Saturday, December 31, 2011

No Mayan calendar shit here

Welcome to 2012.

2011 was not an easy year. Our points of reference for it here in Christchurch are 'the February EQ' 'the June EQ' and now 'the EQ on the 23rd of December'.

The 5.9 and 6.0 quakes on 23 Dec were demoralising. They wrote off some already-damaged houses and made others more fragile. A man i know walked home and shed tears, just grieving for the city, just grieving. Children who had seemed bulletproof throughout caved in on 23 Dec, scared to sleep, crying in the aftershocks. There was a sense of oh no, not again. Just when we were getting to a new normal.

This was the first big EQ i expereinced when i was outside walking. My vision shimmered and i sat down. People were clinging to a telegraph pole. The ground just shuddered. i had no sense of scale at all.

i suspect there have been a lot of earthquake related deaths. What happens when you live with consistently elevated levels of cortisol and adrenalin is you wear out and get sick. Your body writes cheques your brain can't cash. Your heart gives out. You can no longer fight the cancer cells.

People also talk about mental stress. People say how they are quicker to anger than they used to be. And there is more to get angry about - the war of attrition fought with the bureacracies in charge of zoning and fixing and detroying and compensating. Probably most Christchurch homeowners are embroiled in such a war, and it takes its toll. Some go bust, financially and mentally. Some take the money and leave. It is a leaner meaner city now.

i know that our years are human made things. A more natural time to start the year might be on the solstice, 1 January doesn't really mean much and calling this year 2012 won't stop the earthquakes. But i am glad to see the back of 2011.

The best i can say is that it has been a huge test of our mettle as individuals and as a community. We all have learned something about how we cope in a crisis, even if (for some of us) it is that we don't cope. The workers who did emergency psychiatric triage got some training from an overseas expert. They asked, who should we be worried about. The answer was, the people you are always worried about. Yeah, most likely, but i did notice that some of us who are not usually so robust found some inner heroism and dug silt and baked cakes and fixed walls. i think a sense of purpose galvanised some people and they found some skills. i suspect that those who do best are those who can be psychologically flexible, who can deal with uncertainty, and who can live in the moment. Helpful traits for anyone, i would think.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

To the elves

On this Christmas day i would like to thank all of the people who made this celebration possible.

i know none of them and probably never will. They made the clothes i wear, the computer i type this on, and most of the things i give and take as gifts.

It is astonishing to think i owe them so much of my life.

They are the people who took over from us in making and storing and transporting things. There was a time when we did that ourselves. Even fifty years ago there was manufacturing in this country.

Now, the makers and storers and movers are from China and the Phillipines and India and wherever labour is cheapest. The mega-companies that employ them know no national boundaries. i hear terrible things about the conditions they work in, but i don't know for sure. i do know that without them the consumer culture we have now would probably not exist.

So thank you to the real elves, who made the iPhone and the X-Box Kinect and the tinsel and the socks and the crockery we used, and the real reindeer who brought it to us and took it away again, and i wish all of you rest, and silence, and friendship, and justice.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Occupy poem

Recently i organised a poetry reading and barbecue at the local Occupy corner. i feel strongly at times that our society is deprived of the arts. And that we can occasionally hark back to an age when art was communal and we did not rely on 'big art' to sustain us.

The poetry bit didn't really come off, but the barbecue did.

However, i did write a poem for Occupy. There is some good poetry out there, on with contributions from famous people such as Lemony Snicket and Ursula Le Guin. There are great poems about tear gas and Tahrir Square and the activism of ages.

Mine turned out to be this:


If you've lived to my age you probably have a history of protest,
one way or another,
you were there for it.

Small spirit sparks
light lives
measured out in days and days and days
and the days present themselves to us,
and we live them.

And you know

In the deepest ocean trenches
tiny bright scarlet creatures
live and move in darkness

And you know

Under the loamy earth, in rhe blank rock
the shimmering labradorite
iridesces in darkness


A small spirit spark of it.

Protest is easy by the time you get to my age.
It's just saying yes in the darkness.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

i want to thank my husband for not noticing my weight loss

Seriously, my husband did not notice the first 14 kilos. He put it down to seeing me every day. My work mates noticed the first six. Even prior to my operation for the lap band i had dropped a dress size. But the Archduke only noticed once i got to about 60 kilos.

i want to put in a good word for the open blindness of marriage. He didn't notice my weight loss but then again he may not have noticed my greying hair and the random whiskers i keep pulling out of my chin, or my fashion mis-steps. And i in return have not (much) noticed his weight gain or the hair slippage. We age and change together and apart. It's the frog in the pot story, what therapists call 'news of difference'. One day you wake up and discover you are living with a stranger. That is news of difference. If you're smart, and of course provided your marriage is not abusive or destructive, you never receive the news.

These days, i have lost 17 kilos. I hover around 58 kilos. I have lost 17 cm off my waist. i am a size 12-14 depending on what garment it is. i still make some food mistakes but mostly i am comfortable. i have conquered the chain stores, which is suprisingly if superficially liberating.

i got fit enough to consider running. Here is a good guide to running for absolute beginners who have only ever run for buses and then arrive on the bus wheezing and gasping and needing to be helped into seats.

Start slower than you think you should. You will have tried running in the past and what happens is you start off at full noise and then collapse early and feel a failure. Start with a sort of fast shuffle, which is technically running because both feet are off the ground, but has a really short shuffly style. It is not elegant and it is barely faster than walking, but it doesn't exhaust you and you discover after a while you can just hit a speed that suits you and you can keep moving. Building on success, you can shuffle round the block and then speed up with your leftover energy at the end. so you arrive through the gate really running and feeling you have achieved something. After further time of this you can go faster and for longer. You realise you can just keep on and on. And now you are running.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Nada 2 ways

Thousands of words are written about God and they all fall short. But that doesn't stop our attempts to step onto the pages where 'the ink leaves only a blot'.

Here is that most refined of mystics, St John of the Cross:

nada nada nada nada nada
nada y au en el Monte nada

The best of this language points away from language. It deflects itself, tricks us with an allusion of a riddle inside a joke. It folds its arms and points both ways and says 'He went thataway!' It subverts the very moment of reading it.

You'd think i would know better, but of course i don't, so here is what i wrote, as a sort of joke really:

God is all there is
God is all there
God is all
God is

and here it is again, all in a rush, an exhalation, un petit mort.

Hah. Actually i need to confess. This form of it was not discovered in some deep meditative state. This is what it looks like when you tweet it, because Twitter doesn't do lines or paragraphs. It was a fortunate discovery however.

God is all there is God is all there God is all God is God

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Binary personality quiz

i have a love hate relationship with pop quizzes. Teen magazines used to have lots of them and still do. They are about topics such as what sort of a best friend are you, and how much do you love Justin Bieber. There are some great internet quizzes. My favourite works out how many baboons i can kill with a giant dildo.

This is a binary either/or quiz designed to reveal aspects of our personalities that may have some roots. For example, Catholic or Protestant? If you say Catholic, maybe you are mystical, enjoy pageantry, appreciate tradition, and have a feel for Latin. If you say Protestant, maybe you like a more austere style, want to question authority, and prefer a communal and level-headed way of being together with others. My idea is to do it quickly, without thinking. There are no right answers. There are just answers. Hint: the last one is probably the most important.

Here goes:

Demi or Selina?

Dior or Miyake?

Alcohol or Cannabis?

Vodka or rum?

Catholic or Protestant?

Sibelius or Tchaikovsky?

Key or Goff?

Beef or chicken?

Hanoi or Saigon?

Plato or Socrates?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On tea and the decline of Mithraism

It is not widely known, but my father was a Freemason. He left eventually due in part to creeping atheism, but during my childhood he was pretty into it and belonged to two lodges, the Royal Arch (to which his father had also belonged) and the Cake Lodge.

i particularly liked the Cake Lodge. It was as member of the Cake Lodge that my father had attained the exalted position of Steward. For this position he underwent arcane trials of which i will forever be ignorant. For the Steward performed the precise and courteous art of making the tea and serving the cakes. And the Steward was also empowered to take home the leftovers. The morning after Cake Lodge, i would awake to find a cake on my bedside cabinet - a traditional Kiwi treat, such as a Lamington or a Neenish Tart.

Even as a child i wondered about the gender aspects of this. For my mother made the tea and even baked the damn cakes and her social position never advanced one whit. It was just part of her job as wife and mother. She required no arcane training unless you count what she learned at her step mother's knee, and she received no extraordinarly thanks. It seemed that men required to be given status for what was for women quotidian, even menial.

i guess this leads to the now common and someowhat charicatured meme of men being inordinately praised for doing anything domestic. Honey, i baked a pie! Wow, well done, except that of course you used every dish in the place and spent half our week's budget - but, what the hell, it's a great pie, let's encourage him.

And this leads me quite sensibly to the decline of Mithraism. i read a book about Mithraism, which was a popular religion throughout the Roman Empire and was the main contender apart from Christianity to win citizens away from the old pagan gods. It was a men only, highly dualistic, monotheistic affair that practised social equality and was very popular among the Roman army, through which it spread. Lots of good academic words are used to ponder its decline, and the reasons Christianity replaced it. Perhaps it was too martial and strident in its strict views of good and evil. Perhaps as the Empire struggled, the army influence declined. At the margines of the Empire, other options presented themselves and Mithraism lost its impetus. Perhaps the citizenry were not ready for a classless religion where senators sat with janitors.

Well i could have told them. Mithraism died out because there was no one to make the damn tea. It was a men only religion and as i have explained above men won't make the tea unless they are given high status disproportionate to the actual task. Not only was there no one to make the tea, there was no one to organise the cleaning the blood from the temple where bulls had been sacrificed, and no one to run the children's classes and arrange the flowers and all that other stuff that women tradionally do that makes life easy and gives it a bit of class. Without those things, all there is is quaffing and lolling about.

