Category Archives: Blogs

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.

 

 

Pants-off Hot: 1 Day in Nelson

Nelson, Nelson, you blow my mind.
So much sun, so many smiles
So much to see, so much to eat.

The market, my God, the market…

Vegan sprouted gifts galore
Raw cocoa Snickers bars
Spicy wholemeal oliebollen
The Dutch Touch, Yeah yeah yeah
Argentinian alfajores, alpha-what?!
Sri Lankan vegi roti wrap
Too much, too much

All Blacks towering everywhere

Is that one? And him?
Don’t ask me.
I’m a vegan, I don’t know.

Just get a selfie just in case

Full to busting, hands aren’t full
Fermented black garlic spread

Got from Mot, loaded for home

Rugby stats as genius art
Mind blown!
Got to stop.

Want so bad, pretty as hell

Wait.

Vegetarian Butcher, holy shit

Nelson, Nelson I gotta say

You’re pretty-damn pretty

Pretty damn hot

Pants-off hot

Hotter than hot

The sexiest city in the whole wide world

Named after that dude

That famous dude

The ha-ha! guy

You go Nelson

You do you

I’m too hot

Pants-off hot

Time to lie down sleep it off.

A Voyage around My Mother: The Story of a Notebook II

Why do we need to write words? Is it to entertain ourselves or others? Is it to display or to conceal? Why spend so much time presenting an acceptable image, while hiding in plain sight? These are the questions I ask myself as an infrequent diarist living in a time of constant over-sharing.

The gap between our public and private thoughts is made clear when the top three words women use on Facebook to describe their husbands are compared to those used in Google searches (on FB my husband is “loyal” “amazing” “best-friend” vs. “annoying” “mean” “gay” on Google).

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I was thinking about this the other night while scribbling mundane descriptions in my diary. Why bother? Lists of routine events. Dinners made for the family, housework done, writing projects chipped away at. My words lacked insight or reflection. I would never want to read them. I sought distraction, remembering my mother’s travel journal, My Trip Book. My sister had been looking through it when she visited recently, discovering it held more than I had seen.

I glanced at it when Mum died several years ago, reading the first few pages of her boat trip out to Britain with Dad in 1957. But the death of a parent is a fraught time; deciding what to keep hold of, and what to let go. I was disappointed by all the blank pages. Why had she stopped after the first few days? Had she got seasick, lost the thrill of the journey?

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But my sister, Sonya, saw more. The journal takes an unusual format. You note departures at the front, the journey later on, places visited and people met at the back.

Mum’s beautiful, flowing script written in fountain pen by her 24 year-old hand, describes her journey with her husband of four years out from Christchurch to his English homeland, and to that of her Scottish parents.

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She visits places I have seen and those I have not. Pitcairn Island, Panama, Curacao. London, Edinburgh, the Isle of Wight. Enjoys Harry Secombe and Terry Thomas at the Palladium. Gets a job sewing electric-blankets. Suffers the disappointment of photos not coming out, and has such fun on the Underground.

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It is a treasure, but I want more. Descriptions, not lists. Reflections as opposed to generalities. What were the people like? What did she feel? But she was 24, and there are reasons most journals are like this.

I am a deliberately boring diarist. I have been burnt more than once. My ill-formed words snatched in secret and thrown against me. It’s a betrayal I struggle to forgive. Words written in private cannot match the expectations of the world.

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The other night, reading Mum’s words, I found the unsaid I craved. Amongst many blank pages, there was a random list written in red pen; cuts of meat and prices paid. More blank pages, then March 1964 Leaving for Sydney to-night at 7:30. I remember Mum telling me that she went with her younger sister, Lynette. There is a photo from the trip, somewhere in Mum’s box of old photos. But how long were they away? Days, weeks? Nothing is noted, even though she clearly took the journal with her. Maybe it was too much fun to find time to write. After many more blank pages there is a list of gifts to get. Cousin Lesley got a koala.

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Over the page is a more detailed list. Money spent: drinks on the plane 1s 9d, hotels in Sydney ₤3 2s 10d, Surfers’ Paradise ₤5 15 s, grapes 2s, drinks in Bondi 4s 6d, magazines 1s, drinks 6s, coat ₤ 12 12s, drinks & sandwich 2s 9d, excess baggage of ₤1. There is a note to keep ₤22 for hotels, leaving ₤104.

