Category Archives: Blogs

Hire Aims

It’s a long time since I’ve blogged, and although my internal narrative constructs new ones every day I never seem to find the time to get the words out of my head. Of course, everyone is busy and time has to be found to hurdle the excuses which block any output. My major excuse has been learning to walk after so long on crutches or in a moon-boot (a process I seriously underestimated). My knee wobbles, my ankle is uncertain and my toes feel like they will snap. The physical demands of getting back to work has been hard enough in itself, and any time not working, doing chores or caring for my child has been spent elevating my leg to deal with the inevitable swelling and pain.

That said, for the last three weeks I have been walking down to the beach whenever I can, something that takes 40 minutes and leaves me covered in sweat – quite a comedown, as even with my pre-op Achilles and bone deformity I could easily run for an hour up and down the tracks where I live (well, maybe not so easily but it seems that way compared to now).

Nevertheless, my exercise over the last few weeks has stripped over 3 kgs off my body, and even though I’m always tired and puffing, I feel much better than I have in many months. Not as good as I was pre-op (disabling condition and all) but I try not to think about that. As my CEO said when I expressed frustration with my slow recovery, that’s why we call them patients…because they must be patient.

After I dropped my daughter at school this morning I decided not to rush through my to-do list and stopped for a coffee at my favourite local espresso bar. It’s little more than a hole-in-the-wall and I like that. The owner is friendly and I prefer to support these small enterprises in preference to the awful homogonous franchises that dominate every retail area. It has character (and wonderful homemade caramel slice).

I’ve stopped there in the past chatting with the groovy old Dutch lady who always has New Zealand music playing at a reasonable volume. There’s never anyone else there but this time I was surprised to find it chokka with people waiting for coffee (there were 4 people).

As I happily waited, enjoying the stillness of a hot autumn morning, I noticed a stack of fliers by the ceramic clog on the counter offering a ‘Hubby 4 Hire’ service to do the jobs you either have no time to do (or resent doing).

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I wanted to pick it up because:

1. I hate doing lawns (such a waste of time with no satisfaction).

2. The rate seemed very reasonable.

3. The logo on top was hilarious, while also being a little bit insulting and rather true.

4. I collect ephemera like this if it catches my eye.

But I suddenly felt self-conscious and didn’t want to be adjudged as a lazy, or a somehow deficient, man (a belittling narrative that gets pushed in our culture).

When the other punters got their coffees and went out to enjoy the sun I slipped a flier into my bag. Then another man walked in, and while he waited for his coffee he picked up one of the fliers, looked at me then put it down saying, nah, makes me feel guilty. Yes, I said, but I really hate doing the lawns. True, he said, such a waste of time. Don’t even feel good once it’s done.

We both laughed at ourselves. He was younger than me, a burly Samoan with his lineage tatau-ed on giant fore-arms.

In the minute it took me to sip down my macchiato he asked the barista if she was missing her family who had gone back to Europe. She looked over her glasses and said in her heavy Dutch accent, can I tell the truth?

Well, I have known many Dutchies and been part of more than one Dutch family (in fact, although I am a Scots/English Pakeha I identify as part Dutch), and they will always tell you exactly what they think. She then said that the problem with Dutch Dutchies is that they think that their bloody opinion is how things are. I laughed, knowingly, and she smiled saying, I hope I have been here long enough to lose some of that.

Every moment is full stories to a writer. Whether they are bashed out there-and-then as a blog, or whether they percolate into a piece of fiction; all depends on time.

While I have no Dutch blood, I can swear in Dutch and regularly employ the same guttural ‘ach’ of frustration/contempt that the barista expressed when she made a mistake with one of the punter’s coffees.

I am a man who hated his deformity, and is frustrated with the resulting incapacity; who has little time for any so-called rules about what makes a man a man, or dull stereotypes about shirking husbands and bossy women.

Or so I like to believe.

Which brings me to the real reason I blogged today – I wrote a new piece of fiction in the weekend, something I decided I needed to do before I could allow myself to prattle away in this form.

Whether fiction or memoir is my higher aim comes down to mood and identity. I’m still not exactly sure which I am, but both forms involve storytelling and self-examination.

I will not be employing anyone to mow my lawns. I intended to do so over the summer when I was on crutches, unable to perform my manly duty. Instead, I waited it out until I found a way to do it by hobbling around on one crutch, swinging the weed-eater in circles around me. What could be more like a man?

There is something else to the story of this Hubby 4 Hire flier. The contact number is for a woman called Rachel. Is she the ‘hubby’ looking for work, or is she ‘the wife’ finding things for her man to do?

In these questions lie my own answers.

If I am patient.

Confessions of a De-Fluffer

I’m on the train to the Wellington Sevens, which is a 2-day carnival of dress-ups punctuated by watching a little bit of rugby (in its shortened form).
I’m not participating in the festive atmosphere but will be standing in the middle it, as I have done for the last 7 years, watching the 30,000 grown-ups act in way quite foreign to New Zealand at any other time.
This blog will be an attempt to say something about this event which none of the plethora of other blogs observe or say.
This may be my greatest writing challenge as all sports events tend to generate maximum cliche.
So, here we go, the train is pulling into Wellington. Let the sun & silliness begin!

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2 hours until the first of the 24 games kicks off and it’s pretty quiet in the stadium. All of my equipment is checked and ready to go. Of course, if there are going to be problems, they will pop up close to kick-off when all electrical and RF equipment is running. It’s happened before and since rogue RF is hard to track down (it will usually come from an unaccredited TV crew sneaking in & switching on a mic, or a dodgy taxi parked outside) it results in a big panic as the 30 or so match officials listening to our system rush up to tell me the comms aren’t working.
You have to be an adrenaline junkie to thrive in such situations where hours of boredom are punctuated by minutes of sheer terror (to use a war analogy).
In such situations I go very calm, in fact, calmer than I am in any other social situation. It’s a skill that’s helped me in various guises; playing music, acting on stage, being a TV soundie & working in sports comms.
So, what exactly is a de-Fluffer? Well, since I’m also a writer I shall keep that detail unexplained until we are underway.

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5 mins to kick off. All systems go. First up, Scotland vs. Canada, 2 underdogs close to my heart. I have Scots roots & my daughter has Canadian. Not sure who to support. Maybe Canada, as they are the biggest/smallest underdogs (and their motto is ‘Canadian Rugby…BeLeaf’).

DAY 2

Well, the rest of yesterday’s attempt to blog was a bit of a washout. It turns out that touch screens don’t cope that well with rain, light or heavy, both of which dampened my sideline possie.

And while I could get into the players tunnel for a bit of shelter at times, I soon churned through my battery and couldn’t find a place to recharge. That said, even if it had stayed fine and my phone was capable of the days of charge our phones used to easily achieve, by the evening the stone age cell-phone/internet coverage at the CakeTin was at capacity making it impossible to even send a text.

This is probably one of the reasons attendances have slumped. People expect to be able to text their mates to hook up or post photos of themselves at the venue. It’s so bad that an Australian crew I worked at this venue with last year had been warned by previous visitors.

But I’m not here to grumble.

With the burning summer sun of the morning & the heavy rain of the afternoon, and 10 hours of being PAed by the latest singalong hits, I was pretty shattered by the time I got home at midnight.

After 6 hours sleep I’m back, ready for another day of shirt-lifting and de-Fluffing.

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A Close Shave

I’ve just shaved for the first time in a long, long time. In fact, if I work it out, it’s more than 20 months since I’ve scraped a razor across my face. I didn’t have a thick 20 month-long beard to remove as I trimmed it every week to keep a short stubble: whenever it went beyond a week I would start to pull at (and out) the lengthening hairs whenever lost in thought.

But today, the last day of the year, I feel an overwhelming need to cut off the long hair I have been growing for over a year, and attacking the constant beard seems a less drastic (or mad) option.

I have never liked shaving. It’s an unrelenting chore that by its nature causes rashes and bleeds at the very time you need to be most presentable (just before a date or work).

I know it’s over 20 months since I was last clean-shaven (I despise that phrase which implies that the natural expression of an adult male is somehow ‘dirty’) as I last shaved on the day of my father’s funeral. It wasn’t an easy shave, either, as I had not shaved since my mother’s funeral 4 months before that so there was no razor in my travel kit.

My ‘clean’ face was achieved with the help of a very blunt and pink Lady Shave that my sister had brought with her from Australia. It was a horrible task but, given what was going on at the time, somehow necessary as I was MC-ing the funeral and didn’t want to offend anyone with my choice of personal grooming. That said, more than one relative asked me why I had shaved as apparently I “suited a beard,” looking “like George Clooney” to some elder relatives and/or “like Keith Urban” to the teenage daughter of my sister’s friend.

Such flattery went down well and only encouraged my desire not to bow to the pressure in Western society for men to have faces like pre-pubescent boys.

While it may seem that facial hair is ‘all-the-rage’ with a story on the internet yesterday stating that beards were ‘cool’ again the actual stats indicate that only about 9% of men in Western society are game enough to sport facial hair. Razor companies rely on this consistent statistic (and pressure). No politician can succeed in the West with a beard while the opposite is true in many non-Western cultures, and the moustache has been relegated to the realms of irony or a tidy one-month ghetto of fund-raising.

Am I being reactionary, shaving mine off as soon as they are deemed acceptable? Nope. It’s about me and personal choice. Yes, it’s a substitute for shaving my head, but it’s much more than that.

I shaved because I wanted to blog about my weekend in Christchurch, how my body is still sore and my mind full of experience and reflection, and shaving is always a good way to wipe away the sludge and get motivated. But the physical process of doing something so mundane and unremarkable took me back to that sunny day in April 2012 when I last shaved.

You see, my father never went past a day or two without shaving. As children growing up in Christchurch my sisters and I often begged him to grow a beard or moustache, just once, just for fun. Why couldn’t he? It was only temporary and could easily be removed. He never did.

I don’t say this with sadness but I was never close to my father.

It was hardly a unique situation, most people say the same. But we had a greater distance as Dad was an Englishman born in another age – the Roaring 20s – when George V was on the throne, Hitler was a no-body and every mature man in the West had either a beard (Windsor or less regal) or a moustache (Charlie Chaplin, handlebar or fine).

His father, who died in 1946, had fought in WW1, and I imagine he kept his thoughts and emotions even closer still. Dad said that on a full moon my grandfather would be silent for a week. I can only imagine why.

Dad died 66 years after his father following a long, awful illness that took him 1hour before Good Friday last year. It wasn’t a peaceful end so it was a great relief to see his body at rest. As I helped lift his withered (but still unexpectedly heavy) body into his coffin his stubble grazed across my soft inner arm: he had not been shaved in over a week.

Being Easter weekend, we had to keep him in his coffin for over a day before he could be cremated. In that time we dressed him with clothes, photos and significant objects to keep him warm and amused, talking to him just as we did when he was lost in the Alzheimer’s he hid for so long by always making a joke. I gave him a Best Bets and $10 for a flutter (while his father was a great gambler, Dad stuck to the gee-gees). Twice, I polished the coffin with the soft wax provided to bring up the beautiful grain but I did not once think to shave him.

Yes, his stubble appeared to get longer but it is a myth that our hair and nails continue to grow after death. It is an illusion caused by our skin shrinking.