Perhaps Freemasonry lasted so long because it recognised two things - the need for ritual and, well, bombast, and the need to get shit done. Traditionally the men did the bombast and the women did the shit. With a really hierarchical arrangement you can have both, and thus rid yourselves of the need for women. The higher up you go, the more bombast you absorb, the more you get to do shit. Like run the economy and land on the Moon. And make the tea. And then one day you get to be like some kind of 33 degree Grand Master dude, and you get to clean the dunny.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Incriminating Evidence in the boot

i will sleep when i'm dead, i guess.

Night before last my daughter's partner and friend went out and committed acts of what they called 'civil disobedience'. i cannot say more except to scatter random words around this post in a cryptic fashion. They arrived at my place late, and the friend was bleeding. i treated the wound with Betadine, old skool and brutal, but effective. Betadine is Mother's Revenge For Being a Silly Boy. It did me good in Vietnam. Then i drove them home with their incriminating evidence in the boot of my car. My daughter was amused that today's anarchists get driven around by moms, who then get up early in the morning and work.

Last night i stayed overnight at Occupy Corner in Christchurch. My husband the Archduke Piccolo asked what sort of accommodation i would have. i told him i would be sharing a tent with a young man with dreadlocks and a philosophy degree. He got sniffy about the dreadlocks. He himself has very long brown hair that tends to ringlets. i think he would be suspicious of any man who had a better head of hair.

Actually i wasn't sleeping. i was on the overnight security detail. My job was to collect water and patrol the perimeter, and hopefully talk a load of old toot at four in the morning.

When i arrived they were cleaning up the hospital grounds. They have a sharps container and gloves to pick up condoms and needles.

Water collection was a slightly frantic and clandestine affair where we carried a hundred bottles across the road and behind a building and then behind another building to find a working tap. Karin from Germany and i filled the bottles in turn, while others gave us new bottles, put tops on and put them in boxes to carry back.

i talked to some of the homeless people and street dwellers who camp with the activists. It is becoming known that you can go stay at The Occupy. i intend to try to work a way of helping with these guys and some of the others who have major social needs, who come for food and shelter and are not necessarily down with the Occupy movement. That was a big reason for staying overnight.

People came to visit and enquire, even in the middle of the night. And at about 5.30 the hospital workers started to walk past us to get to work. They and Occupy Christchurch are getting to know each other.

There had been a cold snap with rain and a chilly wind, and when i wasn't walking the perimeter i kept somewhat warm in a sleeping bag. It was my first night under the stars in many years. The sombre dark began to give way to dawn. Oyster catchers called. i watched the last star, a freckle on the cheek of the sky, behind a lattice of leaves and twigs above me. i dozed a little, and when i awoke there was colour and dimension of desperate intensity, and i felt briefly overwhelmed by it.

Today i am still tired, but not too much for thinking.

Moivng on from my previous musings on what a middle aged woman can offer the Revolution i have been thinking about the longitudinal process occasionally described as a dialectic by some commentators. It goes like this:

The thesis: early twentieth century radicalism on the left was informed by Enlightenment ideas of a common humanity and universal rights. It was positivist,rationalist (usually), progressive and often optimistic. People learned techniques of organisation and protest ranging from community building to hard out terrorism, and some strands of thought were more pragmatic than others. But there was an overarching philosophy and individuals probably found their places within it.

The antithesis: from the late 1970's onwards, this secular universalism seemed naive, eurocentric and even oppressive to many radicals, especially women and people of colour. Schisms happened. i remember some of these within the populist feminist thinking of the time. Feminist thinking struggled rather brokenly out of its socialist, rights-based past and took on the 'Third Wave', where female difference was celebrated and affirmed. The mens' movement developed. Racial and cultural differences were openly discussed and in New Zealand we moved from concerns about biculturalism towards multiculturalism. Identity politics became mainstream, a hallmark of a liberal society. Activism as a whole retrenched.

The synthesis: The politics of difference suited stable societies and gave a voice to people who had no previously been heard. But meanwhile, a set of enormous problems developed under the noses of radicals. These problems crossed all lines and involved the whole world. Globalisation, environmental collapse, the obscene excesses of capitalism, the bleak hell of consumerism, all crept up on leftist thinkers, and they were unprepared. It seems over the last ten years commentators have been saying 'Good heavens, it was Capitalism all along!' Some useful thinkers about this are Naomi Klein (especially No Logo) and Kenan Malik (From fatwa to jihad: the Rushdie Aaffair and its legacy). Beginning with the globalisation protests in the 1990's, new activism sloshed around, rediscovered anarchism and socialism, and coalesced into the gorgeous mess that is Occupy.

Yes! The Force is strong in this one! However, as an older woman (identity politics again!) i have some questions. What happened thirty years ago? Why did people lose faith in mass movements, secular universalism and Enlightenment ideas?

i can speak for some of us, i think. We women got sick of making the damn tea. Nowadays, i have little enough interest in my own opinions and i am happy making the tea. Back then i remember women who wouldn't be seen dead in the kitchen. It was serious. We needed to be heard, to work ouselves out. i notice that Occupy is somehwat male dominated in numbers, and i hope the young women of Occupy have strong voices. If they don't the movement will schism, and the political will become personal all over again. It may be similar with indigenous and minority people in Occupy. There needs to be more than tokenism, a true step away from easy western hegemony. This could be easy. There are so many ways of living and organising ourselves. Any culture could guide us. The lack of hierarchy in Occupy makes it easier for us all to think and speak for ourselves, but we need to be vigilant.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupying myself

It is hard to believe that a year ago i was preoccupied with the X Factor. Now, i am preoccupied with occupying things. In any day, i occupy a small cupboard at the hospital, some steets, and a couch. i can even occupy myself, in the Zen tradition.

In my other life, i Occupy Hagley Park when i can. i went down to Occupy Christchurch one freezing Stormageddon day with blankets and hot water bottles and things, and found four men standing ankle deep in it. They stayed. Others came and went. People fed them. When the storm stopped, they could dry out and do their own cooking and keeping warm. It's been like that - sort of a cross between a camp ground and a student flat. There are General Assemblies each evening. i go to some of them. There are maybe thirty people each evening. They use a very particpatory form of democracy designed for large groups, with hand signals and no hierarchy, just jobs to do. It is a bit mysterious for some of the older ones, especially those with Union backgrounds.

And i have been on the second march, for Labour Day. i did that for Tyler. Tyler has a microbiology degree and has been unemployed for nearly a year. He has cut his hair and shaved his beard and applied for a factory job. And Adam - Adam works in the dangerous Red Zone, for minimum wage, when they call him up, with very poor safety conditions, and studies maths and chemistry at school in his spare time. Most of the young people in my life are under- or unemployed.

The Occupiers are mostly young, tertiary educated and male. There have been several rousing speeches given at the marches from guys my age, about how we need to get out of it and support the young people to learn and do it the new way. Well, i wonder. i went 'Hmmm...' to myself, in my best Marg Simpson tones, and got to thinking about what middle aged women can offer.

Firstly, we are the 99% if anyone is. We are the food court cleaners and the office workers and the carers in dementia homes. We migrate, and support whole families back home. Life is just grind for many middle aged women. i am luckier than most.

Secondly, we are these guys' moms in spirit if not literally and we know stuff. We know how to organise things and we know lots of momsie stuff like how to make a meal with veges in it and how to mend a broken heart and how to manage money. We are women, we are wise...we get it, we have been there.

Thirdly, we are history, or at least a bit of it. The history of protest in New Zealand goes back to Parihaka of course, where Te Whiti used well thought out non violence techniques agianst the colonialists. And in 1911 a young Robert Semple stood where Aotea Square in Auckland is currently being Occupied, and spoke against the inequalities of wealth and the need for working people to stand up. My own history is from the peace movement in the 1980's. i am blessed with education. i have read from Noam to Naomi. i have been able to follow the thinking over time, and i am pleased to be learning more now.

So, my dears, thank you for welcoming me as we stand in the muddy park, in the gathering darkening chill, and discuss the future of our world by the sound of flapping tarps and the small rain falling, and the light of a dying netbook. i have some things to tell you, and some things to hear from you before the evening is out.

Monday, October 17, 2011

i turned up

On Saturday i occupied Christchurch, which is weird considering i actually live here.

i have followed the Occupy movement via Adbusters and Anonymous for some time and when the global day of occupying places came i was keen as. Unfortunately others around me did not feel the same way so it was just myself and my daughter who turned up. i felt strongly about turning up. You can blog and tweet and post and 'like' for ever, but in the end if you weren't there you weren't there, as Gertrude Stein almost said.

i had expected a post modernist gig but in the end it was fairly standard stuff. Took me back in years ...A smattering of older woman from the peace movement, Maori and Pasifika women, lots of dreadlocks, the usual intense young man with floppy hair and a megaphone. There were a few V for Vendetta masks. There was an open mic. People said more or less inspiring or useful things. A vote was held about party politics being kept out of it, but that didn't deter certain people with gold rosettes extolling the apparent genius of Milton Friedman.

At three we marched, and marched and marched - up to Westfield Mall which is the nearest Christchurch still has to a bastion of consumerism. We ran the gauntlet of sneering teenagers and got tooted at a lot, both friendly-like and not. By then there were over two hundred of us. There were some good placards. i liked 'The beginning is nigh' and 'I like kittens'. There was chanting of course. The intense young man with the floppy hair and the megaphone got the hang of spelling 'Occupy'* and the tautology club chanted 'The people united will never be divided'. By the trip back to the park we were Occupying, people were tired. i lost track of the chanting a bit. Was it 'Whoring Greeks'? or 'Boring Greens'? Oh, right, it was 'Foreign Greed'. Got it.

