Standing Up

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

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

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

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

I quickly shut the door.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Beyond Doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doubting Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned away and began to dry the dishes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I started to write.

 

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Reading Minds

I used to work in a job where people read books. Some read them on their devices, but most brought along actual books. Books they loved.

This wasn’t the distant past. People also chatted, messed around on phones or flicked through magazines. Some preferred to close their eyes and escape the day. But most chose to read books.

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As a writer, I always asked what they were reading, and why. It was a good way to relax them, to take their mind off the 16-gauge needle I was about to slide into their arm. It also helped me understand readers better. Were they reading for distraction or passion, to acquire knowledge and understanding, or to simply affirm their beliefs?

Once, a woman proudly said she only read non-fiction, because she didn’t want to waste her time on things that weren’t true. She was reading a book by a famous TV medium. The irony lingered briefly in her eyes before disappearing into enthusiasm.

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One of the truisms of reading is that women read more fiction than men, and that men read less fiction as they get older. And even though I was always a big reader (and writer) of fiction, this has happened to me, accelerating with the age of demanding devices and constant distraction. Now, I have to make myself read, to regain the lost joy of reading.

I’m reading a novel about astronauts practicing to go to Mars, and another told by Shakespeare’s little brother. They’re cracking reads, full of exciting science and history, insight and humour, beauty and pain, but my phone constantly lures me away with its tantalising chimera of connection.

This morning, I avoided reading a novel by scanning an article about Quorn. It is set to become the first multi-billion dollar alt-food. It is not meat. It is not even a plant. It is an ultra-processed mould, which is not how it is marketed. I like having an alternative to meat, but anything ultra-processed is not food.

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I then read an article about how the human brain has shrunk by 20% in the last 30,000 years, mirroring the process of domestication. Domestic animals don’t need to think, we do it for them, defining their needs. Settling down into civilisation has done the same to us. We don’t need to know how to hunt and gather, so our hungry brains (which take the lion’s share of our blood and energy) have withered.

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And it’s not just food that we have outsourced. We all used to sing, tell stories, entertain and attract potential mates. We now leave that to our betters.

Algorithms can predict what we will like before we have had a chance to form an opinion. They know what will engage and enrage us.

Neanderthals had much bigger brains than modern humans. They needed it to thrive in a pretty tough environment, so they were probably cleverer than us. Which goes against our naturally self-aggrandising assumptions, since we see no Neanderthals walking in the street, or on Twitter.

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But current estimates reckon about 40% of Neanderthal DNA lives on in us, in different little bits, spread throughout the population. You and I have about 2%, but no one knows exactly what it is doing. Hopefully we possess part of their cleverness. Maybe their love of art or dress sense. Early human cave paintings in Iberia have recently been attributed to them, not us. Maybe they gave us storytelling, music; a sense of the divine. It seemed to suddenly appear in humans 50,000 years ago, when we came face-to-face with our big-brained cousins.

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Reading novels increases human empathy. This is a measurable fact. Maybe that is why women read more novels then men. That is my speculation. But I know for a fact that the people I stuck needles into for 7 years read more novels than any other type of media. They gave of their time, body and blood, for people they didn’t know. Because they cared.

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I’ve started reading novels again. Because you are what you eat, and fiction matters. Because we live in a world where a semi-literate clown can be elected to great power while spurning truth and novels.

Fiction, like a good meal, makes me feel better about myself and the world. That is something that rarely happens when I stare at a device.

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Being a Pain

People love pain. They seek it as entertainment, strive to share their hurt with the world while simultaneously blocking out the agony of those they do not care for. I’m not referring to the action movies and S&M ‘romances’ that dominate the entertainment industry, I’m thinking about the emotional turmoil that fills every story clamouring to hold an audience. Betrayals, failures, conflict and loss all plod along this troubled path to redemption.

Writers are told there is no drama without conflict, even in a humorous romantic comedy.

Beyond the entertainment industry heartfelt blogs create windows into personal pain, grief, the search for love, oncoming death, physical and mental struggle. Everywhere you look people share their pain or the pain of others. Otherwise caring people seem to have no qualms about calling down retribution on those they believe deserve it, clamouring to cast the first stone, share the petition, add volume to the tweet.

