Sunday, December 29, 2013


My new iPhone 5C has made portable internet access so much easier, and yet it has its risks. I discovered this recently when innocently browsing late at night in bed.

Somehow I ended up on a site that told me that hundreds of women whom I knew, in my town, wanted to be my fuckbuddy.

Fuckbuddy is not a term that is in my active vocabulary. I am not sure what it is. I supposed it is one of those things the young people do nowadays, such as having friends with benefits or fedoras or what have you.

Naturally I was alarmed. I tried to get out of the site. All I got was the next screen, which contained a gif of a young woman performing what the police call an indecent act, on what was clearly a man. Parenthetically, I think that gifs are perfect for porn. Porn is so repetitive after all.

Further alarmed, I tried to get out again, but all I could do was shuttle between the two offending screens. I turned the whole thing off and on, and there it was again.  The hundreds of women. The indecent act. Damn.

The page told me that all I needed to do was answer three simple questions and I could go onto the site proper. I figured I could work this to my advantage. I would answer the questions wrong, and get kicked off the site. The first question was - Are you over 25? I answered no. The second question was - Have you ever had an STD? I answered yes. The third question was - Are you prepared to use a condom? I answered no. The page thought about all of this for a minute and then announced gleefully: Congratulations! You are eligible to join this site! 9,463 women are waiting to be your fuckbuddy!!!

At this point scepticism set it. I am not good at numbers, but I don't think I even know 9,463 women let alone ones in my town who are on porn sites. I suspect they are exaggerating. I wonder if they mean the number 9,463 as a sort of mythical device - the way large numbers are used in the Bible to indicate - well, large numbers. Like it says people lived for 900 years when actually they just meant 'a really really long time'. Or the army had 10,000 soldiers when really they just mean 'a lot of mean dudes'. Or, perhaps the number 9,463 is numerologically significant? Perhaps it indicates great sexual prowess in the ancient scriptures? Like the number of concubines of the legendary emperor Creosote?9,463 breaks down to 22 which breaks down to 4 - perhaps it refers to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of whom was a noted sex fiend, or Ovid's four Ages of Civilisation, or even the four pleasures of Omar Khayyam, which are less exciting than they seem. Or the four types of caviar.

None of these ideas flashed through my mind as I desperately tried to get out of the site. In the end I just sort of buried it. I found a way of getting to other sites I had meant to be on, before the fuckbuddy one, and I buried the offending site behind them all. Whew. Respectability restored, I turned the light off.

Oh, and a message to the 9,463 women out there - it's all right. I know that you don't really want to be my fuckbuddy and I don't want to be yours either.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


My little dog Tigger Ratbane, died on Wednesday.

He would have been 15 in February. He had several complicated medical problems, but what got him in the end was an unexpected and very fast growing tumour.

I said at the end of his life he was held together with love, and I meant it almost literally. The week before he died he was entertaining an elderly woman with dementia. He still liked to trot around the block and sniff and pee, and he was still mostly cheerful, but he was tired.

Today I miss him hugely. All the places we walked, and I would not have known about otherwise. Our daily routine, to which he was always faithful, right down to the little piece of cheese he got before he went to bed in his box. There are now many little spaces in my day, and some big ones.

Love is to our spiritual world as gravity is to the physical. It holds the planets in their courses. It binds us to the real earth, and lets us move in our destinies. I cannot say more about love. Language fails me here.

I can say something about how it is to love and be loved by someone from another species. This is remarkable, and yet it happens in households all over the world, and has done since the first brave children bonded with the first clever wolf puppies. What foresight. I still have no idea how we communicate across species - and yet I can still say that Tigger and I loved each other.

I have always been wary of anthropomorphism. I never liked being called 'Mummy' regarding the animals in my household, because I did not give birth to them. They are not children. They are not to be treated like human children, because that demeans them.

We demand contradictory things of animals. We want them to be like us, so we can relate to them and empathise with them. We say 'The chimpanzee is sitting like that because she is sad', or 'The sparrow is eating his tea'. Thus we ascribe human qualities to them. We also want them to be different from us, in several ways. Better than us, so we can aspire to qualities we think of as noble. We say, 'Animals would never be so cruel'. Lesser than us, so we can eat them or exploit them. We then other them - we say 'It's OK they don't feel things like we do'. All of these attitudes somehow exist concurrently, often within the same person. All of them might for all we know be incredibly wrong. Our relationship with animals is complex and more fraught than we think, and I suspect it is a new frontier in the area of civil rights and social inclusiveness.

It is this contradictory sameness and difference that backgrounds my wonder at how Tigger and I communicated. Maybe I am incredibly wrong, but I do feel he loved and was loved, and that love was his purpose. He came from love and he goes to love.

Now he is buried in our yard, wrapped in a linen shroud and facing Mecca. He had a kind of Muslim funeral; I chanted a prayer in Arabic for him. This was my idea of a theological joke. All animals are Muslims, as I have said in an earlier post. Islam means submission and animals, who do not have free will in Islam, thus submit naturally to the will of God. But in Islamic lore only one dog, the dog who guarded the Seven Sleepers goes to heaven. My joke is that Tigger gets to be the second dog.

Tigger Ratbane aka the Tiny Taco Terrier.
20.2.99 - 16.12.2013

Good Dog.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Two cows enter. One cow leaves.

The sign said, car park, two hours. A bit longer than the walk up the valley, but probably a better view. I decided to take it.

Up on the tablelands, tussock, tall Californian thistles, cow pats the size of satellite dishes, should have alerted me to what came next. But they were up the hill a little and I didn't see them until I was close enough to be in their space.

Cows. Great big fucking big huge cows. They were so big they loomed. They were big and black and looming. Did I explain that they were, like, really big?

One of the more daffy projects of Nazi Germany was the attempt to back breed aurochsen. Aurochsen were giant cows with great sweeping horns. They went extinct in the seventeenth century. The Heck brothers, encouraged by Goering, attempted to back breed the largest and most primitive cattle to get something like an aurochs. Goering had the idea of turning eastern Europe into his own private hunting ground. There are still faux aurochsen around, called Heck cattle. And a more recent attempt, called TaurOs, is using our new knowledge of genetics. Don't quite know why they want to back breed aurochsen, really. Goering saw the aurochs as a symbol of Teutonic might. Perhaps we could back breed something a bit less culturally laden - perhaps dire wolves or - wow - giant sloths! That would be cool.

Anyway these big huge looming cows seemed as big as Heck cattle.

I am a city girl. Well, OK, I come from a little town you've probably never heard of, but I live in a city of sorts and my idea of the countryside is it's the stuff that happens between cities. I like nature. I like walks in native forests. My idea of nature is bellbirds and faeries. I can handle the faeries. As I've said before, my Weird Shit-o-meter goes up to 11. Not so sure about the big huge looming cows though. Proceed with caution, I figured. After all, they are herbivores. They eat grass, for pity's sake. I just hope someone has remind them of that recently.