The atmosphere was festive and there were dear little dogs. There was no police presence to speak of, but just in case we were issued with small leaflets telling us what to do if arrested. Now, Android has an app for that called 'I'm getting arrested' (there really is an app for everything).#

Some days on, the occupation has continued and there is a live feed on facebook. Food not Bombs have brought hot chocolate. People seem cheerful and determined. All the Occupy groups in New Zealand are keeping in touch. Maybe something will come of it.

i went because several times in my life i have seen world events that indicated strongly to me that major social dn political change was imminent and imperative. And every time i have been wrong. The last time was in 2008 when i was in Malaysia and the economy of the west just collapsed. i watched this from the perspective of mainstream South East Asian media and marvelled. At last the impetus had arrived and with Obama on the horizon there was a chance we could finally take a thoughtful look at our values and our principles. i have always known our political and financial institutions are not capable of helping us with the exigencies of this age. Now, presumably it was becoming apparent to others that we needed to do things differently. i have said, humans made this. There is nothing natural or inevitable or given about these systems. They were made by people in power who had ideas and made decisions. There are many different ways to organise ourselves and our resources. We can make something new.

Of course i was wrong again. It was business as usual - more so really. i should have known that any real direction comes from the grass roots, from the 99%. And, here we are. It's not cohesive or measured but it really is getting bigger and it does seem to be diverse and thoughtful and educated, and it is attracting some serious commentary. So i can get out of the way or i can lend a hand, 'cos perhaps at last the times really are a'changin'.

* Only one 'o', sweetie

# Imagine this:
Officer: You are under arrest.
Me: But i don't have the app for that! Wait! Can i download it?
The App: You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to download any relevant or appropriate app....

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Diagonally - a simple poem

The leaves fall diagonally downwards.
The birds leap diagonally upwards.
The air is striped with the trajectories
Of birds and leaves
Falling and leaping
And leaping and falling

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Default to Cute

Colleague: Do you have any mental illness in your family?
13 year old girl: We've got dwarfs!
Me (sotto voce): Hi ho, hi ho...

We didn't have the heart to tell the dear wee thing that dwarfism is not a mental illness.

i do not have dwarfism but i am significantly short statured at about 4' 8". In the USA i am oficially a Little Person and eligible to join the LPA, the Little Persons' Association of America.

The height limit there is 4' 10". I would be considered willowy. i would be in the back row in group photos. i would be in their basktball team. i would be the Irene Van Dyk of Little People. (OK, netball then.)

Being a short statured woman has some drawbacks. When you are young, the default setting for social interactions is Cute. People (mostly men) would put their hands on their knees and say "And how are YOU today?" with beaming smiles. Honestly, i once answered that i was just wondering why the deconstructionalists want to undermine the onto-theological presence. Honestly i said that. And he said 'Oh' and walked away. Maybe now that nerds have taken over the world things are different, but at the time nobody could get their heads around Cute and Brainy at the same time. Nor could they walk and chew gum, clearly, as JFK said about Gerald Ford.*

i am the daugher of a short statured man. My father was 5' and my mother 5' 1". For my father height was a serious issue. He would tell my brother, never show your anger. A big man who is angry looks intimidating; a small man just looks funny. He had had a childhood punctuated by ridicule for his size and his intellect. He learned to drink his Harden the Fuck Up juice. i suspect it made him bitter, but he was also a careful and occasionally compassionate observer of human nature.

People talk about Small Man Syndrome and at times i comment on that ugly phrase. Would we have Black Man Syndrome or Tall Man Syndrome? i am unsure what it means, but it seems to indicate that small men have a kind of syndrome that makes them easily piqued and agressive. i wonder if anger in small men amuses or surprises or even threatens us. Maybe it is that same inability to manage two thoughts at once - we can't grasp Cute and Brainy together, nor can we grasp Small and Angry. Perhaps anger in small men is more readily seen as aggression. In a taller person the same behaviour may be seen as assertiveness, or holding the line, or making a stand. My father felt his anger would not be socially sanctioned. He had no right to those emotions. He tried to teach this to my brother for his protection in a world he saw as hostile. It was an adaptive lesson.

i guess us short people are not Smurfs, is all.

*acutally he didn't say walk.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Enough to feed a chihuahua

Actually more painful weight loss diaries.

i eat a lot of leftovers, i take them to work when i am on the afternoon shifts. i kind of collect them in small containers. Last week i made some fish pie (go Cheryl!) and put my leftovers in a small plastic container labelled Tigger. i'm not normally one for mixing human and animal dishes but this is a really old container and hasn't had Tigger or his food in it for some years. Tigger, btw is my beloved chihuahua cross. He is 13 years old, and on four different meds at different times of the day. His food is now half medication, poor wee thing. He is also on a special non-allergenic diet of lamb and rice, which i cook myself.

My husband saw the container with Tigger on it, and fed him the fish pie for dinner. As you do. Makes sense. Except that Tigger had a non-medicated dinner and i had no dinner at all.

Because, nowadays, 4 months after lap band surgery, i eat the same amount of dinner as my chihuahua.

i have lost 15 kilos and now fit into normal person clothes. i am more agile and i have started running at night. i can reach further and higher and twist around. i have a better level of fitness even without exercise, just because i am not carrying so much around with me. i have more energy. And i have hip bones and elbows and knees i had forgotten about! i am becoming all sharp and edgy! And i look at ads of TV for junk food and it all looks enormous and inedible. It's not repulsive, just impossible.

It's not all great. i have trouble with the port, which gets a bit sore, and that's not supposed to happen. i had the band too tight for a while and was uncomfortable, and i fart like a cart horse. i have occasional constipation. My skin has crapped out, but i expected that to happen. People laugh at my funny little container meals. Overall however, it was totally worth it.

60 kgs is possible for me and when i achieve it i will go to an interesting indie fashion store. Then i will consider some sort of fitness goal like a (so called) 'fun run' or a more demanding form of exercise.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fame is useful however: kakapo and penguins

On the weekend i drove for five hours and spent two nights in a motel in order to see Sirocco, the celebrity kakapo. It was totally worth it.

Kakapo are the world's bigest and probably rarest parrots. They are flightless, as is much of the avian fauna in Aotearoa, and their defence method is to freeze when frightened. They remind me in that sense of the dodos. When dodos heard the sound of other dodos being slaughtered, their response was to pop out of the burrows and have a look. They became extinct within a very short time. Kakapo have escaped extinction only by their adorable whiskers. There is a vigorous kakapo breeding programme and the numbers are current up (yes, up!) to 131.

Sirocco conspicuously failed at the breeding programme, because he had imprinted on humans and had no interest in other kakapo. Attempts to collect his sperm also failed. Sirocco was also aggressive, ambushing rangers on their way to the long drop toilet on the predator free offshore island where kakapo live. What to do with an adult male kakapo who was useless to his own species?

Then Sirocco became famous for his attempt to mate with a noted zoologist on Stephen Fry's TV prgramme Last Chance To See. This is worth watching on Youtube for the expression on Sirocco's face as he drew blood. Fame is useful however and Sirocco became the Conservation Department's official spokesbird. i follow him on twitter and facebook and marvel that there is somebody whose job it is to post updates and tweet on Sirocco's behalf. Sirocco has even tweeted me. i am dead keen on Sirocco. And lately he has left his home on Codfish Island for a nationwide tour, at selected eco locations.

I visited him at Orokanui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin, in a specially built cage where he can waddle along logs and ladders. He really likes people. He worked the room. When children tapped the glass he went over to them to interact with them. He indicated he wanted to be weighed (he gets a macadamia nut when he is weighed) and sat happily on the shoulders of Karen, his minder. He is a very cool kakapo.

Sirocco and his kind are controversial among conservationists. There is a strong argument that says why put so much effort into saving flagship species (especially the cute and cuddly) when less attractive species are ignored, and when there is little effort put into the whole picture of our whole environment and its whole future. Does a visit to Sirocco inspire anyone to make any choice at all for conservation? How does 'raising awareness' translate into activism, or consumer choice, or votes?

Another recent example is that of Happy Feet, the hapless Emperor Penguin who washed up on the shores of Aotearoa and had to be saved from ingesting sand. After being operated on, he was kept at a zoo, and transported to the southern oceans on a ship. He was released back into the sea, and only days later his transmitter had stopped working. He was feted throughout. There was a live TV feed to his den at the zoo. The website Our Far South covers his progress still. Thousands visited him. All up, he cost about $30,00 from the public purse, an amount not recoverable from zoo passes and merchandise. Some notable conservationists slapped their foreheads in frustration. But the zoo management felt that Happy Feet's story was great - boom time for them, but also great for raising awareness about our own wildlife. Hundreds of parents and children agreed. Happy Feet was adorable.

i think, for argument's sake, that both sides conflate two issues - the issue of animal rights and welfare, and the issue of conservation. Many animal rights thinkers understand this one well. For some vegan activists, the killing of any animal, for food or even because they are noxious pests, is wrong. The principles of animal rights and overcoming speciesism override the pragmatism of trying to get the environment to work. Meanwhile conservationists may be happy to wipe out pest species. They want to look after the environment and may hold the view that without a working ecosystem, there will be no individual animals to be principled about.

Sirocco is about conservation. He became a 'spokesbird' because he was unfit for more conventional kakapo purposes, namely making more kakapo. His story is carefully managed in order to publicise the kakapo breeding programme and the Department of Conservation. He lives as naturally as possible, on Codfish Island. He is a native New Zealander.