Today is the last day of the year, the final day I can say that my father died last year.

I did not intend to write this today any more than I intended to shave.

I am just thankful that, unlike my distant English grandfather, I was never forced into the trenches to cower from, and kill, strangers: that, unlike my remote father, I did not have to face the results of such trauma while a silly dictator with a ridiculous moustache sent his minions to drop bombs in my father’s garden.

And that this morning, I chose to shave my face and not my head.

On the Road to Crikey

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I’m writing this sitting on the bus to Christchurch. I just got on at Ashburton after a lovely family Christmas at Seafield and the sign says my old home town is 87kms away.

I’ve driven this road countless times over the years, it’s as boring and straight as a road across the desert, with only one or two places where the driver needs to turn the steering wheel beyond a few degrees.
For all of the overwhelming straight nature of the road, it is not flat, the surface of the Canterbury Plains are as bumpy as a corrugated roof so any vehicle higher than a car rises and falls like a boat powering through a moderate sea.
This metaphor first came to me over 20 years ago when I was part of a group of actors crossing the country performing plays in schools. We would often be away down South (or up North) for weeks at a time travelling through the varied landscapes of New Zealand in a second-hand Bongo that had used up its life in Japan.
The Bongo was comfy but when we hit the corduroy roads that lead to Chch the van would bounce as if at sea (or, maybe, sitting on the skin of a drum).
It’s over 12 years since I’ve caught a bus on this road. At the time I was living in Timaru doing a fiction writing course. My family still lived up in Crikey and I often came up to see them when I picked up work at the rugby in the weekends.
I loved being on that course. It made me feel like Harry Potter, as if a veil had been lifted on my life and I was doing what I was born to do. I thrived in the environment and, in the following years, wrote short fiction whenever I could, finding some success.
I even started formulating a novel about my town which had a neglected and unique past. I tracked down and read every single original source about the lives and aims of those pilgrims (yes, that’s how they saw themselves) who crossed the oceans to found and settle a well-planned city on the Canterbury Plains.
Although I was working up in Auckland I would fly down regularly to see friends and family and continue my research. It was a fascinating story that needed to be told and the first chapter of the as-yet unfinished novel was included in an anthology of the best writing of the year.

This straight road to Chch is a dangerous one and head-on crashes plague it. We have just been diverted by one such smash. People blame tourists unused to our conditions but it is invariably due to lack of attention and impatience.

Likewise, my novel was diverted by something sudden and unexpected. The terrifying earthquakes that smashed my hometown, killing so many, also put a halt to my novel. How could I create an alternative Christchurch, made strong by an unexpected earthquake, when nature suddenly did just that?

I have not given up on my novel any more than people have given up on Chch. I am heading there now to stay in a hotel in the Square. I want to be there by myself, to sit by the damaged Cathedral that nature couldn’t bring down. It was a central part of the foundation of this utopia on the plains
and it guts me to think that it will be torn down by those with no real knowledge of why it was built.
My novel lives on inside me just as the lost city continues to exist in the memories of many.
This blog, Zildchurch, is a reminder to me of what I must rebuild.
I can’t wait to be alone with my thoughts, a pilgrim seeking a better future.

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Cast Away

My 5 year-old daughter tells me its 6 days till Christmas. She’s very excited. But Christmas arrives early for me because on at 08:45 on Christmas Eve I get my cast cut off. I can’t wait.

I have come to hate the cast (and being on crutches).

At first I was so caught up in the novelty of hospital and the procedure that was performed 5 weeks ago to fix my Haglund’s Deformity and dodgy Achilles’ that I couldn’t wait to blog about the process.

But a day or two later, clear of the hump of a general anaesthetic and overnight-stay, I started to understand the nature of what I was going to have to live with until I saw any improvement beyond what I had endured before the operation.

I was on my arse with leg elevated for the first 2 weeks, getting up only to visit the toilet, something I managed with a mix of confidence and terror nursed, as I was, in a split-level house.

I fell on both initial attempts of the 4 stairs (going down, coming up). I didn’t hurt anything apart from my confidence, always falling to protect the ankle.

Actually using the toilet was a trial, too. Having to sit to pee just didn’t work well as the heavy plaster cast I had on my leg for the first week wasn’t to be rested on any hard surfaces which meant I was always lifting it with my quads, causing a tension near the bladder which meant simple relief was often elusive.

Because of the falls, and the jiggery-pokery of hopping around and down into position, (and the lack of true relief), I tended to make sure the need was pressing.

There were more falls, some landing on the heel of the plaster, but being on a mix of 4 different painkillers (9mm of bone had been cut from the heel and my Achilles scraped) I felt no discomfort even though the plaster on the heel began to crumble from the impacts.

One week after the operation the cast was cut off.

I was so excited, I took many photos (the cast coming off, my naked leg, the scar and stitches, the new, lighter fibre-glass cast), but despite my intention to blog about the process, I didn’t.

What was happening became something to be endured with good spirit rather than preserved in words. Yes, the new fibre-glass cast was much lighter and it made walking on crutches very much easier. The plaster cast had acted like a heavy pendulum weight, no-doubt altering my centre-of-balance, adding to the challenge. With my lighter cast I felt much more confident on crutches and stairs. The ache in my quads eased as a result and, best of all, I was able to stand when I peed without wobbling-over like an incontinent Weeble.

But that change was 4 weeks ago and I soon felt shackled and crippled: in no way better off. I was still observing things and writing in my journal but, much like a wounded animal, I felt a strong need not to advertise any weakness, to crawl away somewhere dark until the feeling passed.

I took a lot of photos from the couch over the weeks, on phone and camera, but I took none of me (and I’m not shy of a selfie). There is one or two taken by the friend who was caring for me. He had recuperated on the same couch last year and knew the process.

You just don’t want to know. You want it to be over.

Which is the peculiar nature of such a procedure: the benefit is not evident till after many months of disruption and discomfort.

In the days after the op I was very happy to have gone through the procedure as the pain that I lived with on a daily basis for the last few years was no longer there. I could sit or lie down without having to move my leg every 30 seconds to ease the pressure and pain caused by my Achilles’ rubbing against the bony growth on the back of my heel.

It actually took me a week to realise that that improvement was thanks to the regimen of pills, rather than the surgery. Hooray for painkillers, eh?

In fact, I won’t know much at all about any improvement until my first attempt to stand on the leg.

That said, I am looking at 12 months until 100% of the tendon flexibility is reached and full muscle mass returns in the incapacitated leg. I will be walking, running and standing before then…but it will be baby steps.

I am no spring chicken and my incapacitated leg is literally wasting away in front of my eyes. The purple cast that was tight on my calf when applied 4 weeks ago is now so loose I can slip my hand in beside my calf.

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Last night as I sat watching Masters of Sex (very entertaining and a tad frustrating as a single man on crutches at the start of summer with the silly season approaching), I noticed that the skin at the top of my calf was hanging from my leg with the same wizened droop and pudge of an old man’s scrotum.

It takes great effort to find the humour in such observations.

Yes, it’s pretty amusing the first time you tape your leg into a giant plastic bag in order to shower while sitting on a plastic stool. But it takes quite a lot of effort and you feel very precarious hopping around on a wet floor with a bag on. The process quickly went from novel/little-bit-scary/touch-of-kink to being something you avoid as the effort leaves you sweaty and worn out (which isn’t the point of a shower).

I began to understand how those dogs with humiliating buckets around their heads feel.

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I have tried to think of a moment when I felt glad that I have had the procedure. Apart from my deluded drugged-up moment, I can’t.

The cast feels like a sweaty cuff, a cloying shackle, and there isn’t an evening when I don’t fantasize about freeing my leg, just for a minute. I want to get some secateurs and cut the fucking cast off and let my suffocating leg breathe.

So why am I unloading all this frustration when I clearly want no one to know?

Because today, I fell at the top of stairs.

For a moment, I felt I was tipping backwards down the 5 steps that join my split-level house where I returned 2 weeks ago (my wonderful care-givers next door have shifted away). It was an awful and unexpected feeling. It’s nearly a week since my last fall (2 in 24 hours due to tiredness in leg and arms and mind) and I have become pretty confident, even being able to hop down the steps backwards …wearing a jandal (there are many hours to kill living by yourself).

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I was so angry and freaked out by the feeling. I went down on that knee hard, but it didn’t hurt. The helplessness and sudden loss of confidence did.

I hated my situation. It wasn’t that bad but it felt it. I sat for a bit with my leg up letting it drain, then pegged along to the office to remove the cork and bitch about my lot.

I know my trials are minor and will eventually be for the better.

But I can’t wait to cast off my cast on Christmas Eve.

I will progress to a non weight-baring moon boot, remaining on crutches, unable to work or drive for another 6 weeks (really? truly? …how?).

Marooned in a moon boot at the busiest time of year, at least I will be able to free my leg at night and not have a dirty old cast dragged through the street in my bed. My right leg will be clean between the sheets as I will be able to shower my whole body without wrapping it in a plastic bag.

At least, that’s my Christmas wish.

I’m as excited as a 5 year-old.

Couched In

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Life on the couch is full of challenges small and large.

My challenge of the moment involves sitting around with my leg up in plaster while it heals from an operation on my Achilles. The tendon has been split and 8mm of bone cut away.

The condition is a bony growth called Haglund’s Deformity, or ‘pump bump’. But I have never worn pumps. I can’t even tell you exactly what they are. But they’re bad for your feet, okay?

It’s 4 days since the 1 hour procedure that put me in this cast. It was a success, apparently, so I now have 2 weeks with my leg up before the great lump of plaster gets cut off so the wound can be checked and stitches removed. I then get a lighter cast for 4 weeks when I can be more active and less couch-bound.

A unexpected challenge of this situation is having to sit to pee. Doesn’t sound difficult and I didn’t expect it to be (others manage it) but keeping the cast off the floor (as directed) adds quite a  trick.

At first I thought the reason I couldn’t pee  was because, in fear of the stairs, I had waited too long and now couldn’t get my bladder to relax. Then I realized that by holding my right leg up, much like a dog, the resulting tension at the top of my thigh was making it hard to ‘let go’.

Doesn’t seem too bad, then, facing such trifling things while being on your arse for 2 weeks, thinking only about your next trip to the toilet. Life has been mad busy and doing nothing is a treat in so many ways. I’m not in much pain, the greatest discomfort coming from the pressure on my bum cheeks from too much lazing.

I’m being well looked after by generous friends and the greatest challenge has been building up my confidence going down stairs on crutches. After a couple of falls at the start I began to dread the unnerving feeling of hanging above the 4 steps picking the moment to drop down, one step at a time, with nowhere to go if a wobble started.

It was easy at the hospital with the big, wide steps the physio had me practice on. I whizzed up and down with ease. But these are narrow split-level steps, only 4 of them, but each must be negotiated one hop at a time on a leg that has spent its life following the lead of the other.

It’s all a bit of a surprise to my left leg and my muscles are  straining under the effort to replicate the strength and stability of my right leg. Being laid-up all the time won’t be helping, either. I’m asking a  lot of a body that’s laxing-out, I suppose.

The good old Tramadol also adds to the general challenge of being up on sticks. Slippy, slidey, wooze, wooze, grin.

