Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shopping can kill you

'Tomorrow morning we will release our sales numbers for the month of November. This event is overshadowed by the tragic death of Jdimytai Damour at our Valley Stream, New York, store on November 28....
           - Statement from the President of the Northeast Division, Walmart, USA (December 3, 2008)

One of the tragic features of Jdimytai Damour's death was that he died trying to save two lives.

He was a casual worker at Walmart, earning probably $8 an hour, part of a workforce so casualised they work mostly under 28 hours a week and get no employee benefits. Many of them are on welfare, to top up unsustainably low wages. The day of his death, 28 November, was Black Friday in the USA. It is so named because it is when many shops go into the black for the first time that year, and it is a shopping frenzy of low prices and long hours. 2008 was an especially desperate year, as the financial crisis bit into middle American consumerism. And of course it is ironic that Black Friday comes the day after Thanksgiving. Perhaps we just want more to give thanks for.

On that day Leana Lockley, five months pregnant, lined up with her family members at 1 am, waiting for the store to open at 5. When the doors opened, Leana was picked up in the stampede and carried forward, about to be crushed. The only thing that stood in the way was Jdimytai Damour. Jdimytai was employed that morning to open the doors. A large man, but with no security or defence experience, he tried to keep the crowd away from the fallen Leana. He was pushed to his knees and collapsed over her body, dying as the crowd jostled over him.

Well, don't get me started on Walmart. If Walmart ever comes to my town i will engage in civil disobedience. The Walton family earn more than the entire bottom 40% of Americans. Walmart industrial relations are characterised by barely legal or even illegal terms and conditions, bullying and sexual harassment. The arm of Walmart stretches across the globe. A recent fire in Pakistan was blamed on deadlines set by Walmart for manufacturing. They are also the biggest employer in the USA - a poor lookout for an economy where people are valued more as consumers than as producers. How much can you consume on $8 an hour? This year, on Black Friday, Walmart workers struck. Brave souls.

There have been other Black Friday incidents of human ghastliness. Two shoppers in a Toys R Us actually pulled guns on each other while fighting over a toy. Also in a Toys R Us, a woman cut in line in front of hundreds of other shoppers and threatened to shoot people when they protested. Her comment afterwards was revealing: other people were cutting in, she said, and anyway she had to get that toy for her child because if she came a day later it wouldn't be there. Sounds reasonable, in her head at least.

i could sneer. i could. Except i would do better to remember some of my own actions. Toys do bring out some weird shit in people. We cannot tolerate the notion our child may be disappointed. We fantasise about our child playing for hours with the special toy - and incidentally leaving us alone while they do it. One Christmas i drove to the absolute nether end of town before i finally found what must have been the world's very last Snoozem. And when i began my current job i discovered the wonders of overtime. With one nice fat paycheck from working two statutory holidays i headed to the Boxing Day sales. i was carless at the time, and so i took the bus there and a taxi home with a vacuum cleaner, a stereo, and some other wonderful shit i can't even remember. The Boxing Day sales are our version of Black Friday. Nobody has died as yet, but the shops are open longer than usual and they are very crowded. Some people have their Christmas on Boxing Day, when the presents are cheaper.

So begins the cycle of Grneed. This is my word for the combination of greed and need. Greed begets need. We need to pay off our whopping great mortgage on the gorgeous house we bought when we knew it was at the very edge of our budget, but thought we could manage until someone's hours got cut to half time. Now we wonder if it was worth it, but we're stuck, and with the gorgeous house we also could do with this wonderful dining suite, so off we go again.

i cannot blame Leana Lockley for standing in line at 1 am any more than i can blame Jdimytai Damour for earning $8 an hour. And the bizarre thing about the comment from the woman who threatened to shoot people in order to get a toy, is that it is not so bizarre. It is childish and self centred to say, effectively, 'But I wanted it', but that is what we are taught to say, when we are advertised at thousands of times a day and told only a very limited number of things about our economy and our place in it. More particularly, i cannot expect the North world's more impoverished to take the moral high ground when those who are well educated and purportedly more sphisticated also sleepwalk towards the next piece of material crap. It's just better smelling crap.

Read the quote above from the Walmart president. This person was being disengenuous. Walmarts November profits were not overshadowed by Jdimytai's tragic death. It was business as usual in 2008 and it still is.

Friday, December 21, 2012

More about reptilian shapeshifters

Since the world was supposed to end yesterday i thought it would be a good time to talk about reptilian shapeshifters.

i had no idea how popular reptilian shapeshifters are until venturing into the murky world of today's conspiracy theories. The Truth really is so out there. 

Conspiracy theories used to be simple, back in my day. There were three main themes of aliens, secret societies and eschatology. i have a bootleg copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, dreadful thing, which at the time i got it was nearly unobtainable. i began a masters degree on occult and esoteric practices in New Zealand, and spent one summer hitch hiking around New Zealand looking for old occultists. i interviewed the Witch of Clinton and talked to second generation people from the orignal Golden Dawn spinoff Temple of Smaragdum Thalasses, which became Whare Ra, in Havelock North. The temple there still exists. But i had never heard of reptilian shapeshifters. And i never finished the masters thesis - i went to Wellington and became a government bureaucrat instead. Now there's some food for conspiracy. My attempt to attain the Sanctum Sanctorum of actual governent policy did my head in.

Conspiracy theories are shifty buggers and they align strangely. So we have the NWO (New World Order) with its history in the far right, communism and the United Nations elliding quite naturally with the return of Christ, angels, and aliens including the nearly ubiquitous reptilian shapeshifter thingies. Most public figures are reptilians, according to these guys. The reptilians either apear in human form or insert themselves into human bodies, rather like the Slitheen, from the planet Anaphylactictishox (or something) in Dr Who. There is proof. The proof seems to be mainly from photographs where reptilian features supposedly shift through people's faces. What is more astounding is there are also groups who are set on disproving the reptilian shapeshifter theories. Like, these theories need disproving?

One of the most widely known reptilian shapeshifters is of course the Queen. There is evidence against this, and here it is in three points:

1. The Queen is clearly controlled by evil corgis, and therefore she is merely the puppet of very smart reptilians with technology advanced enough to enter the bodies of small dogs. This is my theory.
2. Queen Victoria was a werewolf (we are now back to Dr Who, so keep up), therefore her descendents are naturally werewolves, and it is impossible according to al the laws of decent fictional narrative to be a werewolf and a reptilian shapeshifter at the same time. This is my daughter's theory.
3. This theory was advanced by my husband the Archduke Piccolo and therefore is subtle and complex, so pay attention. The Queen usually remains silent on matters of state, but when she was introduced to the issues surrounding the 2008 financial crisis by Britain's politicians, she spoke out. She asked a question to the effect of, why did you let this happen. A reptilian shapeshifter would have kept schtumm, because of course they were behind the financial crisis in the first place.

And so, even though the world didn't end and aliens didn't spew out of mountains, they walk among us still.

Friday, December 14, 2012

An essay against lawns

We would walk in Porrit Park, in the evenings. We would cross the bridge over the stream and wander beside it around the sports fields, following the tree line, and then through a spinney and across the car park - and there - over the rise - there was the view. We would look down to the river, and the paradise shelducks and the houses on the other side, and the mallards would call, and we could hear voices and music from the houses, and we would be at peace. We would breathe out. We would know where we were.

It was of course a completely unnatural environment. The river itself was drained and tamed swamp. The park with its trees and swards of lawn was for rugby and hockey. The trees were planted in lines. The rise of land that gave us the view of the river was made for the purpose. i write it all in the past tense because the park is now destroyed by the earthquakes, riven with deep cracks and awash with liquefaction. The river has spoken. It has told us it will no longer be confined. But at the time of walking, it was all redolent with rightness, speaking to us of our own deep history.

There is a view, held by thinkers like EO Wilson, my favourite ecologist and a world expert on ants, that humans and their predecessors evolved for park land. We like to stand on a rise and look over a landscape with water, grass and trees. Water for food and transport, trees for shelter and food, grass for running down prey and the rise to spot our enemies. It feels right, even in suburban Christchurch.

Our love of park land may be one of our undoings, because it has lead to a mass taming of the land around us, and a narrowing of our aesthetic sensibilities about the natural world. And even more so because park land is costly to the environment.

Modern park land reaches its creative nadir in the lawn. i am against lawns. Lawns are two dimensional, monocultural, and above all bourgeois. New Zealand housing tended to follow US models, which is why we have bungalows for example, and stand alone houses with sections. We colonised the place as if there was endless room, as if every family could have its own little patch of land, which for a long time, it could. That's very American. Lawns in their modern form are also American, designed first in the nineteenth century as the middle class grew and wanted to show their new wealth. The idea was to present a street frontage that was uniform, in tune with the whole neighbourhood, and that displayed the house and its accoutrements. Now, turf grass is the most common cultivated and irrigated 'crop' in the USA. Lawns rule even in the sandy Floridian soils and the rocky old Rockies. Here we have followed that trend, although with less expansiveness. Even here though our lawns cost a fortune in water and labour and turf-related products. They are environmental dead weights. Somehow also the state of your lawn maps onto your social status. Stop mowing the damn thing and find out what your neighbours really think of you.