Happy Feet is about animal rights and welfare. Once he landed on the beach and swallowed a bellyful of sand, we would have been less than our best human selves if we had left him to die. Of course we want to make the positive difference for the one animal that is in front of us, the animal we can relate to. i agree with the conservationists who say that the Happy Feet experience will not encourage one person to work in conservation. But if we have more compassion, if we learn a little about one species that isn't our own, that could lead to more openness and thoughtfulness and care. And maybe then our world gets a bit bigger and we get to think about more of it and then we start to wonder how it works and then work to care for it and protect it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adventures in X Space

A while back my daughter and i were holidaying in Central Otago, near Alexandra. It wasn't the easiest of times. My father was terminally ill and he was raised in Alex. i picked wild thyme and flowers from the house he had lived in, to give to him. The landscape there is startling, red dust, schist and mica, lizards. It was hot at 30 degrees. Under this red rock ... I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

We went looking for Dead Man's Gully. We drove down narrower and narrower roads and across one bridge where there was room only for the car, the wheels were on the struts that held the bridge up. One brief swerve and we would have been in the waterless ditch. Occasional cyclists would stare at us. There was no vehicular traffic. The air was still and mirage-hot. The sky was a blue silence.

There we were, at the Crossroads. Whoahh, we went. We both knew where we were without a shadow of a doubt, in the same way true psychic phenomena is as real as read, and nothing like being spooked by scary thoughts. We took a photo of it.

You will know the story of the great bluesman Robert Johnson. He wrote everything. Every rock song ever made is the ghostly whisper of his Come on in My Kitchen, or his Love in Vain. Story has it that he was the worst guitarist ever; he was booed off stages all over the South. Then he went to the Crossroads at midnight and the Devil tuned his guitar. He came back from the Crossroads and was suddenly able to play this layered, doubled up sound that no one had ever got from a guitar before. He wrote Crossroads Blues of course, and the legend was born. Actually, i think that the Devil just told him to stop being such a wally and go home and practise, but i am a middle aged white woman and can only dabble in the blues. And his is the better story.

Thing is, every cross roads is connected to every other cross roads in the multiverse by a special twist in the space-time continuinuinum called X Space. Terry Pratchett and others discovered L Space - library space. You know how really big libraries have obscure aisles of books where no one ever goes and you can get lost and you need a ball of string to get out. i used to work in a university library. i spent time up ladders shelving nineteenth cerntury German literature in gold bound Gothic script, fabulous stuff nobody even knew was there - even back then i knew i was on the edge of an alternative reality. Walk around the corner of the shelves and you end the Bodleian, or in the Beyond section of Bed Bath and Beyond, or in a worm hole.

X Space is like that. We knew we were there, and we were anywhere, we were in Robert Johnson's world, we were solid gone. What could we do? The only thing we could. We drove on.

i tumbled to the fact that we were drving our car along the Otago Rail Trail. This is a famous cycle way that is closed to cars and not at all suitable even for off roading most of the way. i am amazed we got as far as we did. We had surely strayed. We stopped on a trail so narrow we could not go on and we could not back up, because we had gone way too far. We had to turn. Bear in mind the trail was almost the width of the car. There wre dry ditches either side. i drove and my daughter directed me. She has superb visual spatial ability and i totally trusted her, as i embarked on a six million point turn, edging the car round inch by inch.

We emerged relieved, retrospecitely scared, and slightly trippy with triumph. The only causalty was the car window, which was jammed open by red dust.

And we thanked the cosmic guardians of X Space for keeping us safe. Thank you Robert, and all those of preside over Weird Shit, and all you Rocknrollers.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The hub cap of kindness

Tomorrow is Random Acts of Kindness Day so i will expect some Random Acts.

i have sort of done some. i pick up hitch hikers. My daughter as a child spent some interesting travelling hours with the hungover and the troubled. She got to hear some great stories. It was more entertaining than the umpteenth rendition of 'Green grow the rushes oh', or even 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (and we do a mean 'Bohemian Rhapsody', a la Wayne's World).

On the day my father died i picked up the most amazing young man. i was driving to be with my father as he died and it was one of many sad trips. This young man was a philosophy graduate of the best kind. We had that terribly intense, two-souls-meeting conversation you have only with people you know you will never see again. He said to me that he knew hardly anyone he could speak with about such things, and i agreed, as we segued sweetly from ethics to metaphysics and elsewhere.

And then one fine and rosty morning i was driving to work on a busy road. A strange young man started gesticulating to me from his car in the lane beside me. He seemed to want me to pull over. i did. He got out of his performance car. He was fairly wildly pierced and tattoed, and wore a hoodie and a beanie. He wuld have been banned from shopping malls in the UK, for sure. The other notable thing about him was that he was deaf. And the other notable thing was a huge warm grin. He showed me with gestures that my hub cap had come off, and indicated that he would go and retrieve it for me. He roared away in his performane car. i waited in the frost, wondering. He came back, with my rather battered hub cap, and put it on for me, and left.

i was moved, by the genuinely Random Act, of course, and by his unlikely presentation. He defied prejudice on several levels. Great stuff.

The Hub Cap of Kindness hangs in my car port. It fell off again soon after, due to one of many confrontations with gutters. It is a good reminder not to be afraid, not to judge, to thank the guy with the big grin.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In the fridge are books.

Here in Christchurch post EQ's the arts have suffered hugely. The major venues have been destroyed and now events are held in obscure places, often school halls. i particularly mourn the loss of the School of Music, which was housed in the beautiful old convent close next to the Catholic Cathedral. There were wood panelled rooms and tiny mysterious cupboards and corridors that led to tiny mysterious staircases.

Gap filler is a disparate group of artists who have made their own venues. They started in the gaps made by buildings that has been pulled down in the central city. After the big February quake, they moved into the suburbs. They began with concerts and movies held on the wall of the Mitre 10 hardware store in Beckenham. They showed some very cool political docos. Then they used cleared rubble sites for art exhibitions, small installations and poetry readings. My favourite is the cleared site of the old Herbal Dispensary. In the middle of the wasteland is a random fridge, and in the fridge are books. It is a free book exchange; the idea is to leave a book that inspired you, and take one. It's always full and the books do change. The next project is pianos. Pianos salvaged from the School of Music are being painted bright colours and left in odd places around the city, for people to play whenever they feel like it. There is another project where 'post cards' are placed in crevices or nooks around the city - just little notes with messages to be found by strangers.

These are all very low impact, participatory events. They are never particularly well attended but they show the arts are alive here, and there is a change of vibe from the highbrow Art Experience to something anyone can get involved in. Theyr'e great. Find them on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Extra virgin snow

Snow redux.

Different this time around - a vicious and very fast southerly wind coming straight from Antarctica, blowing half a gale and making the snow land on sharp and scary angles. This time around the weather was grim and purposeful, and there wasn't the festive feel of last time. No snowboarding on the street and very little traffic. Business closed down and stores ran out of bread in the first hail storm on Sunday. There was sleet and hail and thunder and lightning.

i was on my days off from work and stayed home. i read Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. i like de Botton's massively prolix writing style in part because of his preturnaturally convoluted and adjectivally-heavy sentence structures; they involve purely gratuitous grammar (and abundant bracketed phrases), and one sentence often is long enough to take up a whole paragraph, or even half a typed page, and yet his writing remains attractive and frequently even beguiling or informative.

The sullen day, suffering already from low self esteem, gave up on itself at about 3 in the afternoon and surrendered to a long and chilly evening. i cleaned the house a bit and made casserole mostly to use the oven. It was so cold food cooled on plates even before we started on it, and our hands cooled our mugs of tea.

Today was cloudy and there was more snow and sleet. It is crunchy and delicious to walk in the pure snow. There is so little traffic of any sort there are whole expanses of extra virgin snow. Love it.

Last snowfall three weeks ago was fun and adventurous. After it, there was sunshine. Everybody played! Even us. We played a game we invented, called Legolas, named after Tolkien's elf. The idea was to walk on the snow and leave no footprints. Tigger the tiny Elven-dog was best at it. He could walk on the iced up snow and leave nothing at all. Except little yellow piss holes.*

This grim and purposeful snow has knocked around Christchurch's economy and delayed EQ recovery. It is tough in EQ damaged homes. People can't go to work and lose money. This looks like it will go on for days. When the sunshine comes again i suspect we will just be relieved.

Meanwhile, every night i thank God for my house, and i thank my house for being strong and keeping me safe and dry. Unassuming little thing, a meagre kitset job from 1939, weatheroard and with only two bedrooms and no garage, i am becoming genuine fond of it. Once again, so lucky.

i hear that Elven-piss tastes sweet to Men and Dwarves. It is what they give you for wine at Rivendell. Elves are shits really.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The mysterious ways of Dog

A while ago, in a probably somewhat lowered state of consciousness, i took to watching Dog the Bounty Hunter on late night TV. i became briefly hooked on it.

Each episode starts with metal-type music playing, and Dog swaggers towards the camera surrounded by fire, for some reason. He wears black leather and the memory of being somewhat younger and thinner. He has long blond hair in a mullet and cool black shades. He is followed by his wife Beth. Well, actually he is followed by Beth's stunning rack, which is then followed at a respectful distance by Beth. Beth also swaggers a bit and wears a lot of black. She is also, God knows why, surrounded by fire. Then come the various offsiders - sons and nephews and so on, all kitted out nicely like low rent rock stars and packing heat. And all inexplicably surrounded by fire.

The episode gets under way. There is always an early scene where the team discuss the lowlife perp they are about to chase, and they write the details on a white board in the best board room style. At this point the men wear tight black pants and wife beaters. Then they Get Dressed, putting on their cool jackets and strapping on their weapons, always shown in closeup because then you get to take them extra serious like.

What follows is sort of chaotic and one of the reasons i took to watching was the sense of barely controlled mayhem. i am very used to barely controlled mayhem, after all.

One episode involves a young woman who wants to dob in her scummy criminal boyfriend. Beth and daughter Li'l Lisa work with her. They support her to Do the Right Thing. The young woman tips off Dog and his team, who all pack some more heat and go looking for the scummy criminal boyfriend in a hotel. Queue a peculiarly Keystone Cops scene where Dog and co are going up in the lift, only to discover the SCB has gone down in the other one. A raucous race to the bottom of the building ensues. The SCB escapes and is intercepted by Li'l Lisa (Rock ON, girl!), who attacks him and delays him until the guys get there. The SCB is then bundled into a car where for his pains he gets a lecture from Dog about the error of his ways.

