Not About Sharks

I’m finding it hard to stop writing. I handed in my final folio for a 6 week summer fiction paper at Victoria University on Friday and the momentum and pressure has left me in daze.

It is Monday, and there are so many other things to do.

Fixing the broken doors, latches and handles in the new house the family moved into 4 weeks ago. Shifting boxes. Unpacking boxes. Sorting piles of things. Putting pictures on walls. Working out what each of the keys do around the place, and if they’re the only copy. Working out how to cook anew now that the wife has gone vegan. Finishing the painting (inside and out) at the old house, which needs to be on the market ASAP because we can barely afford one mortgage let alone two. Arranging tradesmen to do the things I can’t legally do. Exercising my old aching body, that needs large daily doses of anti-inflammatories and stretching until I get a big chop-chop operation on my Achilles. Cleaning this house for the first time since we shifted in. Two bathrooms. Two toilets. Six sinks. Two floors to vacuum. An overgrown garden to tame and explore.

I could go on.

But I need to write. It is a need. Not just the two new stories I wrote for the course. Both of which will not leave my mind alone. One, a story of writing and love. Sharp, clever and funny. The other a dark wee fantasy fable that has mushroomed into the biggest thing I have ever written, and clearly needs to get bigger again. Or the kids’ story I started bashing out in my journal on Saturday as I watched the kids at their gym class. It holds my mind the most, being at that hot and fertile point where you can just keep writing and writing until the tale is told. Which is what you must do because if you stop the momentum is lost and the ink has dried to a hardness that will not take another coat without becoming a different picture altogether. And there are the two novels that need revision so they can seek publication. Plus the letter I promised to forward back in December. A real letter, on paper, that needs to be reconsidered because it involves care and caution. And there is my diary; the beast I started with great hope having re-ignited the habit last year, managing to knock out 200-250 words each day. This year I have been doing 600-700, until the last few weeks when life’s demands left it sadly neglected.

So what do I do?

I write. A blog for 5-10 people to read. I used to get 25-60 readers with every new post but those numbers have passed. The world is awash with words seeking eyes. The ‘attention economy’ places great demands on our time.

So why write, fool? Because I must. Why write this? Because the words came out when I sat down. The muscle needs movement and cannot relax or stay still.

 

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Smiler


Smiling can be hard in the morning, especially in the face of the stress and the unexpected.
This morning I got to the airport just as the check-in went to shit. The computers had stopped talking and the baggage conveyer wouldn’t work. The queue at bag-drop snaked out of sight through the terminal. People were huffing and puffing and walking into me as they tried to deal with the stress.


No drama was required, the plane couldn’t leave without our bags. Still, people pushed and fussed and contrived ways to jump the queue. A young woman behind me tottered away out the terminal and blundered back into line at the front of the queue. Well, she was wearing a very short green skirt and ridiculous heels.
I struggled not to glare.
As I reached the conveyer belt it froze once again. When it restarted after 5 minutes the short man beside me had a fit when told his soft bag needed to be placed in a tray. ‘Why couldn’t you have told me that before? I’ve been bloody standing in front of you for 5 mins!’ I laughed a little too loud and shook my head at the poor woman from Air NZ.
‘We’re all stressed,’ she said. I smiled in agreement and went to stretch my legs.
While waiting to board I started to write. I had received several random smiles and it wasn’t yet 9am.
This has been happening a bit these last two weeks. Are people happier or is it me?
I suspect it’s got to do with the joke I played on myself.
When the heatwave hit a fortnight ago I shaved my big grey beard into a ridiculous moustache. Think the bastard love-child of Lemmy and Derek Smalls. A heavy metal scowl drooping under my chin like curly white tusks.
I have the air of a pompous little monkey blown up into a man. It’s in no way attractive but it attracts the female eye.
Of course, I may just be projecting on co-incidence and quirk. Just because a woman gives you a second look, smiles, and then appears right beside you means little more than middle-aged fancy.
Still. Woman are smiling at me like never before. It’s nice. I like it.
So when I saw the feedback machine as I went through security, I hit the smiley button.
Then I smiled at the woman gawping at me as I boarded the plane.
But when I saw that the young woman in the short green skirt was sitting right behind me on the plane I thought, fuck it. I am not going to smile.

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Screening Out

Our eyes are special. They reveal the soul, provide a window for our thoughts to climb out. Whether or not you actually believe in the soul, our eyes are definitely designed for social interaction. They let us see what’s going on in the minds of others.