Yesterday, I ditched that level of pain relief to try and get some clarity. It worked in more ways than one.

The big clarity came at 12:30am last night, when I awoke after a couple of hours in bed with an urgent need to let go of all that had been blocked-up inside me by the opiate: to be blunt (but coy), I hadn’t had a movement since the morning I went to hospital, and that concern was also driving my desire to can the painkiller.

I had tried many times, drank lots of water but nothing till that awful moment at 12:30 when I awoke sweaty and in urgent need of the toilet.

It is a particularly nasty shade of terror wobbling on sticks in the dark of night in fear of soiling yourself and the carpet.

My friends are good friends but there are limits.

My non-weight baring foot hit the ground several times as a struggled through the door, slipping and banging my way towards relief.

I slept well that night.

Today, day 4, I feel confident approaching the stairs which may be a result of cutting the opiate and moving on from constipation, or more probably because yesterday I got up off the couch every hour to do gentle laps of the house, educating muscles and brain.

And today, with my confidence a little greater I give myself the challenge of having a shower. I should have done it earlier but sitting on a plastic seat with a wet bum and big plastic bag taped around my leg doesn’t sound too appealing. And crutches on the wet floor? Hmm, can’t get my cast wet if I don’t have a shower.

Such are the challenges, small and large, of life on the couch.

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View from the couch.

 

Post-op Blog

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I must say that I wasn’t expecting to be awake and lucid so soon after a general anaesthetic.

5 hours ago I was lying in theatre waiting for the drip in my hand to send me off, chatting with the nurse who has a child in my daughter’s class, reminiscing about the school show the kids did last week performing the Pukeko Stomp in cute wee masks; joining in on the anaesthetist’s discussion about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for people to reconsider a consumerist Christmas…then suddenly it’s 2 hours later and I’m with all the other post-ops, being reminded to breathe (that’s the morphine, love) and eating the yummiest lemonade ice-block I’ve ever tasted.

Where was the disorientation and distress I recall so vividly from my last general anaesthetic 40 years ago when I was 5?

I guess the drugs have got a lot better.

My bright red toes are sticking out the huge lump of plaster that will be my friend and foe for the next 6 weeks, while my good leg has a sleeve on it that keeps pumping up & squeezing my calf to keep things moving.

This is the easy bit. The recovery/rehab will be in 6week blocks…rather intimidating. The nurse who brought me up to ward said her husband also needs the op to fix his Achilles but the long rehab is such a hurdle (pun intended).

I’m not thinking about that right now.

I’m gobbling ham sammies and tomato soup, waiting for a visit from my wee girl, keen to show off my cast… I have a pen ready for her to sign it.

She will be excited.

4 hours later.

Well, I guess I was being a little sentimental. She was rather unsure about seeing me. Very wide-eyed and hanging back. Fair enough. I may be chipper but I’m not the looming, tall rumble-tumble Dad she’s used to.

Not sick or sad, but not quite right.
She was very keen to get down from our awkward cuddle in bed.

I imagine it will change when the surroundings are more familiar after I get home tomorrow. I say home. I’m actually going to the neighbours but that’s as good as home to her. She know’s where the boy-next-door keeps his felts so my bright white cast will be well-decorated after she gets back from school.

Can’t wait to see it.

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Clearing the Decks

I’m quite surprised how quickly blogging has taken over my thoughts. Although I’ve been writing roughly one blog a week since I started a couple of months ago the constant narrative of my mind is repeatedly weaving ideas for blogs in the same way that when I focused on fiction, everything was an opening for a story.

This isn’t surprising. When I worked as an actor I immersed myself in plays and scripts, so the whole world took on this hue. Everyone was either an actor or a liar, darling (to quote the famous quote) and everything played out like a drama.

I used to resist the idea that occupation was identity but it’s pretty clear that what you do shapes how you present yourself, how you engage with people, how you react to and regard the world.

I started this blog as something to do while I was avoiding writing a novel. Life had become a tad overwhelming and while fiction is a great way to escape, process and understand the challenges life throws up the last few years have been of such a nature that real life was all I could think about.

In short, I am trying to beat a passage through memoir back to fiction: clearing the decks of the mind so that I can weather the rocky voyage.

To beach that metaphorical ship, my big challenge of the moment is building a deck. Not a massive challenge in itself. It’s not a huge deck (3m x 5m) but it will make a big difference to the cramped, steep section I live on. It will take the place of a rose garden that had been laid out with pavers, concrete and retaining walls which I’m sure was lovely for the old couple who once lived here but is a waste of valuable space for a solo dad who shares the care of an energetic 5 year-old.

I enjoy the digging and shovelling, and to make the time fly I’m listening to a massive audio book, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It’s a door-stop of a tome at over 800 pages so I have 30+ hours of listening to enjoy. I chose it not out of patriotic duty (the first New Zealander to win the Booker Prize since Keri Hume) but because I always read the Booker winner as they’re invariably enjoyable. I don’t have the time to sit down for 800 pages so listening to it while doing physical labour is the perfect way to consume the narrative.

It’s a great read. I say that as any audio book rests on the performance of the reader of the text, and with 22 major characters this is a BIG challenge.

Mark Meadows, the reader, does a wonderful job with all the accents required (especially as an Englishman navigating pakeha, Maori, Chinese and all the rest), and I often laugh out loud as the melodrama of the dead body and hidden gold twists and turns in a romp that has usefully been described as Deadwood on the West Coast (FYI while New Zealand has two major long islands, only the west coast of the South Island is referred to as the West Coast. The North Island has the East Coast, for some reason).

I have a strong connection to the Coast as my mother was born there to a family of migrating Scots miners. I go there each year with good friends to a rugged bach that hugs the deserted coast that once teemed with the shanties and make-shift hotels that populated the region in the gold rush. The miners and camp-followers have left little trace of their presence but you can certainly feel it.

And, of course, there’s nothing like swinging a pick while hearing a story about miners swinging a pick.

As I began to break up the splintering, rock-like clay underneath the erstwhile rose garden I realised another connection as the last time I was swinging a pick-axe I listened to another novel about West Coast miners, The Colour, by Rose Tremain.

It was about 8 years ago and I was digging a 40 metre trench to connect power to a just-built studio. It was a much bigger job and a much lighter book. The reader made some awful pronunciations of NZ words; real howlers that somehow underlined that the novel had been written by someone who had never visited NZ.

Another connection is that half-way through digging that trench I badly sprained my ankle at work, ending up on crutches for 3 weeks with months of rehab before I could walk freely (and finish the trench).

And this is the crux of why I’m building a deck… ‘to clear the deck’, because in 11 days time I am undergoing a procedure that will put me on my arse (and crutches) for many months.

I have a bony growth on my right heel caused by an old injury which is pushing against my Achilles tendon causing constant pain and discomfort. I have suffered from it for nearly 6 years. It’s been a real battle getting it recognized, treated and seen to. I have had 2 rather uncomfortable ultrasound-guided injections through the Achilles into the inflamed bursar that causes much of the pain but neither sorted the problem.

The surgery was planned to occur in February and I had been working towards that, but suddenly it was changed to the start of November…hence my panic at needing to move heaven and earth on a crowded deck.

Everything that needs to be done in the garden and round the house needs to be done now or yesterday. I know what being on crutches means, and it makes even the little things a challenge. Sure, you can make yourself a cuppa and a sandwich, but how do you carry it to your chair?

So, maybe you can understand why I seek diversion in romping fiction and the physical labour I will shortly be incapable of? There are other reasons but this blog cannot be a rambling catalogue.

I wanted to write about how much it upsets me that I will not be able to walk my daughter to school holding her hand. I love our physical relationship and know that as she grows in age and size she will be less and less inclined to clamber up onto my shoulders so I can carry her to the shower or to her bed. I so adore the way she hooks her big toe into my belt or pocket on the way up, swings her leg over my shoulder with great effort, letting out a relaxed sigh when she achieves her perch.

And, looming large, in 9 days it will be 2 years since my mother died.

It is so much on my mind.

She died on 11.11.11, which is Remembrance Day. Once, as she was waiting to die, I suggested she chose that date. It’s funny what gets said in the face of the unimaginable.

So, 2 years and 2 days after 11.11.11, the surgeon will severe my Achilles, slice a chunk of bone off my heel, staple my tendon together and close me up. It will only take an hour. The recovery will be ‘extensive’.

The irony is not lost on me that my Achilles heel is my Achilles heel.

Should the procedure not work or make things worse (both are possibilities, I have been reading chat-rooms about this operation), then the irony will be even greater. Given how things have played out over the last few years I can see the story going both ways.

But that is the nature of good stories. You never know exactly what will happen.

The Luminaries has that mystery. It both reflects and deflects life. The Colour did not. It was obvious, adding nothing to the world but a way to pass the time.

Writing this blog has taken me over an hour of my time. I could be digging the piles for the deck, mowing the lawns, taking a machete to the jungle in the top garden, clearing the path to the house so my crutches don’t get caught, rearranging the house for my recovery, washing the windows covered in sea-salt, tidying up the planting I did the day Mum died in preparation for her anniversary… but these thoughts need to get out of my mind on to the page (so to speak).

You can’t achieve everything. The inevitable and the unexpected must be faced.

It’s time to go outside and swing the pick, lost in a world created by a gifted writer, free of my pressing concerns.

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Leaving the Building

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I love being in a town when no one knows you’re there. Not that I’m avoiding anyone but there’s something magical about wandering with no plans, seeing what you see, being a stranger in a strange land.

Maybe the quiet and anonymity is made more delicious by not having the constant 5 year old with me….free of the burbling chatter and desire to climb on my shoulders I feel light and invisible.

This ‘strange land’ is my old home town, which I left nearly 20 years ago. I visit it many times a year even though almost all the strands of my family have also departed. I have friends and memories I need to revisit and grow.

They say you can never go home and that is certainly the case when the city you grew up in is smashed by a cruel and unexpected shrug of nature.

Christchurch has looked like a 20th century war zone for over 2 and a half years; the central city especially so. Life is creeping into the empty spaces with all its quirks and colour but it will be decades before it functions again as it once did.

With a couple of hours free before I have to work then fly home, I’ve come to the Lyttleton market, looking for coffee and an artisanal snack. But it is too early so, like the handful of other tourists, I am loitering, watching the stalls being set up.

For many years I had a job setting up the market at the Arts’ Centre. I could write a novel about what I saw. Maybe all markets are so. I feel the ’90s flooding back. It’s a bit much.

A coffee chain place was open so I’ve grabbed a macchiato while I wait. The barista asked for a name even though the only others in the cafe are a mother and daughter, probably touristing, too, as they have full make up at 08:30 on a Saturday; it is too fresh to be from an all-nighter.
Latching onto my feeling of anonymity, I said the first name that came to mind, Elvis. That made the daughter look.

So, with caffeine fixed into my system and these words tapped out of head and into my device, this big fat Elvis will leave the building, buy some pastries for lunch then head into town to wander the erstwhile ‘red zone’ of the central city, taking photos of the broken, beloved Cathedral & have a real coffee at C1 (the best cafe in Central Chch, recently re-opened).
That is, once I try a Vietnamese pork belly sandwich.