My favourite ep is a surprising anthropological one which is a subtle commentary on the USA's multicultural society. (Or soemthing). Dog and his team are after a Samoan perp. They enter, of all things, a Samoan ghetto. Made me feel right at home and slightly wistful actually, the sunshine, the state houses, the extended families with the fine mats on the floor and the photos of relatives crowding the damp walls.* So there they are, Dog and his team, busting the home of the Samoan perp, and they fling open the door and there's this bunch of slightly stunned Samoans, and Dog comes over all culturally sensitve. Aloha! he proclaims. Aargh! i slap my forehead. What a superb TV moment. However, blithe igonorance and rough compassion win the day and the Samoans give up their perp, who gets the usual lecture from Dog about, you got it, the error of his ways.

As a programme, Dog the Bounty Hunter has the usual bald mix of pruriance and crude moralising. Despite the lecuring, Dog and Co are in it for the money after all. i am unsure why i got into it, except that Dog is a sympathetic character with his misspent youth and his gloriously Westie family. It all feels recognisable here in En Zed. i also recognise the scenarios, having done slightly similar work. You go out there, you have a job to do, you are never sure how it is going to go, there is an element of danger, there are so many variables and you have to keep control of your bit of it or really bad shit can happen. Moreover, with Dog you get a view of an America not usually seen, not the shiny evil fictional criminal world of Law and Order, say, but real people doing their messed up best in crap circumstances. You can almost smell the cheap junk food and sweat and cats and baby sick smells that make up Western urban poverty. Reminds me of home.

Dog's name is actually Dwayne by the way. Outstanding!

* Yes, i know these are American Samoans and in New Zealand/Aotearoa wde have what used to be called Western Samoans, but the feel is the same, for a southern Palagi like me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Up with the snow set

The Sunday before last, it snowed. We get snow occasionally here, and sometimes it even settles a bit and the schools are closed and there is excitement because the whole town has a Snow Day.

This snow was way out there. Great flakes landed on the window four floors up. It began to settle on the narrowest surfaces. By morning it was five inches deep, and the coldest day here since records began. It covered the liquefaction and did the whole winter wonderland thing. Neighbours stumped through the mess to visit and swap stories. My daughter and her partner, who was wildly pumped up and wanting a mission, visited and brought me snow chains so i could go to work. i was intrepid! i drove to work with the chains on. Not many of us made it to work, mostly those with 4x4's. i gloated about my chains. i was up with the snow set! Not like one of my workmates who drove all the way to work in his Ford Festiva. A Ford Festiva! Good grief. i did so much better, i had chains. On the way home, in the middle of the night, i paid for my hubris. The chain broke, and wrapped itself around behind the wheel. i called the AA. It was not the first case of broken chains the AA guy had seen that night.

Days later the snow lingered. It half froze and iced over several times. On my street corner, young men built a snow ramp and snow boarded up it. It was their science project. It took all day and was at least seven feet tall. In the middle of the night when i went to work they had it lit with car headlights and a videocamera trained on it. Someone would board up it. Then they would rake it and spade it and look after it. Fifteen minutes later someone else would have a go. It was dead serious fun. Young men at their most focused, using the same sets of neurons that translated the Bible into Klingon.

Now there are clumps of blackened snow in shady areas. The snow mixed with liquefaction and gravel, and car emissions. But we are 10 days after it began and we still have snow!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lots of ways of stuffing up

The DSM IV TR is the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual for psychiatric illnesses. It has its origins in the 19th century and has grown over the years. There is now a sophisticated taxonomy with explanations of each disorder, and weighted symtoms. i do like taxonomies. One of my favourites is the Bristol Stool Scale. True! There is a scale for poo that goes from water to bricks. And some medical person actually thought it all up.

Anyway, i remember the old DSM III R as it was back in the day when i was at an alcohol and drug rehab centre. Each morning we would have a reading from the DSM III R as if it was the Bible. i was amused by some of the disorders. Intermittant Explosive Disorder is so visual (am i back to the Bristol Stool Scale again?). ASPD is Antisocial Personality Disorder - a good name for a heavy metal band, ASPD i mean, and we used to describe a certain style of clothing as ASPD. Now, the DSM IV TR is huge - many more disorders, 800 odd pages long, and the new DSM V is due out in 2013 and will be even bigger. Lots and lots of disorders, lots of ways of stuffing up, being sick, being unhappy. Woo - hoo.

Here is my version. This is the DSM VI.

1. Loneliness
2. Fear
3. Sadness
4. Boredom
5. Trouble.

There you go.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Whole families of beneficiaries!

Here in New Zealand UNICEF's ambassador is Hayley Westenra, a young popera star. i know people who are allergic to Hayley, but she is rather cute really and yes, i know it isn't real opera and only fit for Mother's Day CD's, but it sounds pleasant enough.

Anyway Hayley shows us how she is a Global Parent for UNICEF, and how she digs wells and buys bicycles and school books for children in the South World. There are some ads on TV.

i also do this Global Parent thing and i give enough regular money to support a village well. So far i am disappointed in my well. In the time i have been sponsoring it, it has never written me a single letter, and it must be about due to go to college by now. However, i persevere because UNICEF seems like nice people and they don't phone me all the time asking for extras like some of the other charities i support. And hopefully the well is far too busy having fun to write to me. So i am proud of my well and my contribution.

i would like to think about paying taxes in the same way. i am quite well off. i work overtime, penal rates and statutory holidays and i pay a lot of taxes. i would like to think i am generous with them. The last time i and my family were on a benefit, we got $350 a week.* Now, i support whole families of beneficiaries with my taxes! People who are unable to work, who are sick or elderly. i help! i am a National Parent! And i build roads and hospitals and schools. i rock!

There are other less straight forward things such a rehabilitation for criminals, and conservation, and R&D. There are quite a lot of things i have mixed views on. There are also some things i really don't support, such as junkets for politicians, or administrative waste. It would be quite nicer to have some choice about where my tax dollars go. We could have tick boxes. Certainly taxation is a complicated business.

However, i am not rich enough for taxation to be optional, and i have decided to be thankful for my status as Parent to the Nation. i am rich enough for that.

*This post is someone i know, who when i told him what people got on the unemployment benefit, told me in a jubilant fashion that he spends that much in a day. You should see his shoes!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Permanent solutions and temporary problems

Suffering is one of humanity's great questions. The larger shifts in our thinking have often been inspired by periods of great anxiety, an excellent example being the great defining of Jewish spirituality by the Hebrews exiled in Babylon.

For some time i have been wondering about whether or not individuals in today's western societies are as emotionally robust as they used to be. i suspect our attitude to suffering is of interest here. We often start by denying and avoiding suffering. It is natural and adaptive to avoid suffering but i wonder if we go nuts with that. We seem to think that suffering is somehow wrong. We should never suffer, we have a right to be perpetually happy, our lives must improve over time, and if we do suffer we must blame soneone else and seek to fix it so that the suffering stops. We forget that disaster is all around us and that we walk through the valley of the dhadow of death. Only a hundred years ago we kept a special baby outfit for the baby that died. We expected our environment and and workplaces to kill us. We knew our young men were expendable; they died taking the big risks for us. We understood famine and disease.

In between times we have been driven to make life better for ourselves and we have in part succeeded. The demand to stop suffering has led to better health care and to a rightful expansion of human and civil rights. But we may also have left ourselves more emotionally vulnerable.

One worrying sign is an inability to tolerate any bad feelings. People have always felt suicidal over the more unusual life crises - financial failure, terminal illness, being caught for a major crime. But people attempt suicide in the wake of transient stress - exams, relationship breakups, feeling insulted. They do not have the insight that tells us we will get over it. Signs posted on the Golden Gate Bridge (where about 30 people a year still jump) say 'Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem'. Will i ever get over it? Will i still feel like this tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year? Well, for now, i feel bad and i can't tolerate it, not at all, i never thought i would feel like this and i can't stand it. Nothing prepared me for this. It is incomprehensible and impossible.

We conflate mental illness and suffering. Maybe we don't have a mood disorder, we are just miserable and reactive. Maybe it is OK to grieve and rail and sulk for a bit. We might not need fixing. We might be best leaning into our suffering, talking back to it, asking it what message it has for us, learning and caring for ourselves. Thinking of ourselves as mentally ill denigrates our suffering and distances ourself from it. It is also moncultural, not taking into account forms of suffering that clearly don't spring from mental illness, or mental illness where people aren't suffering but just living their lives and maybe damn well enjoying them. Let us have some discernment and some practical care.

Of ourse we do not want to blame victims of adverse circumstances or discriminate against people who have mental illnesses. i don't think we unconsciously cause all of our suffering or that everything bad that happens to us is somehow our fault. If anything, i want to emphasise the sheer random weirdness and universality of suffering. Stuff happens. It's how we respond that counts. We are all in this life, all doing our best with what we've got. At times in our big history, suffering has united us. The suicide rate declined during the London blitz. We have undergone great shifts in our thinking about ourselves and our world when we have been challenged by social and environmental shifts. Maybe it is time to think about suffering again, if it helps teach us about our place in our world.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The revolution will, like, be totally televised

Two recent events interested me. The first was the revolution that occurred on 19 June. You noticed, right? No, it was not that revolution, that old thing where the proletariat overthrow the ruling classes who are then strung up by the thumbs next to the creators of the Game of Life. This was a po-mo version where individuals acting only on their own behalf used social media to gather in a creative fashion, to shout out in many different ways. This is nuts for the traditional media. A good example comes from the big London demos in March this year, where Lucy Annson of the UK Uncut group protesting about government cuts made the great statement to a journalist:

'We are a network of people who self-organise. We don't have a position on things. It's about empowering the individual to go out there and be creative'. She then said 'I am a spokesperson for myself'.*

Take the Square is a Twitter-based network inspired by the Arab Spring. They have been involved in the big protests in Madrid and Greece. Their idea is that a protest can start small, as it did in Egypt, but by the time it becomes so big it swamps a public space it is unassailable. (Not sure if these guys have heard of Tianamen Square). They planned a a world wide take-the-square revolution on 19 June. Hard to find out what happened. Here in Christchurch if you tried to Take the Square you would have to bust through the cordon, piss off the army and risk having earthquake debris fall on you. Big public spaces are a bit rare here.