It’s why we’re the only primates with whites in our eyes. By making the iris and pupil stand out, this unique adaptation lets us better see where someone is looking and we are able to make a good guess at their thoughts and feelings. Are they terrified, friendly or shady? Are they pleased to see me, or is there a bloody great bear galloping up behind me?

Why am I thinking about this? Because eyes are disappearing.

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When I work at the local stadium, the young folk on the tills spend the whole transaction staring intently at the screens on the cash registers, often failing to notice that I am holding out cash until the transaction icon doesn’t resolve in front of them.

It’s the same at my local café. The friendly smiles, eye contact and brief chats have been replaced by eyes darting around a screen while I repeat my order as the device has commanded all of their attention.

 

I sound like a fuddy-duddy. But I am not. I love the promise of technology. But customer service is not just about listening to words, clicking a mouse and tapping apps. It is about human contact with a stranger, and it appears that human interaction is being screened out of society.

This can only cause problems. Social isolation, anxiety and depression have all been directly linked to the allure of the glowing interface.

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The more you stare at a screen in preference to interacting with human faces, the worse you will feel. People in societies across the world increasingly prefer the safe, undemanding routines of swiping and clicking over trying to fathom the murky cues of human interaction.

It just seems so much easier to deal with a device than a person. Because with real people you don’t just have to interpret the mystery of eyes, you have to read body posture, vocal tone, subtext and gestures. Human interaction seems so demanding when compared to a click.

 

It’s why some people get addicted to Tinder but struggle going beyond a first or second date.

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People are tricky. But that preference for comfort and ease comes with a cost.

Our bodies are built for the stress of uncertainty.

An astronaut who spends too much time in space risks breaking bones when they return to Earth, as the ever-changing stress we feel fighting gravity is essential to maintaining growth and strength.

Likewise, our bodies and minds.

If we don’t use it, we lose it. The negotiation and interplay, with stressors and uncertainty, helps us grow and stay healthy.

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We don’t need to lose the devices, but we shouldn’t use them to screen out human interaction.

We are social creatures, made by our gift for social interaction.

We must keep that fact firmly in sight.

 

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Get On Up, Y’all!

As the first to rise in the house I’ve taken to blasting big bad tunes to rouse the house while we establish the unfamiliar routines of new schools and new house.

The wife, never an early riser, tends to resist alarms and gentle entreaties. Which is only fair, as she makes all the school lunches and sorts out her work clothes the night before.

So when I get up at 06:15, I use the quiet to placate the squawking cat and get the porridge on the stove. Then I walk in circles, tidying dishes and mess, prepping my gears for work or school. I sometimes take the wife a cuppa, but that almost never gets drunk.

By 6:45 it’s time for all to get up. In the past, to avoid shouting like a fishwife or knocking on doors, I used to blast their favourite grooves to entice them to the table. But this week, the first one back at school, I have decided to play brash old music to stir them to action.

Big, bad 1970s Glam rock, to be precise.

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The whole week has all been about The Sweet. Ballroom Blitz and Hellraiser. Poppa Joe and Little Willy. But it has got a bit much, even for me.

Today, I switched in Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody followed by Under Pressure (technically not Glam, but both songs are full of diva dramatics and sequined strutting).

And I can push my voice loud and raunchy on both songs.

Likewise, Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes. I can rise from the low-pitched verses to the trilling falsetto while inexpertly pumping out the Bump-sha-waddy, Bump sha-waddy-waddy backing vocals, kicking it along like the power house drums.

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No one came up to complain.

It was time for Elvis If I Can Dream. Not Glam but big and bold, dramatic; just as out-of-reach as Freddie Mercury or The Rubettes. But oh, how I tried.

Still no go.

So I paused the music and shouted at the top of the stairs, Time to arise and dress for school, sweet sleepers! I will keep singing awful songs until you stop me!

On went Gary Glitter. Hello, Hello… The wife popped her lovely head into the kitchen, mid make-up, and said that song feels different these days. Yes, I said, making a joke I can’t repeat regarding the erstwhile Mr Bucket’s early placing in the pantheon of fallen idols.

By now it was after 7:00AM.

I slammed on Rocks by Primal Scream. A song I can strut, and gravel, and holler to. Big, leery, retro-rock boogie; a nice bridge between all the styles. An ever-popular (with me) go-to number on SingStar.