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I recently read an article about a prize for thrillers free of the torment of women. It seems a great idea. The Staunch Prize will be awarded to any thriller where no woman is beaten, stalked, raped or murdered.

I generally steer clear of thrillers. As a reader, I have always been repulsed by the infliction of violence. Yes, the device makes the tormentor more evil, ripe for retribution, but I also find the baddie getting their just desserts just as sickening. To me, there is an equivalence that cannot be ignored, and the need for it as entertainment is just as repulsive.

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Many people believe that the depiction of violence towards women in movies and books, games and TV, are the first step towards actual abuse. Study after study has found some linkage, but not for the over-whelming majority. However, for me, it doesn’t matter if little correlation is found between the consumption of violent entertainment and acting it out, the telling point is the deep-seated human need to ‘enjoy’ the fantasy of pain.

One of the quirks of this conundrum is that the victims of violence are the greatest consumers of violent fiction. Women read far more books than men, thrillers included. One explanation is that women like this fiction because it rehearses the real threat they face in society. By reading such thrillers their fear is rehearsed, guarded against, assuaged. That may be true. Maybe there is an untapped market for thrillers where no one is tormented. Or just children, animals and men. Or the environment.

But when you ally emotional pain with physical pain, it is hard not to see the need deeply embedded in all our desires for communication and entertainment.

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Gossip, tweets and status updates. The names of dead loved-ones tattooed on arms and backs, written on cars. Loss is not just consigned to a tombstone or the Day of the Dead, but must be displayed to the world at every moment, anniversary or birthday.

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If you feel pain at the actions or words of others, does sharing that pain increase, or decrease it? It depends.

Catharsis and revenge provide equal amounts of relief and turmoil.

Is watching a movie where a stranger struggles with an emotionally difficult choice any different from watching one where a woman is pursued? Are we any different from those gathering to witness a criminal or heathen torn apart in the Colosseum, or on YouTube?

Yes. And no.

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Thinking Inside the Box

I’m a little bit psychic. At least, that’s what I tell the girls when I see things before they’re revealed. And even though my daughters believe in magic 2-1, they don’t believe me. They understand the nature of the claim.

Lately, I’ve been showing visitors who stay overnight coloured boxes. Coloured boxes that portent the end of times. Green, blue, yellow, pink, orange and red; each opaque, with a dauntingly amorphous shadow. They stand in a crescent, filled with naked men and women hopeful of being chosen for a date.

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Actually, it was my partner who first showed them to her friend. Her guest was horrified, and intrigued. She had never seen so many penises at once. All lined up, eager to find favour; none the same as their neighbour. My mate, last Monday, was just as gob-smacked. He’d seen it all, but he had never seen that. Do guys all shave their pubes these days, he asked? Going by the other dating shows we’ve watched, appearance is much more important in England than in our rough-and-ready colonies.

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Naked Attraction turns dating on its head, getting contestants to choose a date based on physical appearance, bottom to top. The face and voice, those heavy carriers of personality, are the last things revealed. It is counter-intuitive; a counter-narrative that fascinates. It challenges assumptions we hear, repeat, and struggle to accept. Looks matter. And don’t. But do. Be-do.

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Male and female contestants have all rejected a person they clearly find physically attractive on hearing an unappealing accent. I mocked the Home Counties woman who didn’t want to date the naked Adonis she fancied on realising he was from the North. But I have done the same, losing all my desire for a woman I once lusted after on finally hearing how she spoke. Thankfully, you’re only young and dumb once.

Is it the answer to dating? No. Is it the end of civilisation? Many people clearly foresee that future.

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On the morning after we watched Naked Attraction with my friend a story appeared in the media detailing the record number of complaints about the show. Over 500+ people had taken the trouble to express their outrage to the authorities. The Family First Foundation had counted exactly 282 penises and 96 vulvas in one episode alone. They were so outraged at those numbers that they targeted advertising giants like Fonterra and Lotto, causing the gambling behemoth and industrial farming collective to pull their advertising from the show. According to Bob McCoskrie, the ‘state broadcaster’ was showing ‘animalistic’ porn.

