionary tale. This is the most interesting book I’ve read in the past year.

 

Teaspoons of evil hiding everywhere

It’s getting harder to avoid this bothersome talk about how sugar is killing us. I can’t stand it. Let me eat my Easter eggs in peace.

I get even more uncomfortable when they start pointing the finger at fruit and honey too. Oh come on, leave the poor fruit alone.

One of my favourite things in the world is honey on toast. With lots of butter. That’s right, saturated fat and sugar smeared on carbs. What would you like on your toast today? Pure evil, please.

And yet, I hate to admit it, very slowly this sugar conversation is wearing me down. I notice I’ve been paying more attention to the amount of sugar I consume.

The World Health Organisation has drafted a new guideline that could potentially hurt our collective sweet tooth. It’s not yet a firm recommendation but here’s what they are proposing: That we should reduce our daily sugar intake to less than 10% of our total daily energy intake for the day, preferably aiming for 5%.

Did you follow that? Sounds important but I have no idea what any of it means. What are percentages and sugar doing in the same sentence? This isn’t maths, it’s breakfast. All I want is for my Weet-bix to not taste like cardboard.

Getting practical, it turns out that the 10% figure averages to around 50 grams of sugar. Twelve teaspoons per day. That’s your recommended allowance. Drop it to 6 teaspoons per day if you’re aiming for the more highly recommended lower limit.

I have a tiny head start because I don’t add sugar to my tea or coffee. Nor have I been seduced by that dark lord of the fizz, Coca Cola.

I once went through a phase of toying with energy drinks. Fortunately I wised up and gave up, unlike my friend Todd who still has a can of V for breakfast. Yes, I named you, Todd. This is a public intervention. Come back to the light.

V’s website tells me there is 11.2 grams of added sugar per 100ml of V. That’s 28 grams of sugar in one of those skinny 250ml cans. It’s common to see people chugging back on the 500ml cans. Wham, 56 grams, nearly 12 teaspoons of sugar in one hit. There goes your daily limit.

You see how bad sugar is? It’s making me do maths.

But soft drinks have never pretended to be healthy. In a way, I respect that. It’s the other stuff that’s more insidious. There’s sugar hiding in tomato sauce, breakfast cereals, muesli bars, flavoured yoghurt, baked beans. Even bread. Everything. We’ve become slaves to sweetness without even realising it.

Whether it’s corn syrup or dextrose or maltose or any other sweetener, it’s all effectively sugar. Teaspoons of evil hiding everywhere.

At some point last century food manufacturers realized sweetness sells better. But our modern lifestyle has led to what evolutionary biologists are calling ‘mismatch diseases’. We naturally crave sugar because it is an energy rich food, but our bodies are not adapted to scoffing it in abundance while slothing on comfy chairs all day. The resulting mismatch means that previously rare conditions like high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes are now all too common.

On this topic I recommend Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body, which was one of the most interesting books I read last year.

It’s an obvious move to try cutting down on private treats. Reducing sugar levels across the whole supermarket? That’s more complicated. Entire product lines rely on sugar for their success, and not just the biscuits.

I really hope the food industry doesn’t respond by throwing artificial sweeteners at everything. The sugar-free revolution is simmering. It might be a bitter battle. I chew on my delicious marshmallow Easter egg with nervous anticipation.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 14 March 2014. Reproduced with permission.

You’re not as awesome as you think you are

One of my least favourite things is getting into a car with a motorhead who thinks he’s the world’s most awesome driver. I had to do this not so long ago with someone who approached each new street as though it was his own personal race track. You’d think we were being launched into space from the Battlestar Galactica, rather than popping over to the hardware store for some tap washers.

I suspect he was trying to show off, but I was the wrong audience. Sure, he can make his big car go vroom-vroom, but it’s not like he’s Greg Murphy. Accelerating like a race car driver doesn’t make you a race car driver.

Greg Murphy – the actual Greg Murphy – has suggested this week that professional driver training should be compulsory for anyone who wants to get a driver’s licence. I think that’s a great idea. It will come with extra expense and inconvenience, but if it helps to create a generation of better motorists then let’s give it the green light.

In fact, it probably wouldn’t hurt for established drivers to take refresher courses too. I’d love to get some tips from a professional driver.

I was 17 the last time I did any sort of driver training. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been doing your own thing unchecked for years, reinforcing sloppy driving habits you don’t even know you have.

Forgive me, I don’t mean to imply that you need driver training. You’re no doubt a very competent driver. Just like me. I’m excellent.

After all, who is the one person that you trust the most behind the wheel? Is it you? Do you secretly assume that you’re a better driver than everyone else?

I would never admit this out loud, but I’m totally the best driver in my family. In my mind, at least. (I’m pretty sure I can hear my wife scoffing over my shoulder about now.)

I don’t think any of us is as consistent behind the wheel as we like to think we are. It only requires a split second to make a permanent mistake. There’s no room for arrogance when you’re piloting a metal machine that rockets past other metal machines at 100kph. It’s amazing that we hand over the keys to these things without more training.

Cars are such an integral part of our lives that we forget just how effective they are at squashing us. We are soft, breakable creatures unsuited for hurtling around in missiles. Our bodies weren’t exactly made to withstand impacts at those speeds.

If only we were just a bit more careful, a bit less cocky about our own ability.

It’ll never happen to me, we think, sneaking a peek at that cell phone or reaching into the back seat for the chips. Every tragedy on the road is an unnecessary one.

What’s the rush anyway? What is it about cars that makes going faster the most important thing in the world?

I admit that slow drivers can be infuriating. Worst of all are those who clog up the road and then speed up as soon as they hit the passing lane. Yeah, those drivers deserve a good honking.

In general though, I try to take a breath and take it easy. Admittedly, it’s not hard to take it easy in our Honda Odyssey.

Yes, I drive a big fat lumbering automatic. There goes my street cred.

So don’t take it from me, take it from a professional driver. Here’s what Greg Murphy told the Herald: “We could have a lot more young Kiwis, and New Zealanders as a whole, still with us if we just changed a few simple things.”

Murphy says New Zealanders are “terrible” drivers and that the issue is driver training. You don’t have to respect the guy in the Odyssey, but the Bathurst winner might be worth listening to on this one.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 7 March 2014. Reproduced with permission.

A year ago today…

Star Wars: The Pouty Teenager Strikes Back

 

I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars prequels with my boys. The pain! There’s some great lightsaber action, but the story arc still really hurts me.

I mean, what actually happens in this series?

Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Darth Vader has a crush on his baby sitter.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Darth Vader goes on a picnic with his girlfriend.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Darth Vader pouts his way across to the Dark Side.

Whatever happened to being seduced by unlimited power? The story we get is more like Beverly Hills 90210 in space: Dylan has a tanty in detention over some girl. And then Brandon chops his legs off.

I had to read my own alternate history of Star Wars to help myself feel better. It’s been a while since I looked at it, but that little exercise is still really good, even though I’d probably change a few things now. Take a look at it if you’re … you know … a big nerd like me.

Toby VaderMy 8 year old loves Star Wars too, and looks great with a lightsaber.

Disagree with me

Sorry, but you’ll never get me to “agree to disagree”. That’s a phrase I disagree with.

Agreeing to disagree is not an agreement at all. It’s an impasse. It only gets rolled out when you want to abandon further discussion.  It pretends to be cordial, but it’s actually kind of patronizing. What it says is, “You’re just too damn stubborn to see things my way so I’m going to leave you festering in your wrong opinion.”

Speaking of opinions, this is my 52nd column, an entire year of agreeing with myself every single week.

I knew that I had finally become a real opinion columnist when people began to disagree with me in letters to the editor. My favourite began: “With my whole heart I disagree with Marcel Currin.” Best opening sentence ever.

Someone once told me they agree with everything I write. I was horrified. No way, please don’t agree with me all the time. That would be boring and we’d never learn anything.

I actually rather like a good disagreement. It expands my horizons to hear other points of view. If I breeze through life assuming I’m right about everything, I’ll never get to change my mind. I like changing my mind. I like being presented with evidence that nudges me toward a different perspective.

Notice I didn’t say: “I like it when people thump me with insults because they think I’m wrong.”

No one with an abusive or arrogant axe to grind has ever changed my mind.

Respectful, artful disagreement is invigorating. Unfortunately it’s all too easy to attack the person instead of exploring the issue.

Real life is far more nuanced than any blunt label we can find to fling around. But outrage is so delicious, isn’t it. “They’re all morons!” we yell about people we’ve never met, just because we think they are employed in the wrong building.

Let’s be thoughtful about how we disagree in public. Some pronouncements are only a stick and a stone’s throw away from the name calling that was so damaging to Charlotte Dawson. It’s the same mean spirit that supposes your opinion to be more valuable than someone else’s feelings.

I was shown a Facebook comment written by a person I haven’t met who called me a “condescending little prat”. Now, that’s kind of unfair. I mean, it’s true that I was little at school but I’ve grown a lot taller since then.

Lobbing raspberries from the cheap seats is no way to advance a discussion. I’m more likely to listen to you if you are respectful in your argument.

Healthy disagreement requires a large dose of humility. Let’s not pretend we always know best. Over the course of my life I’ve asked myself some tough questions and found myself butchering a few of my own sacred cows.  That either means I was wrong back then, or else I am wrong now. We can’t all be right all of the time.

When things get heated, it’s hard to keep yourself open to the possibility that the other team might have a tiny point here or there.

Recognising this, there must be a way that disagreements can be conducted with mutual respect.

So I am in pursuit of an agreeable form of disagreement. Hmm, that sounds a lot like agreeing to disagree. Maybe I was wrong about that phrase. Looks like I might have to change my mind again.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 28 February 2014. Reproduced with permission. 

Understanding toast

Planted on the floor, my little rubber tree,
a laugh stuffed into his cheeks.
We’ve just been to see the whole wide world:
wind, cats, cars, a giggling drain-pipe,
the lickable bendiness of a leaf.

Breakfast, and he is understanding toast,
the slow squidge of it.
Studies in his fist the sluggy bread
to see what it will do.
A grin spills out.

As he splashes the air it slops
against the kitchen, pops the lid
from his lunchbox I am trying to pack
for later. So much life.
Such a small container.

 

First published in Catalyst 2005

I liked these more than Lorde

I’ve mentioned Lorde a couple of times recently in my opinion columns because a) she’s topical and b) I genuinely enjoy her album. But just for the record, here are three other albums I enjoyed just as much or a whole lot more last year. (Yes, I still talk about music in terms of albums.)

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Grubby old Nick, I’ve loved him ever since I discovered his Abattoir Blues double album. I have to hide the cover of Push The Sky Away and edit out a couple of tracks for family friendly listening, but otherwise this is a gorgeous, bewitching set of songs.

2. Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood – Black Pudding

I stumbled upon Mark Lanegan via his excellent Blues Funeral which you should also check out. Black Pudding plays like a couple of mates sitting down for a late night jam session. Laid back beauty.

3. Kurt Vile – Waking On A Pretty Daze

My own description for this album is ‘stoner rock’. Long, rambling songs with droopy vocals. Cruisy, man.

In retrospect there’s a kind of minimalist theme going on here which Lorde also fits into, so maybe that’s why her stuff appeals to me at the moment. I also enjoyed Arcade Fire’s Reflektor (although not as much as I’d hoped, overall) and the new one from Sigur Ros, which, being titled in Icelandic, you always refer to as being ‘the new one’ or ‘the last one’ or ‘the one before the other one’, but never by whatever it’s actually called.

UPDATE 22 February: But wait, there’s more!

What was I thinking?! I posted the above list last night then today realized I had totally forgotten Streets of Laredo. I knew something felt incomplete. Love these guys too. They sit comfortably in my top three most frequently played albums, with Lorde and Kurt Vile bouncing around in 4th and 5th place.

Streets of Laredo | Girlfriend (Official) from Streets of Laredo on Vimeo.

Google Glass in your face

I keep seeing photos of attractive people wearing Google glasses. Apparently new technology is not for ugly people.

Google Glass, as it’s officially called, is a wearable computer, a lightweight pair of glasses that gives you a display on the go. A bit like how Robocop sees the world, perhaps. You can take videos, get directions, send messages, search the internet and more, all with voice activation. It’s Google in your face.

It would be pretty handy to have Google in your face. You would never need to be caught out in conversation again. I could have done with Google Glass earlier this week while talking to cricket enthusiasts.

“Yes, Brendon McCullum,” I would have said aloud, quietly calling up the relevant information in my Google vision. My onboard computer would have surreptitiously shown me that one of our cricket team, Brendon McCullum, had just scored New Zealand’s first ever triple ton.

“Isn’t it awesome how he got that triple ton,” I would have said, searching triple ton to learn it means 300 runs. Suddenly I’m an expert on New Zealand’s cricket history. “Yeah, the closest we’ve ever got to a triple ton was Crowe’s 299 in 1991.”

But to be honest, the whole idea of Google Glass unnerves me. I don’t particularly want to live in a world where people have the internet in their face all the time. It’s bad enough trying to have a conversation with someone who’s texting.

One day Google Glass will break out of its exclusive rich person phase and we’ll see someone wearing it in Devonport Road. That’ll be a weird moment. It’ll be like the first time we ever saw someone with one of those weird little bluetooth bugs in their ear.

The reality of Google Glass is actually a bit dorky. The most hilarious thing is that to activate it you have to say “Okay Glass” out loud. “Okay Glass, google New Zealand cricket.” I wonder if it understands our accent?

If you don’t want to sound like Inspector Gadget, you can use the Head Wake angle instead, and then tip your head up or down to scroll through the menu options.

So we now live in a world where computer programmers have invented a specific move of the head and called it the Head Wake angle. Yes, technology is dictating how we turn our heads.

Modern life dictates everything, even our posture. We walk permanently bent over our smart phones and we are probably creating a generation of neck problems for people who constantly peer down at tablets and iPads.

In the distant future our fingers and thumbs will either be splayed out from all that swiping and zooming, or else we will have graduated to Google Glass and everyone will have developed very specific head tics.

Think of the social problems. “Are you videoing me? You’re videoing me. You did the Start Record head angle.”

“No, I was checking the cricket score. Hey, are you shopping again? What are you buying this time?”

“Nothing, I was just stretching.”

I’ve occasionally entertained the notion that I should have a technology-free day once a week. No computer, no TV, no internet.

It would be the technological equivalent of standing in a field at night and seeing the stars again. The grand silence of being unplugged for a while.

I grew up out of town where the stars weren’t obscured by the glow of suburbia. I miss those stars. I think we lose something by living in the perpetual aura of the city.

Technology is incredible. It can make life so much more convenient, but sometimes it’s worth pausing to reflect on the trade offs. Tilt your head to the Yes angle if you agree.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 21 February 2014. Reproduced with permission.

The Valentine’s Day revolution starts here

I’ve been trying to come up with a better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. We need something that keeps everyone happy, even the single people. The system doesn’t work at the moment. It ends with singles feeling lonely, florists feeling exhausted and couples feeling bad for not being romantic enough.

That’s why, when you ask people what they did for Valentine’s Day, they can get a bit sniffy about it. “I don’t need Michael Hill Jeweller to tell me when to be spontaneous.”

Scheduled romance is not as much fun. We don’t like to be told when to tidy the bench let alone when to buy flowers for the wife. But here is Valentine’s Day shoving its artificial romance in our faces once again like a pointed finger or an overdue bill.

The origins of Valentine’s Day are confused and ugly, with hints of pagan fertility ceremonies and competing myths about a martyr called Valentine. Somehow it went from there to a bland celebration of commercially sanctioned romance.

Maybe we need to reclaim it for something broader than romance.

Valentine’s Day should be the most feel-good day of the year, overflowing with compliments and warm fuzzies for everyone, not just lovers.

Our traditions on this day should revolve around making all the people around us feel great about themselves. Everyone would give and receive anonymous smiley notes. The homeless would be handed flowers. We should all be drunk on good will and random acts of kindness.

With everyone high on the buzz of being nice to everyone else, romance would spill into the mix quite naturally. You’d end up wooing your partner with no effort at all.

If you put aside the commercial hype, all Valentine’s Day asks is that you pause to remember why another human being might be a little bit special to you.

The way you choose to express that sentiment can be as simple or as extravagant as you like. It’s a bit surly to dismiss it altogether just because there might have been a rash of meaningless advertising this week. No one is forcing you to buy the over-priced roses.

The most romantic Valentine’s Day gift I know of, one that will live on as legend in my family, was a large card that my grandfather gave to my grandmother, the same card every year. Each February 14th he added a new message. I don’t know how many Valentine’s Days the card lasted, but it was a lot. In his final year, bed ridden after a stroke, he managed to sign it with a scribble. That awkward mark was infused with as much love as his most eloquent script.

My grandparents set an example that everyone in my family aspires to. Their legacy is proof that you can romance the same person for your entire life and it doesn’t have to be a chore.

Reality is hard work. When young couples get married it’s like watching them jump off a cliff in a triumph of idealism over common sense. You really hope they’ll be okay.

My wife and I were one of those couples. We threw ourselves off that cliff with youthful naivety and subsequently crashed through a few reality checks on the way down. Seventeen years later I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it took some knocks and scrapes before we landed anywhere near the fairytale part.

Every little romantic nudge helps keep the fairytale alive. On that basis, who am I to turn my nose up at Valentine’s Day?

Any excuse to inject a little sweetness into our relationships has got to be a good excuse. Be extra nice to everyone today. Commit a random act of kindness. And embrace the chance to wink at your special someone.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 14 February 2014. Reproduced with permission.

With my whole heart I disagree with Marcel

Some letters that have landed in response to a couple of my recent articles (smacking and the NZ flag). I love that the sentence “with my whole heart I disagree with Marcel Currin” has appeared in the newspaper. That satisfies me at a peculiarly deep level.

Obviously I disagree back, but arguments aside I thought these were both pretty well written as far as letters to the editor go. Public dialogue? My job here appears to be done.

Letters to Editor Jan Feb 2014

A new New Zealand flag?

Sure, I think the New Zealand flag could do with a spruce up. The Union Jack doesn’t mean a whole lot to me anymore. My allegiance to the top left corner of our flag is limited to cheering for James Bond’s parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me and some fondness for the English friends I’ve met since they came to live in Tauranga.

My main problem with the Union Jack is that it’s really hard to draw. It’s a complicated collection of reds, whites and blues that perpetually confused me as a crayon-wielding kid. Is it a cross on top of an X or is it a motley collection of triangles? My childhood pictures of flags always sucked, unless I was drawing Japan.

Obviously we shouldn’t change our national flag on the basis of crayon frustration. When you weigh up the upheaval and expense that comes with changing something as ubiquitous as a nation’s flag, you need the reasoning to be pretty solid.

Let’s not forget that people have fought and died under our current flag. I wonder if this whole question would take on a different tone if we were asking it around ANZAC Day rather than Waitangi Day?

Every single one of us has a different idea about what it means to be a New Zealander. Your definition of New Zealand depends on your culture, your age and where you’ve lived.

I didn’t fight any wars for this country. I grew up in safety riding my BMX without a helmet, watching A Dog’s Show and trying to pop the silver cap off the morning milk bottle without splurting cream everywhere.

For me, being a kiwi kid was cheering for John Walker’s four minute mile and wanting to hit sixes like Lance Cairns. My All Blacks won the 1987 World Cup.

If there’s one thing I love about our history it’s that we ended up wearing black on the sports field. Out of all the countries in the world, we’re the ones who get to be Darth Vader at the Olympics.

That doesn’t mean our national flag should be black. There’s more to this country than a rugby team.

I’d like our flag to keep the southern cross and at least some of its blue background. Delving into what I think defines New Zealand, the stars on our flag grow strangely important to me. They describe where we are in the world, which just happens to be a long way from everywhere else.

If you were to turn off the internet you’d find that we’re still a little country floating alone in the Pacific. I’m attracted to the visual poetry of those four stars hovering over the blue ocean.

That’s just my opinion. You and four million other people will have four million other opinions. We are as diverse a nation as we’ve ever been. How are we ever going to agree on one little flag?

Updating the flag would be a milestone in our nation’s history. It needs to be done properly. The timing should be deliberate and appropriate. It’s not something you do on a whim before the next election. You have to take the nation with you, a near impossible task. It will require a process that’s backed up with a lot more substance than flicking out a quick vote for the prettiest picture.

I don’t know how that process should run, but when a new flag is finally hoisted I want to be proud to fly it for my country. That’s where we all need to end up.

How we get to that point matters. The flag changing process should aim for the lofty objective of producing a nation of proud New Zealanders rather than a nation of graphic design experts.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 7 February 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Lorde’s Grammy win versus my self esteem

Boy, it’s great to be a Kiwi this week. We’re super proud of Lorde’s massive couple of wins at the Grammy Awards and we particularly approve of her demeanour in the face of all that glitz.

Being a fellow New Zealander, Lorde is our very own wunderkind. She’s our most favourite teen since Hayley Westenra, but cooler, edgier, and people her own age like her music.

I have no idea what it’s like to win a Grammy when you’re only 17. I have no idea what it’s like to win a Grammy when you’re anything. I’m pretty sure it must be a very personal triumph played out on a very public stage.

Her win is inspiring for many and discouraging for some. Twitter was full of this sort of cheekily depressed statement on Monday night: “Lorde is 17 and has 2 Grammys and I can barely get out of bed.” And: “Lorde is 17 and has 2 Grammys and I have 2 packets of crisps.”

Futile as it is, it’s human nature to compare other people’s successes with our own. I’m a shocker at it. When Bret McKenzie won an Oscar for his work on the Muppet movie I think I had a genuine mid life crisis. It was always my dream job to work on The Muppet Show. My dream, not Bret McKenzie’s.

Bret and I are roughly the same age. I was writing my own funny songs at Auckland University about the same time Bret and Jemaine were starting to write their funny Flight of the Conchords songs in Wellington. I got some good reviews at student festivals but back then I had grander, more earnest aspirations. I thought to myself: funny songs are only funny once, they’ll never get me anywhere.

Fool. Now Bret has an Oscar for working at my dream job and I have a day job for working at my mortgage. (I should perhaps concede here that Bret’s songs are funnier.)

If there’s anything funny about Lorde it’s that overseas people seem to find her a little bit scary. The black nail polish she wore at her Grammy performance really freaked some of them out. One person tweeted: “Lorde is 17 and looks like she eats the souls of children.”

For the record, I think she’s all class and deserves every success.

If you’ve only started to pay attention to Lorde this week, the beauty of her award winning song Royals is its distinctive vocal style and the minimal, stripped down music. That’s possibly a quality that producer Joel Little brings to the mix. He peels back the fuss and pushes that attention grabbing voice to the fore.

Whenever it plays on the radio, Royals cuts right through the bland sameness of all those other over-produced pop songs. Now that the Grammys have shone their mental spotlight upon Lorde, I figure we’ll start hearing copycat Royals songs pretty soon.

Royals isn’t even Lorde’s only great song. She has a whole album of well crafted gems, all produced with a similar combination of elegance and restraint.

I’ve traditionally been more of a Nick Cave and Radiohead kind of guy, but having spent several months with Lorde’s Pure Heroine album I’m still really enjoying it.

Lorde is 17 and has two Grammys; I have her album. To think I’m hooked on music written by a school girl. If I ponder that fact too much it weirds me out a bit. So long as I don’t start painting my nails black I’ll be fine.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 31 January 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Smacking

I was a teenager when they stopped hitting us at school. It seems like the dark ages now, but it wasn’t actually so long ago.

It’s outrageous to think that it was recently okay to whack other people’s children with a big stick or with a slab of leather. Yet that’s how the world worked under corporal punishment.

I wonder if smacking will go the same way, finally relegated to the bin of universal repugnance?

It may take a while yet. There are people still squirming for the right to physically discipline their kids. With various politicians allegedly smacking in the news we continue to be conflicted about whether or not a clip round the ear makes for good parenting.

I don’t smack for two reasons, neither of which have anything to do with any legislation. One reason is that I view smacking as a double standard. The other is that I don’t trust myself not to smack in anger.

The smack, as promoted by its more righteous cheerleaders, is a tool that should be used as a measured tool of discipline.

“It has been established that at 10:30 am you did break the rules of this house, and upon understanding that the penalty for said rule breakage is a smack to the bottom, I hereby apply a smack of appropriate force at … wait for it … 4:45pm.” Whack.

Smacking seems to get championed on several counts. The old school crowd defend it because they got disciplined with the jug cord and reckon they turned out fine.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” gets trotted out a lot, as though there is a divine mandate to hit your kids with a stick.

Surely no one would suggest jug cords or sticks are acceptable these days. More common, I suspect, is the grab and whack smack, which is where the child does something that aggravates the parent and the parent grabs the kid and wallops them.

As much as you love them, children will take you to a place of rage that is way out of kilter with their actions. That’s why I don’t smack. I’ve sometimes raised my voice at my boys only to realise that I’ve totally misread the situation. You can say sorry for raising your voice but you can’t undo a grab and whack.

If you feel like hitting a small child, you are likely to be operating out of anger. I don’t trust myself in that space, so I refuse to give myself permission to get anywhere near there.

I gave my son a single deliberate smack a number of years ago. He was in the habit of climbing onto the roof of the car. His younger brother was starting to copy and we were worried it was going to end in a broken arm or worse.

My wife and I eventually decided on a last resort discipline. I sat my boy down and explained to him that, despite lots of warnings, he had continued to climb on the car. And what did we say would happen if he didn’t listen? Yes, a smack.

Speech over, I gave him a light slap on the back of his hand. His face crumbled and he didn’t climb on the car again, not for several months anyway. So you could say the smack worked, but I don’t credit the smack. I credit a broken little heart.

I think mine broke too. What had I just taught my child? “If I am bad my Dad is allowed to hurt me.”

I couldn’t abide that. I’ve never smacked again. Our kids seem to be turning out fine.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 24 January 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Fallen from a silent galaxy

He has landed on the quilt,
a soft splat
sunken like a paperweight
anchoring the room,
his face
a mushroom of sleep.

He is gripping the slow strings
of nightfall
over marshmallow hills,
forests of upside down.
Where are you now
my little space man?

Quiescent star
brewing at the centre
of the bedroom’s orbit,
he sails beneath my kiss
his cheek warm with the scent
of secret planets.

 

First published in Takahe 2007

What makes a real man?

Facials, fishing and sport? I’m worried that I’m not a real man.

Bay of Plenty Times Weekend has reported that more Tauranga men are getting facials and eyebrow shaping. A beauty salon is offering Men Only nights with fishing magazines and Sky Sports.