That’s when the wife appeared, hair perfectly tousled, looking glamorous and understated as always. These aren’t awful songs, she said, smiling.

Ok.

I shall have to try harder tomorrow.

 

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Camping by Numbers: A Listicle of 48 Numbers. Derived in Caravan and Tent. At Beach, upon Mountain and by River

 

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47 Number of times I will hit my head on the caravan door frame before I punch the caravan (or devise a cunning way to stop doing it).

9 Number of $2 coins the wife will ask for to do one load of washing, as it’s still not dry.

36 Number of snarky/comic names bestowed on fellow campers to amuse the wife. Like Damon and Jemima, who parked their giant motor home in the middle of our sea view and proceeded to cook mussels and sear broccolini for young Tarquin and Sapphire.

99 Number of times the hunting enthusiasts next door shout ‘Logan! Mason!’ each morning as the toddlers shoot at us with their new toy guns.

Zero Total number of segments of Terry’s Chocolate Orange I can successfully sneak from each of our 3 kids.

360 Average number of minutes chocolate is safe in the fridge before it mysteriously disappears.

7 Maximum number of minutes I get to write before someone wants or needs something.

Like $2 for the machine, or to account for some missing chocolate.

4 Number of days before the kids stop wearing sandals, jandals, kicks or scuffs whenever they walk on any sand or grass, and are happy with bare feet.

3 Number of days I can go without a shower, by swimming in the sea instead.

2 Number of minutes I can handle the shower going cold before cracking open the door to press the button for more hot water.

4 Number of mothers and small children sitting outside, staring impatiently at the crack.

0.25 Number of places I can safely change into my togs without flashing someone, somewhere.

9 Number of bum cracks visible at any one time within a thirty metre radius as beach folk adjust and strut.

3 Number of tubby kids who can squish onto a tiny camp chair to stare at a phone while their mothers do the dishes.

∞ Amount of entertainment possible to derive watching other campers set up and pack down.

13 Number of times the wife tells me to shush! each day in case the neighbours hear me making up fake dialogue for them.

You can’t park that there.

That’s never level.

The awning’s fine, it’s my groundsheet that’s fucked.

I see you have the Classic. Mind if I have a look inside?

0.75 Maximum number of intimate acts achievable before the caravan starts to wobble (or a child appears).

58 Number of times I covet the food the Chinese campers are cooking by the ablution block with theatrical flair and giant flames.

3.5 Number of days in a row you can eat sausages before you reach peak sausage.

5 Number of books taken away to read.

0 Number of books read.

4² Number of books the kids have read (factor due to them rereading their books with glee).

9 Number of days unable to locate the can of CRC you are sure you packed in the fixit kit.

9 Number of minutes it takes to locate the old can of CRC after buying an overpriced new one.

19 Number of times I can smile at the same person on the way to the ablution block without saying a word.

17 Number of times I can mention the weather when forced to talk to a stranger before having to find a different topic.

6 Number of hours between the Christmas Eve ‘weather event’ and the Christmas day thunder storm.

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36 Number of minutes it takes for a web page to load on the camp site Wi-Fi when it’s raining.

5 Maximum number of hours I can hold off going to the toilet in my last set of dry clothes when the rain is still horizontal and my raincoat is still soaked.

4 Number of incredibly loud farts the smallest child can release in her sleep after being rescued from her tent during the Christmas Eve storm, and snuggled down into the caravan.

5-6 Number of days it takes to forget how many days you’ve been on holiday.

6-7 Number of days before you start counting how many days remain.

19 Number of different exercises the two blonde twins in front of us do in perfect unison each morning.

3 Number of minutes before the wife realizes what I’m counting.

364 Number of little coloured bits of rubber strewn across the campsite after sudden water bomb fights.

363 Number of bits of rubber that remain on the grass two hours later.

1 Number of people sitting on the ‘occupied’ chairs by the pool.

180 Number of seconds a mother sitting down with a good book by the pool will look at the book before picking up her phone to check something.

88 Percentage of particulates in the pool that are not water or chlorine. Or leaves. Or rubber.

1 Number of times I have banged my head on the door frame of the caravan since writing In and Out on the caravan step in order to aid traffic flow.

2 Number of people who suddenly appear out of the shadows after I fart loudly on the way to the ablution block at 5 am.

7 Number of times the wife and I suspect we’ve been approached with the secret campground swinger’s code.

She’s in good nick.

I see you’ve got the Classic.

Have you been to the end of the beach? There’s a lovely spot in the dunes.

