Tag Archives: blogging

By George

I started blogging two years to find a way back to the joy of writing fiction. The pattern of success and rejection that writers face in their empty room had become too much, especially as life was swelling up around me with such persistence that making up stories seemed a futile dance in front of the inevitable.

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I wanted to exercise my writing muscle, clear my mind; find that joy. I found it crafting pieces I was happy enough to share with whoever cared to read them.

This year I applied for an undergrad workshop in creative non-fiction at Victoria University, using some of my blog posts as examples of my writing. They got me in, and I loved it. So much so that I applied for the short fiction workshop. I’m reading great stories; loving talking about writing with writers.

writingAfter three weeks of exercises it has become even more apparent that non-fiction and fiction are not mutually exclusive. Two of my pieces have been drawn straight from life. One has been made up. My classmates are writing a similar mix.

On Sunday I had a crack at our latest exercise, ‘Negotiating With the Dead’; an exercise reflecting on the hypothesis that writing is motivated by a fear of, and fascination with, mortality. We had to write a 1st-person piece of prose where the dead are given voice via audio technology (a phone, a computer, radio or stereo). Given my run of writing about the subject (“love your writing but less about death, please” said one comment) I wanted to make it purely fictional. And fun.

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That morning I read a wonderful story for class by George Saunders about a hapless old man trying to off himself so he doesn’t end up shitting the bed/being a bother due to Alzheimer’s. It was inspiring in its approach, and humour. It also resonated given my father’s suffering from the disease. I was party to many conversations about ‘exit-strategies’ as we waited for his undignified end.

writI decided to write a help-desk story with the voice of the operator as the only prose. As I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was people trying to reach the dead, or the dead trying to reach the living, but once I had milked all the gags and Kafkaesque frustrations I could think of it became clear that The Helpless Desk is about a help desk for helpless ghosts.

I was very pleased with it. Even more so to have pulled it completely out of the air.

Elated, as I always am after writing, I went to bed and did something I try not to do; I checked out Facebook. An old friend had died. As I read through the tributes it became evident that it was the type of death that has begun to plague my various peer groups. I was so sad. George was a well-liked person, a true character. A lot of people were hurting across the digital ether.

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I thought back to our many conversations in our youth, when we were student-radio DJs, and live music fans; the memorable night we had to flee a massive house fire just as our private conversation was getting life-definingly interesting. WCBN_main_FM_studio,_University_of_Michigan_student_radio_stationAnd, more recently (around the time I started this blog), when in great despair about whether I would qualify to get my Haglund’s Deformity corrected, he PM-ed me regarding my bleak post-assessment status (stuck in a carpark, crying behind sunglasses… eek! Not like me to be like that, or communicate it without self-deprecating humour). It was a long message that talked about other things, conversations we had had in the past, things he had wanted to say at the time but hadn’t had the maturity or courage… it was incredibly revealing and encouraging. I was stunned and thankful; diverted from my self-absorption. Reassured that support can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Poster0015As I sat in bed on Sunday night feeling like I had failed him, I looked for that message. Was it as long and interesting as I recalled? Yes. A good 1,000+ words or more. And it was two years ago. To the day.

The co-incidence made me smile and grieve. More so having conquered an unsettled weekend wondering how I would give voice to the dead.

I wish I could be at George’s funeral tomorrow, more so at his wake. I want to be amongst my peer group from those formative years. I ache. But it is in Christchurch and I just cannot get away from Wellington. Life holds me tight as it bleeds into fiction.

In the year that surrounded the 4-month gap when my parents died 3-4 years ago, 7 people I know took their own lives. That’s a lot of pain to go around. At the time I tried hard not to look for connecting meanings and patterns, especially as they were all male and around my age. It felt like a curse I wanted shot of. How could I resolve this with having just watched both my parents struggle for life?

memory-loss-mauro-celottiI cannot be there to celebrate George’s great wit and intellect; his sensitivity, humour and life. The bouncy way he walked, the measured way he talked. But I can write this. And I can, when I feel up to it, listen to his voice on the radio shows people are sharing from Soundcloud on Facebook.