Meanwhile, the vegetable garden became relegated to the back of the house, if it existed at all. At some point mid last century, we decided vegetables were aesthetically unpleasant. Perhaps we did not want to be reminded of the production of food. We wanted to separate ourselves out as consumers and producers. We wanted to think of food coming to us packaged, presented - no wonder it is called 'produce'.

i'm not that great on gardening. i wish i liked it. There's something about being a middle aged woman that you're supposed to like gardening. Gardening strikes me as more bloody postivism. You dig and tame and distort the earth, and haze it with chemicals and shove things into it that were meant to thrive thousands of miles away. Personally i think older women get our hands into the soil as a precursor to putting ourselves in there. We experiment a little with the grave as we dig and turn it over.

i have however reached some sort of rapprochement with my patch of land, a bit of give and take, some sensitivity at last on my part. For a start, anything that gets me out of the horrible supermarket and making some choices about my food has got to be good for me. Gardening is a blow against the empire - or at least a tiny chink the armour of Birdseye and Unilever and the forty odd companies that run the entire global food system. And the more edible stuff i grown the more diverse my patch is and the more fun. i have containers full of dwarf beans instead of flowers. i am attempting more berries, and how lovely is a blueberry bush with its pretty variegated leaves, its sweet white flowers and its healthful fruit.

There is a bit of an anti-lawn movement. Michael Pollan wrote an article called The Case Against Lawns in the New York Times in 1989 and it's worth a look for its commentary on US social history as much as anything else. Since then he has blogged on how he has gradually developed his land in more useful, three dimensional ways, and he has sparked some good debate.

Me, i still have some lawn although we would not make House and Garden*. i do pick up the dog poo and my husband the Archduke dutifully mows it with a hand mower. The lawn, that it, not the dog poo, at least not intentionally.

* We're terribly House and Garden
at Number 7B....
Why not take those ordinary little metal bottle tops and nail them upside down on the floor, thus giving the impression of walking on ...little metal bottle tops nailed upside down to the floor!
Just take an ordinary Northumbrian spokeshaver's coracle.......
While 7B is madly gay
It wouldn't do for every day
We actually live in 7A
The house next door!
                               - Flanders and Swan

Friday, December 7, 2012


i had a dream the other night about a man with an orange.

He was a white man in his late twenties, tall and slim, with short blond hair and blue eyes. He dressed in tailored pants and a business shirt. He would not have looked out of place on a yacht, or in a board room.

In the dream he was walking around the world holding an orange. He would approach people at random, and ask them questions about the orange. Where do you think the orange comes from? Who grows the orange? What might their lives be like? How much water does it take to grow an orange? How much land? What was on the land before the oranges were grown there? How did the orange get here? How much does an orange cost to buy? Where did oranges originate from?

He could turn up anywhere - in Mumbai, or Suva, or Tokyo, asking these same questions, very open questions, not answering the questions himself, just opening up the possibility for people to think about an ordinary item in front of them, and their food, and their world.

In the dream i wondered, as you do in dreams, whether he ate the orange each night and started each day with a fresh one, and what it would be like to be him, sleeping each night in a different place, waking each day and looking for a fresh orange.

He reminded me of that other great wanderer of purpose, Peace Pilgrim. She was a seemingly ordinary woman in her fifties who left her suburban home one day on foot, in 1952,  and never returned. She changed her name to Peace Pilgrim and vowed she would walk around the USA until humankind adopted the way of peace. She wore a dark blue tracksuit because it was practical, and carried almost nothing. She slept anywhere, often outside, and trained her mind to accept any hardship. She was deeply Christian, and talked to everyone she met about peace and about her own experience of spirit. She became very well known and was interviewed on media wherever she went. She was killed in a car accident in the 1980's. People have tried to emulate her but were never able to stick at it. She wrote a very simple book, a pamphlet really, about her life and thoughts, which is available free on line. What a way to do a mid life crisis. It really was a pilgrimage.

Back to the man with the orange, i can answer some of his questions. According to the US Geological Survey it takes 13 gallons of water to grow an orange, and 48 gallons to grow a glass of orange juice. Most of the world's oranges are grown in Brazil, and i wonder what the land was like there before the oranges were grown. Taking into account the use of land and soil, the water, the labour, the cost of transport and logistics and distribution, what is the real price of an orange?

i can also say something about the history of the orange. Oranges come from South East Asia originally, and thye came to Europe in late medieval times. The name for the colour orange is actually from the fruit rather than the other way around. Before oranges came to England the name for the colour was the Middle English version of red-yellow. When they did arrive in Europe they were considered very exotic and were quite rare. i remember from the literature of my childhood oranges were given as Christmas gifts, such was their rarity, even into the twentieth century. Pineapples were even rarer. In the early modern period in Europe, pineapples were far too flash to eat. The wealthy would rent a pineapple for a dinner party, just for the evening, and individual pineapples would travel the country being hired out for special occasions - presumably accompanied by their minders who had to resist actually eating their source of income

i can imagine no food being so exotic. Food is so processed, even oranges are pumped with a chemical to 'degreen' them which is why all our supermarket oranges are so, well, orange. Our types of apple are so developed as to look good under the lights, to have a uniform glossy skin and to travel well, rather than for taste and nutrition. Food is now that most global of products. What is now considered fine and expensive, is locally and organically grown. We pay more for less food miles, and for any certain knowledge about where our food comes from.

Well, Orange Guy, if you exist anywhere outside my dream, come to my town and teach me more.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mask work

i am facebook friends with Flat Man, our local superhero.

Flatman's identity is unknown to everybody except his mother, Flat Mum, and his sidekick, Quake Kid. He has a fairly standard superhero costume. He began his superhero career shortly after the earthquake here, specialising in turning up unannounced at student flats where students were known to be in need of extra food and a fun visit. He wanted to support students who had elected to stay in Christchurch after the quakes, but who were struggling. For a long time he paid for his food parcels entirely out of his own pocket. His brief gradually extended to include schools and shopping malls and the university campus, where he distributed food and just plain lifted spirits. He became world famous in Christchurch. After a while he found the load too heavy and confided in a friend, who became his loyal side kick Quake Kid. He attracted some sponsorship, and now has the use of his own 'Flatmobile', a yellow 1970 Chevy Camaro.

Here is what Flat Man says about his role:

'People can relate to Flat Man. The mask is there to show that Flat Man can be any one of us. Anything good happening for the people of Christchurch always gets a lot of focus as there's still so many people in this town who need continuing help. And that's what I'm trying to do - to show New Zealand and the world that even though it's been a couple of years since the first quake, people still need all the support they can get. Even if it's in the form of two masked and lycra dressed men.'*

Flat Man is a pretty cuddly superhero. There is no brooding Dark Knight Rises stuff and no post traumatic back story. Flat Man is mostly apolitical; he supports local causes but is seldom controversial (except for the time the university campus bar refused to serve him alcohol because he couldn't produce ID - a true event that raised the ire of every student in town and every young person who has ever been in a bar with a dodgy ID.) But here's the really cool bit - when he says 'The mask is there to show that Flat Man can be any one of us'.

i haven't had much to do with superheroes apart from watching the Avengers movie over and over, partly because it is made by the wonderful Joss Whedon who in our household Can Do No Wrong.**
But i notice one inevitable dynamic tension - between being special and being anonymous. Of course Flat Man is a bit special and would quite like his own action figure. Mostly if we're special we aren't anonymous - what would be the point? But anonymity is awesome because we can do things anonymously that we can't do otherwise no matter how special we might be. Not only can we risk making dicks of ourselves, but we can shine. When we are masked or heavily costumed, we can show ourselves and hide at the same time. Maybe that is why masks and costumes have such a long assocation with activism and the disruption of social norms.

i noticed masks first when looking at Picasso's African period and his interest in Wobe masks. How elaborate and fine, and how bloody scary. i imagined wearing one and being transformed. Mask work in drama improv does this; the mask takes over. i am not myself - and so i can be more fully myself.

i was once a part of a short lived but luminous group called Women for Peace and Justice. We did mostly anti nuclear protests (boy does that date it!), and we specialised in small scale events that straddled art and politics. One day we performed an event where we paraded through the main street pushing sinister old fashioned prams done up like coffins. One of us was dressed as Death. i could not have done it without the props and the costumes. And thus we make carnival, and masque, where we can misbehave, where peasants can be royalty for the day, where the social order can be overturned, where we can wake up the next morning and, if we have to, deny that it was us. #

The most obvious recent example of mass mask work is the use of V for Vendetta masks by  Anonymous during protests. 'We are Anonymous', they say, 'Expect us'. We could be anyone. We could be your chauffeur, your waitress, your nanny. As Tyler Durdon says, we watch you while you're sleeping. It's both celebration and incipient threat. Like everything to do with masks.

 i can tell you about the V for Vendetta masks though, you sweat something awful after a mile or two of marching. And it is sort of ironic that they are mass produced and you buy them in joke shops. Flat Man wears two masks because he was once briefly unmasked by a toddler in a bouncy castle. He must get pretty hot.