The closest I’ve ever come to getting a facial was when a woman I work with stared at me funny for a moment before trying to yank a wayward eyebrow off my face. It hurt and I don’t trust her any more.

Nope, I tell a lie. I used to wash my face every night with something called face cleanser. My wife bought it for me once. It’s soap for your face, as opposed to soap for the rest of you. I cleansed my face each night until the bottle was dry. That was years ago. I just splash with water now.

I’m happy for men to primp and pamper themselves as much as they like. To be honest, it’s the fishing magazines that bother me. And the car magazines and the sports. If that’s what men want then I’m not a man. Those are areas where I fail the real man test, whatever the real man test might be.

Over summer I found myself sitting around a table with some real men. I could tell they were real men because they knew the difference between a fan belt and a cambelt whereas I had to look it up later.

“The problem with these academics,” said the real men, “is that for all their reading they wouldn’t know which way up to hold an engine manual.”

Academics was a derogatory label in this context. You’re obviously not a real man if you don’t know how to change a fan belt. I let them have their mockery while quietly filing my points of objection in the footnotes of my imaginary counter argument.

Anyway, I do know how to change a fan belt. You take it to a mechanic.

It’s true that I prefer a good book over a greasy engine any day of the week. Does that make me less than a real man?

I’ve been reading a book about human evolution and modern diseases, called The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman. Our evolutionary history thrills me. I’d love to go back in time and cheer for the early humans. I’d take an iPod with speakers and play Also Sprach Zarathustra when they start using sticks as tools.

I wonder when the first man decided he preferred art to mammoth hunting? When did the first man trim his beard for cosmetic effect? And what did the others think? Did the females in the clan grunt at him to quit faffing around and help with the saber-tooth carcass?

I’m no hunter gatherer. You’d never survive in the wild with me as your alpha male.

I provide for my family by sending emails. My foraging skills are limited to the supermarket. I assume broccolli grows all year round.

I don’t have to harvest, kill or butcher anything. It took all my fortitude to saw the head off a trout that was staring at me from the kitchen bench after my sons returned from a fishing trip with their grand parents.

I find myself in no man’s land. I’m unlikely to get a facial and I don’t fix cars or hunt wild animals. What kind of man does that make me?

I think it makes me an ordinary human being. There’s no such thing as a real man. There are only people and we’re all gloriously different, each and every one of us.

So wipe the grease off your hands, put on some Strauss and enjoy that eyebrow shaping. You deserve it, girl. 

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times Friday 17 January 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Ministry of Ideas reborn

This is it, my new website, fresh faced and sparkly clean. With thanks to my brother-in-law Bruce who helped me set it up.

The internet is a busy place. With this new setup I’ve tried to slow things down a bit by keeping the pages as uncluttered as possible.

I’ve backdated entries to 2010, which was about when I started the original Ministry of Ideas website. There’s more content to move over but enough is here get things started. The old site is still sitting quietly minding its own business.

The main casualty of shifting over the content is that readers’ comments have been left behind.

Comments

Speaking of comments, I’ve decided not to have comments on this site. I realise that’s a very anti-internet thing to do but it’s just easier for now. Maybe I’ll change my mind one day. I do like to hear from you though, so send me an email or catch up with me on twitter.

Please let me know if you find anything broken or weird on the site so I can fix it. Or at least, so I can look at the problem, scratch my head and hope it fixes itself.

Note: If you’ve got an old browser, particularly an old version of Internet Explorer, I’m afraid the margins probably appear all over the place and everything looks ugly. That’s still out of my control at the moment; please find an up-to-date browser to enjoy the full spectrum of readability.

Drunk people are annoying

It’s summer and everyone is having fun. This is great, but summer leads to parties. Parties lead to drunk people. And drunk people are generally kind of annoying.

Drunk people are annoying because they’re loud. The louder they get the more they use drunken words, which all seem to start with the letter F.

Most annoying of the annoying drunk people are those who congregate in the street at 2 am while they wait for their taxi. They mill around the neighbourhood with their roaring and their swearing and their cackling and their accidental smashing of bottles until finally the taxi arrives a whole annoying hour later.

I should note here that I have nothing against alcohol or the F word. I just don’t want to listen to it in the middle of the night.

When it comes to noisy summer parties I’m a classic NIMBY: not in my back yard. Please pollute someone else’s personal space with the sound of your merrymaking.

So where to put the drunk people? A Tauranga camp ground decided to host as many under 25 drinkers as they could over new year’s eve, which raised a few eyebrows. Not being a policeman or an A&E nurse, I’m unqualified to make any judgement about the social risks of packing drunken youths into one spot.

As a NIMBY resident though, I say the further away from me, the better.

I realise I’m talking about drunk people as though I’ve never been one of them, as though they are a kind of zombie sub-species that need to be quarantined.

That would be unfair. Some of my best friends are drunk people.

I was 32 the first time I got properly drunk. My friends couldn’t believe it and neither could I. We were at a pub where pints kept appearing in front of me. Every time I looked down at my glass it was empty and apparently I was the person who had emptied it.

Suddenly, without being able to pinpoint when anything had actually changed, I observed that I was engulfed in a golden wave of euphoria that was completely foreign to my hitherto untampered-with brain.

Time began to pulse in peculiar ways. Conversations warped and tumbled around me. I was invincible and I was the funniest person I’d ever met.

So, this was drunkenness. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel just a little bit glorious.

That’s not an advert for getting drunk, by the way, because it’s never worth it.

Nursing my first ever hangover, I was prodded awake by a particularly evil friend who whispered the words “warm fish milkshake” in my ear. I think I spent the next few hours in the bathroom.

As fun as drinking might be on the night, the economics don’t add up. Hangovers are a waste of valuable time and alcohol eventually catches up with your waistline.

After experimenting with some reclaimed youth I’m back to preferring a sensible tipple. I’m far happier to wake clear headed in the morning and go for a run. The alternative is to be loud, then hung over, and later, chubby.

There are occasions when it is fun to be swept along with the raucous ride, so I do feel like a bit of a grinch begrudging other people their parties.

I guess this reflects a tension we might wrestle with when stewing grumpily over other people’s noisy festivities. We’d prefer them to shut up but we know that once upon a time we might have been part of something that kept someone else awake.

It seems the only time drunk people are not annoying is when you’re getting drunk alongside them. Unfortunately that’s not a particularly sustainable solution. Nor a sensible one for the community.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 10 January 2014. Reproduced with permission.

Fat dude

Once upon a time my wife said to me, “Why it is socially acceptable to tell someone they’re skinny but it’s not socially acceptable to tell someone they’re fat?” Not long after that I saw a guy waiting in his car outside the supermarket, belly pressed up against the wheel. I drove away humming this offensive little riff to myself, which, for sheer indulgent holiday fun back in 2011, turned into a groovy little number that I once again post online for your fat funky pleasure.  

My doctor friend John is one of the few people I know who is allowed to tell someone else that they’re fat. I’m sure he has a suitable professional patter for that situation, but this song might help liven up the consultation if required.

Every single note and rhythm is my own, not a Garageband loop to be heard. My trance friend Shelmo will be proud.

Mud slinging

One problem with writing an opinion column is that you actually need to have an opinion. Sometimes I don’t have an opinion. Especially this week when I’ve got my feet up on a happy new year holiday.

I’m always pretty cautious about jumping to conclusions. Even if there’s a glaring issue in the news I’ll usually change my mind several times before reluctantly settling somewhere on the fence.

This makes me either a voice of reason or an irritating flake, depending on the topic. (I’ll go with voice of reason, if you don’t mind, although you’re welcome to your own opinion on that.)

Now here I am, first week of January, with no opinion at all. What’s an opinion columnist to do?

Many people don’t suffer from lack of an opinion. Take a detour through the comment section under most website blogs and news articles. Plenty of opinion there.

Reading online comments is a bit like toying with an ulcer. It hurts, but the pain is fascinating enough to keep going.

Most of it is uninformed. Much of it spirals emphatically down toxic rabbit holes with reckless disregard for polite discourse.

Scathing comments turn up on Facebook too, which surprises me because it’s not a particularly anonymous forum.

Simon Bridges copped some flack last year when he was trying to defend deep sea oil drilling. Whenever the Anadarko story turned up on my Facebook feed, a few people typically jumped into the comment boxes to hurl gleefully blunt labels at their least favourite politician of the moment.

I’m not fond of the oil thing either, but there are ways to validate your position without throwing muck at the opposition.

I try to avoid being uncharitable about others in writing. I don’t think it matters that the person you’re insulting will probably never see your Facebook post. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, why stamp your nastiness into the public record by writing it down? What does that say about your own character?

This is a problem with the written word and its illusion of anonymity. Safely shielded behind our computers, we get carried away with our own rhetoric. We forget that the targets of our wit or our wrath are living, breathing human beings.

People are people no matter who they are, no matter what their day job is.

It’s unlikely, but who knows, one day you might actually meet the person you’ve publicly excoriated and they could turn out to be quite different to the cartoon villain you thought you were ranting against.

Or suppose they do live up to your worst fears? That’s on them, not you.

For me, it’s a matter of integrity. The Golden Rule – treat others the way you’d like to be treated – applies for people we disagree with too.

Genuine debate invigorates me. It stretches my brain and it helps me to see things differently. I rather enjoy exploring arguments with people who have a different perspective, so long as they are willing to disagree in a spirit of respect.

Maybe I’ve been surfing with the wrong crowd but thoughtful debate seems hard to come by in the online trenches.

Nastiness is the way of the world and it’s the way of the web. That doesn’t mean we have to join in. I vote for the high ground. Let’s make 2014 a year of courtesy.

Look at me sweeping my sanctimonious broom of judgement across the floor of the internet. Huh. Turns out I have an opinion this week after all.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 3 January 2014. Reproduced with permission.

You’ve read the website, now buy the book!

Update May 2014: now available on Amazon!

Ministry book cover

So I wrote a collection of zippy short stories and put them in a book which I self-published in 2012. Every now and then I browse through it and say to myself, this book is awesome! More people should read it!

Here are some sample stories: Beer with Jesus   Broken tolerator

Ministry of Ideas   Doomsday   Priority ticket   No laughing matter

I have grand aspirations to get this redesigned and distributed for world domination, but for now, if you live in Tauranga, you can buy it from: Books A Plenty on Grey Street, The Dry Dock Cafe on Wharf Street or Grindz Cafe on 1st Ave. Failing that, contact me.

 

A few things I particularly liked in 2013

Thank you for coming to my award ceremony for Things I Particularly Liked in 2013. Please help yourself to a drink and make yourself comfortable. You’ll note that we are serving craft beer at these awards. Craft beer is one of the things I particularly liked in 2013.

It takes some getting used to, but craft beer is great because the strong hops flavour makes it easier to stop drinking and move on to dessert. It’s about taste rather than quantity. If New Zealanders continue to embrace craft beer the way we have in 2013 it can only be good for our drinking culture.

Opening the award ceremony is my pick for some music that I particularly liked in 2013, which is Lorde. Not being a pop music guy, it took me a while to catch up with Lorde but now I’m totally sold.

Lorde is the anti-Cyrus. She’s a teen star who is defined by her artistry, as opposed to Miley Cyrus who in 2013 tried to define herself by doing silly wiggly things with her bottom. Self-touchy nakedness does not make you a better singer. Fully clothed Lorde has 100% more class and her album of minimalist songs plays regularly in our house.

Let’s move on to some of the books I’ve particularly liked in 2013. I’m not up to date with the latest novels so sadly The Luminaries will not feature this year, but high fives all round for Eleanor Catton anyway.

A book that particularly grabbed me this year is A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar, a memoir about a boy growing up in Afghanistan. When I was a teen my biggest problems were failing my driver’s licence test and not having a girlfriend, whereas Omar’s main concern was trying to avoid being killed or tortured by various warring Afghan factions. Despite the hardship, his dignity and humanity shine through. It’s a book I strongly recommend.

The best novel I read this year is one from 2008 called The Other Hand by Chris Cleave. (Confusingly it is also known as Little Bee.) This is a book that describes someone whispering in a language “that sounded like butterflies drowning in honey.” I loved it so much I immediately bought copies for Christmas presents.

I found both of the above books at the Tauranga Library, since you’re asking.

Some television I particularly liked watching in 2013 was neither NZ’s Got Talent nor X-Factor NZ. It was actually old episodes of The West Wing that my wife and I have been working through on DVD. The West Wing always makes me feel super intelligent even if I don’t have a clue what’s going on, which I usually don’t, but it never seems to matter.

Another thing I particularly liked in 2013 was the art that Owen Dippie did on city buildings around Tauranga. Every time I drive past his giant rendition of The Girl With The Pearl Earring on Cameron Road I feel a warm glow of gratitude for people who support public art. More please, Owen.

And now for something completely different: Twitter. I’m several years late to the tweeting party but Twitter became one of my favourite things in 2013. It was intimidating at first but I’ve learned to use Twitter as a portal of links to articles and discussions that I would otherwise never discover on my own.

It’s entertaining too, like when Wellington City Council had an argument with a street puddle. Such is the peculiar twitterverse, where even a puddle can have its own Twitter account.

On a personal note, 2013 was the year my kids got taller (again), I ran my first marathon (off road, thank you very much) and I got up extra early most mornings to write things like this column before going to my day job. It’s been a very busy year and I’m going to lie down for a bit now. See you next week, in 2014.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 27 December 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Christmas juggernaut

The Christmas juggernaut arrived with a series of roundhouse kicks to my trouser pocket, the one where I keep my wallet.

The first sign of trouble was an extra busy car park at the supermarket. No hand baskets left at the door. People everywhere. Chocolate Santas at the entrance. I’ve never understood Chocolate Santas. Tasty, sure, but the edible Santa thing sends a confusing message. Why bite off the head that feeds you?

Anyway. Loads of tinsel. Every item on every shelf screaming ‘buy me’, even things I’d normally ignore. I ducked through the aisles to get what I was after, which was a single bottle of milk and a few apples. Someone was handing out chocolates. There was wine tasting and a new pesto that I pretended to be interested in even though I knew I wouldn’t buy it.

By the time I got back to the car I found I had also bought beer, wine, chocolate, plunger coffee, orange juice, berries and ice cream. Turned out I’d forgotten the apples so I ducked back in to get them. I came out with pesto.

I’m not sure how that happens. Being surrounded by other people who are engaged in a pre-Christmas shopping frenzy infects me with some kind of consumer virus.

‘Tis the season of the Christmas smackdown, the epic fight between wants and needs. The smartest gift shopping in the world won’t rescue your bank account from the real cost of Christmas, which is all that extra food and drink.

It’s those end of year get-togethers, the dinners and the summer barbeques. It’s the extra naughty items that you buy because, hey, it’s Christmas.

I don’t begrudge any of it, but at times it leaves me breathless. At the very least it leaves the bank account stumbling a few paces behind trying to catching its breath.

My goal for the holidays, as it is every year, is to keep our family splurge within the available limit. We’ll see how that goes. But it’s the end of a long year and I’m looking forward to putting my feet up. I’ve been crawling toward the finish line. The holiday break can’t come soon enough. Damn right I’m going to buy an unnecessary bottle of bubbly.

Every year we collapse into Christmas and convince ourselves next year won’t be as hard. There’s strange maths at work here, because this year always feels much harder than last year. Sticking with that logic, by now our lives should be totally unbearable.

But life’s not unbearable is it? I hope not. It’s easy to get consumed by whatever’s swallowing you up at the time, but there is always a redeeming moment hiding around the corner.

Sure, 2013 has been flooded, typhooned, spied upon and we lost the Auld Mug. But 2013 was also the year of Lorde, The Luminaries, the unbeaten All Blacks and most importantly my 7 year old earned a gymnastics trophy. Beat that.

My wish for 2014 is that the online nit pickers and the letter writing grumpy bums will stop working so hard to bring everything down. You know the people I’m talking about: those serial complainers who are determined to see a cloud in every silver lining. Man, I’d hate to be invited to their place for Christmas. They’d either scoff at the quality of the bubbly I bring round or moan that I’ve spent too much on it. It takes a lot of effort to be that negative.

Enough with the grumpy bums. These holidays I’m going to spend time with smilers instead of sneerers. I hope you are able to do that too. Unhunch those shoulders, give generously, eat strawberries. Share some bubbly if you can stretch it. You deserve it and, hey, it’s Christmas.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 20 December 2013. Reproduced with permission.

On being Bilbo Baggins’ neighbour

Scientists, clever wizards that they are, have informed us that the Shire shares the same climate as Dunedin. Well, that’s obviously wrong because we all know Hobbits live in Matamata.

As someone who lives just over the hill from the Shire, I’ve always felt that the director of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings should pay a bit more attention to us locals.

If Peter Jackson were a true hobbit he would invite all of us to a big party and give everyone presents. Thus far, no party. Just another movie that I have to pay to go and see for myself. It’s as though I’m international box office fodder instead of a local who lives more or less next door to Bilbo Baggins.

Perhaps it’s for the best. After all, did you see the first Hobbit film? If Peter Jackson were to treat us the way he treats his main characters, we’d be mistaken for cartoons. He’d chase us up Mauao and have us all thrown off the edge, expecting us to tumble and thump from rock to rock with barely a scratch.

Where the Lord of the Rings trilogy was grounded in gravitas, those roller coaster escapes in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were just silly. Bilbo and his dwarf friends bounced from ridiculous heights like crash test dummies with no apparent consequence. Scientists should calculate the bone density of Middle Earth inhabitants. I think they’ll find more in common with Looney Tunes.

If nothing else, Peter Jackson has taught us the correct pronunciation of Smaug. I’ve spent my whole life saying “Smorg” which turns out to be wrong. It’s more like “Smowg”, which sounds like you’re jamming your fingers in a door, which is what I would rather do than watch cartoon dwarves tumble down nonsense cliffs again.

To be fair, my journey there and back again with the first Hobbit film was not a great experience; I came out of the cinema to find a $40 parking ticket poking its tongue at me from my windscreen. This was in Whangarei. They don’t look after Middle Earth locals there either.

It was my own silly fault for not seeing the pay and display sign, but still, there’s nothing quite like a parking fine to bring out the orc in you. It feels like Sauron just spat into your cornflakes. The whole world becomes tainted with injustice and makes you want to squash flowers out of spite. A year later I’m apparently still bitter. The Hobbit never stood a chance that day.

However, early buzz on the new film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is quite positive so maybe I’ll need to check my attitude at the door. I’ve decided to set aside my grumbles about fidelity to the source material and give in to the spectacle. If Peter Jackson wants to create a fun park ride through a variety of Middle Earth set pieces, then yay for him. Even better if it all holds together as a film.

It bothers me less now anyway. I’ve already seen my favourite film for 2013, which was Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. I loved Gravity so much I went twice. Not since I first watched The Matrix has a trip to the movies made me go “Woah!” as though I’d just swallowed the red pill. Gravity makes up for all the bad CGI and shonky 3D movies of the past decade. If you ever get a chance to see it on the big screen, go.

In the meantime, might as well catch up with our neighbour Bilbo. I know Peter Jackson doesn’t owe me anything, but I’d still like to see my name in the credits. “The film makers acknowledge that guy who lives over the hill from the Shire.” That, or a refund for my parking ticket. Call me a Sackville-Baggins, I’ll take what I can get.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times Friday 13 December. Reproduced with permission.

Links to GMO articles

My Bay of Plenty Times column this week is about genetic modification. What an idiot. I’m no scientist, what the hell am I doing writing about this stuff? I’m just a guy trying to figure out why he’s not comfortable marching against Monsanto.

For what it’s worth, here’s a selective list of some of the online reading that has informed my confusion this year. Most of it comes out of the USA. Much of it shows my bias. Nevertheless here you go. Pour a hot drink, there’s plenty to read.

But enough about the rats. What about GMOs in general?

Nathanael Johnson: I’ve become a big fan of Johnson’s Grist articles this year. He has no agenda to push except honest enquiry. So many posts to choose from, I’ll leave you to figure out where to start for yourself. Update 1 Jan 2014: Start here!

Jack Heineman: a New Zealand scientist who has some concerns about GM. This is his contribution to a forum debate – the whole debate is worth a read.

One Hundred Meals: This is a great diary series by a couple who are pursuing better understanding of the food they eat. They’re philosophically against GMOs but are generous in their critique. That’s the kind of middle ground I’m talking about. Some excellent articles grappling with food and sources. But let’s go straight to the fun stuff. Dinner at Monsanto!

Mark Lynas: Okay, so here’s an interesting guy. He started out super duper anti-GMO and is now a high profile advocate. Here’s his ‘conversion’ speech.

Amy Harmon: Amy Harmon writes very long articles but they’re well worth your time.

Some reaction to Harmon’s articles: Amy Harmon vs Michael Pollan and The psychology of distrusting GMOs

Other articles 

Bees

A few asides about our buzzy friends, since they sometimes get caught up in the GMO conversation via discussion about pesticides.

Anti GMO

Finally, in case you think I’m completely biased, I’ve also read lots of other stuff likethis, this and this. And here’s a reverse Mark Lynas.

Whew. Enough already. Next week I’ll just write about squashing cockroaches, it’ll be simpler.

I should be very clear that this list is my own and that these links are only those that I stumbled upon for myself, (aside from the Jack Heineman one which was suggested to me). I don’t pretend that any of this paints a complete picture or even that I agree with every article I’ve linked to (I don’t). It’s only a slice of some my own reading, which is in fact the problem: it’s really hard for those of us who aren’t yet potty trained to know where to go to get helpful information from the grown ups.

Rats versus GMOS

Perhaps you’ve seen the unhappy rats? If you’re interested in GMOs (genetically modified organisms) those sad little rodent pictures might have found their way through your web browser at some point.

Last year some scientists published photos of rats that were afflicted with hideous, bulbous tumours. They claimed the tumours were caused by feeding the rats GM corn. The ugly rat monsters became poster victims for anti-GMO campaigners.

Much of the scientific community lambasted the study’s methodology. Even for me, with barely a scientific bone in my body, it seemed a bit dodgy. For a start, they’d used a strain of rat that is known to get cancer fairly easily. That’s stacking the deck a bit.

Then, when the rats developed their inevitable tumours, they were kept alive for much longer than necessary until the tumours reached gigantic proportions, all for the sake of some sensational photos.

At least one commentator had a word for it which I can’t use in the Bay of Plenty Times.

Last week the study was retracted by Food and Chemical Toxicology, the journal that published it, on the grounds that it is inconclusive. A resulting anti-GMO grumble is that Monsanto conspiracy is at work here. (The journal’s new editor used to work for Monsanto.)

Some good friends of mine marched against Monsanto earlier this year. Ever since then I’ve been trying to decide what my own opinion is of GM technology. It’s a fraught issue because, if the doomcasters are right, our health and our planet might be at stake. Or not.

There’s a lot of noise out there and the rat study sure didn’t help. If you measure the pulse of any anti-GMO activist you’d think this is a battle of mythic proportions, a war that is raging between virtuous earth lovers and evil overlords of corporate greed.

As a long time fan of the middle ground, I’m not so sure. I’ve not seen anything yet that convinces me to take up a placard either way. I’ve read some books and way too many internet articles, and we all know how reliable the internet is.

Who to believe? It’s hard enough getting perspective when your own kids fight over the lego, let alone when passionate interest groups start shouting at each other.

When it comes to genetic engineering I’ve decided that both sides are over-confident in their claims. The activists pluck at sensationalist straws while the pro-team place too much faith in GMO as food messiah.

Nothing is ever that simple.

Yet if I’m pushed, I seem to be leaning on the GMO side of the fence. Yes, I am a disappointment to environmentalists. Go on, slap me in the face with your organic broccoli.

But actually, I’m a cheerleader for organics too. I am several shades of green, not just one. This is my middle ground, a position that holds GM, cautiously, to be one technology among many. It’s neither bad nor good, it’s how and where you use it.

That doesn’t automatically mean we should welcome it into New Zealand agriculture, in fact, I suspect we probably shouldn’t. It’s all very well watching arguments play out overseas but I’m unconvinced when it comes to our home turf.

I do think that if we reject GM from the Bay or from the country, it needs to be for the right reasons. It’s unfair to demonize an entire branch of science over anecdotal spook stories and fearful conjecture.

I’m all for cheerful disagreement over this. Everywhere I turn there’s a new perspective one way or the other and I’m already in over my head just by trying to think about it out loud. This discussion never gets any simpler.

So far the only thing I’m sure of is that I disagree vehemently with anyone who has a vehemently polarized view.

It’s not a straightforward topic so if you’re as earnest as me, I’ve put a few interesting links here.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 December 2013. Reproduced with permission.

It’s not a vote, it’s a survey

I’m trying to figure out what to do with the referendum voting paper that landed in my letterbox this week. It asks a big question: Do you support the government selling up to 49% of Air New Zealand and some power companies, yes or no?

You either hold a strong position on asset sales or you don’t. I don’t, because the economist part of my brain is underdeveloped. I deal in apostrophes, not decimal points. I genuinely don’t know what the best answer is here.

It seems that the patriotic course of action with this particular referendum is to tick no and then yell very loudly that you’ve done so. The ‘yes’ tickers are being very quiet about it.

On this basis I could make an assumptive hunch about which way to vote but it’s hardly an informed opinion. I have much stronger views on other things.

Energy drinks, for example. I’d ace a referendum about those. ‘Do you support banning energy drinks, yes or no?’ Yes, get rid of them. The number of people I’ve seen sucking on cans of sugar first thing in the morning is depressing. All that fizz in your stomach for breakfast can’t be good. Whatever energy you think you’re getting is false economy.

I also think there should be a referendum about noisy neighbours. ‘Do you support the people at number 27 going to bed earlier, yes or no?’ I predict a landslide.

There should possibly be a referendum about the quality of Secret Santa presents. ‘Do you think disposable plastic toys should be banned as office Christmas party gifts, yes or no?’ Yes, absolutely, otherwise you spend five bucks on cheap plastic that goes straight to landfill. The environment deserves better than that for Christmas.

Whatever the results of my home made referendums, they would all have to be non binding. That’s the law for any citizen initiated referendum. The same goes for this asset sales one. The government is not obliged to pay it any attention.

At the end of the day a citizens’ initiated referendum is not actually a vote, it’s a survey. A very expensive survey at that. They’ll have to sell another asset just to pay for it.

So here’s what will happen. Most people will vote no to asset sales. The government will say, “Thanks for all the completely unsurprising feedback.” Then they’ll do whatever they think is best because that’s their job.