I wish he was still around. The world is a poorer place without him.

My Word

I recently started back at university for the first time in, er, 22 years (which means that some of my new classmates were not born when I last studied as a ‘mature student’ at Canterbury in 1993).

There’s a lot I could say about University, it’s a place I both love and hate. I love the seeking of knowledge and discovery, I hate(d) the teeth-grinding torture of being a young male around so many clever and fascinating woman.

MV5BMTMzMTczMzQ3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQ4MzcwMg@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_Of course, now that I’m in my ‘wise old grey-beard’ years the latter offers little distraction, it’s all about the knowledge and I’m excited as a young buck.

I’m doing a workshop in creative non-fiction, something that has developed out of this blog, started as a pathway back to my first (and eternal) love, fiction. I applied for the course on a whim, needing to be amongst the fertile minds of other writers, seeking challenges and deadlines beyond the eternally flaky self-imposed ones writers give themselves.

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Real writers, writering in Iowa

I had little idea quite what creative non-fiction is/was… but hoped it was like what I have been writing here (memoir, opinion, essays etc) over the last 18 months.

I must have got it part-way right as I am now in the third week of a limited intake course at the IIML at Victoria University with 11 colleagues, inching our way through a field of writing described as ‘non-fiction which is not necessarily true but not consciously untrue’.

They’re a great bunch and like all writing courses I have ever attended, they tend to be older and overwhelmingly female. We sit in a circle in a room with a wonderfully distracting view of Wellington city and the harbour below. Trees surround us and tuis flit back and forth throwing shadows on blinds half-pulled to stop us roasting in the autumn sun.

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Not my class(mates) but the actual classroom (and view)

Given my age (and chequered run at University) I was pretty nervous the first couple of weeks. I sweated constantly and found my voice was too quiet and fractured whenever I forced myself to add comment to the discussion. Also, given the fact that I have deliberately avoided studying English since leaving school in the mid-‘80s I struggle to follow the terms being used in analysis. That said, I am no novice, having read and written forever.

Reading out my first two exercises was torture, I was so unsure I waited to the end getting more and more worked-up in anticipation, resolving to read earlier next time to get the bloody thing over with.

I needn’t have worried; my efforts have gone down well. The tutor and my colleagues laugh at the right bits and say nice things afterwards.

Of course, it is early days, we still have our folio pieces to present (up to 10, 000 words…eek!) Once we are comfortable with each other the workshop feedback may start to resemble the torturous mix of evisceration and defensiveness portrayed so well in Girls when Hannah went to the Iowa Fiction Workshop earlier this season.

HannahWhere this will lead, I am unsure.

I will continue to write non-fiction (I have a big family story to explore for my folio which is full of mystery, and I do not know if it will work). At the same time I am reading fiction with greater gusto (which contains the greater truth, fiction or non-fiction?? There lies an external and irresolvable discussion I am keen to explore).

What I do know is that three weeks into this course I am already a much better (and faster) writer than when I started.

At least, that’s what I think today.

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To What End

Stupid Death, stupid Death,

Hope it doesn’t find you

I started blogging a year ago to clear my head of recurring themes in my life. I wanted to use it like a journal, making sketches of things that take my fancy, to salve recurring fears, to beat a pathway out of the clusterhump of grief that has surrounded my existence in the last few years and stroll back into the arms of fiction.

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I’m loathe to list it all that has happened, it’s all been referred to in various blogs over the year, and I have always intended to (and managed to) write about other things.

But it’s been a funny 10 days or so and some things can’t be avoided.

On Sunday morning, as I lay in the darkness, scrolling through news sites I saw an article about a woman I briefly met about 8 years ago. She’s a very distinctive ex-pat Brazilian model who has just attained a degree in psychology (something she was doing part-time when I met her at a party of Brazilian ex-pats in Auckland, all those years ago).

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Grace on the job

When I met her, I was working in television, doing a programme on Brazilian food. It’s was a great week and I ate many things I had never tried before. But that is not this story, and she wasn’t on Stuff because she had finished a degree. The point was she was familiar to people, and was dedicating her degree to her husband, who died 2 years ago.