There is a way more political and edgy antecedant for Flat Man, and his name is Superbarrio. Would you believe, there is another post earthquake superhero among us. After the earthquake in Mexico, he came forward to engage in protest and non violent civil disobedience against the government's ill treatment of the poor. He has become an inspiration. His is the culture of the Luchadores, the masked wrestlers in Mexico. i don't get this Lucha Libre stuff much, but it seems the masks are taken very seriously. One of the most famous wrestlers was buried in his mask, and unmasking a wrestling opponent is a grest insult. The masks often reference folk culture and local myth. They are reminders of Mexican identity and history.  Superbarrio's mask is recognisably in that tradition, and so it is easy for him to take the lead in protest. Flat Man would agree. 'People identify with Flat Man'. People trust him and understand his role.  Superbarrio takes a similar view to Flat Man in that he sees his character as Everyperson. He is nobody, he is everybody, he is us. He speaks for the barrio, the poor neighbourhood, the students, the quake damaged. Because he is anonymous, he can say what we mean. Both Flat Man and Superbarrio are humble, remarkable, ordinary, extraordinary Superguys.

*Canterbury Magazine, Summer 2012

* And because i briefly had a sort of Robert Downey Jnr thing going on, but it's OK i'm over it now.

# i also collect for SAFE, Save Animals from Exploitation, in costume and accompanied by my little dog Tigger. Last time i was in full body costume as an owl. i stood for hours (hours i tell you!) in the blazing heat with this heavy owl head on, and all people noticed was the little dog. What a cute little dog they said, can I pat him. Of course i said, and clink goes the money in the bucket. God damn it i am dressed as a fricken OWL! It's forty degrees in here! i'm just as cute and i'm SUFFERING here!

Friday, November 23, 2012

New stereo

Recently i executed Poor Judgement and bought a stereo for my car.

In my younger days it was a source of pride among the men that their car stereos were more expensive than their cars. It showed the world they were hard core musos. These were guys who despised all material possessions except stereos and surfboards, which were somehow in a different category and not material at all.

On a morning after a night shift i got suddenly tired of having only a radio and said radio being able to get only one station. i had also been sadly acknowledging that due to my place of work changing post EQ i was driving the damn car more than i really wanted to. So i took it into a nearby car stereo place and spent $200 more than i expected on a new stereo. It took me about two weeks to learn how to use it. For a while every time i wanted to change something i had to pull over to the side of the road and take my glasses off and peer at the console. i have also learned a surprising lesson: yes, you can have too much sub woofer. But the coolest thing is i can plug in my iPhone.

Here is my playlist for driving to work. i seem to have come over all Scandinavian.

Nekromantix: Nice Day for a Resurrection, and Gargoyles over Copenhagen, from their album Return of the Loving Dead. Nekromatix are a Danish psychobilly band. Nice Day sounds like Billy Idol would if he had horns. And teeth. And.... other things...and all of their music is fun and fast.

Tenpole Tudor: Swords of a Thousand Men. Terribly English punk band.

Vaartina: Seleniko, the whole album. i have always liked this Finnish folk band, their music has the most complicated rhythms and the women have names like Sari and Mari and Dari. The lyrics for the songs are about such things as not liking the boys in your village and thinking that the boys in the next village might be better looking. And they have a heartbreakingly lovely Karelian wedding song. Traditionally in Karelia the men go out and kill a boar for the wedding feast, and this is the song the women sing on their return. They really know how to get married in Karelia. i have been married twice and still no boars.

Caninus: Now the Animals Have a Voice. Pitbull grindcore. Seriously. This is deathgrind music with the pitbulls growling and barking for lyrics. It's kinda amusing. But for added poignancy, Basil, one of its two canine members, died of a brain tumour and that was the end of the band. It reminds me somewhat of minimalist composer Rautavaara's very beautiful Cantus Arcticus, scored for orchestra and birdsong. But not very much.

Turbonegro: especially Fuck the World, Drenched in Blood (DIB) and their new one You Give me Worms. You have to understand about Turbonegro that they are Not To Be Taken Seriously. i first discovered Trubonegro reading about them in the Guardian, so they must be cutlurally all right. Their fans call themselves Turbojugend. They are from Norway, and are a very bad ass punk/death metal band with more than a touch of glam, i'm afraid. They kinda started off as a punk parody and grew from there. Spinal Tap they ain't. i first heard them when i was sick in bed and i lay there with the flu and laughed and laughed.

Refused: Liberation Frequency. Very left wing Swedish punk hardcore band now defunct.

Motorhead: Get Back in Line. For all us grunts.

Brian Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Good for sitting in traffic.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Sport of Kings

Since this week in Christchurch there has been horse racing* and a visit from royalty it might be timely to write about dumping.

Dumping is of course the sport of kings, or used to be. Back in the day, i knew people who were proud to have furnished their whole houses from the dump. It went with the hippy chic we adopted. We would engage in dumping at times. Dumps then were great sprawling stinking affairs that emitted clouds of dust and shrieking gulls. Back then you could wander in them like you were some sort of post industrial waste wraith, a piece of randomised ephemera made of flapping rags and swirls of dust, blowing and dissolving in the fetid wind....etc etc. You could come across half a teddy bear, or a perfect row of skinned ferrets, or a lacquered box with a map in it. You could enter for free and wander at will and take whatever treasures you found.

Recently we had an attack of entropy and i came home from work to discover half the lounge furniture broken beyond repair. Neither i nor my husband the Archduke Piccolo are keen on throwing things out. For most of our marriage our lounge suite was propped up on concrete blocks because the legs had broken. This furniture however was beyond propping up. So off we went to engage in the sport of kings.

Or so we thought.

Now the city refuse services have become further sterling examples of the Franz Kafka School of Management. Obviously they are run by the same outfit that manages the health system. We turned up in our Nissan Sentra hatchback feeling rather small among the trucks. We then began a Byzantine process of finding out what items could be dropped off at the post where they on-sell things, and what could be salvaged and what needed to be actually thrown out.This mostly involved driving around and around and shouting at each other. Finally we backed up in front of a big concrete pit and hurled our stuff into it. A machine came along and began to snuffle at it, a bit like the vacuum cleaner in the Teletubbies. We found our way out by a further Byzantine process that mostly involved driving around and around and shouting at each other, and discovered that they seem to have forgotten to charge us our $8. Perhaps it was because we were so pathetic.

It was all a bit anticlimactic. And clean. There was hardly any rubbish in sight, and no chance to pick over anything unless you offered to interact with the people in the trucks next to us, and that would have been plain weird. We were cogs in a wheel. Gizmos on a conveyor belt. Passive victims of Fordist 'efficiency' and the dehumanising fetishism of corporate greed.

Oh well, after that sobering thought, off to buy more furniture!**

*Actually the horse racing is incidental. Cup week in Christchurch is mostly women in big hats and very high heels getting drunk and falling over. Generally however people are only appalled if they're also fat. Slim women are mercifully free from tastelessness.#

# Oh, all right. Miaow.

**Actually, no, we have discovered that without the furniture we have more space for - the Archduke Piccolo's wargaming!

Friday, November 9, 2012

No heroism required

This post is in part a review of Rebecca Solnit's book  'A paradise built in hell: the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster'.

Rebecca Solnit is one of my favourites. Art historian, feminist, activist, environmentalist, she does a good line in looking at things differently. After Hurricane Katrina i was reading her articles on the weblog TomDispatches, about the aftermath of the hurricane and the way ordinary citizens and the authorities handled it. Of course now we have had our own disaster here in Christchurch, and i was keen to buy the new book.

Her main idea is that after a disaster people come together in new ways, even if only temporarily, and care for each other. How well the citizenry does however can depend on how those in power see them. If the authorites fear the citizens and want to protect property rather than lives, things are likely to be more chaotic and less humane. Her first chapter is about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. While ordinary people formed tent cities and communal kitchens, the authorities took the view that social order was bound to break down unless they took a firm upper hand. And so they burned the city, burned down the very properties they claimed to be protecting, and deprived people of the means of saving themselves.

The popular view of how people behave in and after a disaster would state that people panic, sink down to the worst of themselves, and become selfish. This view sees the populace as needing strong leadership and sanctions to stop law and order breaking down. This view is often held by those in power, and this is why they send in the National Guard. Or the Army, in our case in Christchurch. It is also the thinking behind vigilantism and the fear of looting.