Thing is, if we act for ourselves and speak for ourselves in protest, we can do lots of things. We can be flexible, creative, and inclusive. We can even have fun. Take the Critical Mass cycling jams for example. But can we change the world? Can we handle power? Would be becme victims of success if the system actually changed and some of us gained a seat at the table?

The other recent event that names this post is the death of the gorgeous Gil Scott-Heron. He was the father of rap among other things, a bluesman and a poet. He died in May. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is his most famous piece of spoken jazz. The revolution will not kill the germs that cause bad breath. CBS will not predict the results at 8.32. The revolution will not go better with Coke. It's all edge, all hope and despair, back in the early 1970's. Love it. Mean it.

Thing is, even back then i thought he was wrong. Back then i thought that for a start there was no point in having a revolution if it wasn't televised, you wave your placard for the cameras after all. i also thought, rather dimly in my youth, that the media already had it all sussed, and i was right. Consumerism is endlessly adaptive. The language of revolution and anarchy has been appropriated by hundreds of commerical images, from the poster of Omar Sharif as Che on the wall of the student flat, to the poster ad for the clothing shop that has women wearing the shop's clothes, posing para-military style in a jungle and Spanish viva! slogans in the background. The revolution meme is televised all the time.

My daughter once asked me if i was one of the first feminists. i laughed and said no, i was one of the last. What has happened to feminism? It is not finished, it has been hijacked. We feel like we've won when we can drink alcohol like men and fight like men and even have our own porn. When pop culture disses men as being childlike and impractical we can feel superior. But that's just the market, just how they want to sell shit to us, not how reality is for women or men, and not how women become themselves.

Of course everything is being televised all the time anyway, so the revolution is bound to be televised by default. Someone will catch even the tiniest revolution on CCTV or a cell camera. It is interesting that revolutionaries try so hard to be anonymous; a guide to living through the revolution has a large section on how to disguise yourself, especially online. Think of the Anonymous group. It's as if we think we are real people and not just faces on Zuckerberg's book. Somehow there is a need to be famous and private at the same time.

Gil Scott-Heron talks about the song, and i realise i am taking him too literally. He has had many years to think about it. He thinks that 'not be televised' means getting our heads right first, adjusting our attitudes, learning for ourselves. Yeah, can't argue with that.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chch EQ poem

Earth, she is restless in her sleep.
Half-dreams a million tiny hurts,
and some very big ones.
Sobbing shakes her -
Frightened and frightening
she bursts into muddy tears.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Painful weight loss diaries

On Thursday i had lap band surgery. A silicon band like a cable tie was put around the top of my stomach, with a wire and a port placed underneath my skin. In about five weeks the will be inflated with saline. It will be adjusted over and over again until it leaves me able to eat half a cup of food three times a day without feeling hungry or interested in food. For another ten days or so i will be on liquids only, and then for two weeks i will be able to eat only mush. The last two days have been water only.

For the last three weeks i took some stuff called Optifast, a weight loss supplement, along with two cups a day of light vegetables. Nothing else. i lost 5 kilos. i kinda got the hang of it and didn't suffer too much. Two days before the surgery i cheated - i ate two and a half slices of luncheon sausage and afterwards i has visions of the surgeon finding the horrible things, completely undigested, still flattish and slightly curled at the edges, in my stomach, and he would be scathing. But that was my only cheat. i turned down fudge brownies and chocolates and fish and chips and actually felt the better for not eating them.

Before that i was seen by a dietician, an exercise consultant and a psychologist for assessments. I also saw the surgeon. All of this was under the private system, so it was in pleasant rooms with National Geographics, where i bet no one threw up in the water coolers. It's a a different world where you pay for stuff. And i paid all up about $20,000.

The operation was at a private hospital. i had an ensuite room to myself and the wards were named after the First Four Ships*. There was blonded wood panelling and rosy pink carpet. i have always been suspicious of luxury. It seemed to go well however, and i came out with five interesting incisions in my stomach, as if i had been in a sword fight.

Two days later i was wracked with pain, just trying to ride through each minute of the pain, bent over with it, and eventually i rang the surgeon. He arranged for my admission to the public hospital. i spent the next night in a ward that seemed to be for medical mysteries and seriously dying people. The surgeon saw to me even though it was the weekend, and ensured i got the best stuff - even a CT scan. But it was the public system all right - tatty, grubby, noisy. It struck me as ironic that i had paid all that money and then when it went wrong, it was the public system that bailed me out.

It was gas all along. They put CO2 in my stomach for the op, and i was constipated, and it was all just gas and shit. If i may quote Timon: 'With you, Pumbaa, it's all gas'.

Home one night and then yesterday we had a 5.5 earthquake. Things fell over and i felt a bit vulnerable being post-op and still sore and very gassy. Then the lactulose began to kick in. i was on the loo when the 6.0 earthquake struck. i was dethroned, and ended up on the floor, and the cistern lid came off and splashed water all over me and the room. i pulled my pants on and made my way through the laundry to the computer room, where i crouched behind a couch. The earth rocked on all that time.

The filing cabinet had fallen over and blocked my way out. My husband had to shift it single handed. We had intermittant power and no water for a while. The rest of the day we saw neighbours, and he picked things up, and i couldn't help much. It was deja vu all over again. The quake, the screaming, the sirens, then the liquefaction comes up from under next door's porch, and the traffic jam begins. There has been a lot more damage in the city. Again, we are lucky as hell.

So why have surgery for weight loss? i have had a BMI of 37. i have been unable to fix my head and shoulder pain through osteopathy and exercise. i have high blood pressure and the next thing will be cholesterol and so on. i come from a long line of little round people, but they often live a long time. If i live till 90, i need to be healthy enough to look after myself and to continue to be responsible. i have commitments to others, and it is important to me to be useful. Service and diligence are core virtues for me, despite their unfashionable status. So that is why.

There are some mental changes already. i think much less about food and if you gave me something large i don't think i could even consider it. i have had several dreams about not eating specific foods. i had one dream where i was at a feast, and was carrying food to be served. i ate 6 snow pea shoots. In the dream i chose the snow pea shoots. Weird as.

i figure the blogosphere is full of weight loss diaries so i will not add to them in any regular way. But it was for me a remarkable decision, and worthy of a post.

* The ships that brought the first main contingents of Pakeha settlers to Christchurch. Descent from these people still carries some weight here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Destroying Leibniz

On books, or even Books.

Here are some truisms: that writing down our thoughts changes them by making them permanent, that the written word has at times been too sacred to entrust to the non-cognoscenti, that some books are considered holy, that the invention of the printing press made mass social and political movements more accessible, that a literate population is a more involved one.

And some more: that knowledge moves faster than ever, that the wisdom of the ages weighs the same on line as Lindsay Lohan's driving record, that literacy involves more than than the written word, that major social movements erupt as fast as flashmobs.

People buy fewer physical books than they did. But the physicality of books is still appealing. i still own books from way back, even daft old things like the one that predicts that before the end of the twentieth century computers will make us rich and give us more leisure time. Many were bought second hand. Our dear old Smiths book shop is gone now of curse, but it really did have dusty shelves that reached to the ceiling, and triangular ladders, and tiny rooms on the third floor.

My daughter had an art project where she needed to juxtapose two unrelated themes, in her case books and rabbits. When she got a bit multi media she wanted her rabbit to leap out of the pages of a book, rip up the pages and go free. She needed a book.

We went through the most obscure shelves, and found book after book that we thought was too precious to rip up. We had almost decided that every book was in some way sacred, a talisman, a special expression of the ideas of a person, maybe from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It seemed sacrilege. She was more reticent than i was - i have always been a bit of an iconoclast and i am defintely not a hoarder. But the deliberate destruction of a book is a serious matter. It is redolent of bad times for civil rights and freedom of thought. Remeber your Ray Bradbury. It took moral effort to choose a book. It was a little sacrifice - old art for new, the old permanence for the new ephemera. In the end we kinda took pot luck, and chose a pocket introduction to the work and life of Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz was a 17th century philosopher and mathematician who among many things worked out the binary number system and was a pioneer of rationalism. i had had the book for decades and, i am ashamed to say, never read it.

She ripped up the book and the rabbit romped through it and out of it, and little traces of Liebniz's life and thought were spead around the art page. The rest of the book went in the recycling.

And, the thing is, if you want to know more aboout Liebniz you can just wiki him in thirty seconds.

Some minor updates - no more mice, Isis Fang was given some catnip versions to enourage her but she ignores those too. And today we had a 5.5 earthquake.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Of mice

By late autumn the mice have usually set up camp in our house. In the past they have been one of the Great Plagues of Linwood, that at times have included fleas, head lice, street racers and golf balls (yep!).

i have always had mixed views on the mice. i quite like them. They have collapsible skeletons and when they are born they are so transparent you can see the milk travel into their tiny stomachs. i have been known to catch one in an ice cream container and let it loose across the road - where it probably comes staight back in again. i put bait out some winters, and hope they don't eat it. The label says it's painless. i shut my eyes as i put it down and i say a little prayer for their small speedy souls.

My daughter has claimed that mice are employed by cats. When cats want to live in a certain house with certain people, they send mice. After a while the humans give in and decide to get a cat. The cats are monitoring the household for just this very moment. When the last person to be convinced (usually the man) says wearily, OK, we will get a damn cat if you insist, they scan the statement for sarcasm. Scanning....scanning....statement free of sarcasm! They mean it! They will get one of us! The cats and mice together cheer and high five each others' paws. The mice then move on... maybe to your house?