Reading that, many parts of my life converged and I immediately wanted to leap out of bed and start writing it out of my head. I knew I would not be able to rest until I did it. But it was 6am on a cold winter morning and my 6 year-old would soon be clambering in to join me.

So I waited and she joined me within minutes, complaining of a nightmare where giants wanted to eat her. I cuddled, listened, diverted by saying it was just a bad dream and could she remember any good dreams? She smiled and said, yeah, she had one where her princess castle had turned into a rocket ship. With a TV! It was AWESOME!!!

But my self-congratulation at diversion was short-lived as she immediately changed back to her sad tone and said her snuggles had bad dreams, too. Gorilla Lilli had dreamed she/he was a baby and …and…a hyena was trying to eat him/her (Gorilla Lilli is a boy AND a girl). While Bucky (a giraffe/something hybrid) had dreamed of being chased by tigers. I kept quiet, a little shocked, letting the story continue, while she danced the two soft toys on the bed singing the song at the top of this blog.

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Bucky and Gorilla Lilli

Stunned, I said I had to get up to go to the toilet and wrote down the musical refrain.

The thing is, 10 days before that I had one of those dreams that affects your whole day. Someone I didn’t recognize had come to me, claiming to be someone I knew who had died in the Christchurch earthquake. She was so sincere, I didn’t want to contradict her. But, even in the dream, I was unsettled.

That day, I worked in a venue that was, likewise, unsettling. The weekend before an adventurous university student had stepped onto a skylight, falling through onto the hard floor 10m below. While he had not died immediately there was still a pall over the place from the stupid, accidental death. The skylight he went through had not yet been replaced, with only a bit of loose plastic keeping the rain and hail from our heads.

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The skylights

Throughout the day, workmates and members of the public quietly looked up to the flapping plastic and down to the floor at a gaffer tape X.

I so wanted to pull it off.

The next day I was working at a different venue, one where the roof, co-incidentally, had just been fixed to remedy persistent leaks. There is no other connection to the previous day. But something happened, linking the narrative in my head.

I had just put the needle in a donor’s arm and gone to the next donor (it was a busy day and we were short-staffed due to illness). When I turned to look at the donor I had just left I saw he had fainted, eyes rolled back, tongue pushed forward, looking like death. I called for help and as soon as I got to him he stared to fit, arms flapping; body flexing. I threw myself on his arm to prevent the needle from doing damage. As my colleagues put themselves on his other limbs I pulled out the needle, doing everything not to be stabbed (or stab him). He has big and there weren’t enough of us, so his arm became loose, spraying blood all around.

Of course, we exuded calm and control, not wanting to distress the other donors, and he soon came round with a smile. However, it was one of the worst faints I have seen in my 5 years as a phlebotomist, and I was wrecked for the rest of the shift.

The following day was a day off. And despite the continually foul stormy weather, I headed to the pool to aqua-jog away the stress. As I waited for the bus, a good friend called who needed to talk. She/he was distressed, facing an awfully mortal health scare, unable to talk to anyone else. I listened to their distress, knowing there was little I could say. Awaiting results from tests, I was sworn to secrecy.

The next day I crashed hard. Exhausted, tonsils swollen, black rings under my eyes, I was certain I was coming down with one of the myriad of ailments that has taken out all my colleagues over the previous month. But with rest, and the news that my friend’s results were clear (plus a bottle of beautifully medicinal cider each day of the weekend) my body rallied and I was not taken by any lurgy.

Nevertheless, on the Monday night after work I fell asleep as soon as my daughter was in bed, waking to the noise of a strange sit-com featuring Sarah Michelle Geller and Robin Williams. It was set in an ad agency and they were trying to re-brand Australia to some densely comic Australians. It was pretty funny. I hadn’t heard of the show and was surprised to see Robin Williams doing TV.