I had the beef. The wife prefers the fish.

You’re very good with your morning stretches.

7 Number of invitations to socialize, or have a wee drink, the wife and I have non-committedly dodged in order to sit in the caravan and look at people.

Nice. Lovely. We’ll have to see. I’ll ask the wife.

1.5 Number of snoozes desired each day.

0 Number of snoozes achieved after 15 days of rest.

1 Number of days remaining before wondering if we can extend the holiday.

24 Number of seconds it takes to decide that we can do another day. Yay!

1 Number of nights left before we pack up and head home. Boo 🙂

 

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A Night at the Opera

Tonight I am going to the opera. It will be my fourth.

The first was 25 years ago in Christchurch. Tosca at the Theatre Royal, the wonderful venue where I saw Basil Brush, Sonic Youth, Rowan Atkinson, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Del La Sol, Hot Gossip and the Violent Femmes. As that list might suggest, I don’t attend many operas.

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My first was Tosca with my mother, a fan of light opera. She wasn’t that keen, but I was balls deep in theatre in those days, seeing every kind of performance I could. Mum adored Gilbert and Sullivan and saw The Phantom of the Opera several times. Sang Yum Yum in the Mikado at the Theatre Royal.

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When the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company came to Chch when she was young, Mum camped outside the Theatre Royal to get tickets. No one did G&S better than D’Oyly Carte. In fact, at the time, they had an exclusive contract. When they went bust after the copyright lapsed we were plagued by endless touring Australian versions. I worked on their Pirates of Penzance with John English when I lived in Auckland. I was a wee bit star struck.

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The second opera I saw was Boris Godunov at the Aotea Centre. Not a popular opera, but my brilliant flatmate, Simon, still knew it was Mussorgsky, so happily came along. I loved the story. Medieval Russian history sung in something other than Italian. While I couldn’t whistle a single note of Puccini’s Tosca, I often sing ‘Slava, slava, slava’ in that stunning sequence when the slaves sing of glory.

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My third opera was ten years ago in Wellington, at the St James. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a story I knew well. I love the film by Ralph Fiennes, adore Pushkin’s original poetic novel, and often find it resonating in my life. Not that I have ever fought a duel, or been a Francophile aristocrat, but these themes are a constant in our home now that the musical genius of Hamilton has infected my family. Honour, snobbery, the danger of wasted opportunity. All find purchase in Titahi Bay as easily as Broadway and Tsarist Russia.

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Tonight I am going to La bohème, and the wife is quite excited. She never thought she would get to see it; operas are rare and hard to put on. Which is why I always try to catch them when I can. The productions are huge; so much theatre, so many players. I can’t say that I know anything about this show, so it will be a bit of a surprise. The sur-titles will help (I must remember to take my glasses). Needless to say, I know Puccini is one of the most popular composers. When I stayed in Lucca, the small Italian town where he was born, I tried to visit his house but it was closed for renovations.

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Tonight’s performance is at the Opera House in Wellington. The St James, where I saw the Tchaikovsky, is closed for earthquake strengthening. The Opera House is okay. It’s where I saw Courtney Barnett and Grease. Adam and the Ants and A Dead Dog in a Suitcase; a modern version of the first real musical from 1728, The Beggars Opera, itself a satire of Italian Opera . It was a brilliant show, more engaging than any opera. I wanted to see it again and again.

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Which is the sign of a good show, for me.

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But why compare? Is it the music or the theatre, the performance or the spectacle that draws you to a show? Do you just need something to hum, as the brilliant Sondheim likes to poke at? It’s an ever-changing mix, surely. And not knowing can be the best part.

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Opera thrives on tragedy, there is something about the nature of music that allows the emotion to reach out and touch the heart. I once lived next door, unknowingly, to a house where a Chinese Opera was set. It was about a famous poet who had to flee after the Tiananmen Square massacre. When I found out about the tragic incident next door, I was glad that I knew so little. Some things just don’t need to be spelled out. Let the music do the work.

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And so, on a spring day in Wellington, as the city is battered by hail, I await my fourth opera, and wonder about my fifth. I have done two Russian, two Italian; it is time for a change. Will it be German, French or English? Chinese?

 

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We shall see, we shall see.

Fair Vanity

I’m obsessed with words. Big, small. Odd. Not.

How they look, how they sound. Music and meaning.