This year we had evidence of mice. Well, actually my husband opened the linen cupboard and there was a mouse bouncing around on the towels. We investigated. The mice had burrowed right into the towels and made nests in little cavities. While i washed our entire stock of linen my husband attempted to mouse proof the cupboard. Soon the air was blue with words as he hammered and sawed and banged. Blokey fixing things always requires Words.

Meanwhile, i had a word with Isis Fang.

i invoked the ancient covenant between cat and human. i told her about how her ancestors had come to live with humans, to protect their granaries and kitchens from vermin, in exchange for food and warmth and care. As a result, cats have conquered the world, from the North African sahel to the sub-Antarctic islands, there are cats. It's been a good deal for cats.

i also reminded her of her own past. How she came to us from the animal shelter, and how we had tolerated her ripping up the lino and spraying on visitors' trousers, and how we had looked afer her expensive and complicated medical conditions. How when we got her, we were told that she was a good mouser and that she was affectionate and how both have turned out to be untrue. Thus, she lied on her CV*, and we are unimpressed, but nevertheless and against our better judgment we have forgiven her.

The point being, i told Isis Fang, it is time for her to honour her end of the bargain.

This is Isis:**

A middle aged brindled tortoise shell moggy, very neat and small, plump, lies in from of the heater like a small Uluru on the outback of our carpet, and when she speaks it is with the voice of Renee Zellwegger in Bridget Jones' Diary.

She says, in her adorable Bridget Jones voice:

Your job is to feed me and my job is to eat. It can be hours before my bowl is filled. Hours! And so what if all the exercise I get is rolling away from the heater when it gets too warm? The heater should roll away from me at my command! I know you say I'm overweight but I consider myself to be merely plumptious. Uluru is sacred after all. And there is barely enough room on the bed for both of us. I never get to sit on the hot water bottle because you've got it, and of course I have to bite your feet to stop you pushing me off it. You make me jump through that idiotic cat door and you wait ages to let me back out again. Living with you guys is not easy. You are lucky I stay here at all. I am the amazing Isis Fang. I am like a chief executive. I don't get paid for what I do, I get paid for what I might do. Or in this case, I might not do.

She was unmoved. So we bought wood and plastic containers for linen and my husband will work on lining the cupboard, and we bought a supposedly painless mouse trap, and the winter is setting in nicely. I wonder why the cats are sending us more mice? Perhaps another cat wants to live with us? That would be our revenge on Isis Fang!

* Humans never do that.

**That was a weird sentence to type!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sacred Morgue's Last Gig - a RocknRoll Epiphany

If i ever made a short film it would be about Sacred Morgue's last gig. It would be in the loose documentary style fashionable in the 1990's, more Dazed and Confused than The Runaways. There would be no particular plot, just a series of linked experiences with some characters looking for some character development.

i was raised in a smallish town in New Zealand and Sacred Morgue was its only heavy metal band. Sacred Morge was its real name, and i would use it in the film because, well, you can't improve on it. So guys, if you ever read this, you know who you are.

Their lead guitarist was my only teenage crush. It's called a crush because that's how you feel - crushed. We did a summer job together, in a group of young people. Naturally i kept my poor bruised feelings to myself and naturally he began going out with a girl with silver blonde hair, translucent skin and huge violet eyes. She was also very sweet, and she did not know her Fender from her Stratocastor. i didn't have the heart to hate her.

Fast forward a bit and Sacred Morgue is breaking up, because the bass player is going to London to make his fortune in the new indie scene there. And he could do it too, because he is better than anyone i've ever heard. So they plan their last gig. By this time the lead guitarist and i are friends and i am living out of town, so my beating heart got stilled after a time. The guy i am going out with is a friend of the band, and they plan a rock art show they like of which the town has never seen. An only slightly naive tribute to Big Dumb Rock as it was back in the day.

The hired church hall had a small stage, with the band and my guy on it, and he sat in a chair wearing suit and reading a newspaper. Also on stage was Wendy the shop mannequin, whom i will name by her real name because she is dead. Wendy was an old skool porcelain mannequin with some hair left, and she had been nicked from the basement of the shop where one of the band members worked. She wore a guitar.

The night was the usual shambles when you are young and earnest and Almost Having Fun. i did a lot of that. Like the driving round in cars thing that today is called 'boy racing'. Back then they drove around streets that they named after the parts of women. i remember thinking, shit this, i could be killed at any minute and i'm still bored. Fun is the direst thing. So the Last Gig was Almost Fun. A male friend and i decided to dance in between the songs, dancing with no music. What we didn't know was the band was in between sets. We had fifteen minutes of recorded music and a deafening din of silence. On we danced. After fifteen minutes we were knackered and we had copped our share of abuse from drunken onlookers. My friend was called a homo and some idiot even kicked him in the mouth as he was sitting outside. At the time he didn't mind. He decided he had transcended pain. This was his own rocknroll epiphany, as we were on the night, characters in search of our own development, our own special night when Something Happens, and our lives will never be the same again.

But it shows that not much has changed. Gosh, we had homophobia back in the 70's! And for a small town guy, dancing without music was definitely a homosexual act, along with laughing when sober, talking to girls, having a party on a Friday night (instead of the good straight Saturday), and, uh, sodomy i guess.

Funny, i remember nothing about the music. But presumably there was some, and if i did make a film it would be great to write music for it. So finally Sacred Morgue reached its musical climax and performed its last song. And my guy on stage got up from his chair, folded up his newspaper, flung off rather a lot of his clothes and began to dance wildly in a manner beyond even homosexuality. He grabbed Wendy's guitar and mimed fabulous air guitar frenzy. Poor Wendy fell over into the band space and broke. My guy on stage smashed the guitar and some of the stage as well. It was a moment. You could say, Well, that happened. 'Cos it did.

And the bass player went to London and was back in six months and began playing in a vaguely new agey band called Moonglow or some bloody thing, and the lead guitarist got married and had a bunch of kids and went to work in the mines in Australia, and the singer, who did this amazing sub-Robert Plant thing, stayed in the town and ran a lot, and i don't know what happened to Wendy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

'If we make the right decisions today...'

On the weekend i went to Shareanidea, an expo of ideas about the rebuilding of Christchurch's CBD after the earthquakes. It was run by the city council.

All up, 10,000 people went. The place was busy on the Sunday morning. Some of the area was divided into spaces for aspects of the rebuilding process - called life, space, move and market. People put post-it-notes with ideas on them on walls. They also logged them on computers, recorded them on Youtube videos and, for children, drew them or made them out of lego on wooden maps of the city.

i listened to Mark Quigley, our resident celebbrity geologist, talk about his own idea for the future CBD and how geological engineers can do anything provided they have time and money. People clapped throughout. i agreed with most of what he had to say.

There were lots of families. Groups of children were thinking hard about what to put on the walls, debating with the charming ernestness of ten year olds. An older man was talking to a young boy, saying 'If we make the right decisions today, it makes a difference to your future'. People acted as if they had a true stake in this city. They seemed to believe they were making a difference, and their views would be heard.

There were definite themes among the ideas. People wanted a small, green, low-rise, CBD with good space, art, and local colour and less vehicular traffic. There was not much call for green technologies as such, but they were often implicit.

In other words, lots of people think like me! i was genuinely surprised and pleased.

The woman i went with talked about how voting means little to her, but going to the expo and posting her ideas meant so much. We are seldom given a chance to say more than yes or no on a TV text poll, or vote for the next Whatever Idol. And more people voted for American Idol than in the US elections. On the weekend, Christchurch people thought they had a stake, so they got off their couches and came and said what they thought, with words and pictures and voices.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

..and the blood of unbelievers dripping...

'We will see Saladin carrying his sword, and the blood of unbelievers dripping from it'
- Osama bin Laden

What is a hero? i mean this in the sense of the Jungian archtype explored by Joseph Campbell in 'The Hero with a Thosusand Faces'.

The hero has mysterious or incongruous origins. He (he is usually male) may not know his parents or the circumstances of his birth. The birth itself may be miraculous or unusual. He may show early promise. He experiences a rebirth, or a conversion, in his early life and maybe takes a new name, or discovers his true one. He has a period of time in the wilderness where he contemplates his cause and is perhaps tested. His rise to prominence is sudden or unlikely. He is a charismatic figure. His end is as mysterious as his beginning, and there is often some doubt about it - maybe he is not really gone, maybe he will return.

Obvious heroes in Western culture are Herakles, Dionysus, and King Arthur. Jesus and Gautama fulfil the hero archetype. Some historical figures have had a heroic gloss to their stories, Frederick the Great being one. In modern literature Aragorn is a hero, as is Harry Potter.

OBL is a lamentably a hero. This is what is popularly thought about him (the detail is less important than the shape of the story:

He was born into the Binladen family (note the differnt spelling), a wealthy Americanised Arabic family with ties to US politicians and business interests (which, when it comes to oil, are often the same thing). He underwent a conversion to an austere version of Wahabism after becoming angered at the American presence in Saudi Arabia. He left his life of luxury and lived a simple lifestyle, using his wealth and contacts for his cause. Despite being well known in Jihadist circles, he really shot to fame after 9/11. Then, he became an elusive figurehead, an inspiration. Then, he died.