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The Crazy Ones

The next day, as I aqua-jogged in the pool, rehabbing the ankle and Achilles I had surgery on over summer I thought about the challenging 3 days of the previous week. How each illustrated how close we are to not being here. How my friend’s scare was by far the worst. How 2 years ago, as I watched my parents struggle for life (and the release of death) over a few short months, a mix of 6 old colleagues/friends/acquaintances from various past lives had all chosen suicide. How could such a cluster happen? And why…

Though they seemed randomly connected (all male, all around my age), I know that we are built to inject meaning into seemingly-related events.

The next-to-last was the closest, a former bandmate from my formative years. The day before his funeral a colleague had picked up a guitar pick from the floor of the hall where we were working, saying to me, ‘you’re a musician, you must have a use for this.’ I took it with me to Auckland, and when my (then) 4 year-old daughter insisted on viewing Stephen in his coffin, I gave her the guitar pick to place with him.

Later, at his wake, while my daughter played and ate food, I uncovered the final stanza of this inexplicable group. A friend’s partner had lost her fashion-shoot photographer to suicide in the months before. As he said his name I knew that I would know him. What I didn’t know was that Craig had married the Brazilian model I had met at that party in Auckland. Small world. Strange life.

When I got out of the pool last Tuesday after thinking about that strange year, I checked my phone, succumbing to dumb addiction. That’s when I saw that Robin Williams had died.

I felt sad, yet unsurprised. Not because of the co-incidences. More because I had been thinking of that year of loss of those I had known. How it sat in such a strange cluster. Which thankfully ended. Why? Why?!

When I came back to bed and my daughter on Sunday morning, I asked about the Stupid Death song… had she made it up? No, she said, it’s from Horrible Histories! I was so relieved.

Craig was a wild-card, a crack-up, full of life. Stephen was clever and caring; sharing so much beauty with the world.

There’s a Chinese saying I am fond of, ‘no co-incidence, no story’.

I don’t believe that gaffer tape X was marking where the student fell. It was for something else, surely.

People chose death for different reasons. Everyone who expressed pain and loss (or anger) when the beloved Mork left us looked to different, personal explanations.

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Rocket-ship Castle (TV not included)

When, later on Sunday, my daughter went to stay with her mother for the next 2 weeks, I knew what I had to write. As soon as she went I started bashing it out but it was too bleak, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to show this face to the world, it would serve no good. But why did I feel this need, to what end?

Instead I went to the couch and dozed to the bland noise of silence. I awoke feeling awful. The only thing I could do was write or exercise, and as I still could not face this topic, I marched off to the beach to stretch-out my slowly recovering Achilles.

At the top of the path down to the sand, full of anxiety and impotent distress, I found this new piece of graffito.

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At Bay

I think I laughed.

I had something difficult to write. It’s taken a bit. But some things can’t be avoided.

Second Thoughts

Today is a special day. I feel caught at the edge of something; marooned in the calm swell between past and approaching waves.

Why? Because I am exhausted and lost.

I have just come back from taking my daughter to the airport to fly off to visit family. She will have a great time, but as she had been with her mother for a week, the brief minutes together have mixed with my bone-wary exhaustion leaving me adrift in a cold, grey sea.

I know why my body is wary and trembling, giving rise to some loneliness and despair. It’s most probably because I have been working non-stop day and night in jobs which require levels of physical exertion I am probably not yet fit for (something I hate to admit).

It’s 5 and a half months since the operation to fix the Haglund’s Deformity on my heel and though I try to be patient and not think about it, there hasn’t been a moment when I could honesty say that I feel less pain and exhaustion than before the operation. No, I lie. I have many times marvelled at the improved movement and lack of pain, but each time that has happened I have had to remind myself that I’m on painkillers so have no real idea.

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Do I regret the procedure? No. I won’t allow that thought. Do I hate my jobs? No, they are enjoyable and rewarding on so many levels. Do I yearn for a relationship? No, not yet. I need time to heel on all levels.

With my girl gone to have fun I decided to do something I haven’t done in ages; wander around town, looking in second-hand bookshops. It’s not like I wanted to buy any books (I have so many still in boxes), but I just wanted to be free of my thoughts and look for the author I am presently obsessed with, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s a wonderful, but unfashionable, writer and her books are never on the shelves. That, of course, could be read as a sign of the strength of her work; people hold on to books they like.