Afterwards, a lot of people who voted against the government will be indignant and complain. “But you didn’t listen to us. It’s an outrage! All referendums should be binding.” All referendums should certainly not be binding.

That would be a dangerous way to govern, especially when the referendum is badly written, like the smacking one was.

There’s an interesting list of New Zealand’s referendums on the Elections website. Our first referendum was about horse betting and our second was about compulsory military training, both initiated by the government in 1949. (The vote was 78% in favour of compulsory military training.)

This asset sales question is our fifth citizens’ initiated referendum. At $9 million I’m sure there are less expensive ways to get the government to ignore an issue.

By all means we should raise a fuss when we object strongly to things, but the one binding referendum that counts most is the general election. That’s the vote that gave the National Party the right to make choices lots of people inevitably disagree with.

Good on the government if this referendum leads them to change their mind. But I’d be surprised if it does. At the end of the day it’s not a proper vote, it’s just a survey.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 29 November 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Getting all feverish over pollen

It’s that time of year when hayfever sticks its irritating feather up my nose once again. I’d really like to take hayfever aside and inflict some violence upon it. Instead, I try to appease it with medication. This has mixed results. More often than not hayfever laughs in my face.

I know there are worse problems in the world. Hayfever is just an annoying little twerp next to the debilitating conditions that other people have to put up with. Still, I’d like to punch its lights out. I am eternally jealous of people who don’t get hayfever.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, there are three main symptoms.

Hayfever

First up there’s the scratchy eyes. It feels like your eyes have been sprinkled with sawdust. At the rougher end of the scale you get hundreds of tiny horned insects raging in and around your eye sockets.

Then comes the tickly throat. This is where a road works crew sets up camp at the back of your mouth. They are usually there for the entire summer and they have a whole range of jobs, from lightly raking gravel around the top of your mouth to driving heavy machinery up and down your throat.

Finally there’s the itchy nose, although the word itchy doesn’t really do it justice. This is the kind of itchy nose that makes you fantasize about jamming Popsicles up your nostrils just to get some relief.

Naturally, the itchy nose makes you sneeze and it demands constant nose blowing. A school friend of mine once pointed out that I always had a snotty nose. It was a fact of life back then. Maybe that’s why I never had a girlfriend at school. (Spoiler alert: the girlfriend thing turned out okay.)

Hayfever was more severe for me in Taupo where I grew up. There’s a degree to which I’ve grown out of the worst of it. Living near the coast certainly helps. But you may sense I still cherish some animosity towards hayfever.

Right now we’re smack in the middle of the pollen season. All those evil grasses started releasing their evil grassy pollen in September and they’ll go on partying until March. I usually begin to get affected about now. Some of the grasses I’m allergic to must be kicking in this month.

It’s not just the grass. Trees are evil too. I have a lot of sympathy for people who want to cut down their sneezy silver birch trees. But I’d never advocate killing a tree just because it releases pollen for one month in the year. Chopping down a tree to combat allergies is like throwing a stone into the river to build a dam.

That’s the problem with pollen. It’s everywhere and it’s hard to tell which variety is giving you the most grief. Where would you stop once you’d killed all the birch trees? Pines make me sneeze and other people are affected by pohutukawa. Macrocarpa release pollen all summer. Should we cut those down too?

You’d have to kill every plant and then concrete the entire city – as well as the surrounding rural hills – to make an effective stand against pollen.

Allergy New Zealand advise that pollen is at its worst between 5am and 10am each morning. I find it worse in the evening. It’s also worse when it’s humid. Oh, and it’s worse when it’s windy as well.

Standard hayfever advice is that you should stay indoors, keep the windows shut, use air conditioning and don’t go camping.  I find this depressing and unhelpful. I think I’d rather just sneeze.

One suggestion that makes good sense is to wash your hair and clothes each night to get rid of the pollen.

But by far the best advice I’ve read is that you should head for the beach over the summer holidays. Now that’s the kind of medicine I’m happy to swallow.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 22 November 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Typhoon Haiyan and parenthood

What can I possibly say about Typhoon Haiyan, one of the biggest storms in recorded history? What can anyone say about it?

I have no idea what to do with statistics like 10,000 people feared dead, although this initial estimate appears to be dropping. Whether the final count is lower or higher, all those zeros leave me numb.

I was similarly stunned in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami, and again after Japan, when death tolls clocked up through unthinkable, abstract figures.

Eventually my brain disengages. I have to change the channel. Not because I don’t care, but because I can’t comprehend what it means for so many people, suddenly, to no longer be alive.

It’s not over though, because now the problem is how to get aid to the survivors. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced and hungry. More numbers that I can’t compute.

Tragedy turns my thoughts toward my own family. While ordinary people in another country were dying and being made homeless, my wife and I were walking with our three healthy boys through the bush at Otanewainuku.

The boys ran ahead, immersed in their own grand adventure. There’s something liberating about the way children run when they’re happy. It’s a straight forward expression of joy. “I am in the bush. This place is cool. Therefore I must run.” The same thing happens when you put children in a big open space like an empty hall. The first thing they want to do is chase each other.

It is an intolerable thought that my family could ever be ripped apart by disaster the way thousands of families have been ripped apart in the Philippines.

Becoming a parent ruins you. As soon as you have kids you’re doomed because you now love someone more than you ever thought possible, and you’re stuck with it.

The day our first child entered the world, joy entered with him, but I drove home with a horrible realisation: “Oh no, what have I done? I’ve brought an innocent life into a world of pain!”

Nothing is ever quite the same after you’ve had children. The universe suddenly looms with danger. Little dangers, like balconies and door hinges. Big dangers, like fires and asteroids.

The last thing my wife and I do each night is check on our sleeping boys. They always look like they’ve fallen into their beds from a great height. Whatever excitement or trauma has filled their day is dispersed softly into the night.

Looking at their peaceful faces is the moment when love seems to ache the most. It’s a wonderful sort of pain that every parent will be familiar with.

Being alive is a risk. The one guarantee is that every life ends, so there will certainly be grief at some point on the journey. This makes love a peculiar combination of win and lose.

I don’t want to accept that grief will eventually land upon my chirpy children. But it’s inevitable. And because the world is filled with sharp edges, there will be physical and emotional pain along the way. I hate that truth.

There’s a photo I’ve seen of a Filipino father holding his two toddlers. His new makeshift home is a corrugated iron sheet leaning against a sea of rubble. Other images show survivors walking through debris, shielding their noses from the stench of decaying corpses that were once their neighbours.

My brain tries desperately to detach itself from these photos, to deny that humans are suffering while I am deciding which herbal tea to drink.

Until it lands on my own doorstep, tragedy of this scale is simply too alien for me to handle. All I can do from my relative safety is to send a donation. Then I have to change the channel for a while. And tonight, as usual, I’ll kiss each of my sons on the forehead as they sleep.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 15 November 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Drinking under the limit

I’ve decided to write this opinion column while drinking under the limit. I’ve got no problem with the new limit. It still allows for more than I’d ever drink and drive so the old rules were a joke.

In theory I can now only have three standard drinks before I get behind the wheel. It might even be more than three, but let’s call it three to be extra safe.

So, three beers, that’s what I had before I got behind my desk and started driving this keyboard.

I’m not a big guy. My tolerance is probably less compared to others who can soak the stuff up. They might feel hard done by when it comes to the new limit. I don’t see how it’s a bad thing myself.

Anything more than two drinks shifts my brain into a different gear. For example, here I am three beers down and already I love you all. The whole city. Yes, I’m a cheap date.

I’m also noticing that a few drinks is all it takes to make me type a lot louder than usual. That’s the thing with alcohol, for some reason it makes people shout a lot. A night on the town will leave your ears ringing.

I’m older than I used to be, and these days there’s very little I enjoy about being up all night, surrounded by thumping music and people who are yelling all of their sentences even though none of them can hear each other. I much prefer to have actual conversations and, as a bonus, wake up fresh the next day.

I’ve suddenly veered into a different topic but that’s kind of the way it is when you’re writing under the influence.

Not that I’m influenced. I can totally handle my drink and I’m still fine to drive. I know I’m still fine because the new law says I’m still fine.

I’d never drive on three beers though. Never. Even though I’m feeling totally confident that I’d be safe behind the wheel.

Just like I’m feeling totally confident about writing this column. This is going to be the best column ever. I know it because, admittedly just a teeny weeny bit giddy after my three drinks, I can promise you that I’m a really careful writer. My judgement isn’t affected at all, officer. In fact I’m pretty sure alcohol makes me a whole lot funnier. I never go for the cheap shot and I always fix my misteaks.

Ha ha, see what I did there? Genius.

Alcohol can turn into a problem because so many of us like it so much. I’m not a big guy, so three or four drinks makes me a cheap date. (Did I mention that already? I can’t remember but it probably doesn’t matter if I type it loudly enough.)

The point is, if there is a point, which I’m pretty sure there is somewhere, that a tougher drinking limit can’t possibly be a bad thing. Who, really, is going to argue otherwise?

Hands up everyone who thinks the new limit is unfair. Critics say it won’t stop the really bad offenders. I say this is the long game we’re playing. It’s like trying to stamp out smoking.

Those poor smokers, forced outside into the fresh air to have their cancer. Over time our public tolerance toward smoking has completely changed and we should view this tighter drink limit in the same light. It’s one more incremental step towards adjusting our drinking culture. Drink and drive are two words, like beer and milk, that you just shouldn’t put in the same glass. Sentence. You know what I mean.

Really, why complain? If you’re a woman you can still have a couple of drinks and drive home. If you’re a guy you can still have three. And three’s plenty enough for me as you can see.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 8 November 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Last will and testament of a fire cracker

This is the last will and testament of a fire cracker. I am huddled together with my fellow fireworks, jammed into a mid priced consumer packet. Any time soon we’ll be purchased and carried away to the suburbs. When our time comes we’ll be lit up methodically, one at a time, in a mundane kind of ceremony.

They’ll light my fuse and then I’ll fulfil my purpose: bang, whistle, pop. And that’ll be that. I’ll do my absolute best to entertain you, I promise.

It’s every fire cracker’s dream to go out with a bang, but here’s my dark secret: I’m terrified that I’ll be boring.

The thing is, I know that in a previous era I could have been so much more. I am descended from sky rockets.

Sky rockets: the glorious royalty of fireworks. They owned November. They were called rockets because they actually rocketed. They properly launched. That whooshing blaze of thrust was a thrill every single time.

I will never soar so high. We modern fireworks give it all we’ve got but I’m painfully aware that we come up short.

You see, ever since sky rockets were banned, the fireworks manufacturers have tried to compensate with noisy tricks. Modern fireworks aren’t filled with beautiful explosions. They’re built with loud bangs and ear piercing shrieks.

So that’s probably what I’ll be doing on Guy Fawkes night: shrieking at a low orbit.

Sure, I’m packed with fiery balls and a few other sparkly surprises, but mostly I’m all about being as loud as possible. I’ll go whoosh, whistle, crackle, and I’ll probably scream a lot.

Please accept my apology in advance, especially if you are an animal, a small child, or someone who just wants an early night.

Sometimes I think every firework like me should be banned outright. It’s not because I’m dangerous but because I’m generally more annoying than I am beautiful.

The heyday of Guy Fawkes has passed and it’s hard to see what we’re celebrating any more.

Ah, the golden era of Guy Fawkes. Sky rockets in the sky and bangers on the ground. It’s odd to think that it was once quite normal for children to carry small explosives in their pockets. Fireworks season used to be marked by the smell of phosphorus on little boys’ fingers and the shredded red debris of fire cracker paper everywhere, like exploded cheerios.

I never met a double happy myself. Double happies were fire crackers that looked and acted like tiny sticks of dynamite. I’m told they were traditionally used to blow up plastic army men and letter boxes.

Those reckless days are gone, which is probably for the best. Professional sky rockets can still generate a genuine wow at public displays. Maybe that’s all that’s needed?

Whatever happens, I hope the sparklers remain. I am jealous of sparklers with their enduring innocence and wistful magic.

In the meantime I might as well aim for a big finale that doesn’t make a total fizzer out of me.

My final wish as a firework is to be purchased by someone who has a bit of flair, someone who understands the value of working with an ensemble. Please don’t parade your fireworks one after the other as lonely solo items. Put a bit of thought into producing a decent backyard display. Plan ahead and light a few different things, safely, in creative combinations.

Dull firework sessions really get on my wick. I am the mediocre successor to the glorious sky rocket and this is my last will and testament: I wish to go out in a collective blaze of glory.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 1 November 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Two cups of coffee

the first cup

 

Caffeine is my mistress.
I meet her every week downtown.
She wears the same dress
the one she knows I like best,
a milky caramel brown.
We whisper hello, then,
quietly, she slips her warm
tongue between my lips.
It is like tumbling down the slope
of a wave; the world spins on around me
unaware that I’ve stepped out for a moment.

 

the second cup

 

Caffeine is a sacrament.
It is prepared for ministry
with articulate hands.
This is the bean
roasted and ground for you.
This is the milk
steamed and poured out for you.
I take the cup, recite the creed:
I believe in the perfect blend of bitter and sweet
in the aroma that slow dances across the surface
in the fuel that somersaults me
headlong into the afternoon.
I raise the cup to my mouth.
Angels draw breath for the Hallelujah Chorus.

 

First published in JAAM. This poem probably cost me at least $50 in coffee to write and it earned me $20 … a year after it was published.

 

Affairs are really dumb

Now that we’ve finished sniggering and tut-tutting, has anyone learned anything from this Len Brown nonsense, aside from how to enjoy a really juicy scandal?

Amidst the public debate about acceptable moral standards for wayward mayors, it strikes me that there has been very little reflection about acceptable standards for the rest of us. We’re quite happy to say: “Len shouldn’t have had an affair,” but we seem to stop short of adding: “and by the way, neither should anyone else.”

Let’s not turn the spotlight on ourselves. No, that’s not comfortable at all.

The reality is that it’s not just the Mayor of Auckland who wrestles with illicit emotions. Ordinary families will continue to be rocked by extra-marital affairs long after this particular news cycle has passed.

Well, I don’t mind being blunt for a moment. Hey, everyone! Don’t have an affair! Affairs are really dumb!

On the topic of infidelity Paul Newman famously said: “Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?”

That analogy has always seemed problematic to me because I really like hamburgers. If I had the best steak in the world every day I would still get bored. I’d probably grab a burger at the first opportunity. After a while even Georgie Pie might look attractive.

Variety is the spice of life and that’s the problem. Other people are fascinating, interesting and appealing. If you’re stressed out running a city and one of those other people is 25 years better looking than you, I bet opportunity knocks pretty loudly.

Paul Newman’s steak and burger analogy is too selfish for my liking. It focuses on the variety of tastiness we want for ourselves, rather than the depth of nutritional goodness we can offer to our partner.

To be married is to say: “you are the person I choose to feed and nourish with all I have to give.” Marriage prospers in this exclusive context. It’s a rich exchange of nourishment.

In contrast, an affair – even one that doesn’t get physical – squanders precious emotional resources that should be reserved for your other half. The result of spending that currency with someone else is that everyone gets robbed.

Perhaps you’ve grown giddy on pheromones and found yourself tiptoeing into the wrong hotel room. People justify this behaviour with the standard clichés: “I deserve some happiness,” and “how can it be wrong when it feels so right?” Some call it escapism, some call it lust; others will dare to call it love.

Whatever you call it, however you try to justify it, it’s guaranteed to result in a train wreck.

Has anyone ever had an affair that turned out to be a great idea? We’ve all seen people’s lives smashed upside down. Yet there go the humans, merrily shunting their trains in the wrong direction. We are self destructive creatures, aren’t we?

Maybe this is an overly sanctimonious response to the Brown affair. Real life is complicated and it’s just not that simple to flick off your emotions when those hot and spicy feelings start sizzling. But faithfulness is a measure of the world’s greatest heroes.

The truest romantic heroes are husbands and wives who return home from work with nothing to hide except birthday presents. True heroes are those who honour their partners in public and in private. The children of heroes grow up knowing that their Mum loves their Dad and that their Dad loves their Mum.

You’re nobody’s hero if you’re chasing an affair. It might feel romantic and exciting, but who are you kidding? Affairs are really dumb.

To treasure your husband or your wife, that’s the greatest pursuit.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 25 October 2013. Reproduced with permission.

The sneaky genius of New World’s little shop

You’ve got to hand it to the marketing people at New World: those mini supermarket toys are a massive hit with the kids.

Every forty dollars spent at New World buys you a grocery miniature. The toys are teeny tiny replicas of products like Sanitarium Weet-Bix, Edmonds flour and Huggies nappies.

Notice that I’m mentioning the brand names. That’s the genius. Children collect these things to play supermarkets at home. They are being stamped with brand loyalty in the process.

It’s better than all the television advertising in the world. Pak ‘n’ Save can’t compete with New World’s Little Shop. What does Pak ‘n’ Save have to offer? Meat Week.

Our boys have enlisted the grandparents to speed up their mini supermarket expansion before the promotion ends. On shopping days they flock to the kitchen to see which new tiny items have arrived. When they’re not falling off their bikes or beating each other up on the trampoline, they’re trading Flora Pro-activ spread and Persil Sensitive laundry powder with the neighbours.

They’ll probably all want to be supermarket checkout operators when they grow up. At the very least they’ll be sure to buy Rexona deodorant and Fancy Feast cat food. The Little Shop product partners must be loving this.

Branding makes the world go round. Much of it is nonsense, when you unpack it for a closer look. There’s a television commercial running at the moment in which New World customers swipe their Fly Buys cards. With each swipe, animals in a warmly lit cartoon jungle get inexplicably happier. Frogs, chimpanzees and giraffes inhale the magical goodness of New Zealand’s loyalty program. The tag line is ‘every time you swipe, something a little bit good happens’. To chimpanzees?

It’s a patently ridiculous concept that has nothing to do with what actually happens when you swipe for those miniscule rewards. Yet the idea behind it is cunningly infused with a feel-good glow.

The next time I’m asked for my card I won’t necessarily think about animals getting high on Fly Buys, but without even realising it, I might feel more warmly toward this cold piece of plastic. Warm fuzzies are important to distract me from suspecting that the Fly Buys scheme doesn’t actually love me as much as it pretends to.

The next mini shop promotion should probably include Fly Buys. No, wait, the Fly Buys logo is already there on the Little Shop cash register.

We’ve chosen not to buy the cash register and have settled for using an ice cream container. I am regularly required to make Little Shop transactions with my five year old over the coffee table. I wonder if he notices I never buy the fruit?

The design team apparently faltered when it came to building the fruit. All care and attention went into recreating miniature Keri orange juices and Fresh ‘n Fruity yoghurts, but those mini apples look like they fell off a Warehouse trolley.

It’s as though the marketing people were instructed at the very last minute to put something healthy in there.

“Team, I love your idea, but if we’re going to brainwash New World’s children, we’ve got to do it responsibly.”

“What do you suggest, sir?”

“Fresh fruit is the answer. Throw in a plastic apple.”

“Just an apple?”

“And a banana. Aw, shove a pineapple in there too, why not. I know you’re on deadline so make it really big and no one will notice the veges are missing.”

As a result the fruit items are all out of scale. The apple really annoys me. How can you play supermarkets properly when your apple is twice the size of your Vogel’s bread?

Actually, it doesn’t matter. The kids don’t seem to care, and more importantly there is a Dole sticker on the plastic pineapple. At the end of the day, it’s that brand on the sticker that really counts.

littleshop1

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 18 October 2013. Reproduced with permission. 

Street piano

Piano street

There is something magnetic and wonderful about an outdoor piano. An old white honky tonk was parked on Willow Street this week, begging to be played. It was quite a character, splashed with colour like a Jackson Pollock painting, sitting in the open waiting for pedestrian offerings of Chopsticks.

I noticed that people loitered around the piano. Instead of scooting by in a hurry they stopped and played it. People listened to each other and applauded. They herky-jerked that well worn Heart and Soul duet with each other. One guy sat and performed a piece of pretty impressive classical music.

This is all irregular behaviour, isn’t it? Interacting with strangers on the street is not the kind of thing we normally do. The footpath is more often an annoying space between point A and point B that we stride through as quickly as possible. It’s against our nature to stop en route, to take a moment to play, listen, and share a smile with people we don’t even know.

A public spaces guru, David Engwicht, says that if you want to double the number of people in town all you have to do is get them to walk half as fast. Slow them down and make the street itself a reason to be there.

It seems a piano will slow people down, even if you hate Chopsticks.

Street or no street, we need more pianos in the world. When I was a kid there was a piano in each of my friend’s homes. The piano was once as ubiquitous as televisions are today.

Times have changed. All of a sudden I’m older than microwave ovens, cell phones and personal computers.

I remember the day we got our first colour TV, just a box you could plonk on the table. I was seven years old and that night I basked in the glorious orange glow of the Dukes of Hazzard’s General Lee.

My dad remembers the day the very first television set arrived in his street. I guess my children will remember the day we got a high definition wide screen with Blu-Ray.

Television has replaced the piano as the household anchor. I fear that pianos are becoming specialty items. Not enough people have access to them these days.

Call me sentimental but a home feels empty without a piano. The piano is my favourite unplugged machine, a technical marvel. Science and engineering combine with artistry to place music at my fingertips. Electric keyboards are okay but they have no soul. I love the unruly resonance of a living acoustic.

A piano is also a portal into the past. When wrestling with Chopin, for example, I’m discovering notes that he wrote over 150 years ago. “Why did you write it that way?” I argue. Chopin replies: “Trust me. Practice it a bit more and play it faster.” A few bars later I finally get what he’s doing. “Ah, I see.”

He nods. I smile. Two pianists (one very amateur) communicating across the centuries.

I’ve learned that there are plans to plant more street pianos around the city. It’s a artist initiative that came out of the “Love Your City” sessions Peter Kageyama did in Tauranga earlier this year. Check out the pianos at www.theincubator.co.nz. The prospect of seeing these marvels being enjoyed in public puts an extra skip in my step.

On a slightly flat note, pianos slip out of tune easily when they’re being shifted. Too many bung keys will scare away decent musicians and then we’ll be stuck with the most chaotic kinds of Chopsticks. Perhaps there are some kindly piano tuners out there who might help maintain the sweetness.

It’s going to take more than a few enthusiastic artists to usher in the renaissance. It’ll take a community. Let’s all join in. If you see a piano, play it.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 11 October 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Now I am a real columnist

Finally I have provoked some letters to the editor, with not one but two entries in today’s paper. I’m a real columnist at last!

The first letter I cheerfully disagree with entirely, and the second I regret to say I don’t particularly understand. But hey, I’ve generated a reaction.Letters 7 October 2013

When is a poem a poem?

I’ve been pondering a question about poetry, which came to me via a friend’s blog.

The question asks: Is poetry defined merely by when you hit the return key?

That’s a great question. It’s one I’ve asked myself many times. I don’t think it’s cynical to answer in the affirmative. My answer is yes. A poem is defined by when you hit the return key.

Note that I’m making a distinction between poetry as an abstract noun and poetry as a concrete noun.

Poetry as an abstract noun – a quality.

 

“Poetry” is any collision of words that paints a picture. This collision doesn’t have to occur in a poem. It is in the joyous sparkle of language all around us, like when my son once said “the boats are dancing on the water.”

Great writers create these wonderful collisions all the time. In Black Swan Green, the novelist David Mitchell writes one of my favourite sentences: “The cow of an awkward pause mooed.” It’s not a poem, but it is poetic. This quality of poetry has nothing to do with layout.

Poetry as a concrete noun – the poem in front of you.

 

In your hands is a poem. This thing, this poem, is defined by its shape. You can take any ordinary sentence and arrange it like a poem and it will become a poem. Not necessarily a good poem, but a poem nevertheless.

This is no reductionist strike against poetry. The act of repositioning those words is the creation of art. Art will take something ordinary and reframe it so that we see it differently.

A flower plucked from a field of flowers becomes a different thing when arranged alone in a vase. Suddenly our focus is on the single flower.

A photograph or a painting transforms the mundane into something transcendent simply by drawing our attention to it. A poem will do the same thing in its own way. A poem is an act of focus, of zooming in, distilling down. It is a bunch of words arranged deliberately so as to spotlight them in a way that only a poem can.

If prose is the waterfall, a poem shows us individual drops of water.

If prose is the scotch, a poem pours a single shot from the bottle.

If prose is the ocean, a poem draws our attention to the rock pool.

Speaking of oceans, I read once that “sea-weed sways and sways and swirls as if swaying were its form of stillness; and if it flushes against fierce rock, it slips over it as shadows do, without hurting itself.” That’s a wonderful nugget of writing which you might find buried in a novel or in an essay. But it’s actually a poem by D.H. Lawrence:

 

Sea-weed

Sea-weed sways and sways and swirls
as if swaying were its form of stillness;
and if it flushes against fierce rock
it slips over it as shadows do, without hurting itself.

I’d argue that hitting the return key makes all the difference.

Climate change and a little thing called evidence

I choose to believe the scientists, the ones who are trying to give us bad news about climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their Fifth Assessment Report last week. We know it’s an important report because it’s spelt with capital letters.

This latest report hammers home more evidence, with more certainty, that humans are messing with the planet.

There are a few possible reactions to this. The easiest option is to park it in the too-hard basket. What can I do about it, Mr Ordinary, driving to Brookfield to buy imported bananas?

A more cynical option is to question the accuracy of the science, simply because I don’t like the results. This is a common response to global warming. “Oh, but it’s just a natural cycle. Temperatures fluctuate all the time. It’s a conspiracy. They’re over-reacting.”

The main problem with science is that it is so full of science. That seems a bit obvious, but it makes life difficult for those of us who can’t be bothered with boring stuff like actual data. Credible scientific studies are a chore to read, even if we know where to find them.

Those of us who spend most of our time in the entertainment aisle need our science interpreted and relayed to us through intermediaries like science writers, reporters and bloggers.

This is where it gets tricky. Who to trust? Every writer has their own bias. Not all of them have a PhD in being an expert. I have plenty of bias and no PhD. Don’t trust me, whatever you do. (You might trust some of my favourites though: Amy Harmon, Bad Astronomy, Myles Power and It’s Okay To Be Smart. Look them up, they’re all excellent.)

As for my own bias, I’ve grown to be pretty trustful of the scientific method. If credible  studies consistently find no link between vaccines and autism then I’ll start there. My favourite sentence in any debate includes the word ‘evidence’.

Unfortunately, evidence usually gets drowned out by those memorable anecdotes. “The doctors couldn’t do anything for Jimmy so he went to his naturopath and finally got some real answers!”