Then I noticed they were steeren. I am not sure of the plural for steer, but I figure steeren is a good word, makes them sound bigger and fiercer than steers, like aurochsen which is the plural for aurochs. So they were young guy cattle and they were a bit full of themselves that day.

Some of them were sort of bouncing on all legs and flicking their tails. Then one of them wound it up a bit. He started rocking forward and aft, tossing his head. Then he cantered off down the hill and just casually shoulder barged another steer.

That steer lowered his head and said, like, 'Listen, shithead. Do that again and we throw down'.

The first steer said 'Yeah well bring it, motherfucker!'

The rest of the steeren immediately gathered around. Gosh, it was like primary school all over again, when everyone rushes over and shouts 'Fight! fight! fight!'. The air was full of steerosterone. Whoah! Here I was in the bovine version of Thunderdome. Two cows enter! One cow leaves! The steeren raised their heads and mooed. They flanked each other and pawed the earth. They lay their heads along each others backs and rose up on each other in a blurred mix of fighting, mating and playing. Touch! Pause! Engage!

Then they noticed me.

I didn't care if they were herbivores. Neither the tall Californian thistles nor the cow pats the size of satellite dishes stopped me until I was over the stile and away. As I headed back down the valley I could hear the terrifying din of the steeren, echoing from the Thunderdome, calling to their fellows each to each about the little puny human that got away.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Eastgate is probably Christchurch's most low-rent shopping mall, and it is my local. I make jokes about shopping in Linwood, where people wear hoodies and pyjama bottoms to the mall. But at Eastgate it is safe to be obese, or very old, or Samoan. You don't have to move very fast. It is OK to hang around for a while, and it is small enough for the shop keepers to know each other and have some collegiality. There are few big stores and big names, apart from McDonalds, and no flash brands. You don't see Gucci, or Merrill, or Bose.

Even here the world of wealth is on display. You can buy a diamond ring, or a pot of $100 face cream. You can spend a couple of hundred dollars on clothes without trying.

I figure most of this is beyond many of the people who shop there.

This week a report was issued about monitoring child poverty in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Its authors are the Children's Commissioner, the JR McKenzie Trust, and Otago University. They crunched the numbers themselves, because they were concerned about the government's apparent lack of interest in social research. Their findings have been widely reported even in mainstream media.

265,000 children, or 25% of the child population, live in poverty. 180,000 go without basic necessities. 10% live at the hardest end. 3 in 5 children living in poverty will live this way for many years. The epidemiologists who did the research talked about the effect of this on the health system. The Children's Commissioner talked about how this affects the economy and the social climate. Here in New Zealand, we have a large body of academics and public servants who are increasingly at odds with government policy, and who are now willing to appear partisan, to make large statements about obvious growing gap between rich and poor.

I am still surprised at the reactions of many ordinary people to this report, as well as ongoing investigations by the Campbell Live TV programme. There seem to be two main strands of thought. One says that, well, we work hard and we are poor too. Fair enough. The other says that the poor are at fault. They should have fewer children. They should not eat junk food. They are probably addicts. . They exploit the benefit systems and perpetuate a cycle of dependence and ignorance. They spend their money on TVs and Playstations instead of food.

I am of the generation that had state help. I was raised partly in social housing. I was unemployed a lot during my youth, and managed on welfare benefits without hardship. I was given a temporary paid job at the university, and thought maybe I was brainy enough to study. I did two degrees paid for by the state, and worked part time enough to manage in comfort. Once I got a grown up job, the state funded a cheap loan into my first house. We raised our child on mostly one income. We are not one-above-average-income-per-person rich but damn well rich enough . And lucky enough to be borne aloft by the last bright bubble of the welfare state for which New Zealand was once famous. I am not stupid with money but I am not smart either. I don't have to be. I have the luxury of being able to think about other things.

Poverty in New Zealand is about food and shelter and warmth and health. It is also about relative inclusiveness and being able to participate in society and have some choices. When you are very poor, you can't think about much else. Financial stress overwhelms you. You can't do the math because it doesn't add up. There is no budget advice to give. Any small mistake follows you for ever. You can't afford to register your car, so you get fines which turn into debts that criminalise you. Your cell phone broke and you can't afford a new one, so they can't contact you and you don't know about the appointment and they cut your benefit. For the lack of the nail, the shoe was lost, and so on.

Being poor, especially if you are on welfare, is a great opportunity to practise the great virtues. You are expected to manage the Byzantine labyrinth that is the welfare system with perseverance and determination. You are expected to wait for hours with dignity and patience. You are expected to be scrupulously honest and trustworthy if you want to retain your benefit payments. And always, always, you must exercise the virtues of self discipline and restraint. To survive at welfare level, whether or not you are in paid work, you must never buy ice cream, or take a holiday, or go to a movie, or buy that dress. Never make an impulsive purchase. Never get ripped off. Never say, oh sod it, let's just do it. And you must be aware that the minutiae of your lives are being monitored, so you must always act with care and temperance, in case you are discovered thinking or acting on something else other than the whimsical demands of the welfare system.

I wish I could always be so virtuous. I confess I have been known to lose my temper and cry. I have lacked tolerance in dealing with organisations, especially when I have been tired or stressed. I have made unwise purchases. I have bought stupid shit on impulse and regretted it. Things even stupider than a kangaroo onesie!  And I confess, there have been times I have eaten too much.

Not that anybody minds or even notices. The welfare system does not mind if I smoke weed or sleep with whole football teams. I am rich enough to avoid the benefit system and free to indulge as is my libertarian right. As long as I consume I have done my civic duty.
If I criticised people for being poor I would be holding them to moral standards greater than to which I have achieved. This is the other side of the argument about the morals and values of the poor. Our Prime Minister described this society as 'aspirational'. I think he means the poor should aspire to the values of the rich. But the rich don't need to be morally virtuous. If we want to acquire virtue, perhaps we should look to our expectations of those 'least' in our world.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sounds I like

I had the idea of writing poems the ways children are asked to do at primary school. They choose a colour or an emotion or an idea and write simple poems around the one word. Like 'blue' or 'caterpillar'.

These are about sounds I like. I wanted to use simple and onomatopoeic language to convey impressions rather than larger ideas.

I think I like the humility of small sounds doing useful things.

Here we go:

The long zip zings
of Summer
and travel
and the outdoors.
I shiver.
It is so delicious I do it again.
Each opening and closing
a tiny hint
of change.

Dial up:
In the beginning we waited as the whirr and screech
did its fussy little work.
Something alchemical happened in the ether -
And then -
The World!

The weights I ease to rest in their cradles
clunk -
self satisfied -
a little smirk.
Job done.
A moment conquered.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

White grief

I was quite ready for my daughter to leave the country last February. She had come and gone a bit, quite amicably. She had some good reasons for moving. We kept in touch online. It was all good.

Then someone asked me how I was doing. And I said, spontaneously, 'I am suspended in an aspic of white grief'.

Because, yeah, I actually talk like that sometimes.