 

The other night, while waiting in A & E, I picked up a magazine. It was full of articles I found hard to read (they weren’t on a screen, they wouldn’t scroll), but there was a column that showed how the pronunciation of the same word can change if used as a noun or a verb. The same word. What’s more, the change is consistent. Noun, first syllable emphasized. Verb, the second.

 

The symmetry was bewitching, like maths or music. Diverting enough to stick long after I had turned the page.

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But the Words I cannot shake is a song. Sharon O’Neill in my head. The earworm has infected my consciousness. The video is a solid gold dose of 1979. Kiwi pub-rock nostalgia played out in a TV studio. Shaggy perm and shark tooth earing, tight white jeans. Youngies shuffling side-to-side with huge grins. Par-cans glowing overhead red, orange, blue. Moustachioed backing singers, layering their sweet topping over Shazza’s ballsy swagger.

Sharon O’Neill Words

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I know every word. Every line. Every melody. Every hook.

Let me out. Like the new blood at the slaughter.

Who starts a pop song like that? A brutal simile for the kids. Freedom splattered on the abattoir floor.

Words just a breath away from my hand. Breaking into tiny pieces.

When I sing along my voice drops an octave, settling into a country-Elvis croon no one needs to hear.

The day after my visit to A&E I flew to Nelson to work on a rugby game where the result was never in question. Only one team could win. The winningest team. Sport without competition.

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On the way I listened to Words three times in a row, and then tried to kill it with a podcast about a crisis in women’s sport. When does natural advantage make competition unfair? Unusually high levels of testosterone gives some female athletes the advantage usually reserved for males. Larger heart, lungs and muscles. Elite sport is all about a battle of the exceptional, but our society strives to be fair. We want things to be fair. Complain if they’re not. The sexes compete separately to prevent unfair competition.

But how to resolve this need for equity, when a woman with the strength of a man competes against women?

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Fairness is a word that can never be resolved. Is it fair to expect more of some, less of others? To be paid the same for doing less work? To be paid less for doing the same work? To claim success while competing at a lower level?

In Nelson, everyone knew the All Blacks would beat the Pumas. Where is the sport in such a pre-determined outcome?

 

As I flew back from Nelson, still wrapped in Words and fairness, a bigger discussion erupted in women’s sport. The most exceptional tennis player of our time publicly berated an official, claiming it wasn’t fair. She was being paid millions, he was getting $700. Vanity reigned from court and chair. Enough to write a novel.

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This morning, staring at my phone in the midst of insomnia, I saw a new word I had only just learned disappear. Mardy. I knew the Artic Monkeys song Mardy Bum, and thought it was a regional version of Marty. But someone used it on the telly two days ago and the wife told me it meant sulky or moody.

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The Guardian had headlined an interview with Graham Coxon from Blur with ‘I was a mardy brat in my 20s…I’m quite mellow now’. But two hours later it changed. On the front page he was now a ‘moody brat’, and a ‘mardy brat’ in the headline once you clicked on it. A sub-editor had changed the words in his mouth, but only in part, possibly afraid the unfamiliar word would stop people clicking.

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You’re argumentative, and you’ve got the face on

Words should have been a world-wide hit in 1979, but no one outside NZ knows it. Maybe the big record companies didn’t think Sharon O’Neill could compete with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, that no one would understand her. Back then, New Zealand music wasn’t considered good enough to play on the world stage.

It’s a touch, it’s a touch of class. It might not even last.

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Today, anyone can sing a song and show it to the world. You can sell it to anyone. In this way, the music world is fairer than it ever was. But with something like 200,000 songs hitting the internet every day, the chances of your words being heard may be less than ever. It’s much the same with blogging.

When I sing this song, I feel inside of me.

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The thing is, while I remember every lyric of Words, I can’t seem to recall a single example of the pretty words I read in the magazine. I wish I had taken a photo on my phone. Shared them to the digital memory. They were common words. Like re-port and re-port. Noun, verb. Name, action. This is my report. I will report you.

I cannot express how frustrated I am with my memory, and that I can’t access the article online. My brain has been rewired. It’s not fair.

But I have found the chords to Words online, and I can play it. Badly.

And I can write this; a blog of too many words, sent out into the clutter.

Vanity: excessive pride in one’s character or ability e.g. the belief that one can find words to connect an old song, Serena Williams, something you saw on the internet, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sharon O’Neill, a game of rugby, The Arctic Monkeys, that guy from Blur with the glasses, and something you read at the doctor’s but can’t quite remember.