This will get me in trouble with some of my friends, but I think most alternative medicine is a little bit rubbish.

Hey, I grew up sucking on homeopathic remedies. When I was busy suffering a long term illness I became an alternative therapy experiment for friends and family. At one point I took myself off to a dusty clinic to get Vega tested for metal poisoning. A certificate on the wall celebrated the doctor as member of a Quack Association. He was exactly that.

Why do we trust the diagnoses of unproven and debunked methods? Irrational worship of the word ‘natural’ can lead us down some dodgy and expensive paths.

Alternative medicine is alternative because it hasn’t been adequately tested. As the comedian Tim Minchin says: “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proven to work? Medicine.”

I totally appreciate people’s mistrust of scientific research. There have been some real clunkers. Science gave us margarine. That’s a crime against humanity in my book. Scientific advance is also responsible for super viruses, the threat of nuclear holocaust and the ability for people to broadcast Miley Cyrus’s new video. Yes, there’s a lot to answer for.

I maintain that you can champion the environment and healthy living without disregarding evidence that has been comprehensively tested and verified. That’s the space climate scientists need us to be in.

Climate change is too big for me and I don’t know what to do about it right now. It’s sitting in the too-hard basket with my imported bananas. Step one, at the very least, is to accept the analysis that it’s a serious issue and move forward from there.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 4 October 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Stress and losing the America’s Cup

The other day I beat up a chair. I was in a foul mood and things weren’t going my way so I threw the chair onto the ground and I kicked it and I stomped on it.

It was mostly a theatrical beat up. No chairs were harmed. But the intent was real. It was one of those days when you realise your stress levels have clocked up a few notches past the appropriate safety valve.

Something had to be done. I went home (it was an office chair, sorry boss), and I ran around the Waikareao Estuary to let off steam. The next day I did something radical: I sat in the sunshine, I ignored the kids and I read a novel.

Reading a novel is surely one of the most self indulgent activities there is. It is more selfish than blobbing in front of the TV; you can watch TV with other people, but when you’re reading a book, it’s just you and the book.

It takes nerve to sit quietly and read a book. Life is relentless. There’s always something else you could – or should – be doing. (If I could navigate corridors while walking with my nose in a book I would, but I’m not that guy.)

Even positive events can be stressful in their own way. When I started writing this weekly column, six months ago, it was unnerving to see my toothy mug shot in the paper. It’s not like I get stopped in the supermarket but it does change your world, just a little bit, sticking yourself out there.

It’s given me a tiny insight into the stress that people like Dean Barker might need to manage. He’s an ordinary person who went to work this week under an extraordinary amount of spotlight. Talk about pressure. Barker had an entire nation watching his every move. No beating up chairs, even if he felt like it, which he probably did. Especially yesterday.

Every person in the world is just a person. The most famous celebrity you can think of still feels depressed or gets bad breath or has a really irritating sore that they don’t want anyone to know about. In quiet moments they’ll feel as insecure as the rest of us.

We’re all actors, at the end of the day. There’s a little angry Hulk version of me who I keep hidden away. He runs around in his little bottle, smashing things up. Very occasionally the lid pops open and the little guy breaks out before I can stuff him back inside. That’s when innocent office chairs cower in terror. (Did I mention the chair wasn’t damaged in any way? I feel I should stress that point.)

Sitting in the sun the other day, I decided I need to do more exercise and read more novels. Exercise burns off angst. A novel slows you down.

I’m a voracious reader but I mostly read non-fiction books. I’m constantly sucking in new information and churning things over in my brain. Newspapers and magazines are like channel surfing. They feed my incessant restlessness.

Reading a novel demands a different pace. It forces you into its own rhythm. You need time to be anchored into the story.

To permit myself time to sit and read a novel, ah, that’s like being on holiday.

As for exercise, I’m pretty good at it but I need to get back into the ocean. Surfing is the best parenting aid I’ve ever discovered. Fresh air, fitness, and a physical separation from the land where all the problems lie. It’s a joyful, salty slap in the face. I always step back onto the beach a better parent.

Dean Barker has probably had enough salt in his face for now so surfing might not be the best tonic. Maybe what he needs is a trip to the library. Feet up, a hot drink and a really good book. That’ll do the trick.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 27 September 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Sharknado and winning the America’s Cup

It’s hard to fathom how the America’s Cup can ever go back to ordinary sailing after this. Sorry, Black Magic, you were absolutely wonderful, but your day is done. The spectacle of technological monsters slicing through the ocean, telling us to fly Emirates and drink Nespresso, has set a whole new bar.

To be honest I hadn’t paid much attention until last weekend, that awesome moment when the good guys’ spaceship reared up on a corner and the enemy spaceship had to swerve out of the way. I was hooked.

Since then I’ve been reassessing my level of patriotism.

The America’s Cup is a peculiar sort of trophy hunt. From the outside it looks like a bunch of rich school kids jostling for top marble. You have to be pretty confident to challenge the reigning king for his marble. As long as he’s got the marble, he gets to make the rules.

If he wants a spaceship race at his place, that’s what you have to do.

Initially I dismissed the America’s Cup as an elite fantasy contest. The red socks are long gone and I was cynical about being told to cheer for my country when all I saw was a Dubai airline.

But shame on me. Sponsorship makes things happen where they otherwise wouldn’t. It would be naive to think otherwise.

I repent of my cynicism. Emirates Team New Zealand still have New Zealand in their name. They are our team of the moment. They’re on the world stage at the cutting edge of spaceship racing, making kiwis proud to be expert sailing spectators. It’s a collective warm fuzzy for everyone. It’s good for the country. Especially when we win!

Anyone out there in the world doing something for themselves in the name of New Zealand deserves to be cheered on. Look at how readily we all adopted Flight of the Conchords. Are not Bret and Jemaine in the same boat as Dean Barker, with maybe just a few less tax payer dollars thrown in?

You can argue about dollars invested versus dollars returned, but that’s a one dimensional view of a multi dimensional world. I’m all for supporting people who reflect well on the rest of us.

If nothing else it’s been great entertainment. You want quality NZ content on air? What a thrill fest. The only thing more exciting would be if sharks dropped out of the sky onto the boats.

Yes, sharks dropping out of the sky. I refer to this week’s other grand television adventure: Sharknado, the TV movie about a tornado that throws thousands of hungry sharks at Los Angeles.

Sharknado has become a cult phenomenon around the world, so when it screened on Prime I gathered some beer and some cheerleaders to help me watch it.

Sharknado! In which sharks chew through the roof of your car to get you.

Sharknado! In which a ragtag team of survivors drive up a hill, shelter inside a house, then get attacked by sharks on the staircase.

Sharknado! In which our hero slices sharks in two with a chainsaw as they fall out of the sky.

Sharknado is the worst-made thing I’ve ever seen. It is completely devoid of logic and therein lies the beauty of it. There’s a certain painful pleasure in its awfulness. It’s much more fun to talk about than it is to actually watch. Don’t be too sad if you missed it.

Unlike the spaceship racing, which has better special effects and genuine tension. I am a proud New Zealander this week. Go Emirates!

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 20 September 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Flat screen television

Suddenly everyone has a flat screen television. I remember when 29 inch TVs were the hugest things on earth. My wife and I had one; a behemoth of pure glory that ate up a whole corner of the lounge.

These days if your TV screen is 40 inches, you’re just starting out.

I once staged a private rebellion against television. I didn’t want our kids growing up to rely on TV whenever there’s so much as a whiff of boredom in the house.

So we got rid of it. An ironic move for someone who loves movies and who had trained in the television industry. But I had a bee in my bonnet. The TV was an enemy of proactivity. Bye bye, glorious behemoth of passive entertainment.

We lasted about a year, I think. It was nice. There’s this really strange thing that fills the void called, wait, let me try to remember its name … conversation. Yes, that’s what it was. Conversation. A powerful thing.

Eventually we ended up borrowing someone’s TV to watch a DVD. The prodigal box was back in our lives and, let’s be honest, we welcomed it home with open arms.

I acquired a set from my parents. It was a hard working unit that somehow managed to survive getting peed on, twice, by our toddlers. (Don’t ask.)

We upgraded when my friend gave us her old TV, last of the giant cathode ray tubes. One day the picture squished itself into an hourglass shape, then shrivelled and died altogether.

I skipped with youthful joy into town to join the 21st century. After years of convincing myself I didn’t care, I was pursuing the high definition screen of my dreams. It turns out I do care, I do, very much.

Now we have to figure out what to watch. I have friends who rave with enthusiastic spittle popping from their mouths about the joys of MY SKY. At least one person I know has Apple TV, which I don’t fully understand yet. There’s normal SKY and the newish Igloo and basic Freeview. We’re sticking with Freeview on account of the lack of accounts.

We played with SKY for a year, having fallen into one of their deals when they phoned at the most annoying time of the day. Our leap into SKY was partly a misguided attempt to get better reception (should’ve just got a UHF aerial which supports high definition), but mostly we wanted to see the Olympics.

The Olympics were wonderful, and after that we hardly watched anything else.

I sat on the couch flicking through the channels. Typically I would see this: American reality show; British reality show; cooking; Porridge; more cooking; Hollywood gossip; rich teenagers complaining on the beach; Family Guy; infomercial; a Duran Duran music video; a slutty rap song; fishing; a documentary about sprouts.

All that choice and nothing to watch. Inevitably I ended up back on the free channels waiting for the ads to finish. Then I’d go to bed and wish I’d spent the night reading a book.

It would be great if I could subscribe to one or two premium channels without needing to pay for an entire package that I don’t actually want. Television is a portal to the greatest art and it’s a greasy slide into the lowest dross. There are so many things I want to do in life. None of them involve clicking blandly through a hundred channels hoping to be distracted by something.

In our house, broadcast television is always the last resort. We’re very deliberate about when the TV gets switched on. It’s not used as a perpetual silence filler. It’s never on in the mornings. We hardly ever watch the news because that’s dinner time.

Most often we’re content with the video shop, the internet, and that other thing … what was it again? That’s right. Conversation.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 13 September 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Woder Woman and Robbin

I was going through a box of old stuff and found a book I’d made when I was five and a half. Five and a half! Please give me a moment to be impressed with myself!

Here are some pages from it, starting with Woder Woman.

1980 Woder 1

1980 Batman

‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ are pretty straight forward concepts when you’re five and a half. Robbers are bad and therefore must be exploded.

1980 Robin

The book is called “All the true and not true emergency people”. Ponch and Baker are true because they are not cartoons. And their motorbikes are pretty amazing, if I say so myself.

1980 Ponch1980 Baker

Farting frogs and the death of a poet

There are those dark days of low self esteem when I drag my creativity into the basement for a stern chat. I point the interrogation lamp into its face and ask: What good are you, truly, other than offering a momentary distraction from the real world? Go on, justify yourself!

My creativity struggles and tries to convince me that arts and entertainment are vital for humanity.

In response I demand an example of when the arts have actually changed anyone’s lives.

The answer, when it whimpers back, usually points to Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet who died last week.

Seamus Heaney wrote the poem that woke me up to poetry. The poem is called Death of a Naturalist. I discovered it in 7th Form. I had always loved the sound of words but I was blown away by just how grunty Heaney’s language was. Suddenly my own writing felt like a puddling tricycle next to the thunderous motorbike that Seamus Heaney brought to the party.

Death of a Naturalist is about a boy who stumbles upon an army of frogs. Take a moment to read this sentence out loud:

“Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked on sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails.”

It’s a wonderful sentence. The words roll around in your mouth and threaten to detonate. (If you’re Irish it’s even better, but I’m terrible at accents.)

Here’s another: “The slap and pop were obscene threats. Some sat poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.”

I’m unfairly squishing Heaney’s words into an unpoetic space, incomplete and out of context, but these little phrases spun me into a life-changing paradigm shift. Sitting there at the back of Mr Baber’s English class, that was the moment I understood how you can supercharge an image by playing with the sound of the words.  It was the moment I feel in love with poetry.

I went home and tried (and failed) to wrestle my own words into juicy, meaningful clumps. Heaney’s poem made me want to write poetry. As a bonus, it made legitimate use of the word farting. Tell me that’s not great art.

Another of his poems, Digging, has resonated with me for years. The poet of Digging struggles to justify his vocation when real men are labouring hard to provide for their families. “I’ve no spade to follow men like them,” Heaney writes. In its own way Digging asks, what good is poetry?

The arts can seem futile and inconsequential if you’re in the wrong mood and surrounded by naysayers.

What good was that film, painstakingly shot and edited by all those people, which I watched once and no longer care about?

Why did a sculptor bother making that thing I just walked past?

What good is poetry, all that effort for a few lines that just sit there not helping to fix anyone’s car?

There are many good answers to these questions. For today I’m going to stick with this: If art does nothing more than inspire other people into making more art, that’s a win for everyone.

Seamus Heaney didn’t cure my allergies or teach me how to build a shelf, but his poetry had a definite impact on my life.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be published in the same anthology as Seamus Heaney. I’d like to think that when he was flicking through his contributor’s copy he paused to read a poem about Memorial Park by a guy from New Zealand called Marcel Currin.

I don’t know if he did read it, but if he had contacted me and said, “Hello Marcel, Seamus here, I liked yer wee pome,” (told you I’m bad at accents), I would have been thrilled to reply, “Thanks Seamus. You got me started.”

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 6 September 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Twerking

I woke up this week into a world where twerking is a real word. Twerking. I bet that plays havoc with the spell check.

I’d never heard of twerking before Tuesday. To begin with I assumed it might involve tweeting on Twitter while you’re at work. But no, apparently twerking is something Miley Cyrus did on stage this week at the MTV Video Music Awards.

As well as not having a clue what twerking is, I also didn’t know the Video Music Awards were on. They mostly feature bands that operate way out of my demographic, bands like One Direction and … well, I don’t know the names of the others. Exactly.

So now I suspect I’m getting older and a bit out of touch with what’s in and what’s out. I wouldn’t recognise a One Direction song if my life depended on it. Or a Miley Cyrus song. I only have a vague awareness of who Miley Cyrus is. I’m more aware that her dad was once famous for singing the most irritating country song in the world, the one about his Achy Breaky Heart, which presumably broke because he only knew how to play two chords.

And Miley is now famous for twerking. And I still don’t know what that means.

Am I supposed to know? When a word like twerk pops into the vernacular, are we all expected to instinctively tune in? Perhaps there is an expiry date, a certain age after which you can no longer seamlessly merge like a zip into the fast lane of popular culture.

The last time a word caused me such confusion was when planking became a thing.

Planking. It made no sense to me at all. I blanked at planking until I finally figured out that planking involves lying down like a, well, a plank. Thankfully the planking phase seems to have passed.

Then along came fracking. I assumed it was another silly stunt that the kids were pulling. To add to my confusion, I had been a big fan of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series, which often used “frack” as a surrogate swear word.

When fracking hit the news I thought it was a joke until I realised it’s actually a genuine issue. Fracking is where companies in pursuit of oil and gas drill deep, deep into the earth, then pump fluid in at high pressure to fracture the surrounding rock, thereby releasing gas that can be flushed back up. I haven’t figured out if fracking is fine, evil or a bit of both, but I do know that it is far more serious than planking and twerking.

Fracking sounds like a word you shouldn’t say in front of the children, but it actually matters.

Twerking, I suspect, does not.

Thanks to the mighty power of Google it only took me a moment to uncover the truth about twerking. I can now inform you that twerking is a dance where you, ahem, jiggle your bottom.

Basically it’s just dirty dancing. People have been doing that for years.

The online Urban Dictionary has the most enjoyable definition I’ve found for twerking: “The rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in one’s intended audience.”

Twerking itself is nothing new, it’s simply a very specific jiggle which, some time in the 90s, someone decided to give a really stupid name. And now Miley Cyrus does it.

There. I have done my civic duty by explaining the twerk. Hopefully that’s the end of it and society can move on. With twerking behind us and with planking straightened out as well, maybe we’ll finally be able to focus on drilling in to the more serious fracking issues of the day.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 30 August 2013. Retwerked with permission.

 

Spying and the end of the world

And now White Island is getting restless. It’s all a bit disconcerting, isn’t it? It’s as though the whole country is having a wee stretch.

If we lived inside a Hollywood blockbuster, all of these shakes and rattles would eventually culminate in a climactic scene in which the entire North Island tips up like the Titanic and everyone slides into the ocean, all except for one brave everyman and his two cute children and their puppy. They’re left dangling at the top and are rescued in the nick of time by a crazy comic-relief crackpot who built his own gyrocopter earlier in the movie.

Long before that, the everyman dad – who just happens to be the only person in New Zealand to fully understand the danger – is seen running around trying to warn the Government about our impending doom. He manages to get into John Key’s face but John Key doesn’t pay him any attention, of course, because John is too busy trying to get a spy bill updated.

Our hero then tries to contact Campbell Live, but John Campbell is too busy travelling around the country asking ordinary people if they don’t want to be spied upon.

Well, duh, of course they don’t want to be spied on, if that’s how you ask the question.

I didn’t follow much of what went on with the GCSB Bill amendment myself; I was too busy clearing my emails.

Rather than raising questions about privacy, the whole debate made me think about how poorly we understand the Government’s decision making processes.

The most common sentiment I heard over the past week was, “Aw, what’s the point, they’re not listening to us, they’re going to push the bill through anyway.”

These bills and amendments always go through an established set of formal political hoops. The process includes public submissions that most of us pay very little attention to.

When John Key was acing John Campbell in their interview showdown, he pointed out that there were only 124 public submissions made about the GCSB Bill.  His point was meant to be that no one cared about the GCSB, but that’s a kind of institutional blindness.

Formal submissions are the domain of a limited number of people who engage with an entrenched system. It’s where lawyers and concerned organisations go to write comprehensive critiques of the proposed legislation.

Everyone else goes to the Campbell Live poll.

I tried to keep track of the submission process during the so-called anti-smacking debate and the marriage amendment debate. As far as I could tell, the subsequent versions of each bill sought to address the points that were made by public submissions. The submitters’ points were always acknowledged, even if they didn’t change the end decision.

While many people were running around signing petitions and writing inflammatory letters to the editor, the formal democratic process was quietly doing its due diligence.

If there’s a problem here it is that the formal process passes too many ordinary people by. We are left to assume that ticking a box on Campbell Live’s website is the best way to get our democratic voice heard.

That’s what our heroic everyman will say to John Key when they are thrown together by amazing coincidence during one of the climactic 3D disaster scenes in the Hollywood movie. John Key will say, “You’re that guy who kept trying to warn me about this, aren’t you?”

The everyman will say, “Why didn’t you listen to me?”

John Key will say, “You didn’t make a formal submission. That’s the process that matters when we’re dealing with the intricacies of legislation.”

As the earth opens up and the Prime Minister tumbles away along with hundreds of other computer generated victims, he will cry out, “The formal process wooooorks!”

And the everyman will quip sardonically, ‘It worked in your world, Prime Minister. It worked in your world.”

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 23 August 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Whisky escape

whisky escape

Anything can happen. There are no guarantees. You can be driving home from work across the Maungatapu bridge when, in the space of a few seconds, your van is under water and suddenly it’s the night when Daddy didn’t come home.

These kinds of events get your head spinning. As a parent, I suffer a sizzling zing of fright whenever I see my kids wander near a steep drop. Anything can happen. It’s a fact of life that life is poised to take us all. As they say, no one gets out of this thing alive.

I’ve had a contemplative week. In a sleepy bay at the far end of Lake Taupo there’s a bach that I retreat to every winter for a weekend with two of my best mates.

We go there to put our respective worlds on pause and to talk about life, the universe and everything. It is becoming almost a sacred pilgrimage.

We travel from Wellington, Palmerston North and Tauranga. There’s no TV or stereo, so I take my ukulele to pluck out the silence.

If you were to shuffle our three brains and deal them out like a pack of cards you would find, in random order, a librarian, doctor, poet, christian, humanist, atheist, vegetarian, ethical meat eater, unapologetic carnivore, two runners, a cyclist, and three husbands and fathers.

The mix makes for interesting discussion and great cooking. We each take a bottle of single malt to share and we have ourselves a collective scotch adventure.

A lot of whisky gets demolished but we fortify it with proper food, loads of coffee and plenty of fresh air. I always go armed with pain killers, just in case. I never seem to need them.

The three of us have competing world views, yet in a spirit of generosity our conversations are complementary rather than antagonistic.

We’re big fans of the word “generous”. Different world views should be something to explore, not something to fix. There is something to learn from everyone. Those in the habit of slapping other people in the face with the crusty flannel of their stiff doctrine would do well to consider that.

No matter what you believe, everyone is on a legitimate journey to figure out this random and weird thing called life.

There is no end game quite so important as the journey itself. We should make the most of what we’ve got, here, now. That’s not a hedonistic statement, it’s a life affirming one.

On the beach we bumped into some kids who told us about a local taniwha, Rongopai, guardian of that part of the lake.

We got to wondering about the overlap between cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. Do those kids actually think there is a taniwha in the lake? Do their parents? Does it matter whether or not they believe the taniwha is real?

We concluded it doesn’t matter. The taniwha has valid existence as a symbol that demands respect on behalf of the lake.

Respect the lake. Respect the environment. So says Rongopai.

It may have been the whisky, but we felt quite fond of Rongopai by the end of the weekend.

Rongopai also got us thinking about the value of traditions. The practice of saying grace before dinner is one such tradition. Some people rattle through grace out of habit. Some string it out into a dull prayer while the dinner goes cold. Some don’t say grace at all.

I appreciate a pause of acknowledgement around the table before we eat. It doesn’t matter to me if the acknowledgement is directed towards a deity, the cook, the circle of life or the dead protein on our plates. So long as there’s a moment.

The fact that we have food on the table is not something to take for granted. Life is precious. We have air in our lungs. Every breath we get counts. It is good to be here.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 16 August 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Doctor Who visits the Mount

It was not something I ever expected to see on Marine Parade: the TARDIS, Doctor Who’s time traveling police box, blocking my view of Mauao.

The Doctor poked his head out the door and said, “Ah! The sunny Bay of Plenty!”

“You look older,” I said. “You used to look like Matt Smith, but now you look like a different actor, Peter Capaldi. This is really big news for Doctor Who fans.”

“Yes, galaxy rocking news, just announced this week, very exciting,” said the Doctor.

I said, “I’m looking forward to seeing what new direction your character will take. I’d love to write a column about it. But there are far more important things to think about. Things that actually matter.”

“What could possibly matter more than fantastical adventures in time and relative dimensions in space?” said the Doctor.

“Well, we’ve had some stuff go bung with milk powder which is putting our national image at risk. A new clinic has opened up that is forcing us to decide how we truly feel about abortion. And there’s a spying and privacy issue that’s bugging a lot of people.”

“Ooh, sounds very serious. No Dalek invasions though? I’m assuming even Bay of Plenty residents can recognise a Dalek when they see one? Robot creatures that trundle around on flat surfaces threatening people with toilet plungers.”

“Alien invasions never seem to make it as far as Tauranga,” I said.

“Pity,” said the Doctor. “New brains bring new ideas and new energy. Great minds thrive in cities that foster the arts. Always remember that if you’re looking for a good sort of invasion.”

We went across the road for coffee. He ordered a cup of tea and checked it over with his sonic screwdriver.

I said, “It’s hard to justify giving column space to a British time traveller that not everyone cares about. No offence.”

“I’m not British, I’m a Time Lord!” said the Doctor. “You should know that. You follow the show like a … what’s the word for it … a total nerd.”

I had to admit, I am quite capable of getting very nerdy over my favourite stories.

Everyone gets nerdy over their favourite stories, in their own way. We lose ourselves in books, politics, sports, movies, or whatever story happens to have our attention.

“Don’t underestimate the power of narrative,” said the Doctor. “The American poet, Muriel Rukeyser, said that the universe is made of stories, not atoms.

“It doesn’t matter whether the stories are dressed up in a spaceship or in the business pages or in a rant over a beer at the pub. Stories are what human beings use to make sense of life on this planet.”

He leaned forward, a gleam in his eye. “You humans especially like to create villains for your stories. Once upon a time there was a giant, evil corporation…”

I said, “We do tend to paint the opposition as cartoonish bad guys. Real life isn’t so straight forward though, is it?”

He tapped his spoon against his cup to make it ping. “Narrative!” he announced. “Artificial beginnings, middles and endings. Heroes and villains. There’s no plot to real life. Stories bring order to a messy world.”

We finished our drinks, then went outside to foil an imminent threat against the known universe.

“That was a pleasant diversion,” he said afterwards.

I shrugged. “It was all a bit rushed and muddled by the end. Kind of like the last series of Doctor Who.”

The Doctor winked. “All part of the fun. Never be ashamed to be a champion of stories. Stories are cool.”

He leapt inside his blue box. It groaned, disappeared, and everything went abruptly back to normal.

They say fiction is the lie that tells a truth. If only this had really happened. It would have made a great story.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 9 August 2013. Reproduced with permission.

You’re different to me. Go away.

A few too many drinks and Invercargill’s newest anti-celebrity has found his prejudice broadcast to the world.

I watched that video in which Invercargill man Greg Shuttleworth abuses Tariq Humayan, a taxi driver who deserves a medal for professionalism and patience under fire. In a booze-heavy rant, Shuttleworth tells Humayan that he has no right to be living in New Zealand. I bet Shuttleworth has had a bad week since the video was published.

I lived in Invercargill for four years and loved it. It’s a warm hearted place. The only prejudice I ever saw was aimed at Aucklanders.

We sat in a restaurant at the very end of the very last highway, in Bluff, where a crazed Southland woman cackled with increasing hysteria at the foolishness of Aucklanders who wait in traffic all day. She seemed slightly unhinged, but probably had a point from her own perspective.

It’s human nature to assume that you are normal and that everyone else is weird. It’s natural to be a bit fearful of people who inhabit different spheres of life than your own.

I harbour loads of secret fear and suspicion myself. For instance, I am secretly fearful of people who are taller than me, which is pretty much everyone.

I am secretly suspicious of men who wear moustaches. It’s not the 80s anymore. I judge them accordingly.

I am secretly fearful of restaurants and everyone in them. As a weary parent I have forgotten how to go out for dinner. Choosing a new place to eat should be fun but it’s out of my comfort zone. I feel like someone who doesn’t belong there.

I am secretly fearful of surfers who invade the Mount over summer. They’re all cooler than me and they look like they’re taking over the place. I want them to go back to wherever it was they came from.

I am secretly fearful of teenagers. I don’t understand them at all. I recognise my own teenaged self in their cocky obliviousness, but their world has moved far beyond my ability to relate to it. I’d prefer them to disappear until they are ready to be more like me.