I realised I had seized up. I had an inescapable image of myself suspended, immobile. It was as if I was hanging in a white fog, in silence, almost blind. I has stopped reacting to anything. I was, in fact, actually suspended in an aspic of white grief.

Traditionally melancholy has colours, and white is one of them. I figured, I know what this is. People write poetry about it. It's not unique. White melancholy isn't violent or self destructive or reddened with anger or fear. It's just paralysing. Everything just - stops.

I did not want to go about this in the ways sanctioned by society. I did not want to see it as a crisis, or pathologise it, or medicate it, or flee from it, or deny it, or cheer myself up about it, or fight it. I wanted to lean into it, learn from it, surf it, discover it, find the health and truth in it.

I began by checking myself over. I was safe, as far as I could work out. I was still sort of functioning. I didn't need any 'help'. I felt I could tolerate this state for a while, if I needed to, if that was what it took.

Then I did what I usually do in these circumstances, I took off with my sleeping bag and stayed in a camping ground. I walked a lot. I slept a lot. I didn't have a great time; I felt sour and ungrateful and nothing was what it seemed. There was no epiphany. I didn't get to tick a box for my next step towards enlightenment.*

But, gradually, gradually, I gave myself a new image. In this one I was in a tiny boat on a still sea at night, lit by a full moon. I was entirely alone in the boat. I was not afraid. The lessons of the night are often obscure. We need to listen carefully, I mean with care for ourselves. The light is dim under the moon, and the wisdom lies in the shadows. We don't get to see the light of truth here. We get the merest, dearest hints of true things here.

Slowly, very slowly, I was being carried by tides and a whisper of wind towards land. I could even feel the swell of sea become shore waves lapping, pushing me gently, until eventually

I made landfall.

* I never do!

Saturday, November 16, 2013



Mine would be a God of darkness
A God of stumbling around the streets at four in the morning
And of crawling under the blankets against the tears
And of bare snatches of sleep
And of getting through the next six hours.

That sort of darkness.

A God of small emoluments
Of grit on icy roads
Of town lights in the distance
Of the travelling gypsy hedgehog crossing the lawn
Of getting through the next six hours.

That sort of God.

And the big wonderings -
The slow cold swing of Saturn in the ancient sky -
Then getting through the next six hours
Becomes a sort of worship.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

On clothes. And not-clothes. And shopping in Linwood.

Over a month ago I took the pledge to buy no clothes over the next year, which I take to mean from September 2013 to September 2014. You may be wondering how I am doing.

The definition of clothing has become interesting. Do shoes count? What about jewellery? What about being on holiday and running out of underwear? Can I ever really have enough black t shirts? What if I really, really run out of socks? You have to have socks. Six weeks on, my socks are already getting odder and odder.

How about this mad urge to buy clothes for others? Does my husband need some white shirts, even just a little? How about that very cute t shirt at Cosmic Corner that says, profoundly, for sure:

'Be humble
for you are made of earth.
Be noble
for you are made of stars'

Someone I know would like that. I like that. It's not really a t shirt, it's more a mobile poster. I could probably buy it and not break the rules I made for myself.

Anyway, I recently bought a kangaroo onesie. It is a bright orange and white onesie with a hood with a face on it and ears, and a joey in a pouch. I have no idea why I bought this thing and I instantly regretted it. How on earth could I justify it. Well, here, on the following grounds:

1. I live in Linwood, where acceptable dress for shopping is a pair of pyjamas with hippos on them and a Sons of Anarchy hoodie. So don't judge me.
2. It is not really an item of clothing, more a costume.
3. It has a dear little face.
4. It is not really a costume even, because with the joey in the pouch it is more a toy,
5. They are my rules anyway.
6. It is a size small, which is always so encouraging.
7. It has a joey in its pouch.
8. The joey has a dear little face.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We really are the droids you're looking for - Rarotonga redux

We planned to spend as little time as possible in Rarotonga and it was just as well, because the longer I stayed the more Truman show I felt. The plan was to arrive from Atiu late morning into Rarotonga and leave for Auckland at about midnight. It was not to be.

At the airport they announced the plane to Auckland was cancelled, because the pilot was sick. By this time I was a bit caffeinated as I had known I would be up all night (I don't sleep much on planes). The announcement that the flight was cancelled left me a bit excited; I am told I was 'all over the place' and 'talking all the time to everyone'. We queued up to have our fates decided for us.

There is always such a diversity of response to perceived adversity. We met three European back packers who were thrilled to be staying longer in Raro and especially to be put up for free in a resort. We gave them our left over vego pizza and they were thrilled with that too. Then we were accosted by Panini Man. He was furious about the cancelled flight and actually waved his arms around and pointed and shouted. He proclaimed that he had been forced to eat two paninis and drink a beer, and that was $31 dollars he would never get back. Wow. I imagined devious Cook Islanders holding him down, feeding him paninis and beer, and extracting $31 from his wallet. His plump sad wife looked on patiently.

When it came to us, I used my caffeinated state to employ the old Jedi mind trick. We had come from no accommodation and the back packers we had stayed in previously was not to be recommended. I focused my mind into a laser pointer of will, and silently projected 'Edgewater Resort, Edgewater Resort'. The person behind the counter said 'I will see if I can try to get you into the Edgewater Resort'. Whoah! It worked! These really are the droids you were looking for! We had not been overlooked.

Then came several long weird days at the Edgewater Resort.

There were activities. There was crab racing (don't ask). There were Island Nites. There were drinks with amusing umbrellas in them. There was a gift shop. It rained. Day by day there was no news about when we could be rebooked. We talked to others who were part of the now-famous Virgin Offload. They were all disgruntled and trying to get home to sit exams and go to sports tournaments and get back to their jobs. We met one couple who had been placed at Edgewater who found it just impossible there, just not their sort of place at all. Their own accommodation had been too expensive for the airline to cover. The woman just broke down with the awfulness of it. She cried and cried and cried and finally they went back to their previous place. When we met them next she was on a social media crusade against the horror that is airline offload.

I became withdrawn by the peculiar liminality of our situation. I imagined being at the Edgewater Resort for years and years, like Hotel California, sitting at the same table with the same drink (with its amusing umbrella), becoming a small ghost. I would die there and nobody would ever sit at that table again. I would just gradually grey out into the rain. I would write the great Cook Islands novel - which would be about an honest and deeply religious policeman who returned from the mean streets of South Auckland to his home on Mauke, only to be caught up in a terrible conspiracy involving murder and corruption in the very heart of the tourist industry. The novel would be discovered under my bed and published posthumously, to great acclaim.

We did stuff of course, went for walks and so on. During our previous stay we met up with a couple of Kiwi teachers on a contract to teach for three years. They had that terrifying world weariness of ex pats. They were well over Rarotonga. The locals were just unstable, they had funny names and they didn't seem to care about the right things. And they were fundamentally lazy, honestly, you just can't think about what will happen to your work after you have gone. You employ a gardener, and as soon as you turn your back they just stop work. They don't cultivate anything. They don't even care about their own arts and crafts. All the real work is done by foreigners.