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Well, C1 was looking pretty flash in it’s post-quake building (the old Alice in Videoland…in an old Post Office building).
It sits amongst a sea of empty lots and broken buildings where the city used to be.
There’s always plenty of parking in Chch these days thanks to all the stony gaps.
However, the queue in C1 was massive so I headed on to check out more sights.

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As I stood by the fence surrounding the broken, ubiquitous symbol of my home some tourists were arguing over which way was west. It felt nice being able to put them right, reassuring them the cathedral was indeed laid out on the same axis as all other cathedrals. That it didn’t fall because they put it up wrong.

I could say so much about what it felt like to stand in the Square for the first time since the earthquake. In one word, it was ’emotional’. Not unlike viewing the body of a loved one. Familiar but wrong. Reassuring and disconcerting.

Afterwards, I went to see the temporary Cardboard Cathedral. Funny, it looked more plastic from the outside. But the giant cardboard beams are beautiful.
It is very light inside and, as the old Rev who approached me pointed out, the concrete floor is heated, unlike the beautiful mosaics and tiles of Christ Church Cathedral.
It is warm and looks out on the green of Latimer Square where an elusive horse has been seen grazing, he said.

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When the old Rev asked me where I was from, I said Christchurch. I considered saying the town where I live now. But this is my home town. It has changed (as have I); more buildings have ‘left the building’ than have stayed.

I feel sadness, loss, hope and happiness. A stranger amongst the new and familiar. A visitor with an assumed name.

I wish I was staying the night.

The Story of a Notebook

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I love notebooks. I have had one at hand since I started my first one about 25 years ago. Since then I have always carried one with me no matter where I went in case I needed to jot down an idea, draw a picture or make a list. Even in this digital age when so much of what I once jotted down in my notebooks is now tapped into an app on a smart phone I still carry a notebook.

I am a writer. I would be lost without blank pages to scribble across.

Yesterday morning I happened to look through an old notebook that wasn’t mine but which now belongs to me.

It belonged to my father who died last year, and about 90% of the pages are blank. It’s no writer’s journal so any stories I seek to read must be inferred.

Dad got this red spiral-bound notebook after he got a computer in the late 1990s. At 75 years old he was long retired but the computer had been bought with a payout from his job as a post-office technician. The government of the day had done a swifty when they sold off Telecom, failing to include the rights to free phone-calls for ex-employees included in many redundancy packages. Dad was part of an action that resulted in a payout of about $5,000 to each of the claimants, as long as they told no one.

I was quite surprised by his interest in the internet at the time but he was keen to learn so we had many sessions getting him up to speed and the notebook was part of his methodical way of writing down a step-by-step guide to navigating the digital world.

The first page has a key to all the functions on the tool bar and what they mean.

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Pages 2 and 3 are covered with the addresses of all the websites he liked to look at. They are crammed in making a patchwork pattern added to as he found more sites. He clearly didn’t understand the concept of bookmarks.

Page 4 has a step-by-step guide to forwarding a message followed by a guide about how to restart in safe mode.

Page 5 is how to surf with Explorer. Page 6 is about Microsoft Works.

Pages 7 and 8 give detailed instructions about defragging and clearing the cache.

All is written in Dad’s characteristically left-leaning hand. Whether he was writing in capitals or lower case, it always leaned to the left.

Apart from a list of personal email addresses at the back (and some other addresses I shall, er, address shortly), that’s all he wrote in the 12 or more years this notebook sat next to his increasingly antique computer.

It’s tempting to see the sudden halt in his meticulous note-taking as a sign of the on-set of the disease that would take so long to kill him.

They say that Alzheimer’s takes about 12 years to do its thing, and for half of that time it does quite well at remaining hidden.

My sister talks fondly of noticing that Dad really was far gone when he happily sat in the computer nook in the lounge looking at internet porn while she and Mum sat behind his back watching the telly.

A list of his favoured girly sites is written inside the back cover, explaining in retrospect the numerous viruses that kept infecting his computer.

At the front of the notebook, on the first page added after Dad stopped writing, is a full page written in my sister’s hand. It leans to the right (as we were taught at school) and is a mix of upper and lower case, and includes pictures and symbols.

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It’s a 1-page guide showing Mum how to use the internet now that Dad was in full-time care. A grand-child has scribbled all over it in pink pen at some stage and Mum has written my sister’s address and phone-number in Australia once she returned there.

Mum didn’t take to the internet like Dad. Although my sister’s instructions were clearly written Mum just didn’t get it. When I tried to help her her eyes would endlessly hunt the keyboard looking for the key I was telling her to punch. It just wasn’t her thing.

Her one contribution to the notebook came immediately after my sister’s guide: recipes for White Bean and Chorizo Soup, and Savoury Pinwheels, both of which I got to eat. Both were delicious.

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The other story unwritten in the notebook is that Mum got to visit my sister at that new address in Australia, having a blast before the disease that would kill her in a few short months made itself known.

There are 2 other random notes added amongst the overwhelmingly blank pages. One is written softly in pencil in my youngest sister’s hand: a step-by-step guide how to look up Russian adoption. Since my sister clearly would need no such guide I can only surmise that she wrote this out for Mum so she could follow what my sister was investigating.

The other is a single word, written at an angle on the bottom right corner of an otherwise blank page. It simply says “experience”. It could be a random note jotted by my mother, or either of my sisters, maybe while on the phone, but when I saw it I immediately thought of that man who spent decades writing “eternity” on the streets of Melbourne trying to communicate something larger than the 8 looped letters did.

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Does this random word in the lost corner of a notebook have a meaning? As much as eternity.

I couldn’t throw out this notebook when we divvied up my parents’ things last year.

I can be quite sentimental, and I realise you can’t keep everything, but the writer in me knows that notebooks aren’t for throwing away. Like everything, they contain stories and moments awaiting a curious eye and the gift of meaning.

Blog on Blog

Apologies to anyone reading this blog which has all the accumulated sludge of a word that rhymes with bog.

Today I hate writing. I hate being as writer. It has ruined my life. I would be anything else, if I could.

I’ve always had little time for writing that puts such frustration on the page without adding some perspective…unprocessed purging that makes no effort to turn shit into gold.

But…yes. Here I am doing just that.

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of what a blog should be. I like the idea that it’s a place to write without the pressures of fiction, that it is much like my journals where I can write without a care to any eye other than mine where syntax and spelling and penmanship simply don’t matter. But I find it hard not to think that this is being written for people other than myself, so that a level of self-consciousness is necessary…even the most natural writer or actor is aware of an audience.

But does this need to be an ongoing narrative or just an assortment of pieces? A novel or a collection of short stories, if you will?

It’s just writing. Aimed at creating more writing. Instead of looking at it as if it was leaking precious resource from a finite container, it is a process that creates a momentum…the more you take from the container the more there is to take.

And it worked. The more blogs I wrote the more fiction I worked on. To the point that I had more pieces submitted for publication than I have in a couple of years.

I always liked to have 4 to 6 pieces out at any one time. It strengthens my skin against the inevitable rejections (which are all part of the game). But more importantly it makes me feel less sensitive to the coldness of the universe.

So, this wee spurt helped me get 5 pieces out to publishers in NZ and around the world, and that made me very happy.

Of course, the problem with hitching your self-esteem to a particular star is that when the star fades, or crashes to earth, then so does your self-esteem.

And so this morning the third of the rejections came, all the way from Ireland.

And I’m grumpier and more despondent than I have a right to be. They don’t have to like the story. I know it’s good. It just has to find the right publisher.

I’m meant to be spending the weekend putting a novel proposal together. I have two ideas which seem worth pursuing but today I only seem capable of finding shit amongst the shit. Where is the gold I lovingly crafted?

I’m starting to think that I should write only for myself. That if I am to be deluded as to the worth of my craft then best to stay self-deluded and keep it all to myself.

I need to write. I must write.

No one needs to read it.

Time to go out into the wild weather and escape the stultifying requirements of ego.

Doing Time

I can’t say I’ve ever liked porridge. I probably should. I have a good Scots name, I grew up surrounded by my mother’s Scottish family, have pasty white skin and freckles, ginger flecks in my hair and beard, I like the pipes, have a fondness for a wee dram every now and then, but even though I always think it should taste nice, it’s just not the case.

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Many times over the years I’ve tried to eat it with the enthusiasm friends and family do, but I never could get it into my mouth, that is until last year.

I can date my distaste for the smell and thought of porridge back to a few days I spent in hospital 40 years ago. I’m not sure exactly how many mornings porridge was served up to me during my stay in Burwood Hospital in 1972 but I would guess at least three, maybe four. I was in for a minor operation but back in those days you stayed in a lot longer than you do now.

It felt special being there. I remember going to the little classroom and playing with other kids on two occasions but then not going on other days and feeling ripped off.

As a just-turned 5 year-old I was quite excited by the whole thing and in no way scared. I had two big colouring-in books and a pack of crayons bought especially for the occasion so that I wouldn’t get bored in my two-bed room (I was alone except for one day when there was a girl in with me).

One of my favourite memories is the young nurses who sat on my bed and coloured in the pictures with me. This was a level of care probably not possible now given that nurses spend all their time administering drugs and cleaning up human mess rather than doing any actual nursing.

I also distinctly remember the injections in the bum. That wasn’t fun.

The ride down to surgery was very exciting and I clearly recall the anaesthetist telling me to count backwards from ten, how I thought that was silly, and that I only made it to six before I went la-la.

I woke that night and wandered the dark, empty wards looking for Mum. I remember the distress and loneliness; it was like a nightmare but real. Now I know she had been there but I had slept longer than expected and they had decided to let me rest.

I don’t blame any of this for my distaste for porridge. I can’t really blame the hospital food either as I gobbled the rest of it up without any concern. There was just something in that smell that has stayed with me: it turned my stomach. And if that’s all I took from my time in hospital, then that’s fine (I also got a nifty 3-inch scar as well as an annoying habit of never being able to say what the operation was for whenever I need to fill out a medical form).

But now I have a 5 year-old daughter who quite likes porridge and I blame my mother.

When she came to visit two years ago she had just had a stent put in her bowel and had to eat a fine porridge in the morning to ‘keep things going’ without blocking it. Fine. There was nothing lovelier than seeing my then 3 year-old help her Gran E. make porridge and then sit at the table together cleaning their bowls.

It was the week Wellington was hit by a once-in-lifetime snowfall which hung around day after day so porridge was just the trick.

As sentimentally inclined as I was to join them, my stomach lurched at the thought. I knew my mother only had two or three months to live and that each moment was precious but it wasn’t so precious that I had to eat something that literally smelled like vomit to me.

Then, last winter, with both my parents now dead and gone, on the anniversary of the very week that my mother had visited, my daughter pulled the remains of the oats Gran E. had left out of the back of the pantry and asked if we could make porridge.

They say you never truly grow up until your parents are gone. I had to push away a lot of grief on that day. There was no way I was going to make it for her and let her eat alone. But I made sure my serving was maxed-out on the trimmings.

Cream, brown sugar, toasted almonds, sultanas and sliced bananas.

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That’s how I ate it again a couple of weeks ago after the cold snap that followed the mildest of winters when, in the same week as the year before, my daughter asked if we could make porridge.