Alongside this view, a sociology of disaster has developed, based on researching lived experience. In fact, people mostly don't panic. They move fast for sure, but they don't necessarily panic. And by and large they don't loot. They may take what they need to set up communal shelter and feed themselves, but actual looting of material goods not related to survival is not common. Moreover, people don't turn into selfish survivalists. They help each other, go to courageous lengths for each other, cross social and racial divides for each other, unless the authorities get in the way.

Solnit thinks that we are prevented from seeing clearly the ordinary best experiences of people because of the popular culture desire for heroes. Heroes come from outside, they usually work alone, they are self reliant and extraordinary. It is easy to see firefighters, for example, as heroes. We overlook people who are just as useful, but don't fit the hero mould. We expect to be saved when really we all got together and saved ourselves.

Reading her book drew out memories of how it felt after the big earthquake here. i was moved reading it. i thought to learn about our other great earthquake, of 1848, which nearly destroyed the fledgeling city of Wellington.

Wellington at the time had about 3000 people and almost all of them survived, but most of the city fell down and the people were thoroughly spooked, most of them being fairly new immigrants. The aftershocks continued for months, and coincided with strange lights in the sky which people thought were volcanic eruptions. In fact it was the Aurora Australis.

The people of Wellington sought meaning in these catastrophic events, as we do,  and the most common official one was that the earthquake was the will of God. In fact it was often called the Visitation. Churches were full for months afterwards. It was most gratifying. While no one suggested the earthquake was any sort of punishment for wickedness, and it was attributed to natural causes, it was also seen as a timely reminder for us all to remember our sins and turn back to God. Certainly there was no perceptible break down of society. People just got a bit more churchy for a while.*

i remembered how small scale communities did form after our EQ. We met some of our neighbours properly for the first time. We gradually emptied our freezer onto the barbecue and people came round and ate with us. My neighbour commented on how close we had become, and how when it was all over we would probably go back to how it was before. She was right. We still see each other but we are no longer best buds.

There were indeed acts of generosity and unity all over the place. A man who worked delivering goods in the hospital bought chocolates and delivered them wherever he went, to all the wards and offices. After a week of this the management noticed and chipped in money for him to continue. One red zone couple made a list of everyone in the stricken area, their health and welfare needs, and took it to Civil Defence. Their house became the distribution centre for relief. They looked after over 100 people. A bakery owner just gave away everything to passersby, including my daughter. (No looting there!) A couple whose fruit and vegetable shop was destroyed gave away their stock, and when they were finally able to rebuild, they found their generosity rewarded. Here is Max the grocer:

'One thing the earthquakes have done is make people stop and realise you need community, you don't live on your own. A lot of people had no time, were too busy to know their neighbour. All of a sudden, they've realised you need your neighbour. That's one of the positives of the earthquakes and you need to look for positives.'#

No heroism required.No uniforms, no leadership, no noise. Just purposefulness, unity, compassion, and generosity - the virtues of every day, writ a little larger. For a while, some of us were better people.

*i remember some of the less temperate comments at the time of the Christchurch EQ, that it was indeed punishment for immorality in society. The mainstream churches were not at all keen on this. Their spokespeople made public statements against those comments.They maintained that God loves us and had nothing to do with the EQ.  i also remember some comments that the EQ was a sign that God hates the mainstream churches and there was some evidence for this - most of the large churches were very badly damaged including both cathedrals. However, i have observed something more specific - it was the brick or stone churches that were damaged. Clearly God hates bricks. And i have some exegetical backup for this. The first mention of bricks in the Bible comes from Genesis, and relates to the time of the building of the tower of Babel. Thus it is clear that bricks are associated with social chaos and division and lack of communication. Accursed be the bricklayers, those sinners in the service of the fiend that is the demonic brick!

# Quoted

Friday, November 2, 2012

But we were taking the train

On the West Coast, the rain held steady. The road was closed over Porters Pass, but we were taking the train.

The river valley made way for broom-clad hillsides, and more rain. Then Otira, a tiny settlement that gets about two hours of sun a day in winter and has denizens rather than residents. (i love Otira!) Then the tunnel, 8 kms i think, and steep as, up and up - and out - and into the snow. It was a foot deep. It looked snug and settled. Colour washed out with it. And there we were at Arthurs Pass, to unload the second engine that had pushed us so gallantly up the hill and through the tunnel, and to play in the snow.

Only the children played, really. They ventured as far as they could and squealed and wallowed. The adults photographed themselves.

A thin, older man posed with his Indian wife. He held her under one arm and in the other hand he held a lump of snow her had formed into an oblong shape the size of a concrete block.He grinned straight at the camera, snaggle toothed, his beanie astride his big ears. She cuddled into the crook of his arm and smiled. Her Indian friend took the photo.

One woman modelled for her man to photograph her. She held little snowballs and gazed at them wide eyed. She tossed snow into the air and flung her arms wide with childlike delight. She flicked her long brown hair. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks shone in the cold. When she came back into the carriage she brought out her tablet, and uploaded the photos immediately. Now they have gone all around the world. And i noticed that she was actually quite middle aged, quite plump, unremarkable in a crowd, as most of us are.

How did we learn to be so self aware? None of the adults played in the snow. They had a being-photographed-playing-in-the-snow experience. The snow was the vehicle for the photographs. It could have been any vehicle. And the woman with her modelling moves - how did she learn that this is how one should be photographed, as if for a fashion shoot?

Family snapshot photography has always been thoroughly stereotypical. That is part of its charm. Its artistic and sociological lessons for the viewer are usually incidental. It is an innocent art. Those involved have always known that this is for the future, that soon this moment will be a memory and that this is the memory we want preserved, that when we look at photos we are looking at younger versions of ourselves, and so by their very static nature we are reminded of the passage of time. i think even with our current instant technology the same applies today. Perhaps we just want more choice about how we present ourselves to the future, and we are more informed about the conventions of looking good. Perhaps it is a less innocent art now, but it still has its charm. Seeing ordinary people turning themselves briefly into models of glamour or goofiness is indeed charming.

Us, we photographed the snow.

Monday, October 22, 2012

In support of Honey Boo Boo

i was alerted to the phenomenon that is Honey Boo Boo via the issue of Mitt Romney saying he would cut funding to PBS, the educational TV channel that makes Sesame Street. (Run for your life, Big Bird!) The Learning Channel, or TCL, is a privately funded TV channel that purports to engage learning but the result of privately funded educational TV is.....

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Honey Boo Boo's real name is Alana. She is a six year old beauty pageant queen raised in a Southern 'redneck' household. She is known for her one-liners such as 'A dollar makes me holler' and her Here Comes Honey Boo Boo show is a spin off of TLC's earlier show Toddlers and Tiaras. Her household consists of June, age 33, June's partner Sugar Bear age 40, and the four girls Anna, Jessica, Lauryn and Alana, all of whom are known by their nicknames such as 'Chubbs' and 'Pumpkin'. The oldest girl is pregnant and during the series gives birth to baby Katelyn. They live in a very small town in Georgia, and the series shows them preparing for Alana's beuaty pageants, eating out, and attending the Redneck Games. There is a lot of farting and blowing noses. The show is phenomenally popular. One ep was watched by more people than one of the Republican Party debates, although that may indicate that Republicans prefer Honey Boo Boo to any of the candidates.

If you watch on YouTube the extended promo for the show, you will get a good sense of the whole HBB vibe. But i was more interested in the comments, which were numerous and largely scathing. There were far more dislikes than likes, for a start. One person apologised for being a Southerner and earnestly tried to persuade us that all Southerners are not like that.

Sweetie, even we in Aotearoa have a far more sophisticated view of what goes on south of the Mason-Dixon Line. i have watched many episodes of True Blood on HBO and i am well aware that the South contains relatively few rednecks in comparison with hordes of vampires, werewolves, shape changers, Santerian shamen, fairies of all stripes, Mesopotamian nursery demons, etc etc etc ....and of course the gorgeous Anna Paquin. Don't talk to me about stereotypes.

HBB has been roundly criticised as trash TV, exploitation, and simply as bad taste. And so, in order to research this blog post i have watched some hours of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. i have three words to describe this feat: Pulitzer - fucking - prize.

So for the sake of editorial balance, and as a slightly masochistic thought experiment, i  have come out in support of HBB and her world. Here are some of the criticisms, with my responses:

Obesity. June is probably morbidly obese, at the age of 33, and Alana is very overweight. The rest of the family are definitely stocky. There is one sequence where June finds dirt encrusted in the folds of her neck. The sequences that show the family out and about show their associates are also overweight.