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But what of the ₤6 5s Val, ₤62 10s Joe. Val is my aunty. Was it a gift or to get something? And who was Joe? 62 quid? In 1964 the average wage for the job Mum was doing was ₤9 a week. ‘Joe’ had given her seven weeks’ wages. For what? I sat wishing Mum had written more detail. Searched every page, going through the contacts at the back of the journal, most of them crossed out as people shifted or moved on.

I found Val ₤6 5s fawn twinset, 34” size 14. If no fawn, then pale blue. NZ was a heavily controlled economy back then. Everything was cheaper overseas. And there was more choice.

And then, Joe ₤61 10s (₤61 with Traveller’s Cheques) 25yds Wenzell, Batty & McGrath, 865 York St, Sydney. Mum noted the exact cost and change, deducting the taxi fare. Twenty-five yards of cloth is a lot of fabric. That explains the ₤1 excess baggage.

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Because Mum left gaps, I can fit a story around the words. Maybe they were smuggling expensive fabrics into NZ’s controlled economy, drinking their way through the hotels of Bondi and Surfers’ as part of the plan. I can think this because she doesn’t say any different.

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For the first time in decades, I remember a possible Joe. A cutter who worked for her boss at Zenith tailoring. I recall her talking to a man called something like that. I was about four years old, playing hide and seek with my wee sisters amongst the endless rows of jackets and coats. He was friendly, funny, had a big black moustache and was leaving to join the police force. Mum didn’t work there anymore, but did out-work from home, sewing up menswear while looking after us. Mum told me that when Joe was at Police school he was instructed, along with all the new recruits, to tell everyone that Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty. Mum repeated this over the years as the fabrication, and Thomas’s innocence, was revealed.

Maybe that man was Joe. It doesn’t really matter. I have pictures in my head. Words that lead to more. I have searched out the photo of Mum and Aunty Lynette in Australia in 1964. Holding ice-creams, wearing jandals at night, they look tanned and happy. Mum said they took a train up to Queensland and that some locals refused to share a cabin with them, because they looked Italian.

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I have also found the passenger lists of the trip to England in 1957, a photo and a menu from the fancy dress ball on board. Mum and Dad dressed up in their finest on the deck. Like married women of the time, Mum is listed simply as Mrs. Taylor (no initial). All the men, mothers, unmarried women and children have initials.

 

That omission says something, does it not?

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What we say, and what we do not, matters. The unsaid can speak more clearly than any strongly voiced comment. This is why I write. To be read and to be ignored. It is a process of discovery; remarkable, mundane. It is an identity, cut from a pattern, worn to cover any naked shame.

 

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The Story of a Notebook

 

 

 

Absolutely Wedded

I got married in the weekend. It was quite a lot of fun. More than I expected. But now I’m buggered. Beyond buggered. Exhausted.

I still have the bounce of the thrill, the buoyancy of happiness, so many special moments fondly remembered. But my body feels wrecked, like I could sleep for a week or come down with a cold.

I guess that’s why people honeymoon straight after the wedding. It’s not just about rooting yourself silly on a tropical beach, doing your best to fill the proverbial jar with as many jellybeans as possible*. It’s also about letting go of the constant state of stress and anticipation, the endless need to organise and decide.

And the organising hasn’t finished. Wonderful photos are being shared to our save-the-date, and they’re lovely, but they need to be viewed, liked and loved.

There’s also thank you cards to be written, emails to be sent, feedback to be posted.

But, most of all, there’s a honeymoon to be planned in the not-too-distant.

It’s not a hardship. It’s a joy. The thought of heading off somewhere new with the wife. A road trip without the darling kids, free of the need to get on top of the washing pile or the endless renovations.

But, for now, I am tired. I need to close my eyes and rest.

Getting married takes it out of you.

I’m so glad you only have to do it once.

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*1 jellybean placed in the jar for every marital act during the first year. One out each time over the following years. Received wisdom claims it will never empty.

Standing Up

I was alone in the house, thinking about something I wanted to write, composing words of little consequence in my head, when something funny happened. I had just stepped outside to check on the washing, riffing away at gags and observations, when I heard a noise behind me that I didn’t recognise. A soft, woody, clicking.