She’s a helpful kid so I let her add the ingredients and do the stirring until it starts to bubble when she hops down from her step and passes the wooden spoon to me. We then add our respective fixings and sit down to eat it together.

I suspect she got more of the Scots genes than I did as hers’ is a lot less tarted-up: just a bit of cream and a slurp of maple syrup (she is half-Canadian).

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While I’ve now eaten porridge at least half-a-dozen times in the last year, it’s not something I would make for myself.

Despite all the yum I try to cover it with it still has that whiff of the hospital, and whatever it was that turned my stomach.

Maybe it will change, given enough time.

14 Nov 2013

Well, I see it’s exactly 2 months since I posted this. Since then, despite the arrival of warm and summery weather, my daughter still asks for porridge, and I always eat it with her.

I can’t say I like it, but I do enjoy the fixings of almonds, banana, sultanas & cream I use to tart it up.

Yesterday, I had my first general anaesthetic since that time 41 years ago when I wandered the darkened wards looking for my mother.

This time I slept little but felt great. I read Hazlitt, listened to Game of Thrones, and awaited my breakfast, which, unsurprisingly, was porridge.

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Without my fixings it was a bit dubious (and totally amused) I am pretty hungry after yesterday’s fasting. I added the milk & peaches but skipped the sugar.

It was fine.

But the peaches were the best bit.

Music Is A Story

Having lived a life in music and story I am increasingly convinced that they are not separate entities but differing shades of the same thing.

Sorry Steven Pinker, music is not “cheesecake for the mind”, it is quite clearly part of what makes the mind. And to bend his metaphor for the purposes of this blog, it is not the icing on the cake; it is part of the cake. If you regard it as the former then you miss a great opportunity to nourish.

Earlier this week I watched the LCD Soundsystem documentary ‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’ which is about their farewell concert at Madison Square Gardens in 2011. It’s a great film and the band was clearly wonderful live. I knew little about them, only being familiar with their rocking wee track ‘North American Scum’.

That said, they were one of the acts that was a must-see at the 2008 Big Day Out, a concert I got tickets to but didn’t attend as my partner at the time was due to give birth to our child within the following couple of weeks. That in itself wasn’t the only reason we didn’t drive up to Auckland from Wellington to see the great line-up that included Arcade Fire, Battles, Hilltop Hoods, Dizzee Rascal and Bjork, it because on top of the immanent child we also had no place to live. And no jobs. It just seemed to be tempting fate to head into a sea of 30, 000 revellers in that situation.

But this blog isn’t about that story, nor is it a review of ‘Shut Up’. It’s about the power of the unexpected to throw a new slant on what you have just enjoyed.

I’m referring to the outro songs that often get played over the credits of a movie or TV show. More often than not they are very obvious and add little to the experience of the drama: show’s over folks, here’s a bouncy tune you all know to see you out the door with a smile on your face.

But increasingly there is an acknowledgement that punters aren’t necessarily all sheep to herded elsewhere; that credits offer a chance to play to those folks who actually read the words as they digest what has just transpired.

‘Shut Up’ is both wonderful and sad. It shows someone gaining fame, adulation and respect without asking for it, who then finds it all too much so he pulls-the-pin (this isn’t meant to be a spoiler; the film is about a farewell concert).

James Murphy, the kingpin, is the one who calls time. He’s one of those great singers and performers who struggles with his gift. The self-consciousness is as agonising to watch as is his performance is wonderful.

He needs it to end but feels great loss and wonders if he’s making a mistake. The final song ‘New York I love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’ is amazing. I had never heard it before but it knocked my socks off, especially when viewed in the context of what it meant in this situation… being in NY and the last song they would ever play… the final part of the documentary.

It went to black and the credits rolled. It wasn’t an LCD song but one I recognized from the distant past. It took a few bars before I realized the voice singing the final track on an LP I hadn’t played since the early 80s.

“Standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo crying in the rain…” it was Marc Almond, Soft Cell c.1981 and I knew all the words.

I never really liked the song or the album but when you’re 14 and just spent $10 on a piece of vinyl you play the album to bits hoping it will take your fancy. While some the keyboard sounds on the track (and album) clearly haven’t stood the test of time often sounding like a Farfisa organ trying to be hip, the song just builds and builds and once it got to the chorus (I still knew the lyrics without knowing that I did) I understood why the track had been chosen.

Maybe James Murphy is a Soft Cell fan but there is so much about ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ that is directly relevant to the documentary and the tortured ambivalence of Murphy that what I had just seen kept opening up to further and further layers.

Afterwards, I pulled out ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ and listened to it. Just the once. Yikes. But I have played ‘Say Hello’ every day (and sometimes several times) since I saw the movie 5 days ago. Do I think about Soft Cell? Not a lot. But I go into those lyrics (and Marc Almond’s performance) further and further.

“It was a kind of so-so love, and I’m gonna make sure it never happens again”

So apt to the movie, Murphy and the ambivalence of love.

It’s not the first time this sort of opening-up has happened to me. The other was in the first series of Girls (a brilliant, fun, clever show). I can’t remember what happened in the twisted and funny relationships but the ending was a bit of a shocker and I was dumb-founded. The screen went to black and credits started with a very retro 80s-sounding electronic track I did not know. It was either very old, or trying to sound old: cold boom-smack-boom-smack drum machine laying down an unvarying beat ‘even white folk can dance to’ (as the saying goes). The lyrics were about seeing your ex with someone else, hence why it was chosen.

It was “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn. So it wasn’t old, being from 2010, it was just trying to sound like it. I fell instantly in love with the Scandinavian coldness of the lyrics and production and it has been in my top 5 tracks ever since (“stilettos and brok-en bott-les” being my unchallenged fav lyrical image of the last year). It has gone past the dramatic moment in Girls which it was juxtaposing (I can’t even remember who it was about) and become a song of strength, resilience and defiance.

In my head, I relate these moments to the famous, infamous and (of course) outstanding final scene of The Sopranos where Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is played over the mundane family moments at the diner, waiting for onion rings and Meadow to park the car. Let me just say, I really don’t like Journey but I have listened to that song many, many times since. Why? Because that scene (and song) seem to encapsulate the whole 6 seasons, the hopes of the well-loved characters etc and I get to relive all that in the course of Steve Perry’s pompous bellowing and Journey’s overblown and average FM rock.

I just re-watched the scene and realised that, unlike the above, it doesn’t play over the credits. However, the credits were silent, and this was done to further the story (as opposed to ushering you out the door). What’s even more unusual about this is that there is dialogue all over the lyrics in the final scene… something which is very rare as most punters find it hard to focus. But it’s all part of the telling, and opening up, the story. Just brilliant.

I still have my ticket to the Big Day Out where LCD played. The ticket is worthless and having now seen ‘Shut Up’ I wish I had gone, despite the pressing concerns of my situation. Maybe LCD will reform after some time off and I will get to see them somewhere else.

Either way, this isn’t the end of the story.

Palmiers For Something That Shouldn’t Be

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Non-jam palmiers.

This morning I made palmiers for the fourth time. I seem to be getting the knack. They’re the easiest of pastries, a child could make them. I guess that’s why our French teacher taught us when we were in Form One at South Intermediate. It was a gentle path into the language. Songs, verbs, some words, no text books. A taster, if you will, as opposed to an academic meal. It was fun cooking in the classroom, even if it was just rolling out pastry, spreading it with jam, folding them up so that they look like pastry hearts. That’s what I remember them as, ‘French pastry hearts’.

When I googled that term looking for simple things to make with my young daughter I came up with ‘palmiers or elephant ears’. Maybe we knew them as palmiers at the time but I had forgotten the word. I would never forget a name like elephant ears.

When I made them for the first time since my childhood, I had hoped my daughter would share the magic and wonder of that chaotic day in French class. But she was very uncertain, as were the kids at the late-afternoon soiree where I took those palmiers. They picked them up, looked at them, asked their parents what they were, put them back. I said they were elephant ears hoping to undercut their neo-phobia but the kids (six-year olds and under) were rather distrusting. It wasn’t until everything else was gone that the foreign pastries were attempted and devoured.

My daughter, despite a highly evolved sweet-tooth, failed to join the brave ones. I couldn’t understand it, but persevered making two more batches which I ate alone while my daughter refused them, even when I cut down the options in her lunch-box. It wasn’t until there were only two left of the third batch that I managed to get her to try one. After she ate it, she hunted me down, gave me a big hug on the toilet and said they were ‘delicious’.

I made palmiers this morning not to taunt children with my nostalgia (although that may happen), but because there is a funeral at my daughter’s school and we’ve been asked to bring a plate.

My daughter is very excited about going. She thinks funerals are great fun. Her mother had to quell her excited cheering when I said that I could take her. Over the phone I heard her tell her mother that she had been to three, so this would be her fourth. At five, she remembers more funerals than Christmases.

Catering for a funeral is hard. You never really know how many hungry people will show up. It is disheartening throwing out food when you over-cater, like you have over-estimated how much people care.

We learned that lesson with the first funeral. For, the next one, four months later, we got the numbers right but people who talked too long in the sun missed out to those who had loaded up their plates, maybe noticing there was less to be had.

Both those funerals were for my parents. Four months apart. I remember so much but ate no food. I drank wine, delicious wine, slowly, continuously, happy to see people gathered, to feel relief descending, glad of beautiful weather. There was so much to do it was great that my daughter (who was 3 and then 4) was happy to run around with the other kids, fill her plate with whatever she wanted, leaving me to talk to people, to be both amongst it and absent.

Then, a few months after that, an old friend suddenly died. It was a shock and I had to go, taking my daughter with me up to Auckland as her mother was overseas. My daughter was excited. She wore the bright floral dress she wore at her grandparents’ funerals. But this was a different flavour. Dad was not going to be standing up the front of everyone talking into the microphone, welcoming them, pointing to the toilets, making calming jokes.

At the end of the service she insisted on viewing the body. This hadn’t happened with her grandparents although she had seen plenty of photos (it wasn’t deliberate, but a consequence of geography: they were cremated by the time of each service). Quite randomly, I had been given a guitar pick while working in a school hall the day before. I carried it up there in my pocket just as I used to when I played guitar. When we saw Stephen lying there in his suit, I lifted her up and she dropped the grey Jim Dunlop .73mm into his coffin.

It was 25 years since we had played in halls and pubs around the country. He looked so much older.

It was harder than looking at the bodies of my parents.

At the after-match, my girl resorted to form filling her plate in a room full of strangers, checking in with me now and then. There were no other small children but she knew the drill, was happy just to be, squeezing through the press of mourners. What she ate, I do not know. Probably any sweet treats she could recognize.

I made palmiers this morning because of the number four: a random thing to grasp onto. I did not really know the girl who died the other night, but she was in the class next to my daughter, another new entrant. She always gave me a friendly smile.

It tears at me to think of her parents and family. A funeral for a child just seems to be something that should not be.

But in two hours I will go with my daughter and sit in the hall with those from the school and community. To her, a funeral is like Christmas without presents. A party without a cake. That thought used to concern me. Shouldn’t I be providing weddings and christenings, celebrations of life?

Parents always fret, no matter what.

If there’s something that I’ve learned to adore in this run of funerals, it’s the joy of life. That it is to be cherished, every which way: that its noise belongs everywhere, in all corners of the room.