OK. i start with the bald statement that obesity an issue of social class. By the 1990's, obesity had become more common among poorer women in most rich countries. In the USA in the 1970's close to half the population was overweight and 15 % were obese. Now, three quarters of the population is overweight, and close to a third is obese. Levels of obesity tend to be higher in countries where income inequality is highest, and in the USA, a very unequal society, obesity is highest in more unequal states, such as Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. The reasons for this are complicated, and seem to relate as much to stress as to diet and exercise. In other words how and why people eat is important. Fast food gets linked to comfort, to status, and to the normative American lifestyle. Evidence about the 'thrifty phenotype' shows that when a baby in the womb is exposed to stress, it adapts to what may well become a life in a stressful environment. Such babies are born with lower birth rates and lower metabolic rates. They are adapted to a world where food is scarce. Except that food isn't scarce - it's crap, it's sometimes even dangerous, but there's plenty of it. There is even evidence that supermarkets in poor areas of the USA sell poor quality food, and poorer quality food is often cheaper. i find it hard to judge June and her family, in their obesogenic environenment. Why do we expect the poor to be morally better than their environments? Me, i paid $20,000 to fix my obesity and i can't say what sort of person that makes me. Except rich.

Bad nutrition. In Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, one episode features 'extreme couponing'. June and HBB go to the local supermarket and use coupons to get their groceries for almost nothing. Naturally, the stuff they buy is of negligible nutritional value. In another episode they go to a 'food' auction. i can only put the word food in quotation marks because none of it was really food. What dreadful modelling for her daughter.

Except - HBB learns a few things here. Maths, for a start, and how to bargain. And thrift. June feeds her family on $80 a week by judicious use of coupons, auctions, and free road kill. The shots of vats of squishy dead animal should really bring us back to our pioneering heritage, back when we had a relationship with what we killed and knew how to do it ourselves. June and co. will survive after the zombie apocalypse even if they can't run fast enough to escape the zombies.

Dreadful parenting. Six year old HBB is a beauty pageant veteran, that epitome of child exploitation. She is also untrammelled by manners or courtesies. People fart and burb and clamber over each other in this household. The kids are rude about their mother, especially her eating habits.

However, if we look at Donald Winnicott's notion of 'good enough' parenting being actually better than 'perfect' parenting, maybe June passes muster with her brood. HBB is a joyful child. She spontaneously goes to her Mama for cuddles. They family don't get any formal exercise but they have outings together, make their own slip-n-slide, have a laugh, socialise, and engage in occasionally witty banter.  There seems to be no violence or aggression. People just say what they mean. From the little we see, it is hard to fault their attachment to each other. We also learn about women on top. June is a classic matriarch, at the age of 33. Her partner Sugar Bear sits around looking dumbfounded, while June runs the show. And while you don't see a lot of paid work, or school, or homework, you do see activity and busy-ness.

Teen pregnancy: Anna, age 17, is pregnant. June was 15 when she had Anna. Babies born to teen mothers are more likely to have low birth weights, to be born prematurely, to be at higher risk of dying in infancy. As they grow their social outcomes are statistically worse than those born to older mothers. Teen motherhood is associated with intergeneration deprivation. The pregnancy is in the background of the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo programme, but it is a theme, and i suppose we are expect to harrumph and disapprove as we watch. Well, yeah, but some of the evidence is debatable. Among some poor American women, exposure to poverty and stress  over their life times compromises their health anyway. There is no advantage for them having their children later. Social scientists call this 'weathering'.June had her kids early, and fair enough, because what we know about her tells us she is unlikely to live to a healthy old age. Be a grandmother at 33 because you may not live to 60. Another point is a kind of evolutionary argument about quality versus quantity. In societies where there is poverty, opportunism, scarcity of resources, and a lack of trust, women reach maturity earlier and become sexually active earlier. It makes sense to have lots of children - some will survive, some good things will happen to you, even if you can't trust your partner or your family or the system around you to support you. These are sad facts. It does not augur well for Anna and her new daughter. But, again, how can i judge her? As the programme goes to air, she has status and support, and someone to love, and she has become an instant adult. And her Mama June models how it's done when you enter adulthood in the fast lane - at 33 a matriarch, with her own life wisdom, when many wealthy 33 year old women are still mooching around wrestling with their first worl problems.

Go go juice: June feeds Honey Boo Boo he own concoction before the pageants, to pep her up. Go go juice is a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew and it seems to give her boundless - well, something.  June has apparently said, at least it's not alcohol. In this, she joins the legions of stressed and impoverished mothers throughout the ages who have dosed their children with whatever, from gin to Ritalin. Mostly they do it for peace and quiet; it seems June's crime is that she is aiming for the opposite effect. Hmm. Of course i do not mean to decry parents whose children suffer genuine mental illnesses, or major behavioural problems. i guess i mean that all through time mothers have just done what they thought best at the time, with whatever they had.

So, what are we left with? It seems to me, all up, that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is like most reality TV, part exploitation of course, part pruriance, part smarts. She and her family look snidely at the viewer and say you think we're dumb, but you're watching us and we're making the money. She really is a child of our times. When The Learning Channel sets out to make us judge the family and accuse them of exploitation, i think there are arguments all ways. The main crime here is aesthetic. The rest is anthropology.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Borderline Society and its Discontents Part III - Farewell Cruel World

In the last post i looked at the possibility that our global north society may be suffering from a kind of arrested development, that the whole of society may not have progressed beyond adolescence and true maturity is rare among individuals. In such a society, adults who regress into adolescent thinking patterns may find themselves indistinguishable from others around them, because the whole of society is not advanced beyond them. Thus they get no help - either from the individuals around them or the role models or policy makers they are expected to emulate. We are used to considering early attachment issues in order to understand Borderline Personality Disorder, but a  look at adolescent thinking may help us further.

A useful model of help was proposed for me by Linda Kavelin Popov, of the Virtues Project. If you are in a hole, you don't need people to get in the hole with you. That's what adolescents sometimes do. When one is in a hole they all get in and wallow, all with the idea of somehow trying to get the first person out. Then all you have is lots of people in a hole. What you need when you in a hole is people outside the hole, people wise and caring enough to put a ladder down and hold it steady so you can climb out.

So, we have lots of people in holes and not enough wise and caring people to hold the ladders. Who are the people from whom our young ones are expected to get their inspiration? Well, the magazine most bought by older teen and twenties women in New Zealand is New Idea. No models of maturity there. A piece of research i was involved with earlier this year* among young people found they do not relate to world changers such as old skool Martin Luther King etc. They are concerned about things that affect them directly, such as plus size models being allowed on catwalks, and the issues touted by celebrities such as Hayden Panattiere's truly brave efforts for dolphins.  Remember, more people voted for American Idol than for the American president. We have a dearth of examples of maturity and depth and wisdom. Our policy makers and shakers preach individual responsibility, then model that special politician's apology that goes something like - I apologise if you perceived that you were thinking that you may have taken  offence by something inadvertant that I am damn well not going to take any responsibility for....

We also have societies that are increasingly unequal and becoming genuinely more anxious. Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kare Pickett describe this in their book The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. These two are interesting because they are so methodologically careful. It's a great book if you like graphs. They state that the age of prosperity building is over; it has long done its work. Societies where there is greatest relative inequality within that society have more social problems. One of those problems is anxiety, and they cite research that shows we are not just more aware of anxiety, we really are more anxious. Of course these guys are epidemiologists and they are not commenting on the individual experience of people with mental illness. They see mental illness as a social feature - they see the context of mental illness. For them the good news is that simply by increasing the relative equality within our societies we can help  social problems. i don't know that in a more equal society there would be less BPD. But i think it is tragic that a woman in her twenties lives alone, on welfare, with no family contact, and few functional relationships, on medication that makes her fat and dulls her intellect, while the soundtrack of trauma and damage plays over in her head. Whatever label she has been given, there is a context for her experience, and we can do better. For this is the social context wherein people decompensate, regress, hurt and even kill themselves, fall in and out of crisis, and struggle to regulate and make sense of sometimes unmanageable emotions.

So in a society that is atomised, immature, de-natured, spiritually arid and porfoundly unequal, how can we tell who are the sick ones? Perhaps it is the individuals who are happily adolescent, who just stand in line for the latest toys, who are 'unwell'? Let us imagine a society where we shake our head sadly at people who have no depth, who care only for themselves, who seem unable to develop the huge compassion for all the planet that is normal for adults....

Miners used to take canaries down mines, and when the canaries got sick the miners knew the air was poisonous. Perhaps those with the BPD label are our canaries. They are telling us our societal air is poisoned, and we are all sick.

* Yeah OK i confess, it was my daughter polling her facebook friends at my request.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The borderline society and its discontents part II - Arrested development

The last post set up the following ideas: that at times in our past certain types of mental distress have been seen as appropriate reactions to the stresses and demands of the times, and that all of society may be mentally ill, in which case we may need to look carefully at the individual's place within it and work out what is problematic and what may be actually quite healthy.