So when we went walking we often commented on this. Whenever we saw cultivation we commented on the lazy sods who had clearly never done anything. You grow taro in swamps, for example. To grow taro you make a swamp, and then after you have cultivated the taro you have good land you can drain and plant things like tomatoes. It all looks a bit like work to me. We also commented on local people who were somehow overcoming their inherent laziness to do things like mow their lawns and trim their hedges. And we even saw a local woman going for a run. Now, that is a real proper western style legitimate activity because it involves expensive brand name shoes.  Running without expensive brand name shoes isn't really running - it's just rushing around. It's probably even running away from something. In fact running without expensive brand name shoes is practically criminal.

Three days later we were among the lucky ones. Thanks to some ferocious lobbying from my travelling companion, and many international phone calls, we were on a plane. Others remained stranded in paradise, eating from their $50 a day vouchers and stressing about work and the costs of the cattery. But we were back in the cool of a New Zealand Spring, having enjoyed more than we bargained for.

And here, not well photographed unfortunately, is my all time favourite fish, the Seal Faced Puffer Fish. It is from the Whale and Wildlife Museum, a good place on Raro. Go there.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On Atiu - In which I go caving and discover I am only a hobbit after all

When we got off the Bandit at Atiu airport we were greeted by an amusing sign:

So we handed in our weapons and were given the usual beautiful fragrant ei and welcomed hugely.

Atiu has a population of something just south of 500. Similar to Mauke, the villages cluster around the centre and the outer rim consists of makatea, which is fossilised coral sometimes making formations the height of doorways. We were here to see the kopeka, the Atiu swiftlet. The kopeka is endemic to Atiu. It is unique in that it uses its eyes in the light, and echolocation in the cave where it lives. We went caving to see them.

We walked across the makatea, which is treacherous stuff. It is sharp and has sudden crevices, and you need good boots. We were given ironwood staffs. I liked mine a lot and I was Gandalf and said You Shall Not Pass a few times until someone told me I was only a hobbit. i have always liked caves and this one was characterised by amazing banyan tree roots which penetrate the roof of the cave and then drive straight down to the floor, just one long tough root after another. The kopeka themselves were magical. It was nesting time, and they were feeding their young. We could hear them twitter as the flew into the mouth of the cave, and then begin echolocating with audible clicking sounds. They would call to their babies who would respond, and each bird would find each baby. Like bats. With torches off, in the dark, the clicking was too loud for speech. Then some of us who were brave swam in the underground pool. The water was soft and warm; i was swimming in it and drinking it.

On the way back we attended a tumunu, or drinking session with local men. Traditionally this is a council meeting/piss up for the local men but tourists are allowed for $5. They pass around a wooden bowl with 'orange beer' in it which is neither orange nor beer. It is a fairly sedate affair. i suspect as soon as the tourists leave the bowl gets a lot bigger.

We stayed in a home stay with a guy called Marshall. Each night was a dinner party. We had hot water for the first time in the Cook Islands. Marshall was very knowledgeable about Atiu, and all sorts of things for that matter.

On Sunday we went to church. There were ten of us tourists on the island and eight of us went to church. The couple who didn't had their absence duly noted. The Cook Island Christian Church has had difficult time recently with some scandal and some defection to other denominations. Everyone in the Cooks is Christian, except there is a small Baha'i community. So there were about seventy people present and eight tourists. i can tell you that the CICC is the only place in the world where a man can wear a white suit and not look like a 1980's gigolo (much). And the singing would lift the roof - you have never heard Once in Royal David's City like that before, close close harmony and LOUD. i listened and hummed along and thought that whoever we are, when we reach for the highest, we get there.

On Friday night we hung out in town, by which i mean the Super Brown store. We got a decent burger and watched the jeunesse doree of Atiu rock up on their motor scooters. The dogs of Atiu, who lie around all day, mobilised themselves and form excitable packs. Like teenagers, they become suddenly preoccupied with something wonderful and go racing down the street. A pack rushed past us, but one ungainly little short legged fellow couldn't keep up. i have a thing for ungainly little short legged creatures so i gave him my meat from the burger. Now i have a friend i can stay with on my return to Atiu.

There were more exquisite bejewelled coves with crystal sea and coral sand, and a million tiny hermit crabs. We saw where Captain Cook arrived and sent his men to treat with the people of Atiu, who were then known for their ferocity. And we saw hump backed whales from the beach. A mother and her new calf processed just a few metres out, just rising and dipping in the sea, just cruising around the island where they come to give birth. i fancied these were whales i had seen near Brisbane. It is certainly the same migration. One of the women i was with said to me, I am an atheist, in fact when I told my daughter I had been to church here she asked, did the church catch fire? But seeing these whales I feel - blessed.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Community Policing and the Little Pigs of God

When we got off the Bandit at the airport at Mauke, one of the Cook Islands 'outer islands', we were immediately stopped by a uniformed police officer. We thought he would inspect our belongings for forbidden vegetables, but instead he put eis* around our necks and told us to wait for our luggage. We waited. My companion said, uh, we were going to be met by someone from Tiare Cottages....the police officer laughed and said he was wondering how long it would take us to figure it out. He was also the proprietor of Tiare Cottages, the only place to stay on Mauke, pop. about 450. We were made so welcome. We were two of the three Papa'a** on the island. We stayed far too short a time. We saw the world's biggest banyan tree, which occupies over an acre. We also went to both of the shops. And we walked a lot and pottered around in tiny exquisite coves and on coral beaches. We found many interesting sea cucumbers. Here is a sea cucumber doing a poo: We visited the divided church. When the church was built there was fierce debate about its design, and it ended up being divided into two halves, with each half decorated in its own way, and the preacher standing in the middle. Everyone on Mauke is Christian of one sort or another, our hosts being two of the 9 Seventh Day Adventists there. In the church, my travelling companion told me about how the missionaries translated the Bible into the island languages. They were not fixated on literalism. They tried hard to communicate, changing the symbolism to suit. An example: Jesus could not really be called the lamb of God in a culture were nobody knew what a sheep was. So they translated the phrase as 'little pig of God' On Mauke we saw many dear little pigs of God, as well as little goats of God and little chickens of God. Most creatures there are pretty free range, and as sweet and blessed as they can be. Tiare Cottages is run by Tangata, the policeman, and Teata, who teaches high school. They had lived in South Auckland and came home to Mauke once their children had grown. Ta talked about community policing on Mauke. At first when he arrested people he had to take them home. Now he has a police station, although some of it he has built himself. Recently he put up a stop sign. He then went around the corner to see if anyone stopped. Of course they didn't. These are dirt roads, and most people travel by motor scooter at low speeds. Ta took note of all the people who didn't stop, and visited them. He told them when they visited Rarotonga and went through stop signs they would be fined - they should see this stop sign as practice for urban living. Most of the people of Mauke are related to Ta and Teata. Ta is trained in a community policing model and really I could see no other way of managing it effectively. On the last day we were there Teata asked us to help with her Year 11 social studies class. They were doing a module on human rights, focusing on Amnesty International and issues for women in Egypt. There are 6 Y11 young people. Only two have internet access. They are village kids. Teata asked us to talk to her class, so we gave a lesson on Amnesty and women in Egypt. One girl asked me what is the difference between human rights and social justice. They were preparing a brochure to deliver to every house on the island, on this very abstract topic. I am a frustrated wannabe teacher - I love prancing about in front of a whiteboard. This school is trying to teach the New Zealand curriculum with few resources, and blackboards not whiteboards, and certainly no power point presentations. Teata routinely asks her guests to take a class, partly to expose the kids to outside influences. Her last guests were Finns and they taught Finnish football. Mauke is awesome. I could live there, and just hang out on the beach and teach random classes, and befriend the little pigs of God.