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But it is not porn. There is no sex, only mildly titillating nudity. And TVNZ stopped being the state broadcaster many decades ago. I guess the complainers have been too busy counting genitalia to notice.

There is no shame in the human body. It is as beautiful, and awesome, as any other creature in the animal kingdom. Separating us from animals is unscientific, lacking in reason; a clear misreading of what we see before, and around, us. This wilful blindness is at the root of all kinds of abuse.

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I’ve only been to see a psychic once, after my parents died. She read me very well. At one point she opened her eyes, looked directly at me and said, you could do this, couldn’t you? I didn’t know how to respond. She repeated her statement, annoyed at my evasion, then she closed her eyes and continued.

We all see the unseen. Or think we can. Potential lovers, enemies, the future, the past. It sits before us, waiting to be seen, hidden in plain sight.

 

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Yuke-Yuke

I’ve always loved musical jokes.

Q. How do you know if a drummer’s knocking your door.

A. The knocking keeps speeding up and slowing down.

Q. What do you call someone who hangs out with a group of musicians?

A. A drummer.

They never get old. And like most things musical, there’s always a fair bit of snobbery involved. Music is tribal, it affirms identity. “I like this.” “But not if those dicks do.”

This was underlined when I was tracked down by a Canadian gent who is writing a history of one corner of NZ music. It wasn’t an interview, he was just buying me coffee and a muffin while I showed him photos of the mid-‘80s alt. music scene in Christchurch. We bonded over our love of history and DIY culture. But when he asked me what defined ‘real’ Flying Nun music my answer made him whip out his phone and start recording.

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I said music is like religion. It fires up firm beliefs and conflicting passions. Arguments are inevitable and unending, vicious and unbending. Like religion, bands were sneered at for not being ‘real’ Flying Nun while others were allowed into the canon.

In the same way, drummers are the whipping boys (and girls) of rock ‘n’ roll; they will always take a beating. Actually, no one makes jokes about female drummers. They are too cool for words, sexy beyond comprehension. Even the thought has me diverted.

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I first became aware of the ukulele renaissance when I worked on stories about the Play It Strange initiative founded by Mike Chunn in the early 2000s. I did lots of interviews with him as he went into schools helping kids engage with music by replacing the recorder with the ukulele. He was a nice guy, a bass player; the cleverest and sexiest type of musician, according to the ladies (and some gents). He wanted to show kids that writing songs was easy, and fun. The recorder was not easy, or fun. It was painful to play (and listen to), and it killed the love of music in generations of school children.

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The uke is a great starting point; a way into joining a band and developing the craft of composition and performance.

But some people never went beyond it. Soon, hobby groups appeared everywhere, murdering wonderful songs with ham-fisted irony. You and your unmusical mates could have a few drinks and be just like the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Except not as good. Or funny.

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And while I generally love music of all kinds, the ukulele renaissance died for me on the night I saw the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra ‘warming up’ the crowd at a rugby test in Wellington. It was raining, bitterly cold, and while the crowd scoffed chips and drank flat beer, the ‘band’ tried to warm them up by droning their way through Talking Head’s ‘Road To Nowhere’. It was just awful. The sound, the performance, the choice of song: all were poor. It was like bad sex, but worse. Much, much worse.

The ukulele had officially become the 21st century recorder.

But here’s the thing. The other day I picked up a ukulele. Tuned it up and twisted my fingers into the unfamiliar chords. A good song-book had appeared in the house and the selection was appealing. I started on Hunters & Collector’s ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ and couldn’t stop. The beautiful, deep, simplicity of that classic tempered my resolute snobbery. I was soon banging my through AC/DC, Paul Kelly and Nancy Sinatra, switching to guitar when they chords were easier for my big, fat fingers.

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Three days later I’m happy to say I love it.

But don’t tell my muso friends.

Q. What’s the difference between a ukulele and an onion?

A. No one cries if you cut a ukulele in half.