If society has a mind, and there is something wrong with it, the models i found most useful here turned out to be staged models of individual development. The classic one is  Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Maslow and Erikson also used staged models of the human life cycle.  In all of the models i looked at there is a normative progression from the infantile ego to the mature involement of the person in the whole of society. Some models even hint at a more universal stage where the person understands connections not just to others in society but to the planet or the spiritual realm. Of course all of these models are roundly critiqued and with some justification, especially by earlier feminist thinkers. It is no coincidence that the features of a mature individual in the global North are the stereotypical features of a  European man. Aside from these useful critiques, i am interested in the general trend of development, from smaller egocentric world to the bigger concerns of family and work, to the care of others and eventually the whole world. i was interested too in the views of both Kohlberg and Maslow that many people do not develop fully; they get stuck at a kind of middle level where they can see the needs of others around them but they do not progress beyong their immediate concerns. Kohlberg could find nobody who acted consistently at the highest level. Is this our problem? Do we all get stuck at a level around, perhaps, late adolescence?

There are lots of  views on the issue of prolonged adolescence. Prolonged adolescence was first noticed academically as far back as the 1920's. An article from that time observed that young men of privilege were beginning to shy off adult reponsibilties until later in their lives. Now, we observe that young people are more self absorbed, stay home longer, take less financial repsonsibility and have a stronger sense of their own entitlement. We have a stereotype of the 35 year old petrol head who hates the parents he lives with, is in and out of menial work, and spends all his money on toys. It wasn't like that in my day, we say. We left home at 17 and never looked back. Our kids are buoyed up, told they're special, lack for nothing except good discipline, we say. No wonder they can't cope.

Someone with a deeper view of the whole arrested development thing is Bill Plotkin. He wrote a book called Soulcraft where he developed his own model of development. As usual his stages move from an infantile ego stage to further and wider exploration of the world of family, nature, intimate relationships, community service and eventually an integrated wisdom as we give back to the universe and prepare for the next great step. He also sees this model working on three levels of ego, soul and nature. This is his beginning point:

'Over the past two hundred years, industrial civilization has been relentlessly undermining Earth's chemistry, water cycles, atmosphere, soils, oceans and thermal balance. Plainly said, we have been shutting down the major life systems of our plantet. Compunding the ecological crisis are decaying economies, ethnic and class conflict, and worldwide warfare. Entwined with, and perhaps underlying, these devastation are epidemic failures in individual human development.

'True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent. Interwoven with arresed personl development, and perhaps inseperable from it, our everyday lives and drifted vast distances from our species' original intimacy with the natural workd and from our own uniquly individual natures, our souls...

' My beginning premise is that a more mature human society requires more mature human individulas...My second premise is that nature, (including our own deepr nature, soul) has always provided and still provides the best template for human maturation...A third premise is that every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood. In contemporary society, we think of maturity simply in terms of hard work and practical responsibilities. I believe, in contrast, that true adulthood is rooted in transperonal experience... This mystical affiliation is the very core of maturity, and it is precisely what mainstream Western society has overlooked - or actively suppressed and expelled.'*

Plotkin goes on to advocate for rites of passage and for a very intimate involvement with nature in order to work ourselves past the adolescent stages. He is quite radical on this. We need real rites that involve descent into true life threatening spiritual darkness. We need to get beyond playing with this stuff.  On adolescence he says:

'Arrested personal growth serves industrial "growth". By suppressing the nature dimension of human development...industrial grown society engenders an immature citizenry unable to imagine a life beyond consumerism and soul-suppressing jobs.'

With regard to Borderline Personality Disorder, a lot of work has done on early attachments and early failures to mentalise. For example, at the age of about four a child develops theory of mind. At that age she learns two vital things - that people cannot read her mind, and that she can understand the feelings of others (empathy). If these theory of mind processes are interrupted the emotional development can be thwarted. For many of us, we notice that when we are desperately, self destructively upset we regress to about four years old. We fail to empathise. We think others should instantly understand us. We don't get it when they can't read out minds and yet we think we can read theirs. Sometimes great distress can push us back to an infant state - we are not yet capable of words in that state, we can only cry or throw things. This is all fairly well understood.

Well and good, but I think it is no coincidence that personality disorders emerge in adolescence. i think lots of us get stuck there. So, what is it like being an adolescent mind in an adolescent society, and what do we need?

The lacunae are all his except the last one. A larger excerpt from the book is on his website.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The borderline society and its discontents

This post is taken from a talk i once gave. The notes were only on paper and have been lost in the earthquake. So you may need to imagine that these ideas once had some research behind them, and there were once footnotes and a bibliography all proper-like. Moreover, this topic will take two posts to cover. i don't like long posts on blogs and i do want a good go at a difficult subject.

Borderline personality disorder is a mental disorder on Axis II of the DSM IV, which means it is not considered to be a 'brain disease' like schizoprenia, but more of a problematic way of being which has been learned in early life. The features of borderline personality disorder are emotional instability, a sense of emptiness and a shaky or non existent sense of self, self destructive behaviour, addictions, intense and unstable relationships, and sometimes transient psychotic breaks. Naturally these features are all controversial and as a label it is often considered pejorative, both by people diagnosed with it and by clinicians. i don't consider it pejorative.(You will find out why.) Originally it was called borderline because it was thought to straddle the border between psychosis and neurosis, and i think that is a useful framing.

i state here that i am agnostic about mental illness, but i am not agnostic about suffering, and some of the borderlines i know are those who suffer the most. This keeps me interested.

The question is this: Is BPD a feature of modernity? Does it come only from the affluent self indulgent upbringing we tend to criticise (mothers often get the blame)? Are there borderlines in other cultures where poverty and war keep our psychological selves at survival level? What happened to borderlines in the past? Were there any?

i start with a story about the past, about my mother. i found these things out only as she was dying and my relatives began to talk to me with uncharacteristic frankness.

My mother's early attachments were very compromised, and her late teens and early twenties were characterised by suicidality and problems with managing stress. A psychiatrist gave the family some surprisingly practical and rather un-psychiatric advice. He said they could not have her on suicide watch all the time and if she wanted to wander around the town in the middle of the night making suicidal threats they just had to let her get over herself. So they did. Then one morning she set out for work, fell into some sort of fugue state, drove her motorbike all day into the country and collapsed in a field. She was found by a farmer and put in hospital. This alarmed my father, to whom she was engaged, but he perservered with the marriage and really he held her emotionally until he died. She had the stability and containment in him that she could not find in herself.

When i heard about this, some things i knew about my mother gained context, and i was relieved and able to feel compassion. She was a borderline, by today's standards. She was creative and witty and hot tempered and forgiving and spiritually adventurous and occasionally wise, and she was a borderline. We all know one and may even be one.

So, if there were borderlines back then, what about further back? And how did they do in the world around them?

This is my hunch. Up until late last century most of the world was rural. People have lived in villages up until even one generation ago. Our ancestors lived in small circumstances, often not travelling, surrounded their entire lives by the same people. We married our neighbours and worked and played with them, and our immediate social circles involved our extended families.Work would have been often physically hard and governed by externals such as the seasons and the markets.  Borderlines are high maintenance. With borderlines there is always drama, always intensity and behaviour that takes attention. There is a need to be cared for that can never be fulfilled. i suspect this would not have been tolerated in village settings. And relationships would have been more stable simply because there was less choice. There are fewer people to fall in and out with, and if you fall right out of your village there is nowhere else to go. Ostracism could mean poverty or even death. For borderlines to survive in their borderline-ness, there needs to be social mobility and a large social context such as in a city. So while i suspect there were always emotionally high maintenance, dramatic, difficult people around, the conformity of social expectations and the grind of work and care possibly suppressed the more extreme expressions of BPD.

However, alongside our ancestors were urbanised, wealthy, educated people who took on the thinking of the day. i wondered how history has viewed those who struggled with negative and self destructive thoughts and feelings. There has at different times been a socially sanctioned form of psychological suffering, at least among the highly literate classes. In the early modern period, it was fashionable to adopt a debauched and self destructive life style in order to express dissatisfaction with the increasingly materialistic and scientific thinking that was becoming prevalent. It seemed an appropriate protest to be miserable. Later, the Sturm und Drang period of German romanticism reached its tragedarian apogee in Goethe's partly autobiographical The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther is in love with an unavailable young woman and kills himself. The book was seen as sparking a rash of suicides among impressionable young men, and caused the kind of minor moral panic we saw with bands like Joy Division in the 1980's and the Emo phenomenon of 2005. In the nineteenth century a fashionable London suicide club was formed and its members promised to kill themselves before they turned 30 or went bald, whichever came sooner. The stated aim of the club was to provide consternation to clergy and pharmacists. Again, ennui and disaffection with societal norms seemed the best response to the psychological exigencies of the age.

This is all less superficial and hipster than it sounds. For some, life hurts. Suffering is not to be overcome or learned through. It is the fulcrum of personal experience and meaning. Sometimes you can spark and wire and catch fire with it.  Sometimes it is just too hard to manage the shit storm in your head. It can change in thirty seconds. Thirty seconds between the party and the abyss. Me, i don't have the courage for it.