I am secretly fearful of mechanics. They spend all day with grease rubbed in to their fingers and they talk about things like carburettors that I don’t really understand. I am sure they secretly judge me when I turn up with my soft little hands and my inability to diagnose a simple car problem. I secretly judge them back.

I am secretly fearful of aging tradesmen who drink a lot of beer. The kind of guy Greg Shuttleworth seems to be, the kind of guy who is probably at home at the TAB or the golf club bar, but who doesn’t know much about Star Wars or poetry. I immediately make assumptions about that kind of person.

Whenever I encounter someone else’s world, if it is not in my own comfort zone I usually start with a modicum of fear. From there I have to work my way up to acceptance. Ultimately I have to find a way to enjoy the difference.

I don’t actually want to live in a carbon copied Me world. Life is much more interesting with all these other people in it.

Last year blogger Jeff Scalzi wrote that straight white males get to live life on the lowest difficulty setting.

If the taxi driver had been a white male, Greg Shuttleworth’s drunk finger might not have gotten so pointy and rude. Shuttleworth has maybe spent too much time in his comfy white male world. He is suspicious of people who live different lives to him and his fear spilled out with his booze.

Prejudice of any flavour boils down to this: You’re different to me; go away.

We are all a bit fearful of other people at times. It’s a normal feeling. There are grown up ways of dealing with it. Potty mouthed disrespect is not one of them.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 2 August 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Disaster will never happen to me

Two monsters were wobbling down the hallway toward me. I was six years old and had just woken in the middle of my first earthquake. The world was blurred and sloshing. As the monsters came into focus they morphed into my parents.

The sound I remember is the loud sloshing, like water. I assume it was from a hot water bottle tucked at the end of my bed, but for several years I was convinced that all earthquakes sounded like hot water bottles. I wondered why people looked at me funny whenever I mentioned it.

That’s my only earthquake story. The likelihood is one day I’ll find myself in a proper earthquake, but until then I continue to assume disasters only happen to other people.

It’s weird how we think we’re immune to life’s big events. “It’ll never happen to me” is something we tell ourselves about pandemics, earthquakes, car accidents, health problems, house fires … pretty much everything.

“It’ll never happen to me” keeps us driving on the open road late at night when we should probably pull over for a rest.

It stalls us from clearing the drain that is likely to flood our garage in the next big dump of rain.

“It’ll never happen to me” is the reason I haven’t yet put our important family documents into a container that I can grab if we ever need to leave quickly.

It’s the attitude responsible for the fire alarm battery that I still haven’t replaced.

It’s easier to just hope we’ll get by on the day. Maybe we will get by, but surely not as well as if we’d been a bit more prepared.

Life is a hodgepodge of good and bad surprises. The most surprising thing is how surprised we are when life actually happens to us. We gasp and say, “You mean one of the many things that could possibly happen to people who live on Planet Earth actually happened?”

It can be traumatic. I never thought I’d enjoy a Vin Diesel movie, but then Fast & Furious Five happened.

I never thought I’d find myself writing a weekly column in the Bay of Plenty Times, but here I am. I got the surprise of my life when they stopped me in the supermarket and said, “You, the guy holding the bananas! You’ve got the face of a columnist!”

I said, “Me? I always thought I had a face for poetry.” They said, “No, definitely a columnist. Go ahead, smile like you secretly know your opinion is more valid than mine … Yes, there is it. A columnist.”

That’s exactly how it happened. Honest. They picked me for my honesty and also for my ability to stick to the topic.

This week’s rock’n’roll in Wellington is a reminder to stay focussed. Get our emergency prep sorted out. It shouldn’t be that hard, should it? We just need to sit down for a bit and ask some simple questions. Like, what’s the plan for the kids if something happens during school? What kind of supplies would we need if the power and water were out for a few days? What if there is no one to save us?

Make a list, start assembling things. Ask our Christchurch and Wellington friends what they learned from their experience.

It can be daunting trying to think about this stuff. It’s much easier to shove the problem into the “it’ll never happen to me” basket of denial.

The dice will eventually roll against us, one way or another. Just look at where we live. It’s our own beautiful fault with a generous selection of natural hazards handed to us on a tectonic plate.

Makes sense to be at least a tiny bit more prepared. Maybe it’s time to put a new battery in that fire alarm too.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 26 July 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Erotic political fiction

Having created my own genre of local government music, I’m now moving into erotic political fiction. The Edge radio are running a competition, bouncing off the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, where people are invited to write 300 words or less of radio-friendly erotica. Thought I’d give it a go. Why not? My entry probably doesn’t tick the necessary boxes for erotica but it was fun to write. They read it on air this morning, it was both terrifying and hilarious listening to these sentences being read aloud.

 

The Prime Minister closed the door behind him and locked it with a gentle click. “We need to talk about the appreciation of your assets,” he said.

“My assets?”

“I would very much like to strip them down.”

I watched him pull, very slowly, a large firm envelope from his jacket pocket.

“My assets are not for sale,” I said.

He smiled. “We need to take an open position on this. There’s a lot of compounding interest at stake. Surely you can see the effects of inflation?” I ran my eyes up and down his long contract. “You’re talking about deep integration. What is the exchange rate?”

“Vigorous,” he replied.

“It’s going to get very hard,” I noted. “Where would you start?”

He was silent for a moment, then he pressed his document into my hands. “I generally like to start at the bottom,” he replied. “Work my way around, see what comes out of it.”

“What will we do with the surplus?” I asked.

“Reinvest.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I’m worried this is going to hurt.”

“Don’t do it for me,” he whispered. He loosened his grey silk tie. “Do it for your country.”

 

Jam rage

There’s nothing like a tightly sealed jar of jam to undermine a grown man’s pride.

I am trying to look calm and awesome, but the simple lid on this ordinary jar is threatening my composure. Why must you mock me, little jam jar?

I try all the tricks: I rinse under hot water, I rinse under cold water, I bang the jar upside down on the table. Nothing works. From which dastardly lid sealing factory did this jar spew forth?

Some kind of evil genius must be at work. We are way beyond trying to keep germs out here. This is no ordinary tamper-free lid, it is a triple layered reinforced deadbolt locking system. It has been sealed with supernatural powers beyond my understanding.

From whom or what are you trying to protect the jam? Nuclear holocaust? Are giant monsters from that Pacific Rim movie on a world wide condiment binge? Why take it out on me, just an ordinary guy in a Bay of Plenty kitchen?

I’m not a weakling. I can lift things. Honest. Perhaps my hands are a bit smaller than average, so it’s harder for me to get a decent grip on the lid.

Aw, that sounds kind of lame, doesn’t it. Curse you, jam jar, for what you have reduced me to.

I grew a beard to prove to myself that I can be a man. What a traumatic few weeks that was. When a woman gets a new hairstyle everyone says, “Hey, what a great new look!” I grew a bit of extra hair on my face and people said, “What’s with the face mould?”

At least I no longer get asked for ID at the supermarket. I have kept the beard for two years now. There, see? I am a man. I can buy beer and no one will question me. So why can’t I open this stupid jar?

My skin is burning with indents from twisting at the lid. I’m using a tea towel now. My wrist is really sore but I learned as a teenager that there are some things you should never complain about in public. So I grit my teeth and try again.

Even if lives depended on it I could not open this jar of jam. My action hero status would fail miserably at this point. Force me to choose between cutting the red wire or the blue wire. Ask me to fight the bad guy on top of a train. Just don’t get me to open the fricken jam.

I am now swearing at the jam. The jam has become the object of my wrath. I am giving the jam obscene gestures. I want to cause this jam pain.

The jam sits smugly on the bench. I consider hurling it through the window.

I can see how this is going to play out. My wife will wander into the kitchen and she will pop open the lid with ease. I will probably say, “There you go, babe, I loosened it up for you,” but she will know what really happened and will feel superior for the rest of the day.

I bet a woman sealed this lid. Women are the architects of all evil. That is what a jam jar will do to a man, it turns him against the people he loves before they’ve even entered the room.

Suddenly, with a cute, annoying pop, the lid opens. Just like that.

The trivial nature of the situation mocks me further. Did I really teeter on the edge of insanity over a little glass jar? How close did I just come to committing an irrevocable act? I feel crushed and foolish, like I’ve failed in some way. I nearly blew my lid over a jar of jam.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep things in perspective. Life is relentless and it’s been another long week. But hey, it’s finally Friday. May all your sealed foodstuffs open easily this weekend.

First published in the Bay of Plenty Times 19 July. Reproduced with permission.

Natural talent versus hard work

I could have been an All Black. I would have been one of those zippy fullbacks, but I missed out because I never actually played rugby.

I also never liked maths, so I continue to not be a world champion accountant.

A psychologist called Anders Ericsson once posed a theory that challenges conventional wisdom about natural talent. If you want to build a champion all you have to do is to make someone do 10,000 hours, or ten years, of practice.

This applies to any field – sports, arts, business. Experts are regularly shown to have served at least ten years of dedicated training before achieving world class status. A really good book on this is Bounce: How Champions are Made by Matthew Syed.

If the 10,000 hours theory has weight then the implications are both encouraging (the world truly is your oyster) and dispiriting (you’re still ten years away from excellence).

I was reminded of all this recently when reading Andre Agassi’s incredible 2010 memoir Open. Not a book I’d normally pick up, but I highly recommend it as a page turner.

Open Andre Agassi

Open begins with Agassi’s confession that he has always hated tennis. Reading further, you learn that his father used to stand him in front of a pimped up tennis ball machine every day. Largely out of terror, Agassi hit hundreds of thousands more balls than most kids, which laid the foundation for his future excellence.

Is it that simple? If you practice really hard for ten years will you automatically make it to the top?

The concept seems reductionist and counter intuitive. Other factors must surely contribute to a person’s success. Circumstance, opportunity, upbringing and plain dumb luck spring to mind.

There’s also the mysterious X factor, the thing we call natural talent, whatever that may be.

I have an ongoing debate with myself about whether or not talent is something we are born with. It’s something I find myself thinking about whenever I see my five year old exercising his artistic genius, which is pretty much every day now. I’d love to take credit for his ability but I suspect it’s all him.

The X Factor NZ is prime time’s current search for who has the most talent. Or, in television terms, who has the most fans. (This week Cassie Henderson didn’t.)

I’ve fond of scorning X Factor-type shows for the way they manufacture instant limelight. It’s television first, talent quest second. But those who make it to the final episodes deserve their moment. They’ve been working on their craft long before the first audition.

I spent many years (and probably most of my parents’ income) learning to play the piano. I’m totally at home on a piano but I find myself bristling ever so slightly when people tell me I’m talented. This is not false modesty, it’s a reaction against the suggestion that I have some kind of innate advantage over them. As though it’s easy. The reality is that I’ve spent thousands of hours playing the piano and they haven’t.

And that’s okay. They’ve no doubt spent more time than I have becoming a master builder or a computer programmer.

Everything that looks effortless has a long history of hard work behind it. All the natural talent in the world will get you nowhere without practice.

If you want to be a writer then you must write, write, write! If you want to be a musician then you must play, play, play! If you want to be a lawyer then you must charge, charge, charge! And so on.

I prefer the word ‘skill’ to ‘talent’. Any skill can be acquired, but it takes work. When skill crosses over into talent? Well, I guess that’s the X factor.

(For a blatant skite, I show off my piano skills here.)

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 12 July 2013. Reproduced with permission.

How to live happily ever after

Once upon a time I walked past a pile of washing and wondered when my wife was going to hurry up and deal with it. Then I was struck by a traumatic thought.  “Hang on. Why should that be her job?”

Why indeed? I folded the washing and put it away. That’s all it took to change my married life forever.

Every time my inner slob asks, “When is she going to sort that out?” my reluctantly responsible grown up asks, “Hang on, why is it her job?”

Why should she have to tidy the bench? Why should she have to clean the toilet? We’ve got three boys; it’s hardly fair that the only girl in the house has to clean up after all the scattershot males.

Don’t think for a moment think that I’m some kind of incredible domestic robot. I have plenty of jobs on ignore. My wife and I both do. We’re busy with work, children, interests, life. Who’s got time to be immaculate?

As a team we’re pretty relaxed about doing the healthy minimum. Our house is what you can affectionately describe as “lived in”. But we’re a cheerful house.

Marriage is so much more fun when everyone involved is happy. That’s more likely to happen if one person doesn’t have to keep doing all the dumb jobs.

My nephew is getting married next week. I can’t believe he has grown up so fast. This is the same kid I once saw lying on the nappy table performing puppetry experiments on himself.

Now he’s a very tall young man who has fallen in love. Ah, the starry eyed idealism of youth, I remember it well.

The fairy tale fades. You have to work at your relationship to keep it sparkling.

Asking yourself, “Why should that be her job?” is a simple little thing that can make a big difference in the sparkles department. This is a piece of uncle-ish wisdom I will give my nephew as he tumbles into a lifetime of matrimony.

There are a couple of other things I’ve picked up along the way. One is another simple question: “How much fun am I to live with?”

I heard someone say this once and it stuck with me. “How much fun are you to live with?” It warns against the danger of relaxing so much into your own space that you forget to be nice to the person who is supposed to be your most favourite person in the whole world.

Unless you’re a celebrity, marriage is a lifetime commitment. That’s what you are signing up for. The rest of your life is a long, long time. You might as well enjoy it together.

So, while you are busy taking it for granted that your partner loves you, don’t be behaving in a way that makes it difficult for her to like you.

My other piece of wisdom is: practice the powerful and mysterious art of conversation. Conversation is more difficult than it sounds, especially when children arrive on the scene and you’re perpetually exhausted. It might require (shock!) turning off the television when you’re eating or (horror!) putting down your cell phone for a while.

I’m no expert on any relationship except my own, but it strikes me that, as time ticks on, couples can forget how to really talk and listen to each other. In the hurly-burly of life, a cup of coffee and some conversation will go a long way towards reminding you why you married this person in the first place.

There you have it, an uncle’s pep talk on how to live happily ever after. Be likeable. Talk. Listen. If you’re smart you’ll share the dumb jobs too.

Marriage can be the worst thing in the world or the greatest. Aim for the greatest, it’s much more fun.

First published on our wedding anniversary in Bay of Plenty Times 5 July. Reproduced with permission.

Superman’s big change

I’m a big fan of Superman. Always have been. But that’s okay, you probably like Twilight or Coro or X-Factor and I think no less of you. Guilty pleasures are a nonsense. If you like something, you should just go ahead and like it.

The plot for Superman is usually pretty standard. It involves kryptonite or some other contrived coincidence that limits Superman’s powers. Then he gets his powers back and saves the day.

But I never follow Superman for the plot. Plots are for Batman.

No, I follow Superman to see him zooming around in brilliant red and blue doing cool super-stuff. That’s what I liked as a kid. I still do. More than Batman, more than Spiderman, there is something about the pure super-ness of Superman that I have always responded to.

So I am keen to see the new Man of Steel film which opened this week. But (and I can’t believe I am about to say this in public) I am concerned about Superman’s red underpants.

The new Man of Steel costume has no external underpants. They’re not there at all. This is a seismic shift.

The whole costume looks glum and gritty. Measured against the comic book fluorescence of past Supermen, the Man of Steel super suit stands out for its military seriousness. Times are changing.

“Change” and “progress” are nasty words, aren’t they? Some people struggle with a new All Black team. Others struggle with a new walkway. Apparently, I’m struggling with Superman’s new pants.

The problem with trying to keep things the same all the time is that the rest of the world moves on whether we like it or not. People grow older, population booms, economies evolve.

Sometimes progress is good, sometimes it’s not so good. Sometimes we need to roll with the change and see how it goes.

If nothing ever changed, there would be no way to walk around the Waikareao Estuary, we’d still be travelling the long road to the Mount and parked cars would still have the best view on the Tauranga waterfront.

I’m loving the waterfront. I took our three boys to the new playground and it got three thumbs up. Four, if you count mine. I followed our youngest down the steepest slide and found myself squealing like a little girl. (Promised myself that’ll only happen once.)

I grew up on a farm in Mapara Road, Taupo. Twenty years later, nothing looks the same in that area. Trees have grown beyond recognition, new subdivisions are crawling over everything, suburbia is taking over.

It’s kind of sad. On the other hand, the house my Dad built is now a popular art cafe that I can revisit. Our home was fine the way it was, then someone came along with a fresh perspective and gave it a whole new life.

We don’t like change, it’s uncomfortable, so we do the resistance dance. You know how it goes.

You fight the new thing. Then you get used to it. Then the new thing becomes the old thing. Then you fight to save the old thing from the next new thing. And so on.

We need to retain the essence of the things we treasure, while still adapting to progress. Tauranga businesses are grappling with this as they try to retain the best parts of being local in the face of the juggernaut that is online shopping.

The film world has moved on too. It apparently no longer requires a Man of Steel who wears gaudy ballet tights. He still does cool super-stuff, but I will probably miss the bold colours that I’ve always associated with Superman.

I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. I’d hate to be one of those people who complain about the new thing before I’ve given it a chance to fly. That’s an ugly habit. So maybe I should just go and see the movie.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 28 June 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Sounds like a monkey

Sounds like a monkey 

 

My Daddy’s ukulele
sounds like a monkey
a big fat monkey
orang-utan orang-utan!

My Daddy’s ukulele
sounds like a monkey
a monkey in a blue truck
a blue truck a blue truck!

a blue truck a blue truck
a blue truck a blue truck
a dump truck a dump truck
a dump truck a dump truck!

a little truck a longer truck
a longer truck a longer truck
a little truck a longer truck
a longer truck a longer truck!

orang-utan orang-utan
orang-utan orang-utan
sounds like a monkey
in a blue dump truck!

orang-utan orang-utan
a blue dump truck!

 

First published in the anthology Poetry Pudding, edited by Jenny Argante.

Love your city

Two children were having an argument. It ended when one said, “You can’t! You just can’t, because I’m six and you’re only dumb old four!”

My mother overheard this conversation some years ago. She tells me there was nothing but silence after that short exchange. The poor kid. It’s hard to argue with your elders, especially when they’re six and you’re only dumb old four.

This week I went to a breakfast presentation by Peter Kageyama, author of For the Love of Cities. Kageyama thinks we should have a love affair with Tauranga. Woven throughout his message was an appeal for the city’s big six year olds to let the four year olds do more stuff.

Our hallway is decorated with artwork that our boys have done. They were proactive about blu-tacking pictures to the wall without asking us. We’ve left it all there because it helps make our home more fun than just a functional space.

The same goes for our city. This is our home. It is filled with creative, energetic people who, given the right nudge or opportunity, can add more flavour to our public spaces.

Kageyama is big on what he calls love notes: simple things in the city that surprise and delight. This means interesting artwork, surprising design, opportunities for fun in ordinary places.

There’s that word fun again. Kageyama said it a lot in his presentation. He said it’s important to create opportunities for spontaneous play in your city. This applies to adults as much as it does to children. We were shown photos of grown ups interacting with public artwork and laughing on playgrounds.

Art and play. Trivial stuff, it would seem, but “you want someone to make that face in your city,” he said of each smile-filled mug shot.

We all nodded seriously at this point, dressed as we were in monochrome office attire. But we laughed when he described the naysayers as CAVE people: Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

The beauty of his ‘love note’ examples was that they don’t all require loads of cash, just some creativity and a bit of local passion.

It doesn’t even need to be driven from the top. He showed us the work of Candy Chang who did guerrilla chalk art all around flood ravaged New Orleans. Her chalk message was simply, “It’s good to be here”.

That’s a level of ownership and love for the city that is driven from below.

The presentation got me thinking about my own relationship with Tauranga.

I am a parent, a poet, a coffee drinker, a guy who rides a bicycle to work. I enjoy many things about living here but I would not yet say that I have a full on love affair with my city. It’s not quite Absolutely Positively Tauranga for me, more like Hopefully Maybe and a little bit of Sometimes.

Kageyama insists that art and culture is crucial for a lovable city, which gets the poet in me cheering. I want to live in a city that embraces the unpredictable messiness of the arts. I want to see things that startle me into a smile, things that trick me into sharing a laugh with strangers.

Kageyama quoted Pier Giorgio Di Cicco: “The purpose of the arts in a city is to make a city fall in love with itself.” I really liked this so I looked it up. Di Cicco was the City of Toronto’s Poet Laureate between 2004 – 2009. Imagine that! A city with its own Poet Laureate! The poet in me is doing back flips now.

I’m pretty sure everyone walked out of Peter Kageyama’s presentation pumped with inspiration to change the world. His ideas were attractive and obvious. I clapped my hands together and thought, that was genius, now all we need is someone else to do all the cool stuff.

Tauranga is a nice place to live. We can make it greater, a city to fall in love with. Turns out it might be everyone’s job. Unleash the four year olds!

First published in Bay of Plenty Times, 21 June 2013. Reproduced with permission.

The revolutionary ‘eating sensibly’ diet

Have you heard about the new diet that is taking the world by storm? It’s amazing. It’s called eating sensibly.

There is no particular book that sells this diet. It doesn’t come with a trademark. Eating sensibly is not a fad that will make millions for its inventor.

The eating sensibly diet doesn’t cater to the fast fix culture.  It can’t promise to change your life over night.

But the benefits endure. You will feel better over time.

All you have to do is eat reasonably well, reasonably consistently. Rather than crashing from one diet to the next, the key is to develop healthy habits that you can sustain over the long term. It’s not that hard once you figure out what real food is.

Here are some thoughts about real food. Do an inventory of your pantry and pull out the packets and sachets that normally go into your home cooking. Get rid of them. Learn to make sauces and dressings from scratch. It’s more fun and it tastes better.

Eat vegetables. Real ones that are in season. Potato chips don’t count.

Don’t fool yourself by drinking fizz with the word ‘diet’ on it. That Diet Coke is lying to you and you know it.

If you want a book to back this up I’d recommend the opening chapters of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. His three rules of eating are quite simple: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

“Eat food”. There’s a lot of substance behind that deceptively simple first rule. You have to be sure that what you’re eating is in fact real food. Many of us fuel ourselves on processed cheese, reconstituted meats and cardboard biscuits that, when broken down, don’t stack up. No wonder we eat too much. It’s because we’re hungry.

White bread? Won’t fuel you adequately. Children’s yoghurt? Mostly just sugar. Prepackaged frozen schnitzel slabs? Why not make your own with real meat, a beaten egg, flour and bread crumbs? It’s not quite as convenient but it is so much more like real food.

A warning light flicked on when I first heard about the new Fast Diet, also known as the 5:2 Diet because it promotes fasting for two days out of seven. “Fast Diet.” Get it? Clever and just a little bit sneaky.

The Fast Diet was launched in a book by an enthusiastic BBC medical journalist called Michael Mosley. The concept of fasting worked well for him, so he hit on this idea that you can fast two days a week and eat normally for the other five days. Magical health benefits follow, notably weight loss.

But what does eating normally mean? For many people, normal is pies, coke and biscuits. It’s sugar bombed cereals, minced up chicken nuggets and instant noodles with those powdered flavour sachets.

The normal food of daily life has become dangerously processed. Even so-called healthy alternatives can’t beat real food. Give me steak over an uber-processed soy substance sausage thingy any day of the week.

While Mosley is probably genuine about having discovered a lifestyle that suits him, I’m not sure it’s helpful to publish a diet book on a hunch. In a story on USA Today (March 19) he was quoted, “It’s just the beginning of something interesting. People need to try it for themselves and see if it works.”

That’s hardly responsible nutrition advice.

The Fast Diet has raised a few eyebrows, including both a feature article and an editorial in this week’s Bay of Plenty Times. Everyone seems to be saying the same thing: what really counts is how you eat during those normal days.

People who hunger for fast dieting solutions are often slow to learn that there is no magic bullet. The answer to better health might actually be as simple as learning to eat your vegetables.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 14 June 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Game of Thrones versus the naked lawn mower

There’s a lot of nudity about. Have you seen Game of Thrones, the fantasy series that everyone is riveted to? It is violent, addictive television. There’s also way too much naked nonsense going on in that show.

This week’s episode was the big one. It was a no holds barred, brutal affair that fans of the original novels have been quietly waiting to see for years. In a world wide conspiracy of total respect, Game of Thrones readers kept quiet about the particular details so as not to spoil things for the rest of us. My thanks to you all.

A few days later, with the internet fan base still in shock, I realise that none of the Game of Thrones characters took off their clothes this week. An entirely nude free episode. Huh.

But guess what? It didn’t matter. Nakedness for the sake of nakedness rarely, if ever, advances the plot.

Gratuitous nudity is by far the most boring part of Game of Thrones. It does nothing for the story and it’s often quite stupid. In the real world, do women really drop away all their clothing in front of fully clothed men to seduce them? In the snow?

Maybe I didn’t get around enough before I was married but it seems to me that every one of those scenes was written by a fanciful teenage boy.

Whoever he is, that teenager is overdoing it in Game of Thrones. Too much nakedness on screen strips the mystery away. After an initial perk of excitement, everything looks the same after a while. Hey look, it’s a body, just like all those other bodies.

This is where the naturists might have something to say. Naturists take the view that the human body is no big deal. It’s all perfectly normal, there’s nothing worth gawking at here so you might as well strip down and get on with relating to each other as human beings.

By embracing your nakedness you’re effectively rendering your nakedness invisible.

Well, that’s lovely, except nakedness is not quite so invisible to the people who can see you from the street.

Last week one of Tauranga’s more notorious naturists was found guilty of offensive behaviour after he mowed his lawns in the nude. Outside the court a neighbour said they had been putting up with his naked lawn mowing, “but when he brought it into the front yard where other people can see him, including my kids, that’s an entirely different matter.”

The neighbours may acknowledge your right to bare arms, legs and everything else, but they don’t necessarily want to share your views if it means they have to share the view.

It’s a shame the free range lawn mower didn’t listen to his fellow naturists. Back in October 2010 the Bay of Plenty Times interviewed some good natured naturists who stressed that true naturists don’t want to offend anyone. “We wouldn’t mow the lawn or garden out the front of our house naked,” they were quoted at the time.

Naturists must get frustrated by the level of offence they generate. The whole point of their exercise is to not be offended by nudity, yet naturism is by nature offensive if you’re looking at it from the wrong angle.

There’s also a double standard. In advertising, in Game of Thrones, you name it, our culture practically worships the body by showing it off as much as possible. Even cartoon characters are drawn with gorgeous midriffs.

Naturism stands outside of that, asking to be exempt from the sexualization of the body. Put this way it almost sounds noble.