It was the feathers of a fantail, flitting gently around the room. Long tail hanging down below.

Oh, I said. Oh, aloud, following its flight.

I have come to be nervous of birds in the house. They panic, throw themselves against the windows. Shit on the curtains. But the piwakawaka did exactly what fantails do. It calmly flew three circles of the space, aware that windows are not exits, and then it bobbled past me, out into the afternoon sun.

I quickly shut the door.

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It is 17 years since I last saw that. I was starting a writing course in Timaru. A fantail flew into the kitchen, circled the light three times, and headed straight out into the garden. My flatmate, another writer, was uncertain. She thought it meant death. Something to do with their role in the death of Maui when he sought immortality. I swiftly made the point, rightly or not, that such events are also seen as a portent of rebirth, the start of something new. We were to write. Add words to the world.

As I recalled that moment, our recently returned long-lost cat appeared at the door, shouting to get in. Too much. Meke tu meke.

 

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I had wanted to write about the poet I saw last night. The two poets I saw last night. How it was 2/3 performance, 1/3 poetry. How funny they were. John Cooper Clarke and Andrew Fagan. I liked it so much I even bought the Ramones-inspired tour t-shirt and started to write garbled poems in my head, humorous and wry. Words the world is not waiting for, does not need, but I have to express.

 

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I had recently been thinking about giving stand-up a crack. It’s something I haven’t done. Not bucket-list but a bit of a lacuna. I’ve written a set and am trying to pluck up the courage to give it a bash. The thought terrifies me. I’ve often had the urge, having worked on so many live stand-up shows, but felt I was too much of an actor and/or writer, needing control of words.

Last month, when I saw a wonderful young actor do a solo show that was as much stand-up as theatre, I resolved to try my hand. I am nearly 51, how bad can it be?

I have read my ropey poems live, shaking in my boots. It really does happen. The anxiety was worse than theatre or playing in a band. You are totally naked. A performer and writer with no loud music, drama or drums, make-up or guitars to hide behind. Just you and your words. And a mic.

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Maybe that is why both poets last night, 70s punk and 80s pop star, both employed costumes, patter and props, jokes and gags. It wasn’t stand-up, it was funnier than that. I smiled and laughed the whole time as they entertained the beautiful, packed historic church and offended the young.

I don’t know if I have the guts to act like a stand-up comedian. But I can be a funny poet. Maybe I could blend the parts into something new, born of me. A brash bird no longer bashing against windows it cannot see.

I want to flit about new spaces, unafraid of any threat, confident that the door remains exactly where it was when I came in.

 

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Beyond Doubt

It’s hard to accept absence as loss. There is no way to mark the grief of the inexplicable. You seek multiple explanations and none satisfies, or offers true relief.

You can bury a squashed cat or one that doesn’t come back from the vet. You can cry and move on.

But a cat that just disappears, leaving no hint or trace, stays curled up like a knot.

Thomas disappeared five and half weeks ago. The girls have wandered the neighbourhood and left notices in letter boxes. The have lit candles in the window each night to guide him home. We have all been a bit scratchy, unable to grieve.

At first, I told the girls that he may have found a nice old lady, who would give him too much food whenever he squawked. They liked that.

Once he was gone a month, the tears started. Hope was gone. We decided that we needed a wee ceremony, to bid him farewell. But when?

This weekend, we stayed with good friends out of town. They have dogs and a cat, pigs, sheep and chooks. I had intended to bring our huge bag of cat food that sat in the cupboard, waiting for Thomas to return.

I remembered it when Polly, their fluffy cat, rubbed against me. That led to talk of Thomas. Theories of what happened. Bad dogs. Bad kids. A fast car slept in to far-far away.

I repeated my theory that he hadn’t been well for weeks. The exceptionally hot summer had hit him hard, he constantly complained, unable to settle; had begun to look like a crooked old cat.

From the start, I believed that he had crawled under a bush and gone to sleep, searching for peace from whatever ailment was going on inside.