Since BPD-type phenomena and the romance around suffering and death seemed to be so embedded in the thinking of the times, i thought about our own society and what about it might be problematic.

Some thinkers have gone as far as diagnosing the whole of society. Christopher Lasch wrote about the narcissistic society, where he emphasised the desperate shallowness of the narcissist rather than the arrogance. Anne Wilson Schaeff less convincingly diagnosed the whole of society as codependent. Freud, in his book Civilisation and its Discontents (from which the title of this post is gleefully pinched), talks about how the whole of society is unable to resolve the tensions between thanatos and eros and thus languishes in inevitable sickness.

So for my next thought - is our society sick? And how? And how can we tell if an individual is mentally ill if maybe the whole of society is?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

My giraffe hat

Recently my daughter and i travelled to Dunedin to go to the ballet. It was Cinderella, after the Frederick Ashton version, and nicely done. There were absolutely rows of little girls who comprised whole ballet classes, and they were all called Lily and Brooke and they whispered and shushed each other all through. The Regent Theatre in Dunedin is one of those marvellous Victorian neo-Baroque affairs. When i lived in Dunedin i was a student, and i never went to the theatre. We were all way too broke.

i had a rotten cold. The next morning, after a chilly night in a cabin, i awoke and prepared for some sightseeing around Dunedin and the trip back. i took a medium sized swing of Robitussin because i have always had a fairly impressionistic approach to dosing, (there are small, medium and large swigs. On reflection, this may have been a large swig) and at about 11 am i confessed to my daughter i was probably not capable of driving home.

Nasty stuff, Robitussin - if you drink about eight bottles you might just get psychotic. i was nowhere near that but i did spend the next few hours wandering around staring intently at walls, drinking coffee, and buying unusual things. Eventually i recovered enough of my senses to drive, and just as well because we struck rain and hail and fog and darkness on the way home and of course arrived far later than expected with no decent explanation.

One of the unusual purchases was my giraffe hat. Here are pictures of my giraffe hat.

Giraffes are pretty trippy things anyway. One cannot fail to appreciate giraffes. This hat is hand made in wool and polar fleece and it comes from Nepal. It is very warm. i look completely ridiculous in it and of course being very short in stature my giraffe hat is a major ironic statement.

It is impossible not to smile while wearing my giraffe hat.

i have before talked about the malleability of states of consciousness, and there are some cool legal ways of playing with this. Theatresports people know about them and use them for warmups and getting into roles. A good first exercise is to walk quickly around the room pointing at objects and naming them by wrong names in a loud voice. So you see a table and shout the word 'lamp' for example. Of course it is best done in a group, and by the end of it you feel a bit buzzy and light headed. Another exercise is to pretend you are mingling at a party. Mingle mingle blah. For five minutes while mingling normally in every other respect, you keep your eyes narrowed. You find yourself feeling silghtly low in mood, a bit suspicious perhaps, a bit shut down. The next five minutes you spend mingling normally in every other respect, except you keep your eyes very wide open. Now you feel awake, chatty, literally wide eyed, and your voice becomes louder. Simply by narrowing or widening your eyes you can change how you see the world in ways you can easily experience consciously and comparably.

Thus it is impossible not to smile while wearing my giraffe hat, except if i forget i am wearing it. Wearing it around the hospital i move faster and even take on a little giraffe gallop down the corridors. i give my thanks to the god of Ridiculouslyosityness, and take fine note of the wonderful complexities of my funny old brain.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

ConsumerLand Inc

In our advertising-swamped world one billboard stood out near my house. i will describe it because i neglected to photograph it and now it has gone.

It showed a head and shoulder shot of a girl of European descent aged about eleven. Her hair was artfully foiled and tousled and she wore a fashionable fedora. She gazed very directly into the camera with steady blue eyes. John Berger in his interesting Marxist critique of art history Ways of Seeing (a bit old now but still valuable) talks about women in art traditionally having nothing but themselves to show.  Men show power or possessions (including women) or ideas or activities. Even adorned or surrounded, women are shown showing themselves. This billboard was just that - head and shoulders, more or less consciously, she shows us herself.

The caption said 'Have the last word before she gets to the mall.' The logo underneath was for OMANZ.

What was OMANZ, i wondered. Could it be an organisation of men, perhaps fathers, who were concerned about the influences on girls? So i googled it, as you do, and OMANZ turned out to be the Outdoor Media Association of New Zealand. In other words, the billboard was advertising itself.  If you google OMANZ you will see the billboard. It suggests the preeminent piece of influence this little tweeny absorbs before she enters ConsumerLand Inc should be yours, dear advertiser.

There has been a lot said about the tween market, especially girls, and especially about its relatively recent creation and its enormous influence. i don't need to go there really. The billboard just assumes all that is prior and public knowledge, and that it is value neutral. Someone is going to be selling this poppet some kinda shit, it might as well be you. Also assumed is that she is going to be buying it. That she has money, for a start, or can influence someone who has money. And that she is a sort of consumerist empty vessel, conventionally attractive, fashionably presented, there for the taking. She has nothing but herself to show you, dear advertiser. So go ahead and take her.

If this is beginning to sound analagous to sexual abuse, well, let it.

What i want, for my daughter, for the daughters of this sometimes wretched world, right now, today, is this. If she has to go to the God damned maul (sic) for her socialisation and her developmental education and her little rites of passage, let the last word before she gets there be from someone who loves her.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A poem about Milarepa and the little goat


i am a little goat high up on a howling mountain side.
i can hear the demons in the howling,
and i can feel them snufflig and shuffling behind me,
but i am not afraid,
because when i turn around they will have vanished.

But i make my goat eyes into slits
as narrow as the track i walk on,
and i know they are still there.

Milerepa knows how to deal with demons.
i can see him, far below, in the valley,
his little cook fire ablaze, and the demons drinking his wine, and their laughter
making them holy.

Mine are too afraid to come near me.
i walk step by step, high up on the howling mountin side.
It's OK, little goat.
It's the wind.

It's the wind.

Explanatory note:
Milarepa was the great saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet. It is usual that the gods of the previous religion become the demons of its successor. Christianity has some good examples as any of this. Christian missionaries in Britain were advised to incorporate pagan themes into their new Christian worship. Churches were built on the old holy sites, for example. This was a kind of hegemony, for sure, but also an acknowledgment that change needed to happen incrementally and that the old ways still had some credibility. Milarepa went a step further and he is famous for inviting the demons from the warry old Tibetan religion of Bon to dinner, and negotiating through rational argument their submission to the new spiritual regime.
Nowadays we take a wholly psychological approach to demonology.
i wanted to combine the literal and psychological approaches, and to express something of the subline perils of the spiritual journey.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Manly Arts

i have been watching some of the Olympic Games on TV. At odd times, catching some unfashionable coverage.

 i liked the women's archery, which went all the way down to one arrow. It was between Mexico and South Korea. i rooted for the Mexican woman, because she was cute and because the Koreans were winning every damn thing. And as the saying goes: 'Poor Mexico: so close to the United States, so far from God'. The Korean won.

The Modern Pentathlon amused me. It was developed by Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, to show the skills of the ideal soldier, namely a cavalry officer caught behind enemy lines. Not an infantryman, mind, a cavalry officer. Coubertin may have had dreams of modernity and internationalism but this sort of classist and Eurocentric thinking places him nicely of his age. Thus, the skills of the Modern Pentathlon are those most manly European pursuits of
epee fencing,
pistol shooting,
equestrian show jumping,
swimming, and
Resident Evil: No Hope Left.*
Naturally at London 2012 there were no Eritreans or Peruvians competing, although there was an Egytpian, bravely challenging the class and race barrier as it manifested itself in some weird early twentieth century time warp.

The manliness bit reminded me of the Mongolian Festival of Naadaan. i went through a big Mongolian phase a while back and learned a lot about it. i even considered a very expensive expedition to the Gobi desert where i would be looking for the extremely rare Little Brown Gobi Bear. The brochure showed lots of pictures of rocks and deserty bits. The itinerary went something like this:

Day One: Ulaan Baatar

Day Two: Looking for the Little Brown Gobi Bear

Day Three: Looking for the Little Brown Gobi Bear

Day Four: Looking for the Little Brown Gobi Bear

Day Five: Looking for......etc

Day Fourteen: Ulaan Baatar

It is almost fortunate that the LBGB is so rare, because if you found one on Day Three what would you do then? You'd have to call the whole thing off.

Anyway the Festival of Naadaan is famous for its four Manly Arts, which are:
horse racing,
archery, and
Resident Evil: No Hope Left.*

i have sometimes thought about the heritage of these sporting festivals, and their genesis in the traditional male activities of war. This is why we throw javelins and hammers, and wrestle and run. These sports are so far away now from modern warfare. If we had sporting festivals based on modern warfare we we have - i dunno - Drone racing over 5,000 kms. Hardly Coubertinian. Hardly sporting.