But naturism is a private pursuit and that’s the way it should stay. If you’re roaming free then I’m afraid your freedom to express your natural self stops at the front door.

The world might be able to cope with Game of Thrones but it’s not quite ready for danger mowing.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 7 June 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Trying to keep up with the Apple cats

I am still a few cats behind with my iMac. I limped along with Tiger for many years and even now I’m trailing a whole Lion away from Mountain Lion.

If you’re not a Mac user you probably have no clue what I’m on about. The cats I’m referring to are computer operating systems. Where Microsoft had Windows XP and Windows Vista, Apple had Cheetah and Leopard. A different cat has been named for each new Apple operating system since 2001.

The Mountain Lion operating system was released last year. Ever since then I’ve been wondering what their next cat will be.  They’ve already done Lion. They’ve worked their way through pumas, panthers, jaguars, tigers and leopards. They’re out of big cats.

Where to next? Branding is a serious business, especially when your company is named after a piece of fruit.

News from the tech universe suggests the next Apple system will be code named Cabernet. It will be unveiled on 10 June at the 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The annual Apple product unveiling always provokes a fizz of excitement amongst online techno babblers. They blog themselves giddy over this year’s new features, even if it’s just to say there’s nothing particularly exciting about this year’s new features.

None of this excitement ever trickles down to me. I find the constant innovation of technology exhausting. I don’t have an iPad or a laptop. We don’t yet have Wi-Fi at home, let alone a suite of integrated mobile solutions. My brother in law looked at me very strangely when he realized our computer is still attached to a cable.

I’ll catch up eventually, just in time to miss the next leap forward. It’s an expensive habit, living in the first world.

Fortunately, as a lover of words and ideas, I can still enjoy keeping up with the branding spectacle. So Apple is leaving the cats behind. They’re bringing their brand indoors and suiting up with a bit of suave Cabernet. Now they can arbitrarily rank wines instead of animals.

Let’s face it, the poor cats were ranked unfairly. The cheetah is the fastest land mammal in the world but Apple superseded it with a puma. According to Apple’s upgrade logic, leopards are better than tigers. On what basis? What has the leopard ever done for the world except to change its spots? Imagine The Jungle Book without Shere Khan. Tigers are way cooler. No one says, “Go get ‘em, leopard.”

The most sensible name change was Lion. The lion is the king of the beasts. He’s Aslan, he’s Simba, he’s the lion in the meadow. Lion is the top dog.

But then Apple brought in Mountain Lion. That’s not an upgrade, it’s a trip into banjo country. I’m pretty sure even Lassie could beat a mountain lion in her time.

Apple might muddle their cats, but Microsoft’s naming scheme is all over the place.

Microsoft began a numerical sequence back in the 80s. After Windows 3 they had a brief fling with dating which gave us names like Windows 95 and 98. Then there was a detour into Windows XP and Windows Vista, as though they were releasing a series of cars. Since then they’ve veered back to the numbers with Windows 7 and Windows 8.

Obviously they should name their next release Windows Blue, because that makes sense.

It’s all about as logical as asking a bottle of wine to supersede a mountain lion.

At least Apple will probably stick to their drinks for a while. Perhaps they will work their way through the red wine until they reach the top shelf. If I still have an iMac in a few years, I will be able to upgrade from Cab Sav to Shiraz. That will set me up for Single Malt.

Maybe by then I will even have Wi-Fi.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 31 May 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Rope

We bombed the lake at Acacia Bay,
swung high over its cold green teeth.
Carl would curl himself into a fist
& smash the face of the water.

Always a moment, on the edge,
preparing to follow the rope,
the weight of the tree in his hands,
the world on a tilt.

Higher was the goal, to fall further.
Carl drove holes in the lake,
leapt from trees,
branches that flicked him away.

Sometimes, behind the broken water
he disappeared.
Light blinking down through the leaves,
the creak of a branch,

a rope swinging gently where Carl had been.

 

First published in Bravado

Seduced by online bargains

Hello, internet shopping, you sexy thing. You’re so seductively cheap. You tantalize me with your low slung prices. Then you strip down your shipping fees and I’m hooked.

I’m going to click on your bargains. First though, I’ll head into town. I don’t like buying blind so I’ll try some stuff on for size, browse around, ask questions, get advice from the retailers.

It’s handy of the local businesses to pay their overheads just so I can make sure my internet shoes fit.

I needed a new backpack, one of those fancy light weight ones for this off road run I was planning. It took me a few weeks to make up my mind. I visited different stores, talked to a lot of helpful people, played around with the competing brands.

Eventually I figured out which backpack I wanted. Then I went home and looked it up on the web. Helloooo bargain!

But something didn’t feel quite right, almost like I was cheating. Which is weird, because I’m not obliged to buy from any particular store. Am I? This was an important purchase. It’s not rude or wrong to shop around. It’s expected. Bargain hunting is the way of the world.

Online shopping changes the playing field. How can the local guy compete against those mighty storehouses of the world wide web? It must be tough. The bad breath of a recession still fouls the air and we can now buy anything we want sitting in our pyjamas.

My wife came home from Auckland with a book she’d bought at my favourite little bookshop in Mount Eden. On their paper bag packaging it reads, “Here’s what you just did: You kept money in the local economy; You embraced what makes us unique; You created local jobs.”

I’m entitled to hunt down that killer deal, but plugging in to the web doesn’t divorce me from the community. My behaviour contributes to the wellbeing – or otherwise – of this place I choose to live.

I’ve decided that I want to achieve three things as a consumer. One is to get the best price. Obviously. Another is that I want to support the local economy whenever I can. The third thing is integrity – my own. I want to be able to look retailers in the eye without being devious about my secret shopping plans.

Am I a naïve sucker to think those aspirations all fit in the same shopping cart?

I went back to the outdoors shop and said, “This is the backpack I’ve chosen; I want to buy it from your store because you’ve been really helpful. My problem is that I can get it so much cheaper online.”

They were very gracious and made me a deal. In the end I spent a little bit more than I would have online, but it felt like a win for everyone.

More gratitude as expressed on the back of a bookshop paper bag: “You took advantage of our expertise. You invested in entrepreneurship. You made us a destination.”

You’ll never get the kind of personal service from a website that you can get at a down town shoe shop or toy store. We shouldn’t take our locals for granted. At the very least, it’s pretty rude to use them as free consultants for stuff you plan to buy online.

The world is changing. The challenge for shops is how to land most of that change in their tills. I don’t know how they do that. I’m not a business guru; I’m just a guy who wants to live in a vibrant community.

For my part, I’m willing to buy the retailers a bit more time by buying their shoes now and then.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 24 May 2013. Reproduced with permission.

The first of many poems about Fletcher

Alcohol sloshes out of Carisbrook,
slips on greasy bar stools,
clinks over black leather lounge suites.
New Zealand leans in on the All Blacks
thrashing England
with beer and potato chips
but I don’t care;
I have tickets for the best show of all:
Fletcher is falling asleep.

His eyes make slow circles
around the air in front of his face.
He clutches wisdom in his hand,
then swaps it for surprise;
nibbles the room with his gums;
seems − for a moment
to comprehend the universe,
the secrets of heaven,
but his finite lips can’t contain it;
he crashes ponderously through a selection
of other people’s faces.
Eyelids roll and slide.
I watch him slip away.
The nation cheers.

 

Written in 2004. Blimey, that’s nearly 10 years ago! First published in the anthology This Side of the World, edited by Sue Emms and Jenny Argante

Georgie Pie returns

Georgie Pie. Really?

This is a pie that flew highest in 1995. The mother ship outlet was at Greenlane in Auckland, a two minute walk from where I flatted with five other university students. Georgie Pie could have been built especially for us. Everything we needed cost a dollar: the milkshakes, the chips, the pies.

It was open all hours so Georgie Pie was handy for affordable distraction. We spent ages at Georgie Pie, kings and queens of the night, revelling in the debris of our dollar purchases. I used to collect everyone’s empty soft drink cups, turn them upside down, poke straws through the side and call each one a Dalek.

That’s my memory of Georgie Pie. Dollar milkshakes and Dalek fights at midnight.

Georgie Pie speaks to me of a particular time and place. It is the era of my little blue motorbike, of pushing my girlfriend’s crappy Austin through busy intersections, of printing last minute essays at 3am on the old dot matrix printer which took five minutes to spit out a single page and sounded like a train braking in the rain.

The cult of Georgie has garnered some earnest campaigners, bless ‘em, but sometimes you shouldn’t get what you wish for. It’s never going to be the same. Nostalgia is a wonderful, powerful thing but it needs to be handled carefully. I still regret watching those reruns of The Six Million Dollar Man.

There are food products I miss on their own terms. Peanut Moro bars, peach flavoured Fruit Bursts, unhomogenised milk. But do I really want to eat another Georgie Pie?

The magic and genius of Georgie Pie was its price. It was a cheap place to hang out. I ate the pies because they were affordable, not because they were my favourite pies. Sure, they were tasty enough at the time. Students eat all sorts of weird things in the name of budget constraints. But have I ever since yearned for that sloppy mince or that plastic cheese? Nope.

The thing is, it’s not the pie that we miss, it’s the 90s.

McDonald’s management must be feeling seriously cornered by the demand for Georgie Pie’s resurrection. They’re treading cautiously, limiting their trial to Auckland. I’m wondering how the conversation played out in that pivotal planning meeting.

“Sir, there’s a kid touring the country with another damn Georgie Pie sign. And check out the Facebook page. There’s thousands of them. They’re like zombies at the gates clamouring for mince ‘n’ cheese.”

“Okay, I’ve had it with this nonsense. Let’s give ‘em back the pie.”

“Really sir? Nationwide?”

“They want the pie that much, they can come to Auckland for it. Like a pilgrimage.”

“What about the other Georgie Pie products? The dessert pies and the soft drinks?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Besides, Burger King trumped our cheap drinks years ago with their bottomless refills. Stick to the pie, just that meaty cheesy one.”

“For a dollar?”

“No. Squirt some inflation back into that sucker.”

“But Sir, it’s the dollar they loved, not the pie. And they were students. They’ve all grown up since then.”

“Exactly, so now they’ve got more money.”

“They’ve also got more taste.”

“No matter. They’ll be curious enough at the start. Make sure we cover our costs, then phase it out again and everyone can say I told you so. And that’ll be the end of it.”

“I hope so, Sir. I hope so.”

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 17 May 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Exercise versus illness

I don’t understand why so many people squander their health and fitness. You get one life. Better to spend it feeling really good if you can, surely?

Health is such a privilege. I’ve had to fight for it. Fourteen years ago I was knocked over by myalgic encephalomyelitis, a debilitating illness that no one should ever have to pronounce or spell.

The main symptom was chronic, crushing fatigue. There was no respite, not even sleep was relaxing. I could barely walk down the driveway. I certainly couldn’t work. I had no idea if I would ever recover.

It also wiped out my concentration, shutting me down during basic conversations. How cruel then, to give it such an exhausting name. Myalgic encepha-what? They should’ve just called it Slump.

A big part of my eventual recovery included good old fashioned walking. I forced myself to complete one slow walk every day, a few short lamp post lengths at first. It took several years of these daily walks, growing from five minutes to ten, until eventually I could walk for half an hour. Little old ladies passed me on the footpath. I looked like a young man out for a suspicious shuffle, but for me, this was serious training. I called it my very slow olympics.

Finally the magical day arrived when I made it all the way around the Mount base track. That was a big milestone for me and my wife. While our friends were buying their first homes, my wife’s dream was simply to be able to walk around the Mount with her husband. We’ve never looked back. Last weekend we ran a marathon together.

Please indulge me for a moment while I show off. Yep, I just ran my first full marathon, the T42 Central Plateau Trail Run, held last Saturday 4 May, same day as the Rotorua marathon. It was the best run of my life, so I’m feeling kind of invincible right now.

We’ve been training for months, me on my own and my wife with her nutty running buddy. It was a big first for all three of us and it’s been hard work. Marathons don’t happen by accident. We’re all busy with jobs and families so most of our training was done at 5am on the weekends. Sleeping in tomorrow is going to be bliss.

Good health is a gift that can be snatched away at any moment. Having lost and regained it, I no longer take my health for granted. This is why I struggle to understand capable people who let their basic fitness slide. If you are physically able to look after your body, to feel better than you do now, why would you squander that opportunity?

Keeping fit is not about weight or size or needing to look good at the beach. It’s about vitality and living to the full. It’s about feeling invigorated with every breath.

I love being fit. Love it! My lungs feel like they’ve been sluiced clean with a water blaster. My brain feels sharper. Healthy body, healthy mind. What a privilege. I do not want to go back to that couch.

It’s easy to be intimidated by exercise, especially when someone is waving a marathon in your face. No one needs you to run a marathon. Just go for a walk. I’m a guy who took it one walk at a time until I found myself running.

There are genuine reasons for inactivity and there are cop out excuses. Only you know the difference. Personally, I vote for health.

My reason for sitting around this week is a pretty good one. I’m resting up, toasting marathon runners everywhere with a well earned beer and flicking a big finger of scorn at my former illness.

Take that, myalgic whatsyerface, I beat ya good.

T42 (14394)

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 10 May 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Coffee snobbery

Here we go again with the coffee thing. Journalists, surveying the city’s coffee houses. The results were published in last Saturday’s Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

This time the survey was not about quality, it was best value for money they were looking for. Best value as defined by the size of a takeaway flat white – the price per 100ml of the golden oil.

Why do people assume that a bigger cup of coffee is better value? The only thing a bigger cup delivers is more milk. Personally, I drink coffee for the coffee, not the milk. Give me a small double shot flat white any day. It’s a beautiful little thing called flavour.

I knew a woman who would always order an extra large half-strength trim latte. That’s offensive on so many levels. Why even bother with the coffee at all? Just take your giant jug of hot milk and be done with it.

And trim? It’s not even proper milk, it’s the weeping sorrow of a skinny cow.

Yes, I am a coffee snob and particular about my taste. I don’t want to overstate the case but coffee may well be the most important substance on the planet.

It fills a deep, emotional and spiritual need. Or perhaps it’s just an addiction. Either way I love it.

I tried giving it up once. I lasted six months, filling the void with ridiculous amounts of tea. I tried decaf a few times too, but decaf is just coffee with no soul, an unfun hot drink that makes me sleepy.

It’s fair to say that I felt a lot better when I stopped drinking coffee. I was clear headed and not as tired in the evenings. But after a while, all that tea began to taste like dishwater. I craved the muddy richness of coffee. When I returned to the dark side, it was wonderful.

I have found a workable equilibrium in which I live on two cups a day. I build my own brew with a plunger and I save takeaways for treats. Coffee is expensive, after all, which is why the price of it keeps popping up as news.

We should note that there are plenty more coffee options in Tauranga beyond the seven rock star cafes surveyed. If I’m having a coffee crisis at the Mount, where should I go? Can I trust anyone in Greerton to pour me a winning flat white? Quick, someone do a wider survey to canvas the city’s hidden treasures.

As well as serving great coffee, the best cafes are genuinely friendly. Customer service, now there’s another good survey topic.

In my opinion cafes rise and fall on the strength of the person driving the coffee machine and on the quality of the staff. The hospitality industry is pretty fickle and cafes really can’t afford bad service. I’ve avoided one cafe for years because of a single surly waitress who begrudged us just for turning up.

Let’s also remember that not everyone likes coffee. Tea drinkers and juice slurpers probably have quite different standards for judging a good cafe. They should get a survey too. After all, non coffee drinkers are legitimate members of society, aren’t they? Let’s treat them as equals, at least for a little while, and assess the city on tea drinking terms for once.

See, I may be a coffee snob but I am not without tolerance. (Unless someone is drinking instant coffee. Tolerance has limits.)

It would be interesting to learn how well cafes rated if coffee weren’t a factor. What would the criteria be for a non coffee survey? The food. The atmosphere.

Such important stuff. But I would still visit a hole in the road if it served great coffee with a warm smile.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 3 May 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Braving the twitterzone

The mysterious world of Twitter finally made sense to me last week, all thanks to gay marriage and marathon bombing suspects.

I’ve traditionally viewed Twitter as a narcissistic time waster. Yet it is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. Celebrities are regularly lauded or berated for their tweets. Stuff is always “trending”, whatever that means.

I’m guessing most normal people don’t understand Twitter any better than I do. The twitterzone is intimidating, like a huge room filled with unbearably cool people. They all talk in their own cool language with strange conventions that only cool people understand.

For Twitter dummies like me, a tweet is a short statement, preferably witty or interesting, that you post on your Twitter profile page. Your tweets can be read by absolutely everyone; it’s social media after all, not private media.

The hope fuelling each tweet is that others will notice what you said and start repeating (or retweeting) you. The more people who repeat your tweet, the less isolated and the cooler you become in the twittersphere.

This would suggest that Twitter is all about being popular, but that’s actually not the point. The real value of Twitter is its ability to transmit conversations and information –  including links, videos and images – incredibly quickly across otherwise unconnected groups of people. In times of crisis and historic moments Twitter comes into its own.

Twitter’s secret weapon is the hashtag. This is the # symbol that pops up like a smirk in front of words. Anything at all can become a hashtag, like #choko, if you’re into pointless ugly vegetables. This kind of random use makes the hashtag frustratingly hip and totally incomprehensible to those who don’t know what it’s there for.

When you add a hashtag to your tweet, Twitter magically turns it into a link. To where? To every other tweet that is using that particular hashtag.

On gay marriage night I logged on to Twitter and saw that some people were including the hashtag #marriageequality in their tweets. When I followed the #marriageequality link I found something glorious.

The whole world was tweeting about New Zealand’s 77-44 vote in favour of gay marriage. Marriage equality was officially a trend. The hashtag #marriageequality was number one, trending above #thatcherfuneral in the UK.

Links to news articles about our parliamentary debate were spreading, retweeting around the globe. People from all over the world were congratulating us. Pokarekare Ana was song of the moment. Maurice Williamson was being birthed as a gay icon. Every few seconds another 20 tweets would pop up.

Guy Williams tweeted, “This is better than that time we invented climbing Mount Everest!” An Australian wrote, “77-44, about what we normally get beaten by the All Blacks.” Someone else tweeted, “Twitter is the happiest place in the world right now!” And it was. A world wide party on my desktop.

I understand now that Twitter is where stuff happens first, where news travels fastest. I learned about the police showdown with the Boston bombing suspects long before I saw it reported anywhere else because people were tweeting from the street. When stuff is going down, Twitter is the place to be. If it doesn’t give you the whole story it at least lets you know there’s a story to find. It is at the crest of every cultural wave.

No wonder news agencies monitor and report on it. No wonder organisations and public figures use it to engage with people at ground level.

Does everyone need to be on Twitter? Of course not. It can be as pointless as it is powerful. But that power is real, valuable and not to be sneezed at. It’s also kind of fun.

Until stuff stops going down and you realise the main trend has become #xfactornz. Oh well. It was cool for a little while.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 26 April 2013. Reproduced with permission.

 

Bombing a marathon

In a couple of weeks I intend to cross the finish line of my first marathon. I’ll be hurting like mad but at least I know it’s not going to kill me.

There was a particularly spiteful evil at work behind the bombing of the Boston marathon.

The marathon distance delivers a physical beating for runners that far exceeds shorter race punishments. It’s not just about completing 42km; it’s a battle of mind over body. You confront crippling doubts out there. My run-crazy wife, who is responsible for my current marathon affliction, told me the marathon is not about winning or even about racing, it’s simply about not giving up.

If you’re looking for lessons in humility I recommend training for one of these monster events. There’s nothing glamorous about how you feel staggering home after three or four hours on your feet.

When I broke through my first 30km training run last month, any delusions I may have had of invincibility were well and truly trampled into their limp little place. What the hell am I thinking, I berated myself. I can’t run a marathon! I hate running!

At such extreme distances your emotions are stretched taut like tendons ready to snap at the slightest touch. I wanted the world to stop. I wanted to cry like a baby and crawl home to mummy. I realised a painful, humiliating truth: I’m no kind of super athlete. I’m a wuss.

On hearing the news about Boston, I’m guessing runners and endurance athletes everywhere experienced an extra painful stab of empathy. To detonate bombs at that exact place and time, right at the sharpest end of the event, requires a very deliberate level of maliciousness.

The marathon is so much more than just a really long run. You come face to face with your own limits. The demons you confront in any endurance event are yours and yours alone.

At least, that’s the way it should be. How obscene to have someone else’s demons murdering people at the finish line.

When the bombers are eventually caught they should be made to run their own marathon. Barefoot. No interrogation, no questions, just push them onto the road and make them run. Maybe follow them with sharp sticks to help keep the pace up. And no physio at the end.

Ah, sweet retaliation. Check me out, stooping straight to the level of delicious bitter fantasy.

I lose hope as I try to comprehend how anyone can be so callous and intentional about hurting other human beings. This kind of tragedy throws me into a spin of disbelief, fear, grief and anger, all of it twisted up with a degree of morbid curiosity that I try to hide from myself as I watch the internet footage from multiple angles.

It’s pertinent to note that on the same day as the Boston marathon more than 50 people were killed in coordinated bombing attacks across Iraq. Reports say it was that country’s deadliest day since 19 March.

Hang on, what happened in Iraq on 19 March? Oh. More bombings, another 50 people dead.

The horror of all this hits me at an intellectual level, but my western bias means I am somehow more deeply affected by the Boston explosions. This shames me. What makes a man, woman or child’s suffering any less significant just because they live on one patch of the earth instead of another?

It makes me wonder if my insulated world view is part of the wider problem. Most of my education on global politics comes from movies after all.

Whatever the case, from Boston to Baghdad we need to get our heads checked. We need to smile at our neighbours more and maybe even go running together. Surely, surely humanity can do better than blowing up civilians.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 19 April 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Space cow

I’m totally jealous of Eva the cow.

Eva is a soft toy mascot for Tauranga internet company EOL. They won a competition to have Eva shot into the edge of space on a NASA expedition. That’s my dream, mine. Not the dream of a stuffed cow. What cow wants to go into space anyway?

I’ve wanted to go into space ever since I can remember. Shoot me into space instead; I’ll take your meteor photos.

As a kid I modelled my aspirations on a movie called The Last Starfighter. In The Last Starfighter a boy plays space invaders so well that people from another planet recruit him as a starfighter pilot. That was my dream, to be visited by aliens and go zooming around the universe in my own little spaceship.

My other dream as a kid was to suffer a traumatic accident and be rebuilt as the Bionic Man. I’ve since lost enthusiasm for that one.

In order to replace Eva on NASA’s expedition I would have to lose quite a lot of weight. Samoa Air has nothing on NASA; Eva needs to weigh less than a block of butter. She will be floated up to the edge of space in a balloon capsule. About two or three hours into the journey the balloon will pop and Eva will plummet back to earth.

The words pop and plummet rather kill the fantasy for me. Maybe I’m not so jealous after all.  Safe travels little cow.

But I’d still love to visit space. It intimidates and fascinates me. It is immense, deadly and uncaring. It will outlast us all. We are so intent on our little lives here in the Bay, quibbling over our little problems, sneering at each other on blogs, each one of us thinking ours is the most significant opinion in the universe.

I am jealous of those few men in history who have been privileged enough to stand on the moon, to look back at Earth and see it from an outside perspective, just a single pea in the big soup of nothing.

Sometimes on clear nights I look up at the stars and dare myself to inhale the quiet terror of how large it all is.

If Earth was the size of a pea then the sun would be the size of a beach ball. If you were to shrink the sun to the size of a single grain of sand then relative to that, the nearest star would be more than seven kilometres away. Seven kilometres!

There are somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars in our own galaxy and there are 200 billion other galaxies in the universe. These numbers hurt my head.

At a certain point in this kind of contemplation, quite often conducted while bringing in the evening washing, I can feel giddy with insignificance. Modern humans have been hunting, gathering and grizzling over their power bills for around 50,000 years. That’s a lot of lives like yours and mine, living and dying and trying to be more right than their neighbours. For what?

But then I wander back inside and carefully shift our middle child back into his top bunk from our bed where he starts most nights safely away from his cheeky younger brother.

Across the ridiculous vastness of those 200 billion galaxies there’s a little spot right here in Tauranga, New Zealand, Planet Earth, where, at this infinitesimal blip of a moment in the thirteen billion year history of the universe, I am holding my sleeping son in my arms and he is beautiful. No one else will care and no one else will know, and time rolls on regardless. But the universe suddenly seems pretty worth it to me right now.

It makes me think we should probably all be a lot nicer to each other if we can.

Wow. All that from a space cow.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 12 April 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Gay marriage

The marriage amendment bill. The gay thing. It’s all a bit icky for us straight people, isn’t it?

But hey, there are also plenty of heterosexuals I would rather not picture together in the bedroom. Teachers, parents, accountants … the mechanics of what everyone does, gay or not, is all kind of weird and hilarious and generally too icky to ponder.

What people do in the privacy of their own ickiness should really be up to them. And now some of those people want the right to marry the person that they love.

I say, great, I support love, faithfulness and marriage. I’m a happily married heterosexual who thinks gays should be allowed to marry too, if they want to. What’s the problem?

One problem is many people believe it is categorically wrong, sinful or unnatural. This is a genuine crisis for those charged with loving the sinner but hating the sin. Tolerating homosexuality might be one thing but validating its naughtiness through something as sacred as marriage feels way too far.

The whole debate has slowly nudged a lot of good hearted people into an awkward corner.

I grew up with an assumption that homosexuality is pure depravity but over time I changed my mind. A significant part of this journey was getting to know people who are gay.

There’s no better way to shatter a stereotype than to meet the person you are prejudging. It’s amazing how some things we assume to be so important fall away in the face of real human relationships. You soon realise gay couples pose no threat to marriage, or by extension, civilised society. They’re not on a mission to indoctrinate their adopted children with leather fetishes.

This slippery slope argument we’ve been hearing from some quarters drives me particularly bonkers. The slippery slope argument implies we are on the verge of a gay apocalypse. Let them get married and before you know it the foundations of society will crumble. They’ll brainwash our kids, it’ll be Sodom and Gomorrah all over again and the entire human race will grind to a big gay halt.

A lot of this hyperbolic fear probably has more to do with stereotypes than reality. For most people stereotypes are all they have to work with.

It is fair to say that gay campaigners have often flaunted their sauciness with pride so for some people the entire gay culture might appear from the outside to be little more than one long hero parade. Look at them, waggling their bits at us from the float. Why would we let that kind of naughtiness mess up the pure institution of marriage?

