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!