This morning, five and a half weeks after he vanished, the unimaginable happened. Thomas emerged from a bush, unable to shut-up, squawking and loud, ready to take command of the house once more. I filled his bowl with the biscuits I forgot to re-gift and he gobbled them between screaming meows.

It is unbelievable. I am so glad we didn’t say good-bye.

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Doubting Thomas

Last night I did something I never do. I posted a photo of our cat on social media. He was curled up in the way-too-small box he’s been trying to sit in all week. He has attempted resting his chin on the flimsy flaps but his head tips over when he falls asleep. He has twisted and folded trying to tuck in his head, but his tail or a shoulder always popped out.

It’s been very entertaining. What did cats do before boxes? Which came first, the cat or the box? The philosophical enquiry has been endless.

Thomas loves boxes. But each affair has only ever lasted a few days before the claws came out and rough-love was applied, shredding the cardboard; un-boxing the box.

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I’ve always loved cats. They seem to love me. Sometimes a bit too much. Cats want to chat with me, jump on my back, or sit on my lap. It’s been a point of repeated jealousy from friends and lovers. I always say it’s because I’m part cat. Or some sort of very cat-like dog. Maybe I was a can of sardines in a past life.

When I posted the picture of Thomas, stubbornly content in his box, my partner said, “You will get lots of likes for that”. I did. In bed I showed her the pictures two friends had posted of their cats who had recently moved on. They were great final portraits.

20180302_085132Cats are funny things. Two weeks ago, on the last full moon, the witchy-poos I live with put all their crystals outside on a bed of salt in order to soak up the moon’s energy. Thomas spent the whole day sleeping below them on a hard wooden bench he had never favoured.

 

Over the week me and my sisters sat with our dying father, we repeatedly tried to get the facility’s so-called ‘Death Cat’ to come into the room to help Dad find peace. After five nights it finally did; to sit on my lap.

This morning, after my fiancé left for work, she sent a text saying Thomas had not come in for his breakfast. That is unusual. He is always at our bedroom door by 5am, demanding a fussing, or in the kitchen screaming at her feet for food.

It made me worried. He has never wandered. He only went missing when he got hit by a car, using up eight lives. His head was so misshapen he couldn’t eat for a long time, and we thought his handsome good looks were gone and he would never be right.

But Thomas is Thomas, a cat like no other. After escaping, and losing, three ‘cones of shame’ he was once more boss of the house, seeing off every other wandering cat in the neighbourhood so that he could stalk birds, mice, lizards and rats in peace.

As soon as the girls got up this morning I asked Alice, Thomas’s proud ‘wife’, to press the button to open the garage door below us, not saying why. I knew that if he had been trapped downstairs we all would have heard about it but, nevertheless, I still hoped to hear him barrel through the cat-flap straight after the button was pressed.

I said nothing about his absence as the three girls ate their porridge. But as Alice was washing her bowl she said, “There’s Thomas!”

I looked out the window and said, “Where?” masking the panic and relief in my voice. I couldn’t see him. “Where, Alice?”

“The birds. What are they?” She pointed at a sudden cloud of sparrows. I had shown her how the cleverer birds warn the flock of his lurking presence. Sparrows flap up and cheep. Starlings swoop and squawk. Seagulls fuss.

“They’re sparrows, Al. Did you see him, did you actually see Thomas?”

“No. But the birds mean he’s there. In the bushes.”

I turned away and began to dry the dishes.

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After the girls headed off to school, happily unaware, I began to feel superstitious. His obsession with the box was a foreshadowing. I had empowered it by sharing a photo of him and his box, accompanying it with too-cute words in his voice. And by showing my fiancé the two final portraits I had seen. Two.

All writers are superstitious. Even atheists. Especially spiritual atheists.

Like my favourite author, John Irving, I often put my greatest fears on the page in order to rob them of actualization. Saying things out loud can defuse the trapped, amplified rattle of the head.

Before I sat to write, I replied to my fiancé’s worried text with a cheery ‘Will do!’ (Smiley face). She called back straight away, asking if it was time to call the vets. “Why, what can they do?” I asked.

“In case any cats have been brought in. He wasn’t on the road as I left…” That had been my worry. That the girls would find him as they walked down the hill.

“He’s only been missing for a few hours. That’s not enough even for a human.” She laughed, reassured.

I started to write.

 

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