The kids have been encouraged to wear bright colours, and I shall, too. We will remember Lucy, even those who did not know her.

I may cry and my daughter will hug me. She will have a lot of fun.

Just Imagine

The other morning as I was diverting myself from writing by flicking through my favourite history magazine I indulged my procrastination further by skipping through Facebook which has become, amongst other things, the modern version of a last cigarette or pressing inspection of navel lint.

As I fingered the face of my phone (an almost unconscious action likened by others to the comforting caress of a rosary) I noticed this cartoon posted by a friend.

Shuttle cartoon

It got me thinking. While I sympathized with the sentiment involved, I felt it was dishonest and messy.

Yes, it is sad to see the great feat of engineering and endeavour that was the Space Shuttle Program consigned to a footnote in history, but that’s the way of all great vehicles of state power.

The article in History Today I was intending to read before I diverted myself was about the ornate ships of the line that won dominance of the seas for the British in the 18th century.

Vue du debarquement anglais pour l'attaque de Louisbourg 1745  The article started with this engraving of The Capture of Louisbourg in 1745.

I could look at it for ages, marveling at the skill and craft of those that made the magnificent ship, wondering what it was like inside, how all the parts went together, how an assault was carried out by those garish and impractically-dressed soldiers and, on a more mundane level, how it functioned day-to-day.

But as mind-blowing as these war ships were that wrestled dominance of the seas off the French 250 years ago, they in turn would have been dwarfed by the massive Chinese fleets of exploration led by Zheng He that reached India, the Middle East and Africa 300 years before that.

A comparison of Columbus’ ship of 1492 with Zheng He’s of 1405.

A comparison of Columbus’ ship of 1492 with Zheng He’s of 1405.

The Chinese fleets put the much-vaunted European endeavour to shame. They had supply ships covered in soil growing fresh produce while the Europeans were blindly dying of scurvy for centuries to come. The first Chinese fleet had 317 ships and 28,000 men. Europe had nothing to compare until D-Day, long after the Wright brothers took to the air.

So what happened to this astounding realisation of humanities’ drive towards trade and exploration? Like all such undertakings of incredible cost and organisation they relied on political will and state funds to continue (just like the shuttle programme) and, as always, times change, as do priorities. The fleets of Zheng He ended when a new emperor came in and eunuchs like Zheng He lost power to the Confucian bureaucracy.

Am I lover of war and arcane technology? NO! to the former and YES! to the latter. But more correctly, I am a lover of history and pre-history, knowledge and the unknown. A natural philosopher, if you will (to use a term from the 18th century) who sees science, the arts and religious belief not in opposition but as part of a continuum. I am no follower of the Manichaeism that so infects the present discourse in politics and the media. For me, the world does not divide neatly into black and white, like it does for some. It is full of colour. And even when it gets dark, there are always shades of grey, contrasting intensities of darkness, something glowing in the corner to be inspected.

There can be no loss that offers no gain. No gain that does not involve some loss.

What has the space shuttle got to do with war and philosophy? A lot.

I can never celebrate war.

Edwin Starr was right to claim war was good for ‘absolutely nothing’ in 1969 as the groovy pop culture stance was needed in the face of the Vietnam War. But it was a song of the moment and the greater truth is that while war achieves very little that is good no evil passes without the opportunity for some advantage to society.

Wars are:

1. Good for certain interested sections of the economy of the victors.

2. Drivers of scientific research and innovation which can have applications outside the military.

History is littered with examples of 1.

In, fact, I was talking to a military contractor the other day who said that the US economy needs a large-scale war every 15 years to stay afloat. An easy statement to make but he had just spent the last 15 years helping organize the clean-up of mines left as a result of the various imperial adventures in South East Asia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As always, it is women and children who face the relics of this aggression while they go about the mundane tasks of seeking water and wood. The producers of the land mines and the politicians who demanded their deployment, as well as the combatants who placed them in the ground where they remain till this day, are all absent from the clean-up. No glory to be had there.

We also talked of the present absurdity of the US Army being forced by politicians to take orders of new, more technologically advanced tanks when they are quite happy with their present ones.

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/congress-forcing-the-army-to-make-tanks-2012-10

Naturally, examples of 2 are a little less depressing (I use that small qualifier not because I live in a land where understatement is an understatement but because the innovations come on the back of making it ever-easier to kill people).

Florence Nightingale pioneered nursing care in the inanity of the Crimean War not for the benefit of civilians, but to stop soldiers from dying from the wounds and disease that were seeing them off at a greater rate than the enemy ever could. After they were healed they were sent back to the task of killing the Russians in an aggressive, pointless war far from home.

We continue to benefit from that awful situation with modern health-care.

New Zealander Sir Harold Gillies, ‘the father of plastic surgery’, pioneered facial reconstruction during The Great War (the one fought to end all wars) so that those who had put themselves on the line so there would no more need to fight could be better accepted back into the society of those who, for whatever reason, had not made that sacrifice. The predicament of the half-faced veteran, Richard Harrow, in Boardwalk Empire says a lot about this appalling situation.

Sir Archibald McIndoe  (also from Dunedin) worked for his cousin, Gillies, in the 1930s, learning the trade before achieving medical breakthroughs working with RAF burn victims (the famous Guinea Pig Club) in World War II.

Another great benefit derived from World War II is international travel. Jet planes were relatively ineffective during the war but the technology was soon parlayed into the cheap travel we enjoy today.

It still amazes me to think how far air travel has developed from the Wright Brothers’ first flight 110 years ago. But to link their achievement on a continuum with the space shuttle is disingenuous.

An apple and a pig are food for some and may even be found in the same shop or dinner plate. But the one does not proceed from the other.

Likewise, powered flight is similar to space travel in that they both leave the ground, but the shuttle programme was born of a rather different impulse.

We all know that the Wright brothers weren’t the first to imagine how we might fly. There had been countless attempts throughout history, amongst them New Zealand’s great challenger from Temuka, Richard Pearse, who some still claim to have beaten the Wright’s by 9 months.

Medal struck by NZ Mint claiming Pearse flew first.

Medal struck by NZ Mint claiming Pearse flew first.

The Wright Brothers were bicycle makers working away by themselves while the U.S. War Department (yes, the War department) and the Smithsonian Institution combined resources and scientific expertise to ‘conquer the air’.

How did the Wrights’ compete with that? There’s a fascinating and gripping book about it called ‘To Conquer The Air’ by James Tobin.

But basically, to quote a(nother) great New Zealander, Lord Rutherford, ‘the father of nuclear physics.’

“…we don’t have much money, so we have to think”.

I must mention that, despite popular opinion, Rutherford didn’t split the atom. He cleverly, and cheaply, worked out an experiment to demonstrate what was inside. If the atom had been split then Manchester would have gone *bang!* well before the ‘80s dance craze.

Rutherford and his "Number 8 Wire" gold leaf experiment that 'split the atom'.

Rutherford and his “Number 8 Wire” gold leaf experiment that ‘split the atom’.

The Wright brothers won the race against the War Department et al. because, like Rutherford, they employed the imagination and skill that the state, for whatever reason, seemed to ignore. It wasn’t mere chance they got there first.

In contrast, the race into space was a very different game. It was born directly of the ballistic missile technology developed by the Germans and realised in their V2 terror attacks on London.

V2 on its way to London.

V2 on its way to London.

The V2 was the first rocket to go into space. Fans of Tintin will recognize its form from ‘Destination Moon’ published in 1953.

We're going to the moon!

We’re going to the moon!

While these ‘terror weapons’ (as Hitler called them, in his hodgepodge German accent) killed many Londoners a much greater number of slave labourers and concentration camp ‘workers’ died making them.

When the Allies overrun the launch site at Pennemunde they grabbed the technology and the developers in order to initiate their own ballistic missile programmes. Amongst them was the leader of the V2 programme, Wernher von Braun who was secretly taken to the U.S. where he ended up starting the Space Program which became NASA.

First photo from space taken by a US V2

First photo from space. Taken by a US V2

Yes, it could be argued that he should have stood trial at Nuremburg, not so much for killing the Londoners, but for the deaths of the slaves and concentration camp victims forced to build his terror weapons while hidden deep in dangerous caves, but isn’t it best to be pragmatic and take advantage of a bad situation?

Like a lot of what happened at the end of WWII, motives were driven by concerns about erstwhile allies, soon to be regarded as enemies. The Americans were desperate for the Soviets not to get hold of the technology (that the Soviets developed their own space programme out of the bits and pieces left scattered at Pennemunde is testament to a great resourcefulness).

This situation only added to the so-called “shock of the century” felt by the U.S. when the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit in 1957. Sputnik sent the Space race ballistic (pun intended).

Stamp issued to celebrate Sputnik.

Stamp issued to celebrate Sputnik.

Eisenhower wouldn’t be outdone and it was no mean feat that 3 months later a team led by von Braun, James van Allen, and Wellington boy William Pickering (yes, a Kiwi was in charge of the Jet Propulsion Unit) sent Explorer 1 into space. It was a great propaganda moment for the U.S. which NASA acknowledged at the 50th anniversary of the launch with this article on their site.

http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/whyweexplore/Why_We_28_prt.htm

At the time the 3 scientists were (reluctantly) flown from the launch site to Washington for the staged press conference where this iconic image was created.

Pickering, van Allen, von Braun celebrating the launch.

Pickering, van Allen, von Braun celebrating the launch for the cameras.

The Space Race took off not because it benefited humanity or exploration, but because it benefited those who had their hands on the purse-strings. Perceptions of hegemony had to be maintained.

When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the Americans hit back with Alan Shepard the following month. The Soviets put the first woman up in 1963. Notably, she was also the first civilian (the U.S. didn’t feel it necessary to send a woman into space until Sally Ride went up in the Challenger in 1983).

The so-called ‘exploration of space’ has been an overwhelmingly military operation.

JFK only committed the U.S. to sending a man to the moon to get one over the Soviets. He saw no other value (he wrote and said this in private many times).

In fact, he is on tape (the same White House taping system that would prove Nixon’s downfall) regretting making the commitment to going to the moon, worrying that the public would realise it was “just a stunt… a waste of money…. why didn’t I say something useful…like ridding the sea of salt?”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1390928/New-tapes-reveal-JFK-fretted-selling-Apollo-moon-mission-US-public.html

Having campaigned on being ahead in the “missile-gap” his presidency depended on being in the lead. Gagarin went up 2 months into JFK’s presidency so he had to come up with something, anything, to top them (hence, the famous speech filled with lofty ideals).

Once JFK was assassinated in 1963 his commitment became sacrosanct. Yes, it was a marvellous feat and achievement, but it had little to do with the spirit of exploration and invention that motivated the Wright brothers into the air in 1903, or sent Lindbergh across the Atlantic in 1927.

Yes, the Soviets had their own missions to send a man to the moon, but once the U.S. set foot there there was simply no propaganda value in throwing any more money at it.

The Apollo missions quietly suffered the same fate 3 years after Neil Armstrong fluffed his famous lines from the moon (or did he?).