As though the heterosexual world has done such a fine job keeping marriage pure so far.

I’m not scared of gay marriage at all. There are gay couples who would probably do more for the integrity of marriage than many straight couples. Two people who genuinely love each other have got to be better for society, not worse.

Opinions on both sides need to be tempered with grace and respect. Snarky protest placards won’t do anyone any good. My friends who are uncomfortable with gay marriage are not homophobes or bigots. Their struggle with this is legitimate and respectful and should be treated as such.

Change is always unsettling but I hope the time will come when we wonder what all the fuss was about. Let’s not forget that this is a public argument about people’s personal lives. These are real people we are talking about. At the end of the day it is people who matter the most.

First published in the Bay of Plenty Times 5 April 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Bad guys

There are no bad guys here. Not really. Bad guys have guns, tanks and missiles and they fire them into your home and blow up your children. That’s what happened to Izzeldin Abuelaish in Palestine. But who cares about Palestine, right?

I just finished reading Abuelaish’s amazing book called I Shall Not Hate. It’s a couple of years old; I picked it up in the library so it’s not recent news. But this is someone who has met real bad guys.

We think we’ve got problems? Abuelaish grew up in the Gaza Strip at the epicenter of the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict. His family was crammed into a refugee city with broken water supplies, limited access to medical care and hardly any travel rights out of the area. Against the odds he became a medical specialist and was the first Palestinian doctor to work on staff in an Israeli hospital.

Four years ago an Israeli tank parked outside his house and fired shells into his daughters’ bedroom.

The remarkable thing about Abuelaish is that he refuses to see the enemy as bad guys. This is the kind of attitude that gets you nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, which he was in 2010. It’s worth quoting this paragraph in full from the book:

We struggled together, my children and I, and I tried to respond to the chorus of people calling for Israeli blood to atone for the deaths of my girls. One said, “Don’t you hate the Israelis?” Which Israelis am I supposed to hate? I replied. The doctors and nurses I work with? The ones who are trying to save Ghaida’s life and Shatha’s eyesight? The babies I have delivered? Families like the Madmoonys who gave me work and shelter when I was a kid?

Reading stuff like this it’s easy to nod with a kind of self righteous smugness. Of course, I say to myself, the Israelis and the Palestinians should just get on with each other.

This is hypocrisy on my part because I can’t even get on with people who aren’t trying to kill me.

We live in such luxurious safety here in New Zealand. We have genuine issues: droughts, a recession, Novopay and Seven Sharp. But on balance we’ve got it pretty good.

There are few genuine bad guys in our comfy world, there are only people we disagree with. Call them the opposition if you like, but people you disagree with are not the enemy. They’re just people who currently see things from a different perspective.

I invent bad guys for myself all the time. That person at work who doesn’t understand my point of view, that faceless organisation I think is screwing me over, those drunk kids outside my driveway. My starting point is always that I am right and they are wrong, that I am noble and they are flawed. It is more convenient to paint them as a bad guy, that way it’s okay to treat them differently to how I’d like to be treated myself.

It feels so good to march into confrontational situations armed with a premeditated speech of indignant wrath. That speech never works, does it?

Over the course of my life I’ve changed my mind about some pretty major issues ranging from vaccination to Justin Bieber. At no point has my mind ever been changed by vitriol, raised voices or insults. Calling someone a womble won’t do the trick. It’s a rare thing to engage in proper dialogue, to genuinely listen to the other person.

There will always be people who enrage us, those without scruples who are loaded with their own agendas. Not everyone has figured out how to be a decent human yet.

Even so, from managers to neighbours to corporations, I’m trying to remember that there are no bad guys, only living, breathing, fallible people. It’s incredibly difficult to enact this at ground level, to live with integrity especially when we are hurting, but we need to try.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 30 March 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Teachers are amazeballs

I’ve got a theory that no politician ever had a good teacher. If politicians had good teachers then surely they would have grown up to respect teachers and they would continue to listen to them about things teachers know about, like how not to screw up the education system.

The main problem with my theory is there aren’t enough bad teachers to match the number of politicians who seem to be ignoring them. Teachers, on the whole, are really good at what they do. In fact, I think teachers are freakin’ awesome.

Teachers are awesome for a whole lot of reasons but their awesomeness begins simply by virtue of them turning up to teach.

Have you ever been put in charge of a bunch of kids? Have you ever had to guide children or teenagers through a curriculum and have them come out the other end with the required knowledge still intact in their distractable heads?

I haven’t and it’s something I am excited about never having to do.

Lesson planning is a lot of work, let alone doing it really well. Let alone delivering the lessons in ways that engage the whole spectrum of physical, emotional and intellectual needs in a busy classroom.

Let alone dealing with other people’s kids. Have you ever stepped into a classroom for any reason, then stepped out again and gone “Whew!”?

Teachers have to double as administration gurus, board members, grief counsellors, child psychologists, special needs experts and social workers. They also need to be sports coaches, project managers, art directors, multimedia wizards, medical practitioners and nutrition advisors.

In the classroom they have to appear happy and totally together every day, even if their wife just left them or they ran over the family cat on the way to work. They are confronted with unruly armies of other people’s children on a daily basis, plus the expectations of demanding, needy or worried parents and the various reporting requirements of the Ministry of Education.

In this light even the rare bad teacher seems kind of admirable. Some people poo-poo the long holidays that teachers enjoy but I poo-poo that straight back. I think teachers are gobsmackingly heroic. They stagger into those holiday breaks. To borrow the parlance of students, teachers are wicked, they’re sick, they’re epic.

No one goes into teaching for the money or the fame or the prestige. Some might do it because they can’t think of anything else; they probably don’t last. Most do it because they want to teach.

Let’s say that again: they want to teach. These people, crazy as it seems, want to teach our children. They want to impart knowledge. They want to steer little lives (and taller, smellier lives) in positive directions.

These are not people we should ever take for granted. We should value them, we should high five them in the streets, we should probably even make sure they get paid on time.

We certainly should seek their expertise when it comes to revamping the education system. Teachers know what works and they know what doesn’t. Theirs is exactly the professional opinion we must heed when the government wants to increase class sizes or link teacher pay to student results. Both are dangerous paths, warns the education sector. Who is a non educator to disagree?

When it comes to shaping the future of New Zealand schooling I vote that the policy makers listen to the people who know what they’re talking about. That would be the people who work with our nation’s children.

Give it up for teachers. They’re amazeballs.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 25 April 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Squabbling over the historical record

Imagine what would happen if someone made a hit television comedy set in a Tauranga retirement village. How would we as Tauranga citizens feel about that?

Regardless whether or not we enjoyed the show, I’m guessing we would feel obliged to remind the rest of the country that, you know, we’re not all filled with dentures. Everyone wants to be portrayed in the best possible light.

The real estate industry has been similarly bothered by TV One’s new show Agent Anna. In a bit of a squabble (which doubled neatly as promotion leading up to last week’s season finale), industry heads described Agent Anna’s comic portrayal of real estate agent behaviour as “a load of rubbish” and “not real life”.

For every new film or television show there will always be someone frowning that it’s not like that in real life. It was a similar story when Shortland Street first hit our quaint little TV sets all those years ago. I seem to recall doctors and nurses getting bothered about the Shortie shenanigans. That, and the uniforms.

Those uniforms are unrealistic, my nurse friends complained. At the time I was just happy to have some hot nurse friends. See, television doesn’t reinforce stereotypes at all.

Actually, that’s the problem. Television does reinforce stereotypes.

You can trust the audience to understand that it’s “only entertainment” but television is still sneakily pervasive. It has taken years of Piha Rescue to expunge the slow motion Baywatch images that the words ‘life guard’ used to conjure. So I respect the real estate industry’s desire to defend themselves for the public record.

The Academy Award winning film Argo portrays New Zealand diplomats hindering a hostage rescue where in fact they are reported to have helped. This is a more serious issue if you are worried that Hollywood is rewriting the truth.

Argo throws an increasing amount of real and artificial obstacles at its characters to boost the story’s tension. It is based on a true story but it still follows the well established rules of film: get your character up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him down. That’s the three act structure of any conventional movie right there.

The behaviour of the New Zealand diplomats as mentioned in Argo is just a plot device. It is neither malicious nor ignorant, but more likely the result of a few Americans talking over their American script for their American thriller and saying, “We need to put another obstacle in front of these guys, let’s use the hobbits!” Story telling as opposed to history lesson. That’s showbiz.

I cheerfully mistrust any film that claims to be based on a true story. The maxim ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ is never so true as in the movies. ‘Based on a True Story’ is a phrase that we should always treat very loosely.

Story tellers have been rewriting and augmenting history ever since story telling began. Yes, they are manipulating us. This doesn’t make them bad, nor does it make them liars, it simply makes them story tellers. They write to their own agenda, which will not always be fidelity to the historical facts.

Squabbles over this kind of thing will never go away, which is fine by me. Some of the squabbles are fair and others are fuddy duddy but they are all important.

The squabble to defend our country’s honour over Argo is now embedded in ongoing conversations that will hopefully accompany that film into its future. Real estate agents can hold their heads high knowing it’s been on public record that they are not Robyn Malcolm.

Righteous squabbles over art and entertainment are a valid and necessary part of the cultural landscape.

That sorted, we can sit back and let the storytellers do their thing. A Tauranga rest home comedy? Hilarious. I’d tune in.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 15 March 2013. Reproduced with permission.

I’m a person not a statistic

More dancing, less statistics.

The census was a snapshot of the nation but I doubt many people smiled for the photo. Every person in the country was made to do the same piece of homework on the same night. An impressive feat. Only statisticians could so comprehensively unite and annoy an entire nation.

It felt like I’ve answered most of those same questions plenty of times already since the last census. Doesn’t this information already exist? Doesn’t someone already have an evil supercomputer somewhere with all my details on tap? Or is that just Fly Buys?

A statistician would shake his head vigorously at this suggestion and mutter words like “methodology” and “limitations”. No, he would say, it’s more reliable to collect the information in a consistent manner.

He’d be right, of course, and I’d never dare argue with a statistician. A statistician can out-logic and out-bore me at every turn. It’s a good thing there are people who enjoy squinting at numbers all day so that people like me don’t have to.

2013 turns out to be International Year of Statistics, something I learned while browsing the admittedly excellent Statistics NZ website.  I didn’t realise there were international years of anything apart from Chinese animals. But here we are, celebrating statistics for a whole year. Excited? I am.

A look at the United Nations list of international observances shows that 2013 is also International Year of Quinoa. That seems like a nice idea, I suppose. So it’s a big year for statistics and quinoa.

I’m not sure who makes these decisions but I’d like to suggest that next time we try for an International Year of Community.

The census will tell us who lives here but it can’t tell us much about how we actually live with each other. It can’t show that I used to spend Sundays helping to care for my grandfather before he passed away, or that the neighbours’ kids run freely through our back yard. It can’t capture the vibe at the farmers markets or the conversation between a couple of dog owners on the beach.

In this light, census results have very little to say about the community they are describing. I don’t want to be a dot on your spreadsheet, I’m a person.

Think about what happens when you get caught in a sudden downpour and you find yourself rushing across the road with a bunch of other people. Suddenly, total strangers are laughing together at their collective misfortune.

You can choose to focus on the obvious downside, which is that you’re soaked. On the upside you’ve just shared a community moment with people you otherwise would never have connected with. I give that a thumbs up. It’s real life. The most comprehensive spreadsheet in the world can never capture a genuine smile.

If you’ve ever seen a flash mob in action you’ll know they generate a collective community warm fuzzy. Spontaneous choreography in the streets! It’s not normal to see people dancing in the street but it sure is fun.

Whether it’s a strange piece of art or someone wearing a funny hat, I’m a fan of random things that make you go “huh?” That moment of confusion jolts your brain out of its otherwise predictable trajectory. How do we foster more of that anarchic good will? How do we allow more of that creative spirit to seep into our community environment?

The census operation was a $72 million master class in careful planning. Analysts and planners will no doubt “utilise the results to better facilitate future options for society”. (That’s how you have to talk if you’re in a government job.)

While we wait for other people to make our lives better, let’s find our own ways to encourage a creative and positive community. I don’t know where it starts but maybe it’s as simple as smiling at our neighbours a bit more.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 8 March 2013. Reproduced with permission.

How to play Dinner Dog

Sick of Eye Spy? Does Car Cricket cause too many arguments?

My 8 year old and I just invented a new car travel game on our way back from Hamilton Zoo this afternoon. Well, the game is new to us anyway. We decided to call it Dinner Dog. It’s super simple and hilariously fun. We started with one colour and worked our way up until we had built the full list.

Dinner Dog

As each oncoming vehicle passes your own car you have to say the correct word according to its colour or type as follows.

Red  = potato

Blue = sausage

Black =  chicken

White = milkshake

Grey/silver = ding dong!

All other colours = baby

Trailer = dog

Motorbike = spoon

Truck/bus/van = say the word twice, eg a black bus is chicken chicken.

DINNER DOG TRAVEL GAME

Other examples:

CAR, CAR, TRUCK:  “Sausage! chicken! baby baby!”

CAR/TRAILER, CAR, MOTORBIKE, MOTORBIKE:  “Potato dog!  ding dong! spoon! spoon!”

Simple but effective. Maybe you’ve played something similiar to this (like the infamous horse game) but this was particularly fun. It’s interesting how difficult it is to associate black vehicles with chicken too, but we got quite good at it by the end of the journey.

 

Tomorrow I am a columnist

Tomorrow my first weekly column will be published in the Bay of Plenty Times. This situation has been cooking for several months. I’m shrugging it off like it’s not such a big deal, but actually it’s pretty cool.

I have no idea how my writing will translate over to a newspaper: what looks so delicious in a nice clean word document will appear tomorrow in grubby newsprint, flanked by grumpy letters to the editor, busy adverts and news articles about council, car crashes and craft fairs. Will my words make sense in that context? Will my column even be worth stopping for?

I keep meeting people who have heard that I’ve got a column on the way. They’ve seen the promotional photos of my beardy mug and they’re excited on my behalf. It’s weird. I know I can write well but I find myself wrestling with my fabricated version of everyone else’s expectations.

That I work at the city council adds a few extra twists. Some of my colleagues hope that I might be about to wield the mighty sword of truth on behalf of righteous democracy. Others wonder if my soul has been bought and paid for by the Bay of Plenty Times.

Nope and nope. The newspaper came knocking for Marcel the Poet and Writer, not for that Other Marcel who works at That Place. I’ve signed a conflict of interest form and I’ll be steering clear of everything directly related to the city council in the column. Besides, I do most of my writing at 5 o’clock in the morning – why would I want to write about work at that time of day?

All this expectation and build up has been accompanied by a sneaky undercurrent of stress that’s taken me a bit by surprise. Doing stuff in public is not all that relaxing. It makes me realise that potential success is just as stressful as potential failure. I have a sudden new appreciation for anyone who steps into the public sphere, whether they’re a politician, a singer or that crew on Seven Sharp.

My main battle is going to be with perfectionism. I have a bit of time each week to shape my little collection of words but I’m not a fast writer; I can spend months and years on a single poem. I like to craft each sentence with exquisite care. Not always a luxury I’m going to have.

I’ll also have to learn how to have an actual opinion about things. That’s scary in itself. What if I change my mind after the column is printed? What if I stomp my foot over a particular issue without understanding a fundamentally important piece of information? What if I look like a dick?

It’ll take me a few weeks to settle in, no doubt. I’ve written quite a few test versions to help myself tune up. (The Sonny Bill blog was one of those.)

Most of the first pieces I wrote were almost too funny; the editor had to ask me to tone down the random and turn up the sensible a bit. It’s a newspaper after all, not a creative writing showcase. But they got me in for my light touch and that is what I will try to bring to each column. I’ll find a way to weave in those funny prototype versions eventually, he he he…

This process so far has confirmed something for me, which is that I’m a writer and I love writing. I LOVE writing! Hopefully that’s enough to sustain me through whatever happens next.

For and against gardening

All that bother with plants …

Humming, you clip the world into shape,
pluck raised eyebrows
slap naughty fingers.
Your slice of garden
will behave.

The earth rumbles on
with or without a manicure.

… is good for your soul

The fragrant breath of weeds
dying.

On grubby knees,
taking care of things.

 

First published in Bravado and then again in a beautiful anthology called ‘The earth’s deep breathing’, edited by Harvey McQueen. Got a great review in The Lumière Reader too.

The exhausting truth about boxing

The consensus seems to be that Sonny Bill Williams would have been knocked out if his match with Francois Botha had gone the full twelve rounds. Kind of crazy isn’t it? This is a sport where one of the ways you’re allowed to win is by hitting another person until they’re unconscious.

Putting aside the upset that surrounds the fight, I’m in awe of anyone who steps into a boxing ring at all, ten rounds or otherwise. Those charity fights that only last for three minutes each? I bet they’re the toughest three minutes of the fighters’ lives.

I mess around in boxing classes for fitness. It’s great fun and no one gets hurt except for the boxing bags. I bash away at those bags, dancing around the edge of a fantasy in which I am the world’s mightiest street fighter. Wanna take me on? Huh? Huh? Go on, I dare ya, I’m a smashing machine!

I wouldn’t last three minutes in a real fight, let alone ten or twelve rounds. It’s one thing to be fit, it’s another to have someone trying to hit you back. The other day I banged my head on an open cupboard door. Wham! Instant disorientation. You could argue that a cupboard door is more painful than a padded boxing glove, to which I say padding shmadding. One thump from a mighty punch in the head and it’d be all over for me, glove or not. You don’t get to sit down and cry in the middle of a fight, you have to keep moving. That’s the exhausting part.

I grew up watching highly esteemed and cerebral art on television, programs like The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider. Every fist fight on those shows sounded like an array of fire crackers. Whack! Crack! No one ever seemed to hurt their hands or stop to clear their heads. It was like a conversation with fists. Punch, punch, punch, have you finished hitting me now, okay, it’s my turn for a while.

Movie fights are just as absurd. They go on and on and on. Dudes doped up on testosterone manage to pound each other multiple times in the face and the stomach. No one gets winded or stunned into dizziness. Then they throw each other through walls and windows and start the punching all over again. If I counted out all those punches in isolation and took them safely to the boxing gym, I’m pretty sure I’d be worn out long before it was time to dodge a counter punch.

Physical exertion is physically exhausting. It’s easy to forget how exhausting it is when we’re sitting on the couch. “Pah! They should have gone the full twelve rounds!” we scoff. Then we drive to the supermarket and park as close to the entrance as we can.

Most of the commentary I’ve heard on Sonny Bill has come from my female colleagues and it’s nothing to do with his boxing. I’ve heard a few barbs here and there about SBW being a show pony who is out of his depth. I think you don’t step into any boxing ring lightly, no matter who your opponent is.

Plenty of people try new careers and the transition is not always smooth sailing. We usually don’t have to navigate our learning curves on such a public stage. Life is stressful at the best of times. Imagine deciding to get into boxing: “Hmm, what I’d really like to do now is get hit in the face a lot. On television. And it’ll be great if thousands of strangers bet money on my failure too.”

Surely not a casual decision to make? I bet his mum is proud of him.

First world problems

I wrote this for Earth Hour 2012 and it’s become one of my favourites to play, although my singing sounds pretty awful here. Sorry.

Marcel at Earth Hour 2012

Playing at Earth Hour, photo by Aaron Bryant @ redfish photography.

Anticipating The Hobbit

I just can’t get excited about The Hobbit. I know that as a patriotic New Zealander I should already be queued up for my ticket, as I did for the Lord of the Rings films, waiting to see inconsistently small people walk in spectacular fashion from Matamata to Queenstown.

I know that The Hobbit will be amazing. It will swoop with majestic visual and musical splendour. Pastoral pan pipes will frolic among the sweet green grasses of the Shire and the orchestral score will soar over the Misty Mountains. Grotesque goblins will slaver at the screen. There will be Epic Moments.

Director Peter Jackson is Lord of the Epic Moment. My concern is that he tends to over indulge with his Epic Moments and after a while I need to go to the toilet.

Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings films were wonderful and I totally geeked out on them but they were very long. Then King Kong spent an hour and a half developing characters who were completely irrelevant to the rest of the film. Movies don’t always need to be two bladders long to tell an epic story, in fact, shorter can be better. More so if it means I don’t have to make a break for the loo. Sometimes I miss the glory days of the Intermission.

In the writing world there’s a well known phrase: ‘kill your darlings’. It applies to novelists, screen writers and film directors alike. To ‘kill your darlings’ means to edit out your favourite scenes from the final version. No matter how much you love it, no matter how great it is on its own terms, if it detracts from the overall story then it needs to be cut. This is a discipline that hurts every time, but it is one of the most important parts of the creative journey.

The other day I finished writing a poem that had originally been inspired by a real cracker of a line. This line was my darling and I built the entire poem around it. By the end of the writing process I realised that my darling line was creating problems. The poem as a whole worked a whole lot better without it. It killed me but I had to kill it. I miss the line. The poem doesn’t.

No worries, I have a plan. When the time comes for me to release my poetry book to worldwide acclaim I will also issue a special extended version with my favourite deleted lines woven seamlessly back in to each poem. “Now with 10 explosive lines not previously seen in bookstores!” I’m pretty sure that people will prefer the shorter version though.

I’m not advocating brevity for its own sake. I actually prefer the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings films. It bothers me that they’re going to milk us for three whole Hobbit films. But it is unfair of me to prejudge. I will certainly go and see The Hobbit. It’ll be an event not to miss, 48 frames per second and all. Perhaps the story will be tight even if the movie is long. Perhaps the narrative arc will work as a cohesive whole. There are no set rules about keeping things short. Just tell a good yarn. By all means lavish us with your movie making genius but don’t over indulge at the expense of the story.

And failing that, I guess the safest rule is not to drink coffee or beer before the movie.

She thumps the table

A farewell for our boss. I was pleased to wrangle some background vocals from my team to give this a lift.

By way of explaining one of the in jokes, our boss has her own set of communication commandments. The last commandment is “there is no fat lady”, which is to say “it’s never over”.

Popcorn

My son is 6 weeks old.
I think I want to eat him.
He would taste like marshmallow,
a hint of mint.
He smells fresh baked
like lemon meringue
or homemade bread, still steaming.
(I’m definitely going to eat him.)

His smile is the joyful oops!
of orange juice.
His brain is crammed with corn;
when he looks around the room
I hear it:
Pop!
pop!
pop! at the world!
at the corner of the ceiling!
the light through the window!

He percolates,
popping.
Popcorn everywhere
out his ears
onto the floor
popping into the unused corners of the house.

I fear for his head
a perfect kernel ready to burst.

I think I’ll just eat him.

First published in the anthology This Side of the World, edited by Sue Emms and Jenny Argante

Counting trains

She feels the weight of each train
before it arrives, spread out like midnight,

silent, black, rolling, unrolling
from low threat to wide thunder.

At first the sound, and then
the train itself

flattens the air, folds her inward.
Nowhere to go except to herself,

not even to me, clutching the rail
feeling nothing but her strength.

I glance at my watch.
Four minutes apart.

 

First published in Takahe 2005

A poem for my wife, whoop whoop!

Last week we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. Must be time for a poem…

 

Snapshots of Debbie

 

She is watching with Toby
his first goldfish
their faces luminous in the watery light
observing together this little quaver of life
its glued-on song of bewilderment,
the reverence of quiet questions.

Her hands are spiced with the earth,
peppered in tune with the season.
She orchestrates the compost
sinks her fingers into the pungent chorus
of tomorrow’s dinner,
her cultivated passion.

The fading crescendo of Dante’s bad dream
smoldering against her chest.
She looks at me over the nest of his hair
a kiss pressed onto his forehead,
weaving me into the family tapestry:
mother, father, son.

She is back from her run
twice up the summit with Jackie
ablaze with the buzz of their challenge.
They are high on the jazz of ideas
riffing together on future adventures
cracking open life’s big smile.

That dance of fun in her eyes,
the ridiculous reflection of action
when I hand her tonight’s DVD.
She claps her hands for the cacophony of explosions,
the rich silence of wine,
time wasted wonderfully.

She is reading in a white cane chair,
a muted ensemble of green through the window.
The hushed winter sun
slender notes of light
strong coffee in a delicate cup.

Her poise, a rhapsody of elegance.

 

Update 2014: This poem published in The Typewriter Vol 5

Prometheus – or “Why make an Alien movie if you’re not actually going to make an Alien movie?”

I don’t often get to the movies so I really enjoyed my trip to see Prometheus for the novelty alone. And then I thought a bit more about what I’d watched…

There are a some well established rules for Alien movies. You need to introduce a group of varyingly annoying characters, then you need to trap them in tunnels or corridors and let the Aliens pick them off one by one until only the plucky female survives. It’s extra fun if you have a fancy map that shows you where the Aliens are in relation to the stricken victims and a dismembered android helps too. Ridley Scott knows these rules, he pioneered them. Accordingly he spends a lot of care setting up Prometheus as an Alien film. So much so that the first half plays like Ridley Scott’s tribute to his own original Alien. Prometheus takes its time to establish all of the requisite ingredients for a trusty Alien showdown: Spaceship lands on planet; tunnels are investigated; historic victims are discovered with mysterious chest cavities. The cast ask the question: What the hell happened here? The audience squirms with anticipation: the table is set and dinner is about to be served.

But dinner is not served. About when the question “what the hell happened?” gets asked, the film puts the brakes on and tries to be something a bit different. Unfortunately, this different film is not quite as good as it really needs to be to warrant dispensing with the trusty Alien rules. “What the hell happened here?” is never answered and the film instead pursues some other elusive Big Questions which, by the open-ended closing credits, just aren’t that interesting.

This is not to say that Prometheus isn’t a lot of fun to watch. It’s not at all boring. There are some fantastic scenes and a sub-brilliant Ridley Scott film, Robin Hood aside, can still be well ahead of most other films. I just wish that the screen writers had figured out which movie they were trying to make and stuck with that. By the end of the film it’s hard to figure out which part of the story was the red herring: the Alien, the Big Question, or the entire movie? Either way all suffer. Aw, Ridley. It could have been so much greater.

And finally, (possibly a very minor spoiler alert) if you’re going to crash a spaceship, spectacularly, then come on, at least make sure that the stuff lying around on the deck isn’t still sitting in the same place after the dust settles. I’m looking at you, Michael Fassbender’s head.

 

No laughing matter

My brain scan glared at me from the illuminated display board. Not good news I’m afraid, said the doctor. You have a condition we call Early Onset Wit Loss. This section of your brain is deteriorating. You’ve already noticed that you’re no longer as funny in social situations.