* An ei Cook Island Maori for lei, a garland of fragrant local flowers.
  ** White people.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

It was Suicide Awareness Week in Rarotonga

It was Suicide Awareness Week in Rarotonga when we arrived. I talked to the people at the market stall and looked at their pamphlet. It said: 'Stop. Your Family Cares. Your Friends Care. We Care'. Think. Of One person you can trust. Talk. To someone.' I hope that is true. I think that many suicidal people feel nobody cares. They feel very alone. It is a bit of a cliché, trouble in paradise. Gaugin it ain't. But it never is. Emotional difficulties are universal. Rarotonga was bijou. There is one road that circles the island. Tourists hire scooters and we hired a small car. You can just go round and round from resort to resort. I thought I was in the Truman Show. None of it was real, it was all being rolled out in front of me just as I approached it. The same people, again and again. Hello Mr Brown! There's the lady in the straw hat, and the muscular guy on the bike, and the sleeping dog. I got wise. I figured I was in the Truman show when I realised I was the only one who ever did a U turn. Everyone else just goes round and round, in the everlasting sunshine. We trekked in the forested centre, and went looking for marae, which in the Cook Islands means sacred sites, places where important meetings were held or rituals performed. Since the advent of Christianity, people moved from the forest to the coast at the request of the missionaries. Now the marae are abandoned and they appear as rock-rimmed platforms.
We stayed in a back packers', and the young people there were preloading with strange Finnish spirits bought in plastic bottles. They went off to their pub crawls on the neon bus. The wind was constant and strong. The third night it seemed worse, and things were banging around. I fitfully dreamed about trying to rescue people I cared about from a tsunami. And I dreamed a whole new word I made up. Hrodlhrafn. It means an important thing left behind. Here are two hrodlhrafn from my life. The first one is soap left in a pension in Istanbul. I left it in the shower and when I went back for it, it had plainly been stolen by the guy who had the shower after me. I confronted him on the stairs and he didn't deny it. He didn't give it back either. The second one is a cellphone left in Melaka. It went on to have adventures of its own. It went all the way from Melaka in Malaysia to Waziristan. Then someone used it as a phone box, and we got a bill for, eventually, $8000. The bills were so big they arrived in A4 envelopes. I was appalled by the cost, of course, but fascinated by the circumstances. I wanted Vodafone to sponsor a trip to Waziristan, where I would trace the travels of the phone. I would wander around in a burka like a little Pacman ghost, and learn all about these fabulous cultures, and when I found the person who had the phone I would find out about their life. Of course my hrodlhrafn is something someone else might find. If found, it is called a karrnhrafn. I made that up too, but not in a dream. After three days in Rarotonga, we went to Mauke.

Friday, September 13, 2013

In which I Take The Pledge

I have decided to go without new clothes for a year. I am not the only one to have done this. There are some fashion bloggers who have done it. I am not a fashion blogger. Clothes have never really been good to me. My mother made almost everything I wore as a child, based on patterns she made to her own designs. Some of these were eccentric, but not in a good way. Although she carefully measured me, to my chagrin, she thought of me as shorter and fatter than I actually was. All my trousers were thus too long in the body and too short in the legs. I had to be at least in my thirties before I appreciated this. I wore what are now called 'vintage' clothes in my teens and only occasionally was brave enough to shop. The look on the shop assistant's face as she hauled back the curtain to reveal me standing in pants that dragged half way across the floor. Her eyes flicked down my length. The colour suits you, she announced, a last ditch effort at tact. I bought the damned pants. Bra fittings were even more traumatic. Back then all girls were fitted for their first bras at Mrs Pope's. The name sounds medieval and so were the techniques. The women there were sour and vicious and had hands like bejewelled claws. I'm sure they drew blood at times. They were only one step away from the cackling and the children in the oven. You were taught to bend over and tip yourself into the bra. Then you straightened up and they pummelled you and pinched you. It's a wonder I don't have flashbacks. It was a peculiarly feminine form of cruelty. Like the Disney version of Cinderella. In more recent times I have had money to buy new clothes, from new clothes shops. Weight loss has meant I have also been able to take on the challenge of buying clothes in normal person shops. Now I have a full wardrobe. Clothes shopping has been almost pleasurable. There are some other others who have made the choice to buy no new clothes for a year for their own reasons - to be more creative with what they already have, to simplify their lives, to practise a simpler aesthetic. Here are some examples: becomingminimalist the wardrobe reimagined Both are well known blogs. I have been thinking about this for a while and have made a move towards it by buying clothes only from op shops for a while. My most local op shop, the Cats' Protection League, is a good source of books and china as well. Cats' Protection Leaguers are sweet, and eccentric, in a good way. And I appreciate that it is a small sacrifice and as such can only be symbolic. It would be much more political if I lived in a cardboard box for a year, but it would also be a stunt, and this isn't really a stunt. What tipped it for me was going to K Mart to buy my husband some jeans. They cost $18 each. Well, I did splash out and bought a flasher pair for $25. There were passable t shirts there for $5. So cheap. I was appalled. In the past I have figured that if I am going to buy something made in a sweatshop by a 12 year old I might as well pay $29 for it rather than $239. I have at times tried to buy New Zealand made - not that we make stuff in New Zealand much. But do you know how much stuff actually costs to make? It takes 1,800 gallons of water just to grow the cotton to make that pair of jeans. And the cotton t shirt I nearly bought for $5 - it takes 400 gallons of water to grow the cotton for it. That is just the water - just water, something we don't even consider, and yet it is our most precious resource. Then there is all the cost of the manufacturing including the labour, and the transport costs and so on. If I pay $19 for the jeans, who pays the rest of the costs?* So my reason for not buying clothes is a way of acknowledging privilege, and a cause to think about our global interconnectedness and the worsening inequalities in the world today. I must admit that before I 'took the pledge' I went out and bought three bras, because without a good bra I can look down while jumping, hit myself in the face and get whiplash. But they will see me out the year. In September 2014 I might let you know how I do. * If you really want to know, I recommend Annie Leonard's awesome The Story of Stuff video online. It takes about 16 minutes and is in cartoon form. There is also a book. Prepare to be depressed for a while, though.