Perhaps we could have sporting festivals based on the traditional female activites. We could have the 5 km Jog With Child On Hip. Of course we would no longer use real children, but we would have titanium plated aerodynamic child-shaped objects designed for carrying at speed, that cost thousands to design. We would have half forgotten the orginal race that required actual children.

We could also have the 10 km Walk With Pot On Head, the Firewood Collecting, and the Rice Planting Marathon. Not exactly riveting stuff for the viewers. Why are women's activities so unglamorous, repetitive, slow, small in scale, lacking in drama? Gosh, there's a thing.

So we could have an alternative girly Olympics with a programme like this:

5 km Jog With Child On Hip
10 km Walk with Pot on Head
Rice Planting Marathon
Sweatshop sewing  (a recent addition, to account for globalisation)
Synchronised Swimming
The Sims Livin' Large*

* Some of these are not real sports in any part of the multiverse. It's just that i am bad at lists.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Remind me again why i don't drink

Friday night, finishing work at eleven. i'd had a cold for the last few days and it was getting worse. Then the toothache started. i had never had toothache before but i have automatic sympathy for anyone who does, because i figure that our teeth are rather too close to our brains for tooth pain to be manageable.

Wracked with pain, i went to the local bottle store, because this is Linwood and you can, and i bought a bottle of Napoleon brandy. It had to be Napoleon brandy, for my husband the Archduke Piccolo, who is keen on his Napoleonic campaigns.The bottle store was empty of custom and the two Sikh guys there were pumping hip hop music out into the empty street, a splash of light and sound that tried to hint at Good Times but made me feel slightly bereft as i left with my obvious bottle shaped paper bag. At my age, at that time of night, good grief. i was planning on an old hitch hiking cure for toothache, which is to hold spirituous liquor in your mouth for as long as you can, thus numbing the mouth and dulling the pain, and after a while you stop caring anyway.

Back home i tried the old hitch hiking cure, and a quarter of a bottle of brandy later my mouth was indeed numb and the pain had abated. i then dealt to the cold. i took some day and night flu thingies and then a small amount of Phenergan, only a small amount, mind, 'cos i'm not stoopid.

i went about my late night chores, folding washing and cleaning the kitchen, managing rather well i thought despite the developing tremor. i let the animals in and out and in and out and in and so on almost without incident. It was the putting the clothes in the wardrobe that defeated me, as i faced some suprisingly aggressive and complicated coat hangers and, flailing in the wardrobe, discovered a whole new gift for physical comedy.

i went to bed, still sniggering to myself about the coat hangers and how they flew out of the wardrobe somehow in a wiry flock of flappping flappiness, and how i fought them off. i sort of slept and woke not hung over but still with a cold and still with the toothache making a late morning bid for supremacy.

Now, i don't drink alcohol for several reasons and those reasons have changed over the years. My reasons have become less ideological and more experiential.  Mostly, nowadays, i value what brain i have too much to compromise it. And while the use of substances has its place in shamanism, i have enough experience inside my own head to realise that consciousness is pretty malleable stuff, and you don't need to mess with it artificially to discover that. Moreover, i have always thought of alcohol as the least sophisticated of drugs. If drugs were music, alcohol would be Big Dumb Rock.

From a relatively drug-naive perspective, i am not sure i would recommend the old hitch hiking cure for toothache. Next time i hitch hike i will take paracetamol or something with me - it's less hassle to carry than brandy anyway. Today i saw the dentist and got my tooth filled. The dentist liked my brandy story, and he took due note of the fact that the pain was so great it drove a teetotaller to drink!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Croissant trip

It is a little over a year since i had lap band surgery, and lost 17 kilos. i have been really pleased i did it. i can reach for my seat belt, and walk up hills, and run, and wear ordinary clothing. For a while i thought maybe my arms had somehow grown in length because i no longer needed to roll sleeves up over and over, but then it dawned on me that my new clothes actually had shorter sleeves (doh!). So i have been a happy camper.

About three weeks ago i started to become uncomfortable. i could no longer manage food in the mornings; it would get stuck in the band and i would regurgitate it. After a while i could manage food only in the evenings and the only thing i could reliably eat was ice cream. Then i became unable to drink. i lost energy. i was uncomfortable all the time. i was becoming dehydrated. i was not even thinking particularly well. This morning i drank about 50 mls of water and a couple of hours later at work i was vomiting blood.

i saw the surgeon and he was unympathetic. He said - did you actually think this would get better. Why weren't you here three weeks ago. i couldn't answer him. i suppose i thought it would get better, or i would have seen him earlier. But really i was figuring i ought to staunch it out. Well, i would have drunk my harden-the-fuck-up juice, but i couldn't get it down.

Anyway the surgeon thought the band had slipped, and  took the whole 5 mls of fluid out of it, and recovery was instant. i drank some water. i drank some more water. i went to the Beat Street Cafe, home of the radical Womyn of Occupy, and had the world's best coffee. It was so good i could not even read my book*. It was textured and smooth and bitter and sweet and strong and everything. Then i ate most of  a croissant. Oh God the spinach! And if that was not enough, the tomato! i ate slowly and with real mindfulness possibly for the first time ever. i probably looked a bit strange but i was so focused. Can you trip out on croissants? It felt like the first time i had ever eaten one. i figured the second one i have will never be quite as good. i will spend the rest of my life trying to recapture that first rush, consuming croissants the size of houses, found dead one day alone in my tiny flat, with that light buttery flaky bread all around my mouth and brie cheese wedged in my cleavage.

The Archduke's spag bol was not half bad either.

So 5 mls lighter and i am a free woman. i will continue to eat as i need to - side plate sized portions, and no more ice cream  i think because now i will run screaming from the room at the sight of a Magnum. In two weeks the band will be reinflated and i will be back to normal.

* The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism, by Tariq Ramadan. This very humane author is Oxford don and traditional Islamic scholar both.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Jesus nut

This post is about the nature of belief.

i have always had problems with the idea of belief. In some modern thinking, the idea seems to be that belief affects the physical world. If you believe, you can make things happen. If things don't happen, you didn't believe hard enough. This is a lynchpin of new age thinking, as expressed in books like The Journey. i am not convinced that i can change the physical world with my thoughts. Like Barbara Ehrenreich, in her excellent RSAnimate video Smile or Die, i advocate realism rather than positive thinking, where positive thinking makes us feel guilty for our failures or unable to see difficult truths. And like Alice, i can believe in six impossible things before breakfast, and yet somehow the stars remain in their courses and gravity continues to work.

Another modern feature about belief is that you have to believe in something. It seems to matter less what you believe in than that you believe. You have to have a dream, whether it is a dream of world peace or the Aryan nation.Think of all those inspiring family movies where an act of sheer will makes the dream come true. But this is no ontological fact. It is just a fancy way of sanctioning ambition.

Belief is a prominent feature in modern Christianity. Raw belief seems to be thought of as the engine that drives faith and good works. It is more important than thinking or experiencing. It was not always this way. Karen Armstrong in The Case for God talks about how early Christians struggled to express what Jesus was on about, and hit on the Latin word credere to try to engage with a complicated idea. What Jesus asked of his followers was to open their hearts and minds to the experience of following him. Try it, work with it, see it for what it is, let it work on you, live it. This is different from the current notion of believing in somethng for which there is no evidence.

So belief is a problematic notion, but there is one thing i have been forced to believe in, at least temporarily.

It's the Jesus nut.

The Jesus nut is the nut or pin that fixes the rotor blades in some helicopters such as the Iriquois. The term arose during the Vietnam war - try reading Chickenhawk, for example, for some awesomely deatailed descriptions of flying choppers.

Last week i went in a helicopter, a Hughes 500. i flew up a mountain, landed on its summit, walked about for a bit, and then flew down again. It was astounding. It was incredibly beautiful. Perspective and scale is almost meaningless up there. i think i was inches away from Mt Cook. Tiny square dots were trampers' huts. Sweet little tarns dotted the high hills like puddles. i loved every minute of it. But it occurred to me that i needed a lot of belief to sustain myself up there. i needed to believe in the existence of helicopters and to have some crazy notion that the daft things actually work. i needed to believe in the Jesus nut, and also the gear box because i hear they are tricky things. i needed to believe that the pilot was a real pilot ,that he had his licence,  that he was not on meth, that he maintained his helicopter well, that he had slept well enough the night before.  It seemed an awful lot to believe. i only needed enough belief to make myself climb onto the seat, mind you, but it was something. i think about other things i have believed in, such as ferris wheels and jet boats - and cars, for that matter.

Here are photos. i really did it!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Winter poem

There should be a prayer for evenings.

A prayer to put alarming blackbirds

To sleep gently

With the charm of woodsmoke.


A prayer for the shops to stay open a little longer –

And the heart, too, long enough for morning.


A prayer for the small flame of company –

Or at least the company of a small flame.


And if you do have to go gently,

A prayer to show you how

To go wideawake,

And thinking and thanking.