First, I tried Pegasus Books in the Left Bank of Wellington’s Cuba Mall.

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It is where I walked on crutches in January, finding a copy of The Gate of Angels, which I am reading at the moment. It’s a choice wee book and I am reading it as slowly as possible, savouring each word and image. It has the thing I require of every book I read, a great opening line (“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?”).

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But she was not on the shelf, so I went to look for Nicholson Baker, who was also absent, however I did spot a copy of John Banville’s, The Sea, something I read when it won the Booker in 2005. I loved it at the time and something about it has stayed with me. I checked the opening line (“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”) I wanted it.

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I checked the price, $15, which seemed steep for a second-hand book I had already read. I put it back and kept looking, but returned three times to re-read the opening paragraph. The beauty of the craft was as compelling as Fitzgerald. After turning to glare at the unthinking woman who twice pushed past me while talking to her companion, both times rubbing her backside against mine (if I did it to her, would it not be sexual assault? Never mind, never mind…), I decided that in my fractured state I was being impulsive, so I left the deliciously book-filled shelves and headed for Arty Bees on Manners Street.

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Yet again, no Baker or Fitzgerald. But there was The Sea, in a different (and cheaper) edition. I read the first page again.

I so wanted it. Not just because it sparked my mind, making me want to write, but because I was intent on buying myself something to mark the day; the last day before I became a year older.

As I walked back towards Pegasus Books, reminiscing about how hard it was to cover this distance 3 months ago when I was still on crutches (noting that for all my moments of despair, I was making progress), I spotted a second-hand book shop I had never seen before; The Ferret Bookshop.

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It’s much smaller than the other two but amongst the fiction I found The Sea, in the same edition I read back when I lived overlooking the sea, on a city island north of my present home. While it wasn’t in as good a nick, it was only $10. Score!

As I went to buy it and head home to rest I noticed another book I had read at the same place by the sea, 10 years ago; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. Like Banville’s novel, this biography had slipped inside me in unexpected ways; partly because of the subject but also, as I have come to realise, because Tomalin is a great biographer who I adore (Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mansfield, Austen… not to mention a biography of Dickens’ secret lover, now the film The Invisible Woman).

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Pepys is like no other writer. Yes, he was writing (secretly) close to great people and events, but it is his startling emotional honesty that compels interest and keeps him relevant. A man of his times, he wrote in code fearing discovery, joyfully recording his sexual ‘conquests’ which we now read as sexual assaults.

And through this, he wrote and lived with the greatest of pain, enduring a horrific and dangerous operation to remove crippling bladder stones. I think of this often, especially when my relatively minor pain chips away at my resolve.

Through the Great Fire and plagues, Restoration surgery, and the distractions of the court of Charles II, he was compelled to examine himself in a way which is stunningly modern.

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Um, I’ve changed my mind

At $15 I had to have this book, too.

As I have mentioned many times, I am awash in the competing currents of fiction and creative non-fiction, pulled one way, then the other, unsure where I am heading, certain they are part of the same body.

Some writers write for money, and the physical sustenance it gives. But most, I believe, write because it is like breathing, and they don’t want to drown.

$25 has purchased me the greatest of birthday presents, and I couldn’t be happier.

I am no clearer which way I am heading, if I’m caught in a rip or heading for paradise. But sometimes, being at sea is the only place to be.

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Thwarted Action

I woke early this morning with the intention of writing a new short story. It was going to be a fast first-draft 1000 -1500 word ANZAC Day-themed piece of speculative fiction for a competition on a New Zealand SpecFic website for ANZAC Day (the day when Australians and New Zealanders commemorate the loss and sacrifice of war).

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Dawn Service at Gallipoli Cove

Although I have had soul-draining week at work due to cock-ups and short-staffing, and will be working this afternoon and evening on this sacred holiday, (it’s sport, mate, Aussie Rules, so the usual restrictive laws don’t apply here, digger) I wanted to bash out a piece of fiction using the skills I’ve been trying to develop through blogging.