He paused. You need to know that the condition is degenerative, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. So it’s going to get worse, not better. I’m sorry to tell you, you will never be funny again.

How long do I have? I asked quietly.

It could be months, it could be years, he said.

I shook my head. Is there nothing I can do?

He said, the best advice I can give is: don’t try to be funny. If you hope you are about to be funny, you probably won’t be. Most importantly you should avoid puns. Many people with your condition slip into a bad pun habit. Remember, puns are never funny.

But I’m funny, I said. I know I am funny.

He said gently, of course you are, but this is a medical condition, you can’t fight it. Perhaps now is a good time to re-brand yourself as a quiet font of wisdom.

I grinned. I’ve never been that font of wisdom, I said.

My God, said the doctor. It’s worse than I thought.

From my book Ministry of Ideas. First published in The Kiwi Diary 2010. 

Rena versus the ukulele

On 5 October 2011 a ship called the Rena banged into the Astrolabe Reef off the Tauranga coast and spewed oil everywhere. Our lives got mad for the rest of the year and more. With a ukulele at my desk, this little medley of tributes evolved into the best form of stress relief outside of the pub. It goes out to my city council colleagues, all the other local authority staff who’ve put hours upon hours in, plus the hard working people from Maritime NZ, Public Health and other organisations we met along the way.

With apologies and a nod of acknowledgement to Bon Jovi, Midnight Oil, Deep Purple, Metallica, Dave Dobbyn and those dudes who sing the Macarena.

This is probably best rated PG, by the way, for naughty language. Here’s the family friendly version.

Ministry of Ideas

Ministry of Ideas agent

They came for me at midnight. Black sedan, dark glasses. Threw me in the trunk and drove for an hour. Tied me to a chair. Pulled the sack off my head. I was in a log cabin, a guy in a suit standing over me.

What is this, a second rate crime novel? I asked. He slapped me. You’ve exceeded your quota, he said. What quota? I said. Your Ideas Quota, he said. Everyone gets a quota. You’ve blown your limit.

He produced a badge from his jacket pocket. The Ministry of Ideas. He said, Your last idea was a good one. But it was your last. We know you’ve been trying to top it. Well let me tell you something, pal, it ain’t gonna work. I shook my head. No, I said, it’ll work. It has to work!

He laughed. Thought you were a right little genius, didn’t ya. Well it’s all over now, buddy. He leaned forward, blew smoke into my face. No more good ideas for you, he hissed. No, I protested. It’s not over yet! I‘ve got something new! It’s good! Honest!

He grabbed me by the shoulders, dragged my chair to the door and kicked it open. Out there! he yelled, spinning me into the wind. What do you see? He yelled again, what do you see? A dark and stormy night, I cried. It’s a dark and stormy night!

A flash of lightning. He released his grip. What? I said, what’s going on? I couldn’t read his expression. It’s over, he said quietly. You’ve gone cliché. Then shook his head and turned away. Somewhere, a dog howled.

 

Title story from my book Ministry of Ideas. First published in Bravado.

Priority ticket

He pulled me up for speeding. Dude, I said. The waves are here, it’s the first time in weeks they’ve coincided with my family schedule. The kids are asleep, the dishes are done, I gotta go.

He said, one moment please. I watched in the side mirror as he strolled back to his car, did whatever it is that police officers do between the first conversation and the second. Came back with a ticket.

Two hundred and fifty dollars? I said.

For your wife, he said. Impeding valuable surf time – the dishes can always wait. And FYI, I’m the only patrol between here and the beach. If I see you driving under 80 I’ll ticket you for nuisance. Now get out of here.

Sir, I nodded, and floored it.

 

From my book Ministry of Ideas. First published in The Kiwi Diary.

I started a list of my top five films. It got a bit out of hand.

I don’t think anyone actually cares which movies I like. But I do, so here goes…

Favourite Movies of All Time

These are some of the movies I can watch over and over. It’s not a definitive list.

  • Back to the Future
  • Heat
  • The Incredibles
  • How To Train Your Dragon
  • The Matrix

Recently I listened to the director commentary on Back to the Future. It interested me that they nearly cut the big guitar solo scene because it doesn’t advance the plot. And the time machine in their first draft was a fridge, not a car. So many creative decisions that turned out exactly right in that film.

Even if you aren’t aware that the coffee shop scene in Heat is Pacino and De Niro’s historic first screen together, it totally crackles with perfection. Dramas and thrillers don’t really top my list of films but Heat is a solid favourite. And that gun battle…

I can’t decide whether The Incredibles is a grown up movie for kids or a children’s film for grown ups. I’ve watched it way too many times. Having said that, I suspect that in a final battle for cartoon supremacy it will be knocked down by the glorious How To Train Your Dragon. Screw Avatar; Hiccup’s flight with Toothless is way cooler.

I had the benefit of not knowing a single thing about The Matrix before I saw it at the movies. That scene where he “wakes up” in the real world is the biggest “Wooah!” moment I’ve ever experienced while watching a film. Every shot in The Matrix is perfectly framed. Now that the SFX groundbreaking buzz is passed, it’s still a magnificent film. Only marginally spoiled by association with the sequels which got all bloated like Morpheus in his cardigan.

Favourite comedies
  • Shaun of the Dead
  • Anchorman
  • Galaxy Quest
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou
  • Zombieland

These are in no particular order, by the way. And yes, I love a movie that stars Tim Allen.

Favourite dramas
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Secrets & Lies
  • Dead Poets Society
  • Apollo 13
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I haven’t seen Dead Poets Society for many years so perhaps it won’t survive a repeat viewing. But it sticks in my mind as the first film that I ever cried watching. It taught me about the emotive power of the symbolic action: a boy stands on his desk and says “O Captain, my captain.” That’s all it takes.

Guilty pleasures

These films are utter, utter crap. But they are simply too much fun to avoid.

  • 2012
  • Con Air
  • Deep Blue Sea
  • Point Break

This is the sort of list you end up with when you’re married to an action girl.

If you haven’t yet seen 2012 then this is the obvious year to watch it. All of the biggest, dumbest disaster movies rolled into one glorious serving of excessive special effects and outrageous narrow escapes. So terribly, terribly bad that it is wonderfully, wonderfully good. I’d put it on my list of favourite movies of all time if I wasn’t so embarrassed.

Films that make me go, “woah, artistry!”
  • Amelie
  • The Triplets of Bellevue
  • Where the Wild Things Are
  • Wall-E
  • Rango

These are the kind of films that propel me into my own creativity. All of these films blew my mind in one way or another. Maybe you have to have been a 9 year old boy to get Where The Wild Things Are. I totally got it. I saw the wild things as different aspects of Max’s personality. He’s essentially at war with himself. I found the film to be heartbreaking, beautiful and joyous. It connected with the lost little boy in me. A strange, quiet film that evoked emotion without spelling it out. I think this is what art is supposed to do.

Favourite movies: the early years…
  • The Muppet Movie
  • The Dark Crystal
  • Labyrinth
  • Willow
  • Ghostbusters

You can tell from the above list I had quite a fantasy bent as a kid. My dream job would have been working with Jim Henson. The Muppet Movie is the first film I ever saw on the big screen. That guy who kept threatening to turn Kermit into frogs legs freaked me out. The movie is still wonderful. Can’t say the same for Willow, unfortunately. But Ghostbusters continues to be awesome. (For a text-book lesson in how not to copy & paste a sequel see Ghostbusters 2.)

Favourite movies: the teenage years…
  • Young Einstein
  • Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
  • Hudson Hawk
  • Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Hudson Hawk bombed, apparently, but for me and my brother as teens it was Bruce Willis does Monty Python. In this list Monty Python and the Holy Grail is doubling for The Life of Brian.

Favourite documentaries
  • Man On Wire
  • Trekkies
  • Capturing the Friedmans
  • Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster
  • Young at Heart

Man On Wire is a documentary that looks like it should be straight forward and boring. It isn’t.

I don’t much want to revisit Capturing the Friedmans but it fascinated me as a demonstration of how media and selective editing can bias your assumptions as a viewer. If you watch it, make sure you follow up with some of the special features that shed a different angle all over again on the subject matter.

Deaths I hated
  • American History X – teeth, curb, boot.
  • Saving Private Ryan – stabbed, slowly
  • The Neverending Story – the horse dies in the swamp. Artax! Noooo!!
  • Shutter Island – finds his children in the river
  • Apocalypto – pretty much the whole film
Best uses for Jim Carrey
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Man on the Moon
  • The Truman Show
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • Horton Hears a Who

I used to quip that the world only needed one Jim Carrey movie, but then he broke out beyond his idiot roles and started appearing in films that are still my favourites.

Films that were better than other films
  • What Dreams May Come – was better than The Lovely Bones
  • Zathura – was better than Jumanji
  • Cliffhanger – was better than The Vertical Limit
  • Cloverfield – was better than Super 8
Excellent moments worth the price of admission in otherwise non-essential movies
  • Superman Returns – Supes saves the aeroplane
  • The Host – the monster’s first rampage along the river bed
  • The Matrix Reloaded – motorway chase
  • The Simpsons Movie – Bart skateboards naked
Favourite big dumb action films
  • Die Hard
  • Speed
  • Terminator 2
  • True Lies
  • Gladiator
Favourite intelligent action films
  • Children of Men
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Bourne Supremacy
  • District 9
  • Blood Diamond
Bittersweet films that put a smile on my face
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • Juno
  • Up
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Little Miss Sunshine

The opening scenes of Up. Just how moving is a cartoon allowed to be?

Most horrible Tarantino moments of cruelty
  • Reservoir Dogs – the ear
  • Kill Bill Vol 1 – the anime killing of Lucy Liu’s mother
  • Inglourious Basterds – death by baseball bat
  • Desperado – Tarantino tells a joke
  • Death Proof – the whole movie
Films that I didn’t enjoy as much as I was apparently supposed to
  • There Will Be Blood
  • The Godfather
  • No Country For Old Men
  • Atonement
  • Pan’s Labyrinth

Appreciate? Yes, definitely. Enjoy? Not really.

The most compelling boring film ever
  • Elephant

 Worth watching at least once. It’s not much fun though.

Things I can’t believe I just saw
  • There’s Something About Mary – the zipper
  • Borat – wrestling
  • City of God – a little kid gets his foot shot
  • A History of Violence – most uncomfortable looking sex scene ever
  • Team America – puppets go wild
Almost classics … but not quite
  • Walk Hard
  • Shoot ‘Em Up
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles
  • Thank You For Smoking
  • Babe

I raved about these the first time I saw them. Then on subsequent viewings they didn’t quite stack up as well as I had first assumed. But they’re all still pretty good.

Movies that aren’t what they seem
  • Up In the Air – is not a feel good comedy
  • Buried – is not a cut’n’paste Hollywood thriller
  • Bridge to Terabithia – is not a children’s fantasy film
  • Million Dollar Baby – is not an inspirational sports film
Best uses for Tom Cruise
  • Tropic Thunder
  • Magnolia
  • Minority Report
  • Mission: Impossible 3
  • Collateral

Whatever you think about his loopy Scientology antics, you’ve got to respect what he can bring to a film like Tropic Thunder. I tried to make this list 5 films long, but the two most essential entries here are Tropic Thunder and Magnolia. Mission Impossible included for the opening scene with Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Movies that made me feel what the character is feeling
  • The King’s Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • Insomnia
  • Touching the Void
  • Shine – the Rachmaninov concerto scene
Wastes of everybody’s time
  • City of Angels
  • Miami Vice
  • Ocean’s 12
  • The Expendables
  • Batman and Robin

Loving Heat as much as I do and knowing it was the same director, I actually went to the movies to see Miami Vice. Enough said.

That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.

Local Government: The Musical

Last year we were joking in the office (I work at Tauranga City Council) about what our workplace might be like if it were an episode of Glee. Naturally I went home that night and started turning the joke into reality. This is the sort of insane thing I do to keep myself sane. I returned to work the next day with a 2 minute demo and from there it couldn’t help but evolve into something much larger. For the grumpy ratepayers among you, be assured that the 50+ hours I spent on this was done entirely in my own (and my long suffering wife’s!) time. Hard to believe I put this much effort into such a niche production. I am either a supreme nerd or a tortured genius. Who cares. My colleagues thought this was funny and that is reward enough.

Later my brilliant friend and colleague Natalie turned it into a power point presentation which we’ve since tidied up in video land. So here it is, possibly the world’s first local government musical. With nods and apologies to various sources.

Doomsday

The end of the world totally sucked. Think of those movies where aliens blow the shit out of everything, it was like that, but worse. There was no time for resistance, it was straight to business, they just turned up in their big spaceships and started melting us with horrible, silent guns. One slow sweep across the land and everyone melted. The entire human race: soup.

Although, it was kind of funny that they started in Timaru. Who knows why. They flew all the way across the galaxy and came to… Timaru. In the midst of all the melting we had to laugh at the Americans who were indignant that the aliens hadn?t gone straight to Washington D.C. It was worth getting a Sky subscription in those final moments just to see the White House journalists scratching their heads. An awful way to end the human race, but satisfying too, from that perspective.

From my book Ministry of Ideas. First published in Blackmail

Broken tolerator

Completely over it, clanking on my crutches. My arms ached but I needed fresh air so, damn it, I was going for a walk. Or a hobble or whatever. Clattered up the footpath like a broken robot. The neighbour’s yappy dog padded after me. Go home Floyd, I said. He flopped out his tongue, cocked his head and looked at me with his silly goggly muppet eyes. I jabbed him in the neck with a crutch. Piss off, stupid dog. Really wanted to kick him. A van pulled up. Bit of trouble? said the driver, a scruffy looking guy in overalls. Broke yer foot, I see, he said. Looked me in the eye. Broke yer tolerator too.

My what?

Yer tolerator, he said. Helps yer tolerate stuff. Seems to be broke.

I politely suggested he mind his own fucking business. He let out a snort. Yep, definitely broke, he said. Here, think I got a spare in the van.

It took two minutes, if that. The dog watched. I started to regret poking him with the crutch. I started to regret a lot of things.

Plenty o’ people walking round with broke tolerators, don?t even know it, the guy said as he worked. He whistled and held up mine for me to see. Hanging by a thread, he said. Surprised you didn?t damn near kill the puppy.

Suddenly I felt a bit weepy. I love that dog, I said. The guy chuckled. No yer don’t, it’s just the new tolerator kickin? in. He climbed back into the van. Maintenance is the thing, he said. Maintenance. Good work as always, Floyd, he called.

We watched him drive away, me and the dog. How did he know your name? I said. Floyd’s tongue flapped lazily in the wind.

 

From my book Ministry of Ideas. First published in Bay of Plenty Times, although I’m not sure if they used the phrase “his own fucking business.”

Beer with Jesus

Halfway through the sermon I kissed my wife on the cheek and told her I was going outside for some fresh air. Truth is I felt like a beer. I sat on the steps in the sun wondering why we stuff ourselves indoors on days like this. Then I heard the familiar clink of cold green glass. I looked up and Jesus was standing in front of me holding a couple of lagers.

Don’t ask how I knew it was Him. You’ll know too, when God Incarnate turns up with a beer. Monteiths, I noted, and he nodded. No point skipping church for Lion Ice, he said. Cheers.

We drank for a while. I asked him, shouldn’t you be in church? He said straight back, shouldn’t you? (Being Jesus , he answers every question with a question.) I shrugged. You tell me, I said. It’s your church. He didn’t respond, just looked over the bottle at me with his volcanic brown eyes. You don’t look much like any of the pictures I’ve seen, I said. He replied, I don’t think that’s ever been your problem. No, I said, I don’t suppose it has.

The sun was hot, the beer was perfect, cold and lightly perspiring on the bottle. Beautiful day, I said. Thanks, said Jesus. I laughed and took another swig. The questions I’d always wanted to ask had suddenly ducked their cowardly little heads.

I said to Jesus, You know that I don’t much believe in You any more, don’t you? He said, that may be the case, but you’re still drinking my beer.

From my book Ministry of Ideas. First published in Bravado prior to that.

Rules for not clapping at a piano recital

Jane Sohn and Jason Bae, Steinway Showcase: Baycourt Centennial Theatre, Sunday 26 February 2012

Classical concerts are scary things and there is a lot of protocol around what you’re supposed to do. The best rule is to do nothing. Don’t talk, don’t cough, for god’s sake don’t unwrap a lozenge and most of all don’t clap. If you try any of these, particularly clapping, you’ll get scolded. Jason Bae was poised between the second and third movements of a Prokofiev sonata when some ignoramus plebs started clapping. He quickly flicked his hand out to shush them.

Classical music is like golf, you need hush. If the piece being performed is a sonata then it’s going to come in three movements. Even if you feel like you should be applauding when the first movement ends, don’t. You’re supposed to wait until the very end of the entire composition. Remember, that’s three movements, unless it’s not. Some sonatas have four movements, or one, or, if it’s Mozart, about a million. So how would you know? It’s not fair. Jason didn’t really mind about the premature clapulation, he was good natured about it. The clappers probably felt a bit silly and the rest of the audience enjoyed a mixture of smugness and relief that they hadn’t fallen into the same trap. Applause aborted, polite titter and the piano recital was able to conclude with the thunderous final movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7.

Here’s the thing: Jason’s piano playing was awesome. Of course everyone felt like clapping. In fact, let’s bust out of our classical straight jackets right now and admit that what he brought to that stage was totally fucking cool. Hell, there were moments I felt like leaping up and whooping. If it were a rock concert we’d be cheering on the guitar solo. This guy rocking the Steinway was extraordinary. But there is so much concentration, so much going on, and so much entrenched protocol around the classical concert that you Just Got To Keep Quiet. It’s what you do.

And to be fair, it’s the fairest thing for the performer. You don’t wolf whistle at the guy who’s about to swing his golf club. What I heard yesterday in the Baycourt theatre was transcendant. It brought me to the edge of tears at times. Jason Bae, just a young pianist, took us all on a journey that few people get to experience. How do I know few experience this sort of thing? Because I was there, my wife was there and a bunch of old people were there. No disrespect.

Also, I had free tickets. That helped.

But, man. I’d pay to see that again. From the moment Jason Bae sat at the piano we knew we were in the confident hands of a rising master. He rolled out a Beethoven sonata and then a Liszt so-called Ballade. I’m not going to pretend I know what a Ballade is, I’ve never played one myself. It sounds nice. This wasn’t nice, it was magnificent.

I have a new appreciation for Liszt, who is a virtuoso composer. In the first half of the recital Jane Sohn played a Liszt sonata, one that was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Liszt is a challenging, show boaty piece of music. I decided to track it down and learn it; it’ll probably take me about 10 years, I reckon. Jane Sohn is a very proficient pianist who, like Jason Bae, is studying at the University of Auckland’s School of Music. She played well and I loved hearing the Liszt. And yet the difference between her demeanour and Jason Bae’s demeanour at the piano was tangible. Jason arrived after the interval and immediatedly we knew we were at the next level.

I had brought to Jane Sohn’s performance all of my own personal angst from childhood recitals and piano competitions: the nerves, the close calls. The stuff that prevents you from losing yourself in the music. Jason eliminated all of that with his first few notes. I forgot all my nerves and was immediately absorbed by the journey. He owned that piano, which is a statement that does no justice at all to the experience of listening to – of seeing – his performance. He invested himself into the dynamic range of the Steinway and blew the strings off it. This was piano artistry in all its hushed theatre glory. Suddenly, nothing else mattered. My wife, who likes action films, cried. Turns out there’s a reason that you are quiet at a classical concert.

Programme:
Jane Sohn

Beethoven Piano Sonata Op.101

Liszt Apres une Lecture de Dane: Fantasia quasi Sonata

Jason Bae

Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 10 No 2

Liszt Ballade No 2

Prokofiev Sonata No 7

Self publishing is for vanity writers and losers who can’t get published

… but I did it anyway!

My plan for world domination has always been thus:

1. Bank some cred by getting published in respected magazines and journals.

2. Take that cred to a publisher to produce a book.

3. World domination.

Over the past eight years I’ve clocked up a modest amount of cred: North & South, Poetry NZ, various literary journals, a few national anthologies that still sit proudly in Whitcoulls. Haven’t quite made The Listener yet …

But cred is not enough on its own. Turns out you also need a publishing climate that is not being systematically rewritten by the online universe and a worldwide recession. I’m a few years too late for anyone to take a punt on me. One literary agent I approached suggested that I need to be as famous as an All Black to get short stories published.

My attitude has traditionally been that I will settle for nothing less than doing it properly with a real publisher. Self publishing is for vanity writers and losers who can’t get published, I thought. But that was the old world. I discovered the new world last year. Cue a massive paradigm shift and my new book.

Last year the Tauranga Writers group facilitated a meeting with a print company on the topic of self publishing. I went along wearing the big cynic’s hat that I’d picked up in the old world and I left wearing a completely new hat. Here’s why.

No one is going to print your book because they can’t afford it. (In my experience, so far, that’s true. I have the rejection letters to prove it. “Not our thing.” “Entertaining light verse.” Etc. All code for “you’re not famous enough to warrant our investment”.)

Everyone has the right to be published. Not everyone has the right to be read. Aha. Wisdom. Fortunately I believe that my stuff is worth reading. And I do have some cred to back me up.

You no longer have to invest in 1000 books upfront. Technology now lets you print 6 copies or 10 copies or 50 or 2000, whatever you want, affordably. This knowledge moved me into the self publishing space.

And so I built a book and printed a few copies just to see how it felt.

And behold, I liked it.

And so did my friends.

And I thought, this is worth pursuing.

And thus came into being the Ministry of Ideas collection of total awesomeness! (Forgive the Kung Fu Panda terminology. I am trying to write with the sound of three noisy boys raising hell with cushions and pillows.)

The stressful stuff is figuring out how to sell it and make it available to everyone who wants it. Marketing and administration and all that extraneous work should be done by people in suits while I sit in my scruffy jeans with a coffee and write the next thing. Because, really, all I want to do is write, not sell.

Fortunately I’ve managed to write a book that people actually want to read. Everyone who picks it up does all the right things, namely, they can’t seem to put it down. Some of the people who have bought it have already come back for more copies to give away. This is all very good for the writer’s soul and it helps fund the next round of reprints. That’s not a sales pitch, it’s just a statement.

(But if you do want to buy it, it’s an accessible price!)

She sure showed us

My first ukulele song, written to help farewell our friend Natalie who I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside for the past four years. She deserved a decent sendoff and we were dead set against following the standard council model of farewelling staff with sandwiches and a cup of tea in the squarest meeting room. When we performed this song we did a kind of mini flashmob thing in which I started on the uke, then another friend Cheryl bobbed out from the crowd shaking a maraca and Shelmo followed with harmonica. And then we went out for beer.

Living under water

Today I stumbled across this short email exchange that I had a few years ago at work. In the council’s communication office we often get sent the queries that don’t fit into any obvious basket. I was forwarded this email from a “Rom 1” student. I really liked his question and, reading it again, I rather like my reply too.

 

Sent: Wednesday, 19 November 2008 2:36 p.m.
To: “info@tauranga.govt.nz”
Subject: Attention Town Planning – Tauranga’s Future

Dear Sir

I am Ben and I come from Tauranga Primary. I am writing to you to find if you have any ideas about what Tauranga may look like 500 years from now. Do you think we will be under water or live up in the air? Do you think we would have to live in domes with artificial air because we have polluted of ours. I would be interested in your ideas

Yours faithfully

Ben
Rom 1 Tauranga Primary School

 

From: Marcel Currin
Sent: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 4:28 PM
Subject: RE: Attention Town Planning – Tauranga’s Future

Hi Ben

Thanks for your question. It’s a tricky one. 500 years is a long time. Here at Tauranga City Council we have 10 year plans and 50 year plans. We don’t really have anything that plans for 500 years.

Our challenge is to make sure that 500 years from now Tauranga is still a beautiful place to live. One way we do that at Council is to put little metal dolphins on the drains in the city streets. It’s a simple thing we do to remind people that the drain is for rainwater, not chemicals like soap suds or old paint. The drains go straight into the harbour and we want to protect it for people to enjoy in the future.

Another thing we do is buy land for parks. As the city grows we need to make sure that there will be enough greenery so that it is not just filled with streets and buildings. We are about to build a sewage pipeline that will last 100 years.

There is a lot of planning needed to keep a city running and healthy and beautiful. Hopefully the people who come after us will keep making sensible decisions, or even BETTER decisions, so that Tauranga stays a great place to live for many more years.

Whatever life is like in 500 years I think you can safely predict the following things:

There will still be wonderful people who try to make the world a better place.
There will still be greedy people who only care about themselves.
There will still be adventurous people who want to have fun and enjoy the environment.
There will still be careless people who keep making things worse.

I certainly hope we won’t have polluted the air so much that we have to live in artificial domes. And I hope the waves are still good for surfing in 500 years!

Regards

Marcel Currin
Communication Advisor
Tauranga City Council

Damn, I’m cool

I’m striding through a moment of cool.
Grooving to my own suave steps.
Sunlight pivots on my shades,
swings with my reflection
down the main street.
Damn, I’m cool.

Stepping with purpose
stepping with style
on my way from A to B
cardboard takeaway coffee cup tellin’ me
damn, I’m cool.

I got taste man,
I got class.
No damn plastic novelty Starbucks.
I’m a man who knows his beans
and these beans tellin’ me
damn, I’m cool.

Word for the day is nonchalance.
Word for the day is suave.
My reflection gives me the nod.
If I wasn’t me I’d wish I was.
Check that window winking at me.
See me sizzle.
Damn, I’m cool.

 

First published in Bravado

Spring

Look at all the
little happy lamb

chops

 

First published in The Kiwi Diary 2007

That’s me in the corner

For several years I have been an atheist in disguise, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Okay, not a wolf, but certainly not a sheep. I still hang out with the flock but in my heart I am flockless. Those close to me know this already; others nearby could probably have worked it out if they had opened their eyes during grace to see me nibbling the peas. (Not that that’s an indicator by any standard, but hey.)

All my life I’ve had Christianity soaking through my pores. I was a passionate, truth-seeking follower of Jesus throughout my teens and twenties. If you try to write off my de-conversion by suggesting I was never a true Christian to start with I will hit you in the face and then insist you turn the other cheek. To leave my faith was, for me, a really big deal.

So what happened? I didn’t rebel, I didn’t backslide, I didn’t indulge in so many naughty pursuits that God couldn’t keep up with all the fun.

What happened was that I chased God down, cornered him, and realised he wasn’t who I thought he was.

A num