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2193749/Neil-Armstrong-speech-Thats-small-step-man-famous-mankind-words-misquoted.html

As I child, I followed the development of the shuttle program with great interest. The test flights from the back of Jumbo jets were played on the news in NZ. The programme, started by Nixon in the ’60s, wasn’t about human endeavour, but creating a fast turn-around vehicle to set up a space station.

The so-called “space-truck” was also intended to capture Soviet satellites (Nixon approved the funding for NASA on these grounds). Yet again, it was about the Space Race.

The Soviets had their own Buran shuttle programme that went up only once in 1988 but was soon abandoned as the Soviet Union fell apart.

Like the landing on the moon, I watched the shuttle launches (and landings) beamed live on the telly. I am sad to see these great machines put to rest. But like the magnificent ships of the line that won Spain, then France, and finally Britain an empire, or the great fleets of exploration of Zheng He, their time has passed and there is no need to replace them. No one needs to ‘conquer’ space.

The shuttle was a product of a world I am glad to see the end of. Overall, the Cold War was an obscene waste of money that may have given the bulk of society some little benefits, maybe, but they are way out of proportion to the lives and capital spent.

The space-truck put some satellites up, maintained a broken telescope and provided a taxi service to the International Space Station. There was a lot of compelling live telly for those, like me, excited by such things and there are still infomercials selling products that claim to benefit from technology developed by the space programme. But I think we deserve something better than non-stick fry pans.

Let me be clear, space exploration continues to excite me.

When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars last year I shared the effusive excitement of my 4 year-old daughter who squealed with wonder and delight as we watched it land. She was so intrigued when I explained what was happening that I got a poster of the solar system for her bedroom wall and a set of glow-in-the-dark planets to hang above her bed. A year later she still knows the names and special qualities of each planet. They have not been replaced by Dora or Disney or any other marker of social acceptance. Each night as I carry her to bed on my shoulders she turns out the lights so that we enter her room in darkness, with only the glowing planets to guide us.

Like the Wrights tinkering away by themselves or the Dotcom giants who started off in anonymous garages and faceless dorms, the wonders of the future will come from the minds of girls and boys chipping away in mundane surroundings.

Likewise, the future for space exploration lies in innovation and imagination, not in bellicose projections of state power, or ‘great (or even giant) leaps forward’.

Right now a myriad of small private companies are pioneering fast turnaround re-usable craft to take the shuttle’s place servicing satellites and the space station.

Dragon 6

Dragon 6

And, as always, the future belongs to those like the young stick figure in the cartoon who dare to imagine. It is not a bigger, louder extrapolation of what has gone before. As the saying goes, nothing dates faster than the future. Leave such whimsy to the realms of the Jetsons (food in a pill!), steam-punk (I heart steam-punk!) and other fancies of a future hobbled by the past.

There’s no need to grieve the passing of an imagined future. Let’s feel happy and confident enough to celebrate what has been achieved, warts and all, to take what is useful, understand what is not, and not cling to the gunships, space-trucks and eunuchs of yesteryear.

Let’s sit on the shoulders of giants, imagining what may be flying overhead, in reality and in our imaginations.

(Oh, and happy birthday to Orville Wright who would be 142 today, if one of the imagined futures of my childhood had come true and he was still alive).

The Space Station zooming over my home.

The Space Station zooming over my home.

Death of a King

Today comes to New Zealand while much of the world is still stuck in yesterday. Last Friday, a friend mentioned it was 36 years since Elvis died. He qualified this statement by pointing out that while it was Friday 16th August when The King of Rock and Roll had his heart attack on the dunny it would actually have been the 17th in NZ when we got the news.

Not that we are slow here. Yes, it was the ‘70s, well before the internet and cell-phones, but even back then such news travelled fast.

In a similar fashion, another friend insists on referring to 9/11 as September 12th as, through our eyes, that’s when the murderous attacks happened. The same events mean different things to different people. Everyone has their own reaction.

I was ten years old when the world lost the great, tortured talent that was Elvis Aaron Presley. I was in Standard 4 at Somerfield School, a few months away from moving up to Intermediate: we were the ‘seniors’ of the school.

We had just come in from lunch on a sunny late-winter day. It must have been a mild winter as we had been playing on the field, something that wasn’t allowed if it was sodden by rain (the caretaker would put a red flag in the corner if the grass was too wet). I’m not sure what we had been playing, but my favourites were bull-rush (or barbadour, as we often called it) and forcing back, which we played with an ice-cream tub lid as no one had a Frisbee at school (I got one “from overseas” a year or two later. It glowed in the dark and was called a moon disc. I tested out the glow-in-the-dark feature only once. It was a good way to get a Frisbee in the face).

If my memory is false (and that can be the way of memory as each time we access them they are tweaked in favour of present concerns) and the red flag was out, then we would have been playing on the asphalt courts in front of the big brick building that dominated my small school.

In winter it was 4-square or pat-a-tennis or various games of our own devising. We had a seasonal love of marbles which was much more free-form than the traditional version where the action is confined to a circle. We played for keeps, like-for-like: bonkers, jumbos, cat’s eyes, ball bearings. It was like a form of chasing where you had a crack at hitting and winning your friend’s marbles. Some kids ended up with bags bulging with booty.

One day a friend lost his wee rubber bouncy ball after seeing how high it would go. To find it, I suggested bouncing mine on the same spot, at the same angle. The second ball landed beside the lost one. I felt as clever as Sherlock Hemlock.

Whatever it was we had been playing I was hot and sweaty when I made it back to my desk in Room 4 (or 14… whichever it was). I was right by the corner, surrounded by girls. My position was the result of a ‘70s attempt at streaming where they put the cleverest kids in the back two rows on the left. I’m not sure if they told us this, but if we were clever then we would have worked it out. Either that or my mother told me after I complained about not getting to sit with my friends.

So I sat there, separated from those I had been playing with (and no, I did not just play with boys. I was a child who always had good friends of both flavours. In retrospect, this clearly un-nerved some fathers who suddenly had me uninvited on more than one occasion. Mothers never seemed to mind).

Each classroom had a small, yellow wooden radio box in the corner where messages could be played. I don’t remember it ever being used for anything except for the news after lunch, but it may have been. There certainly were no ‘ding-dung-dong!’ xylophone tones announcing any announcements.

When the news came on at 1pm on 17 Aug 1977, the first words were ‘The King is Dead”.

I was shocked. Although my parents, being of the pre-rock generation, were older than most they admired his great voice and we had watched his last live performance on TV a few months before. He looked awful: bloated, sweaty, the magic dull in his eyes. My uncle said they actually had to pay people to clap. I thought this would have been very, very expensive but Elvis was a rich man, so who knows? My scepticism for such teasing statements clearly yet to form I heard what I wanted to hear, kept questioning unsaid.

In another classroom at the same school my younger sisters would have heard the same news. The youngest, just turned seven, reacted by saying “but we don’t have a king.”

I thought that was both clever and funny.

I would react in a similarly disassociated way three years later. It was a spring evening in early November and I was sitting in the lounge on our grey Conroy heater waiting for tea. Mum rushed in from the kitchen where she had been listening to the radio.

“They’ve shot Lennon!”

That I recognized her distress may be why I failed to understand what she had said. In my head I thought, but Lenin died years ago… (I have always been a history nerd).

So much steps forward when you remember the past. In my first blog I wrote about the fear of cannibalizing my fiction (which, after all, is full of real life). But a story will always take the form it demands. And if you write nothing, nothing ends up on the page.

I started writing this piece about the day Elvis died with the intention of posting it on that anniversary last Friday (or Saturday). Blogs are of the moment, I wanted it to fit tightly to that moment with the counterpoint of my sister’s reaction and my subsequent echo three years later.

But as I started writing about Somerfield School so much came back: how I ate jam sandwiches every day for a year, proudly wore shoes that had more holes than canvas, got called fly-shit face and sonny-bubbles, heard my first dirty joke from my childhood crush while sitting on a jungle gym behind the big brick building.

However, what stepped forward was my first friend who had I unwittingly insulted by the urinal on my first day. He lived in a house that had giant corgis painted on the garage door. Why did he start to dominate my memories? He wasn’t my closest or most enduring friend. He lived on Milton Street. Was I writing about a paradise lost?

It could only be because of his tragic death. He died in his first race as he joined the sport of Kings. The writer in me was wrestling a memoir into a short story. It promised to be a good one (at least, one with literary possibilities), if I did it right. So I googled his name, and even though he died long before that search giant took its first steps towards dominating the world (and became a verb) there he was, for reasons more poignant than I knew. I could not touch this piece for four days.

Maybe I have spilled all the water from this jug of memories. Maybe this blog is enough. Maybe the story of the death of a king is yet to come.

Another young NZ rider died yesterday. The connections are uncanny. Such is the nature of life and fiction.

However you name the day, Elvis died 36 years and four days ago. It was very sad. Hunter was 16. What more needs to be said?

A Post-Rugby Post

Last night I went with friends to the local RSA (Returned Services Association) to watch the opening game of the Bledisloe Cup. I hadn’t intended to go there, even though I had been talking about it for all of the six years I’ve lived in Titahi Bay.

IMG_3825

In fact, I hadn’t intended to go out at all as the game was in Sydney (which is two hours – and twenty years – behind New Zealand), so the All Blacks weren’t taking on the Wallabies until 10:05pm (which is after the bedtime imposed by my present job).

But my friends were keen and even though I was on a roll with my writing, I decided to get away from the screen and be sociable… especially as we were meeting up for beers and dice beforehand.

I’m rather fond of Zilch! I used to play it a lot in Christchurch in the ’80s. It has a gambling thrill as you chose whether to bank your score or risk all on a throw. There’s nothing like trying to feel what is in the dice, shaking them in time to the music, hearing the six dice rattle across the table, watching the last one spin, willing it to go the way you want.

There were four of us playing, all rather competitive gamers, so there was plenty of commentary as players tried to get each other to blow their throw.

Throwing badly from the start I decided to bank low and keep scoring.

To use a rugby analogy, I was taking every penalty kick offered rather going for the heroic try.

I took a bit of flak for this inglorious strategy. However, as kick-off time for the rugby approached I had got myself within cooee of the bolters who had used up all of their good luck.

My final throw was my best and I was just as shocked as everyone else to win.

With ten minutes to kick-off we were off to ‘the Flying Jug’ (it’s actually called the Mariner. Titai, as the locals call Titahi Bay, is a sea-side community with a colourful past).

Most unusual for a Saturday night the car park was chocka and groups of people were milling about, smoking in circles. I could hear a band playing inside but I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t be showing the rugby so we filed in.

It didn’t seem the usual pub crowd and there were no seats anywhere. Very unusal. The band was groovy, but not too loud. Before approaching the bar we had a peek in the side lounge…it was also packed.

I felt a bit self-conscious but put it down to paranoia born of pre-loading.

That’s when I saw the cake in the shape of a bikini-clad woman with enormous nipples poking through.

I got a feeling just like I had late one Sunday night many years ago when, after several long days working in the pits at the Aussie V8 Supercars at Pukekohe, I had gone with a few workmates to find a pub that was open near TVNZ (I used to be a TV soundman). As it was after 9pm on a Sunday all the usual options were closed. We ended up finding one we had never been to before.

We got our beers and sat down, oblivious to the surroundings due to exhilaration and over-tiredness (and several ‘travellers’ on the bus back to Auckland).