Last night, I was nodding off by 19:30, rousing myself to stay awake so I could get a good night’s kip before rising early to make the most of the time when my mind is most active (I’m definitely a morning writer). Through the night I woke every hour or two from dreams that had nothing to do with the story but seemed to focus on the paradise where I used to live. I was in the house where on my first morning there I saw a pod of orcas swim past my kitchen window, a dream-like vision that actually happened.

In the dreams I was climbing around the coastal rocks of my former island home with sea lions and pups, staying well clear of their teeth. Bumping into my former partner, pretending everything was cool, taking my first run after the operation I had on my Achilles’ and heel 5 months ago, feeling naughty and dangerous.

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An active mind never sleeps

While dreams have been great food for my fiction, none of these played into the story forming in my head. Nevertheless, as I woke from these (for me) startling images, a voice and a story started forming, quickly followed by a tone and a likely plot.

By 06:30 is was up, determined to carve out a narrative of a young girl in South Canterbury setting off to find her brother fighting the Bosch somewhere over the Alps. She had crafted a death ray on her farm, and needed to give it to him before the war ended. I had 3 or 4 hours before I had to be at work. The house was cold but I went straight to the computer and made my fatal mistake.

Writing is a fascinating challenge. For the overwhelming majority of writers, fiction is more pain than reward. But acknowledging that reality is not a ‘poor me’ statement (as anyone who plods away at the craft will know). It’s simply something you just have to do.

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Is there a middle way?

I have said many times that blogging is my attempt to find a way through numerous barriers, across the no-man’s-land to fiction. But like anything involving sacrifice or reward it takes many futile attempts. The more I blog, the more I want to blog. My brain writes them every day. But at the same time, the more passionate becomes my need to explore the truths of fiction.

I wrote my last piece of fiction about a month ago and it made me feel bullet-proof for days. It was a piece of speculative erotic fiction written to order for a NZ ‘zine. I worked on it right up to the deadline, got it strong and polished then went to submit it. As always, I re-checked the publication’s requirements as every publisher has different rules. That’s when I realised that they had cut their word-length by 1000 words since I was published. Man, I felt like sacking my personal assistant on the spot (no matter how good she looked doing the filing… and if I had one). It was too late to take an axe to my story. What a wasted effort.

Of course, no matter how much a writer needs a personal assistant, or an editor, only very few have them. You do it all yourself. Which is both a strength and a weakness.

Despite being well over the word limit I submitted the story anyway. No point in laying down dead in no-man’s-land. Once I got the rejection I would extend it into the bigger story it felt it wanted to be and find a publisher, hopefully off-shore.

So this morning, with this snafu in mind, and as people gathered at Dawn Services across NZ in the cold and dark, I decided that before I carved out my rushed ANZAC tale, I would thoroughly check the competition requirements.

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Happy belated 450th Birthday, Bill!

That was my mistake. If I hadn’t, the story would have got writ. Instead, I grumpily got up, did the washing and vacuuming cursing my constant tiredness and stupidity.

While I had read the deadline as midnight tonight, the stated deadline was “Midnight 25 April NZST”. Not fatal, but questionable. I furiously googled whether that would mean the deadline was to come or had passed. I found no consensus. Like a battle, midnight could be the start or the end of the day.

This did not put me off; resilience is as essential in writing as it is in life. I would write and submit it anyway; taking the same philosophical approach I had with my story last month. After all, unlike many competitions, this one was free to enter and I would get a good wee story out of it. However, as I looked deeper I found that in order to enter you had to join the SpecLit society for a (recurring) fee of $30.

That’s what turned me from that task and towards this blog.

Writing is a battle where, even though the pen is mightier than the sword, no-one dies. Well, there are exceptions, of course. Countless people have been killed or condemned for putting pen to paper. But today, my society remembers those who took up the sword. I chose not to join them but to take up the pen instead.

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I heart fountain pens (much better for stabbing)

Last year I took my daughter to the local Dawn Service and blogged about it in A Post-Rugby Post. It was an interesting day.

I am a committed pacifist who will never kill a stranger in a foreign land just because someone told me to.

But that’s another subject for another day. And there are other stories to tell.

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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.

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.