It is the end of his life that interests me with regard to the hero myth. The hero is often not really dead, or is resurrected. Some heroes are deemed to have died, but we await their return. Examples are King Arthur, or Frederick the Great. When England needs him most, King Arthur will return to lead the people into a golden age. When Jesus returns, of course, history ends. The death, and the return, are important.

i think that the Americans have a responsibility they may not appreciate, or may not be able to control. There is just enough doubt about bin Laden's death for mythmaking, for the hero archetype to fulfil itself. They 'buried' him at sea. We have no photos. Al Qaeda have admitted he is dead. But maybe that is a deep game. Maybe he is not really dead, maybe he will return somehow and sweep the jihadists to victory. i suspect that the mythmaking will happen no matter what the Americans do now. It disturbs me to say this, but it reminds me of neo Nazis claiming Hitler did not die in the bunker.

i think it matters because bin Laden is already such a 'made' figure. In part this because he has been in seclusion for so long; he has been a figurehead, a legend, a unifying force, a symbol. It is important how his story evolves now. Chris Hedges, in his excellent article 'Chris Hedges speaks on Osama bin Laden's death' talks about how we make the monster.

The quote above gives a hint of how bin Laden may have seen himself in history. Saladin, that humane and chivalrous leader, was another 'returning' hero. The quote comes from Scott Atran's book 'Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human'. More good thinking about the topic. Lots of good thinking out there!

i am also here totally indebted to my husband the Archduke Piccolo. The Archduke studied the hero archetype through the medium of children's literature, and many of the views above are his.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The State of Emergency has been lifted.

Over the weekend two significant events took place here - the lifting of the State of Emergency, and the coming of CERA, the Christchurch Earthquake Reconstruction Authority.

i had half forgotten we were in a State of Emergency. Life has gone on here. i have resumed walking to work. It used to be one of my pleasures, forty minutes through town and along the river bank. i would walk home after my shift ended at 11 pm.* After the earthquake happened, my work moved and the cordon was too large to walk around. Now, the cordon has shrunk enough, and some of my work is at the hospital. i figured it would take an hour to walk there.

The first time was in the daytime and it was raining. It was a stiff schlepp in the mud, and some of the route i had driven wasn't really walkable. i arrived wet through and mostly everything looked miserable. It took an hour and a quarter. The next time was in sunshine. It was still slightly weird, as everything still is here. Bits of the road surface had broken out like a teenageer's face. Great pumps and drills delved under the streets and spewed up unmentionable things. There was almost a festive atmosphere as families were out at the edge of the cordon, photographing the wreckage. i have always liked wreckage. i like how things are outside that should be inside. i like to look at structures in different ways. i like the small sights - a washstand with soap still in a dish, a tidy row of files, pot plants.

Walking back at night was different. Rats! i had heard that the city was infested with them because of the deserted food outlets. i was promised rats! i was expecting to form a circle of light with my torch and they would be blinking their red eyes and backing away slowly and then the torch would blink out and one of them would shourt "Get her!'... i saw none (rats!).

Normally on a Saturday night the town is alive with revelry. Some of it even looks like fun. (It probably isn't. And all the young women look identical. There is only so much you can do with a short skirt and high heels). But this time of course there was nobody about, because the town was all closed, and it was dark. A few of the lights were out even on the bits of street that work, and it was torchlight. i was thankful for sensible shoes, and being a girly swot i always carry a torch and a whistle and a swiss army knife and a compass and a rubber chicken.# The lack of revelry and general people-ness made me uneasy. There was one pub open on the edge of town, pooling light and warm beer smells and conversation. A solitary drunk spat and lurched off into the teetotal darkness. i kept on going, into more familiar and less damaged territory.

And now, que CERA CERA. This Authority has very wide powers. From now on it will run our lives, and nobody elected it and nobody can stop it. Truly worrying is the fact that it has no experts on it - noone who knows about disaster recovery, or geology, or community development. There is already concern that it will sell the city's assets, because that would be in keeping with the ideology of the imcumbent national government which has appointed it. There is very little mandate for community involvement, for small solutions or local participation.

There are some truly disastrous examples out there of how big, autocratic planning benefits only the wealthy few. The scariest is Hurricane Katrina. Big private interests used racial stereotyping and fear to drive out poor people from their traditional neighborhoods and bring in the rich. And this was entirely in accord with Bush administration thinking - that government exists only to fund defence. In Thailand, after the terrible tsunami, fishing villages were displaced inland and hotels for tourists were built in their stead. This is called Shock Doctrine. Some good writers on this are Naomi Klein with her book of that name, and the inspiring art critic and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit.

On a micro level, the organisation i work for has done the same thing. For some years they have planned an unpopular restructuring. Now they have used the State of Emergency to declare because of the earthquake things must change, and that they no longer need to consult about change - and, guess what, they plan to restructure us in the same way they were planning before the earthquake.

We culd have a new, clever, green, smaller Christchurch with many small smart ideas and we could study the best ideas from other disaster areas, and we could thin and talk together. And people could come and look and use our model. But we won't. There will be impatience, and hurt, and greed, and fear, and vested interests, and we won't.

Oh, i nearly forgot. The first time i walked through the city, in the rain, i saw this written on a blackboard, among the orange cones and rubble and cracked walls. i don't know if it relevant, but maybe nothing is every irrelevant:

'If the doors of Perception were cleared Everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite' - William Blake.

* i have always walked in the city at night, wherever i am. We humans are the scariest things i know, but i insist i am safe if i am confident in my step. The more women who walk, the safer we are.

# i lied about one of those things. Guess which one?**

** i think if ever i am approached by a person who has evil intent i will shout 'Have a look at THIS, motherfucker!' and i will pull out the rubber chicken and they will be so appalled they will run away. There are few things more appalling than a rubber chicken at midnight.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In old Hoi An, a kitten dies by the side of the road

Hoi An is an old and beautiful city in the middle section of Vietnam. It floods like Venice, and people boat down the streets. The buildings are the colour of butter. It is famous for its overnight tailoring. i got excited about the tailoring, my first experience of being fitted for clothes by anyone except my Mum. i frequented the rather funky Blue Sky Tailoring Company where i got silk shirts made for male family members, and a silk suit and linen pants for myself. Needless to say, i have grown out of them (see my entry, The earthquake shrank my clothes).

i was on my way back to the hotel with my bags of new tailor made clothing, and walking with me were James and Graham, both Londoners. James was a banker. He was keen to meet people and share business wisdom, and he had lots of opinions and ideas. He enjoyed bargaining and buying. Graham was a factory worker, who had travelled a lot in the South world, and had a very laissez faire attitude to other cultures. He was used to roughing it and travelled light.

On the way, we saw a kitten on the side of the road. It was raining and the kitten was wet and hunched. Its ears were huge and its face was pinched and it was clearly dying. It was a baby kitten, not a young cat, and helpless. Nobody seemed to notice it.

James and Graham argued about it. James wanted to save it, but Graham thought that was impossible. James felt that we simply couldn't do nothing, that we could at least feed it, that we could not know about the kitten and not take up the responsibility to care for it. Graham argued that Vietnam does not have the infrastructure to deal with stray animals, and without that, it would be misguided to help just one animal who will die later anyway.

On the whole, i agreed with Graham, although i didn't say much. It's dysmorphic, i said, it is going to die no matter what we do.

What's dysmorphic, asked James. Fucked, i said.

In the end, of course, we did nothing. We walked on. But the kitten wounded my heart and disturbed my thoughts. Later that night we went back down the street to have dinner. i did not want to pass the place where we saw the dying kitten. i tossed my thoughts about in my mind. Either the kitten will be there or it won't. If it is there, it will be either alive or dead. (Damn that Schrodinger!) If it is alive, it will still be sick. If it is dead, it will be (gulp!) dead. Either way i will be sad.

Well, the kitten wasn't there, but its tiny presence has lasted a long time.

For a srart, why did i use the word dysmorphic? Dysmorphic does not mean fucked. It was a word they used in a Neomatal Unit where i worked as a social worker, with sick and premature babies. A baby is described as dysmorphic if there is something wrong with its features. You have no idea what can go wrong with babies until you have seen a Neonatal Unit. i have seen babies who are further away from me chromasomally than chimpanzees, and it makes you wonder what is the definition of a human. Social work in such places requires a true compassion and a stern lack of judgment. And at times a strong stomach. Informally, such babies get called FLK's which stands for Funny Looking Kid, i regret to say. Another awful term is NFC or NFK. In the UK, NFC is Normal for Cornwall, and in New Zealand it is Normal for Kaitangata. (Kaitangata is a small coal town in South Otago). Very occasionally these pejorative terms get written up in babies' files, and naturally there is hell to pay if the parents see them and ask what they mean.

Both the informal and formal labels for babies are professionally useful for several reasons, but one reason is that they distance us from the subject. We can use our clinical terms or our humour to disance ourselves from the raw painful human stuff that just leaks out and upsets people and makes it all too hard. When i said 'dysmorphic', James and Graham were unaware of this, but i was evoking all that need for distance, for carrying on regardless, for doing the job, for surviving. You know it, that way of coping that means you drink some stiff gins in the bath and have a bit of a cry, and then get back on the next shift, rewired by that tender sense of clarity that is the hangover's special gift to the next day.

And so, the kitten undid us, with its small life and its death so small as to be invisible. What does it matter? Most countries do not have the infrastructure to manage stray animals. That sort of charity work requires a leisured middle class. From what i saw of Vietnam, its middle class is anything but leisured. i have come across versions of our Cats' Protection League in Kuala Lumpur and Port Vila but those are wealthier cities with a stronger ex-pat presence.

My response to the kitten was layered. There were the words and the analysis, but underneath there was pathos, and underneath that, the fear and revulsion that comes from sickness and death and wrongness in the world. The world should not have such things in it and i should not have to experience them. We should all be like Gautama Siddhartha, the prince, living in his palace, deliberately removed from all age and sickness and death. Except that it was his destiny to discover those things, and to leave the palace and undergo all those spiritual trials, and become the Buddha and give us the four Noble Truths.

And the first Truth is that there is suffering. And underneath the fear and revulsion there was an acknowledgement that any death, no matter how small, diminishes us, and that we call our sense of that diminishment our sadness, and that we are right to be sad, and to know that we are.