The six of us were getting sideways looks. That’s when I clicked. My female colleagues were the only women in the bar. We had stumbled into gay night and were making the regulars uncomfortable.

Likewise, last night after looking around I realised we were the only pakeha (white-fullahs) in the place. Not entirely unusual as we live in the heart of Ngati Toa territory. It’s a good chunk of what I like about living here. But there was something else going on and the spread laid out on the tables behind the bawdy cake confirmed it.

I suggested we head for the RSA, and as we filed back out I saw the photo of the uncle who the party was for.

As I pushed through the door I read the ‘Closed for Private Function’ sign.

I’ve been to a various RSAs around the country, usually in the company of former soldiers I was working with at the time (SAS guys who fought in Vietnam or Malaya like directing TV, so it seems) – they’re a good place to get a feed and a pint when you’re in the wops and there’s little else to be had.

You don’t have to have served in the armed forces, but you need a member to sign you in. And not being an aggressive nation, the stock of old soldiers is dying off so civilians have been encouraged to join.

It’s a funny building: old lounge bar style inside with a faux Spanish ‘el rancho’ makeover outside (plaster arches and heavily-trowelled exterior surfaces).

I’ve stood outside it for two ANZAC Day Dawn Services, each time with my daughter.

The first was three years ago. My girl was two years-old, waking early, as two-year olds do, so I took the opportunity to give her mother a sleep-in while I attended my first Dawn Service.

While I’m pretty liberal and open-minded about most things, I’m a staunch pacifist at heart so a lot of what gets said at these services riles the pacifist (and historian) in me. That said, I’m no puritan. I’m open to experiencing things I don’t necessarily agree with. And there’s nowt wrong with remembering the dead.

As I pushed my daughter in her pram along the beach it was still dark and a gentle rain was falling through the mist. I told her where we going: everything is new and exciting to a two year-old, even when they have limited comprehension. In the distance behind me I could hear the distinctive thunk thunk thunk of Huey’s hugging the coast on their way to fly-overs at the various ceremonies around Wellington.

ANZAC Day is the busiest day for the NZ Armed Forces, and I am both glad and proud of that.

Assuming they would go over the top of us, I stopped and turned the pram around to watch them approach from the Kapiti Coast. With the low mist we would get a very close fly-over. I got out my camera and switched it to night shot. Then, the chopper noise stopped.

No one knows exactly what happened, but the Air Force lost an aging Iroquois and three flight officers that day. it was an important day but they shouldn’t have been flying.

Three years later my girl had started school and was well aware about the meaning of ANZAC Day, so she lobbied hard to attend the Dawn Service. I felt I had ‘done’ ANZAC Day but her best friend, the boy next door, wanted to go, too, so we all walked down to listen to the speeches about sacrifice and freedom, all as one listening to the bugle wobble through the Last Post (at least it was live, so many have to play recordings these days).

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It was great to see the old soldiers (and their descendents) march up the main street and watch the volleys of rifle fire make people cover their ears.

Last night we got inside the RSA just as the teams were about to take the field in Australia. And although there was only about a dozen people there, the screen and sound was way better than the pub.

We got our beers (after being instructed to get our own glasses from the fridge by the frosty bar maid) and took up pews at the leaner by the wall which was covered with medals and memorabilia. As the teams lined up for the national anthems I looked at the medals.

Titai has a strong military connection. The pub we had gate-crashed is in the middle of what was in WWII a camp of 1,500 US Marines. They rested here after Guadalcanal, practiced landings for Tarawa and Iwo Jima on the beach where my daughter plays, and introduced the locals to big swing bands (amongst other things).

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After the war, a lot of de-mobbed NZ soldiers who had been fighting the Nazis in Europe made their homes in Titai (the Marines had been here because the NZ forces wanted to head back to defend their homeland when the Japanese entered the war).

The sound of our national anthem pulled my attention away from the old medals on the wall, and I wondered if I should stand in respect.

I looked around the room. The only people standing were the two guys playing pool.

Always in two minds I felt both proud and sad.

Then it was time for the haka.

And it was good one, too. Rousing and passionate. What else is there like it in the world of sport and popular culture?

The sound was beautiful, too, which isn’t always the case outside NZ where overseas broadcasters often fail to cover the audio with enough mics. I have been out in the middle of the pitch on many occasions, cowering with a fluffy mic. It’s an awesome experience. The audience deserves to feel the full power of the challenge being laid down and not just see close-ups of big men pulling funny faces.

The All Black haka had added meaning for me in that near-empty room last night as it was composed by the great Ngati Toa (“brave men”) chief, Te Rauparaha, who brought his people to settle here after taking a hiding in the Musket Wars.

And it wasn’t just me. The punters who had just ignored the national anthem cheered and clapped the haka.

It felt great to be in the RSA.

If you expected this post to be a report on the game, I hope you’re not disappointed.

Needless-to-say, the ABs won well (as they were expected to). The new players excelled and the young kicker with so much on his shoulders after he replaced the injured best-player-in-the-world had a wonderful game full of aggression, cleverness and luck, even though he hit the posts twice (three times if you count the one that rebounded down onto the cross-bar).

When the Marines left Titahi Bay they gifted their Recreation Hall to the locals who turned it into a successful Repertory Theatre where I once took my young girl to see a terrific (and, for her, terrifying) production of Jack & the Beanstalk.

It was closed last year and condemned due to water damage. There is a strong lobby to save this last relic of history.

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The Marines dumped all the equipment they couldn’t take with them in a big pit; jeeps, machinery, clothing, utensils and all. It was hard for the locals to see such wastage after so many years of war-time rations. Apparently the Marines guarding the pit were understanding of the situation and turned a blind eye to those taking what was useful.

We lose so much when we discard the past, risk it all on a gamble for future glory.

You never know which way the dice will fall. Will the kick go through or is it best to give it to the forwards to monster it over… or maybe spin it to the backs to fly into the corner?

Te Rauparaha took a gamble leading his wounded people to the area I now live. But he smashed the local iwi and became supreme, for a time, composing the words of his famous haka after hiding in a pit from an enemy who would kill him if he was uncovered.

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Nearly two centuries later, those battles are long over but his words are recognized and repeated around the world.

I have seen many different haka over the years. I have received the challenge and even laid it down. It’s something you can’t be half-arsed about (especially if you’re a pasty-skinned pakeha like me).

You have to feel the spirit and the strength, believe in your right to be there, let those you are facing know you have something worth protecting, that they must prepare themselves to face you.

A sideways look can be a threat or a sign of fear, or merely an indication that you missed the sign on the door.

It’s all good, as they say.

I think about what the Marines buried in that pit: what is sitting in the dirt of Titahi Bay.

It’s just down the road from here. I would love to dig it up.

My First Blog: a blog on blogging. Or… to blog or not to blog?

I have been attempting to blog for some time.

In fact, I have been doing more than that, I have been telling people I intend to blog after years of continually responding to those who ask me if I have a blog that I have no intention to write one… as I am a writer.

Yes, I know all writers are expected to blog but I’m a writer of fiction who follows the school of thought shared by Mike Johnson on the last writing course I attended 10 years ago (yikes!).

“Confucius say, very hard to pour spilled water back into jug.” (Yes, he said it with a comic accent… as I do as I write it).

The point being, the more you talk about something (whatever accent you use) the less likely you are to do it.

Of course, the opposing view can be made that the more you talk about something the stronger your commitment is to realizing the activity, or action, through the engendering of peer pressure.

While that might work with giving up cigarettes or taking up exercise, with fiction (or any creative activity) the danger is that the precious energy that goes into getting the story on the page is dissipated into hot air. Or, even worse, some fool will respond to your ideas by trying to poke holes in them before they are fully formed. Even more deflating is the blank response of those who don’t share your excitement.

Some journalists, in particular, often fail to understand this danger, under pressure as they are to make the fish & chip wrappers of tomorrow. However, writers who care about craft aren’t just typing. They need the words and ideas to stand up to more than the passing scrutiny of the moment.

Even good interviewers like Kim Hill will routinely try and get an author to talk about what they are writing at the moment. In the last such interview she sneered at the author, “can you tell me what is about it…or are you too… superstitious?”

Maybe some are happy to talk about what they are trying to wrestle out of their brain but there are good, practical reasons not to subject unformed ideas to such threats before they are able to stand up.

Would you pull a baby from the womb just to show it off, to see if it was pretty and strong?

I once saw Ariana Huffington, the queen of blogs, try to convince Jon Stewart on the Daily Show to start blogging for her. He laughed and put a similar argument to the one I am making.

Aren’t blogs first drafts, the things you do on the way to making something fully-realized…the stuff you ultimately throw away?

He is a writer who sits in a room full of writers sharing the ideas they have worked on by themselves, deciding which ones deserve working-up until they are strong enough to see the light of day. Blogs seem to be something you toss off for the thrill of the moment.

Ariana said, no, they are about the heat of that moment, that is their point (I guess that is why so many blogs are about self-stimulation or merely lonely grizzles).

For me, here has to be something more.  And there are many, many good blogs. My favourites, with the most meaning, are by friends.

But if they’re just on an on-line journal or diary… well, I have been writing in journals and diaries for decades (all of my, rants, fears, grizzles, stories, songs, letters, ideas, sketches, doodles, portraits, music videos, poems et al. start, or end, there).

But they are genesis, not genius. A starting point that needs hard work to become meaningful to others.

There lies the conundrum for me.

If something is good, then it deserves to go full term, to learn to walk, to run, to dance, to fly…

If it could be something very good, like fiction or memoir, then you risk cutting its (or your) throat as most publishers won’t look at anything that has appeared somewhere else.

There is also a more base reality.

I love Ariana but she wanted Jon to write for nothing  (as bloggers do). That’s how she makes her money.  Jon makes his living off writing. She would be making $$ from his craft (and celebrity) by pilfering his ‘voice’.

Such is the bind for writers who are expected to blog if their work is to be published.

While I call this my first blog, it is my actually my third.

My first attempt last Friday (a reaction to a simple cartoon a friend put up on Facebook) sprawled to 2, 600 words covering history, imagination and philosophy. It is as an essay I am proud of, but it is probably a bit daunting to put up here as a first blog.

My second attempt yesterday (a memoir about the death of Elvis 36 years ago, today) is threatening to turn into my first short story in over a year. I was composing prose for it as I woke up this morning (something that hasn’t happened in many years).

So this, for better or worse – a blog about blogging – shall be my first blog (even though it is my third).

I wrote it straight out of bed this morning after a night of insomnia (which has been going on for months) where, after waking at 1am, I read 2 short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald (an author I have only just heard about, gee she is wonderful). But as I still could not sleep I got up at 2am to re-watch the latest episode of Breaking Bad (such compelling story-telling, so beautiful, so wonderfully acted. And, like Penelope Fitzgerald, totally inspirational).

My thoughts may be a tad messy or manic as a result. If you’ve read this far, I thank you for your time and interest.

Shortly, I will add links to my published fiction and less wordy stuff like my music videos and photos.

It’s nice to have a place to put them other than the box by my bed, or the corners of my head.

But for now, it is time for coffee and breakfast, and to maybe finish the first 2 blogs, if it is possible.