Monday, September 2, 2013

My new pressure cooker was a Star Wars Storm Trooper in a previous life. In fact I suspect it is a rendered down, deconstructed Storm Trooper. It is what happens to Storm Troopers who have Been Bad. It was turned into a pressure cooker by the fearsome Nan Fang Cookware Company. I imagine a black site somewhere in the desertified regions of Western China, where enormous grimy machines crush and break down Storm Troopers and rip out their innards. They also make old school enamel mugs. I wonder what subversion against the evil Empire this particular Storm Trooper perpetuated. Perhaps it was a...... whistle blower?

Friday, August 23, 2013

The screw

So, I drive Donna home and as she leans over rather exuberantly to kiss me good bye she tears the rear vision mirror off. We giggle madly but are still unable to re-attach it. It's fine, I say, I'm not offended and sure let's do this again in a couple of weeks. I will sort it tomorrow. In daylight, I attempt to sort it. I can sort of work out how to attach it but I would need to dismantle the whole thing. I admit defeat, and go and get my husband the Archduke Piccolo. My husband the Archduke starts to unscrew the rear vision mirror mount from the ceiling. The first screw comes out, and he catches it and puts it in a safe place. The second screw comes out, and I catch it and put it with the first one. No prizes for guessing what happens next. The third screw comes out, hurtles through that worm hole and into a parallel universe. That doesn't stop us looking for it. Somehow you have to look for the damn thing even though you know you probably won't find it. It's a tradition, or an old charter or something.* So governed by ancient instincts, we look for the screw. We find: $1.50 The dog's spare bowl A water bottle A bottle of sun screen A pen drive 6 pens (they came from out of the worm hole. My car is right at the mouth of the worm hole for pens). No screw. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe just next to our own, a woman is looking for her six special pens in her autocarrier. She calls in her wife the Archduchess Flute to help her. They are rummaging intently among the seats when a giant screw comes hurtling out of nowhere and kills them both. *From Robert Rankin

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Zack joined the army as soon as he turned seventeen, against his parents’ wishes. It was the only thing he had ever wanted to do. It wasn’t a good move. Zack was a slightly built, thoughtful chap who struggled even to carry his pack. He was mercilessly and creatively bullied. It bordered on torture. His only relief came in the form of his new friend Coop. Coop was handsome and charismatic and a star League player. He protected Zack, stood up for him. At times when the thoughts of suicide stopped roiling around in Zack’s brain and stuck to the sides, Zack thought that Coop was literally, day by day, saving his life. The army breaks you down and builds you up loyal. Really, thought Zack, his main loyalty was to Coop. Eventually Zack was given a medical discharge. Army life had buggered his back. He moved back with his parents, mulled things over, tried to think of what to do next. One weekend when Zack’s parents were away, who should turn up on the doorstep but Coop. Coop was hungover and dishevelled. He had a story to tell. The night before he had seen his ex missus, and discovered she was now with another guy. There had been an altercation. Coop had whacked the guy with a hammer, and killed him. Now he needed Zack. Zack didn’t hesitate. He washed the hammer, wrapped it in plastic bags and put it in the family rubbish bin. Coop showered and took some clothes of Zack’s, and had a feed, and left to go into hiding. Of course the next people to turn up on the doorstep were the police. It only took a day or two, but by then Zack’s parents were home. Zack’s family had always done a good line in guilt and respectability. One of the lasting horrors for Zack’s mum is that Coop had showered in her shower, washed a man’s blood off, in her shower. As the police took Zack away, they implored him to tell the truth, just tell the truth son, and it would all be all right. It wasn’t all right. Zack’s whole instinct was to protect Coop. That only made things worse. Now, Zack, this slightly built, thoughtful, geeky chap, is looking at prison time. He awaits his sentencing while on bail. He has found support from a Christian church, which does a further good line in guilt and respectability, but which also cares for him. He is still living with his parents. The army breaks you down and builds you up loyal. If he sees Coop in prison, maybe Coop will protect him.

Friday, August 9, 2013

This road

This Road

It would be a winter’s evening. The day would close itself up. Music While You Dine would play on the radio. Its theme music was so desperately sad it was more Music While You Die;  it would just wrack the soul with obscure terror. Birds would settle in. Kitchen lights would go on and the cabbage put on to boil in all the damp wooden houses. There was always this little death, like this simple ending was too much to bear, over and over, every day, each day the same, the grey of closing, the lowering of the light, the end, again.

I would go down the hill and look at the road. Then it promised north. North was where everything was. Up north there were cities and seas and warmth. I could go to a city and live a life. I could go to London and have a wonderful house where fucked up teenagers whose parents didn’t understand them could live however they felt, and never be judged.

When I was thirteen I was caught shoplifting and ran away from home. My family, those small minded fools, thought I would go south to relatives. Of course I went north, on the road, hitch hiking for the first time. The police were called. There was even an announcement on the local radio station. At school the next day the general view was that I should have run away on Tuesday, when Dial A Disc was on the radio. Then everyone would have known.

It seemed I was not entitled to even this amount of drama.

When my mother was dying, I drove this road many times to see her. 150 kilometres of straight two lane highway.  I would do it at awful speed, towards the end, in a kind of angry regressed state, listening to My Chemical Romance very loud, drinking Red Bull, struggling with what seemed like a permanent chest infection as I filled up with phlegm and gall. One time I was caught speeding and thought of saying to the cop, but my mother is dying, and then I realised I had no excuse, no excuse at all.

The day she died I drove down. I had packed my sleeping bag and my lunch, but early that morning the dog had broken into it and eaten most of the sandwich. I took it anyway. I got to the hospice and watched as the last reflexive breaths tore themselves from her body.  Then I drove back.

I got as far as Rakaia and lost my nerve. I checked into a motor camp. They gave me a small bottle of milk and I staggered up the darkened steps into a tiny motel room. The heater didn’t work. It wheezed cold air at me. I wrapped myself in everything and put the White Stripes on and whenever I closed my eyes I watched my mother die again and again, her face caving in and eventually greying out. 

Arriving the next morning, before going home, I immediately bought four new tyres. It was a gesture of commitment to the road, to all the work ahead of me.  

I stayed in Rakaia recently, in the same motor camp .I explored a bit.  Rakaia turned out to be mostly gravel. I tried to walk to the river in the evening and got lost in pits of gravel, bedevilled by moonlight and the distant grind of traffic on the road. I wasn’t scared; nobody died of gravel. Thirst, maybe.

East of the road is the coast line. East coast lines are lean spare ribs of the land. More gravel. Agates. Thumping great surf. Wakanui Beach lies east of Ashburton. I drive through flat fields blighted by dairying, under a huge sky that could do any damn thing. On this day it hangs gravid with rain. The beach itself rakes the edge of the fields, and fog clings to the cliffs even at midday. It is desolate, in a Derek Jarman way. I love it. This is the place angels come to drown.

There is something wrong with the cliffs. They have been severely smitten. I wonder if it was earthquakes, but certainly something has driven a giant axe through them and their insides have come out in places. It has done weird things to the skyline; it looks like some sort of archaic pain. I clamber up into the riven gap. It spits me out of its maw like a pebble. I land on the beach again. , Maybe this is how pebbles are born.

Actually, there is a story about these cliffs. Some people say two Chinese junks were thrown up onto the cliffs during a tsunami, some hundreds of years before the Maori arrived in Te Waipounamu, the South Island. Charred remains of boat wreckage have been found embedded in the cliff face, and it is thought they were on fire when they landed. Imagine that. Imagine smashing into those cliffs in a flaming junk on the wrong side of the planet.

Me, I more or less belong here. No flaming tsunamis. No fabulous breaks for freedom hitching north on the lam. Just breathing.



Thursday, August 1, 2013

In which I become outraged about dolphins and the interconnectedness of all things.

We are in a café in a shopping maul. Donna looks at me and says, quite suddenly: You know, out there, there are great whales.

I can suddenly see them. Leviathans plunging in the vasty deep, encrusted with barnacles, noble and wise. It was very cool, thinking that just out there, just out east, over the horizon, there are these marvellous, almost mythical creatures and most of us aren't even aware of them and they probably don't even know that we are sitting here. Probably. How can I put this, that there are creatures out there who don't need us, who live by their own lights, who are themselves without us, who are not made by us.

Recently I went whale watching. These were the humpbacked whales, who migrate up the east coast of Australia in the winter. The ones we saw were young chaps, and they were the boy racers of the whale world. They were lobbing and breaching and twisting right of the water, which I think were the equivalents of burnouts and doughnuts, designed for show. They were all but doing peace signs over their heads and waving bottles of vodka. I so wished them well on their great journey.

Today, I was on the treadmill at the gym, and they always have the TV with the sound down. Sometimes I watch it a bit because it provided some random juxtapositions with the music I play very loudly. Today I watched dolphins in a swimming pool. They did tricks for a small group of people, and then the people got into the water. The people obviously loved the dolphins. They laughed as they stroked the dolphins and made the dolphins tow them along as they held onto their dorsal fins and tails. Then the people talked excitedly about how they had enjoyed their dolphin experience.The people seemed to be undergoing some sort of group therapy, perhaps a recovery programme of some sort. At the end of the programme they all cried and hugged each other.

I was appalled. I couldn't watch it. I put my head down and just concentrated on running and listening to Patti Smith real loud. Everything about that scene was wrong for the dolphins. Touching a dolphin hurts. Keeping a dolphin in a swimming pool is cruel. Dolphins only look happy because their faces are made that way. We find their speech cute but it doesn't mean they are wanting to be cute. They do tricks because they can, not necessarily because they want to. And most of all, dolphins are not tools. We might find interacting with them therapeutic, but only if we forget they are truly alive in their own way.

I have done my own dolphin experiences. I have swum (or more floated around) with our own lovely little indigenous Hectors dolphin, the rarest and smallest dolphin of all. I loved them so much and as one of them breached and leaped around me I had a sense of joyful recognition somehow - I called out 'I know you!' I have also fed wild dolphins. At Tangalooma Beach on Moreton Island they come in the evenings, and people wade into the water and feed them fish. I felt moved to be interacting with these creatures who I know to be intelligent and sociable, and to feel that they had some choice about interacting with me.

Probably the people in the dolphin therapy swimming pool felt the same way.

Our relationships with animals are fraught with contradictory demands - the demand for difference and the demand for similitude. We want animals to be a bit like us but not completely like us. We want them to be enough like us to relate to, but not so like us that we have to treat them like people, because that would be too complex or too just plain weird. We want them to be better than us, to be pure or authentic. We want them to be like infantile versions of us (neotony) - to have big eyes and little faces and make small high sounds. We want them to represent ideas we value, such as wildness or community or peacefulness or strength. I think all of this is important. Children learn to relate to others who are like-me-but-not-me by anthropomorphising animals. We expect our children to learn kindness and gentleness through our pets.

I don't know what animals want. The animals I share my life with actually want to have some sort of relationship with me, which I find extraordinary. Early anthropologists such as De Saussure thought it remarkable that any two humans can make themselves understood, and yet somehow people rub along even when they mix up cultures. I think it no less remarkable that my cat Isis Fang wants to sit with me or that my dog Tigger Ratbane greets me when I come home. What do they think about communicating across species? Somehow cuddles and gentle talking are never lost in translation.

Our ability to understand animals is curtailed largely by our inability to experiment (and just as well). However we know that apes have developed theory of mind, and that elephants grieve, and that some of the 'higher' mammals show what looks like altruism. There are two incidents I know of where animals have been suicidal. One was a captive dolphin, who starved himself until his living conditions were improved. Another was a harrowing example of a mother bear in a Chinese bear bile farm who was unable to stand the sufferings of her son and killed him and then herself. This was recently reported by WSPA.

I think animals are our next great ethical frontier. Most of us would now agree that women have souls (that was once put to the vote) and that people of recent African descent should own property. We are beginning to work out that marriage equality is not going to destroy society. We would probably assent, if pressed, to the notion that we are all on this one planet and we all have some responsibility for it. I am figuring here that there is a grand scheme of human development, and that scheme entails a widening and deepening sense of compassionate concern - from ourselves to our families to our communities to our nations to our humanity to our interspecies interconnected inter-everything world. If we can truly include all humans as valued equals in this world, my hope is that we can turn our gaze to other animals.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It was a wrench, but I managed it.

Tonight I walked down to the hardware store to buy a large crescent spanner. It was dark and raining and two things happened. The first was that I nearly got hit by two turning vehicles despite my having the right of way and the traffic lights with me. Huh! The second was that a young man outside the McDonalds asked me for money. I don't as a rule give money to young men because in my part of town* they use it to buy artificial cannabinoids. The local store has a $120 tab for artificial cannabinoids, and they must be its only source of regular income apart from cigarettes and junk snacks. Up until very recently the artificial cannabinoid K2 was legal and very dangerous it was, bad for my business. The newest version, Kryptonite, is less toxic according to a chemist acquaintance of mine. It would have to be.

Anyway, when the young man said 'Miss, miss have you got two dollars please' I responded 'No thanks'. Why did I thank him? Did I think he was offering me the opportunity to give him money? Was I just being polite? Why would I be polite? Because he said please?

I am happy to walk around the streets at night. I am protected by my giraffe hat and my below zero cool attitude. I honestly believe that short plump older women should damn well be able to walk around when and where they like. As should young slim tall women. I also mostly believe that I am invisible to men. This has been the case for several years. It gives me a position of being permanently 'othered' where I can observe from a vantage point. I like it. It keeps me safe and amuses me.

A little while ago, however, I was briefly not invisible. I was on the bus going home from work. The bus was about two thirds full and a young ruffian sat down beside me, choosing my seat rather than some empty ones. His friend sat across the aisle. This man asked me the time. He then began to tell me very explicitly what he wanted to do to me. Very explicitly, but in a quiet monotone, so that the people around me probably could not hear. I was shocked, for sure. I sat stony faced (I hope) for the duration of the ride, and felt more and more alarmed as the bus approached my stop. To get out I would have to get past him. What if he wouldn't let me out? What if he did something to me as I squeezed past him? I realised to my growing horror that I may have to Make A Scene. I decided if he did not let me out I would stand up to my full height (ahem!) and say in a loud but calm voice 'This man is sexually harassing me. He is refusing to let me out'. While I doubt that anyone would actually intervene, people would stare, and I hoped I would be able to exit the bus while they watched and the man would be unable to do anything to me. After all, as a respectable looking short plump older woman I could not be considered to be complicit in his sexual harassment of me. They might have a laugh at the thought that this rough looking young guy would be harassing me, but they would not disbelieve me.

Even at the time I noticed that I was just as alarmed about having to Make A Scene as I was about the man sexually harassing me. When I was young, feminists commented on this. Women were expected to be polite and sweet and put the needs of others first. Women did not Make Scenes unless they were morally dubious, or their children were at immediate risk. Women were not loud or dirty or expansive, and they did not walk around at night.

In theory all that has changed. Women can drink and shout and fight and even beat box. Younger women really are more assertive. I didn't think, until that incident, that I still had that resistance to standing up for myself. How deep these social fears run, even over decades. How is it that I think I have to be older and less conventionally attractive in order to be creditable. To be safe.

As it happened, the bus came up to my stop. I rang the bell and said to the man to let me out. He rose, stood aside, and I got off the bus.

So maybe the next time a young man tries to beg money off me when I am walking at night I won't thank him. Or I may offer him my 10" crescent spanner instead.

* Aahh Linwood. Motto of Linwood: Linwood - 87% of residents prefer it to prison. Alternative motto of Linwood: You're never bored in Linwood!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On knowing how to be medieval.

The Abbey Medieval Festival in Brisbane is the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

We knew there would be actual jousting from the website and there was a place on the form for buying tickets where you had to register your weapons. We expected something cute - a few stalls, some rented costumes. We were way impressed.

There were hundreds of exhibits. Vikings were commonplace and there was a big camp of Varangian guards. Outremer was also well represented. We liked the catapults and siege engines. We watched a display of archery where guys with mostly English yew longbows shot a running pig.* We really liked the Italian style fencing where unarmoured rakes in doublet and hose fought each other with two rapiers each. Very flashy and theatrical. We missed a lot, including being too late for the display of medieval surgery. There were tree nymphs on stilts and Gypsy dancers and a blacksmith and plague victims. I hadn't seen so much hand tooled leather since 1975.

There were some hard core re-enactors and some very period costumes. Overheard at the Hornmaster stall, a young woman looking at a knife: 'I would buy it but the handle's not quite period'. 'Yes', replied the Hornmaster's wife, 'He usually makes them for about a hundred years earlier'. There were also some very strange mashups of costume and style bleeding into Gothic and vaguely Romani-ish hippie. There were quite a few vampires. A group of Goths got told off by the security detail for smoking, and sulked like, well, stereotypical told-off Goths. I ate stew and drank elderflower cordial.

We had tickets for the jousting. I have to explain here I am married to a pedant. I sat on the bleachers and watched them warm up their horses, and thought, if they couch their lances wrong I will just have to walk out, I will just have to, or my husband will never forgive me. All the time on the TV they couch their lances wrong and it infuriates him. I sat there and nobody tried to sell me a rat on a stick, and I thought well, I won't be able to walk out because the place is packed, but I will just have to delete all the photos or he will wave his arms around and shout.

So, they came out on their horses, and bless my soul they did actually couch their lances correctly. The horses were so eager to go they had to be held back by mounted squires, and they took off at full noise, and being unhorsed wearing 40 kgs of armour looks truly painful I can tell you. It looked a bit like this (these are mine and my daughter's photos):

I enjoyed everything, from the people who saved greyhounds** to the pen with all the small kids racing around whacking each other with wooden swords. And I watched the kids in their toy armour shouting Huzzah! and Have at you! and I wondered, as you do, how come we know how to be medieval?

By medieval I don't mean feudalism, crop rotation and the invention of the stirrup. I would suggest that medieval means two vital things:

1. lace up tops, on all sexes including underwear (seen it), and
2. hair, as much as possible, worn long by all sexes

It is true that the most ordinary people look stunning in medieval garb. Plump women look comely. Stocky men look fierce, especially with lots of hair. And if all else fails you can just wear armour or go as a nun.

We think of the medieval world through many historical filters. They used to be called the Dark Ages, meaning the times between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. They seemed mysterious. During the Victorian age the Pre-Raphaelites found this attractive. They wanted to react against industrial-strength modernity and valued things that were artisan, bucolic and spiritual. I think of Pre-Raphaelite art as being a filter - think the Lady of Shallot, Arthurian legends, dim forests, floating hair, death and the maiden. It is very romantic and somewhat airless in large doses.

1960's hippiedom also harked back to medieval-ness as being innocent and free. I am a bit young for this but I knew slightly older people who were still into this - Merry Pranksters, Hurdy Gurdy men, folk music. This is another filter.

Now you can play a heap of games that are based on alternative medieval-type worlds, such as Mount and Blade which is set in a parallel Eastern Europe. You can watch or read Game of Thrones and almost think Westeros exists. At the Abbey Festival, a stall advertised 'Game of Thrones Cloaks'. You will find a medieval costume section in your local costume shop.

All this has its charm, and it means that when I go to a medieval festival I know pretty much what to expect and how to behave. However, even the most dedicated re-enactors who replicate the tech down to each link of ring mail is seeing her world and her actions through filters of time and thought. You can never really get it right. And that is part of the fun.

* not a real live pig.
** 25,000 greyhounds are bred in Australia. Hundreds survive their racing careers to be rescued and adopted. The rest, well, the racing industry has a lot to answer for.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

From Crazy Clarks Warehouse in Brisbane I bring you...

Seventeen days in Brisbane.

A suburb. Another suburb. A McDonalds. A BP station. A KFC. A Coles supermarket. And across the road - a McDonalds. A BP station. A KFC. A Coles supermarket. A McDonaldsBPKFCColesHungryJacksRedRoosterWoolworthsJayJaysBestandLessKMartBigW.

Shopping mauls. We went to ChermsideBlueWaterDeceptionBayMargatePeninsulaFairMyersStrathpineNorthLakes.

Motorways. M1M3GympieArterialBruceHighway.

Actually, I admit to loving the motorways. Fast and smooth and 110kms an hour into town and the traffic just segues and merges and carries us and suddenly we are at the bottom of a giant triangular structure and it is a bridge and we are going up it and then the car beeps and somehow we have paid a toll. And petrol is so cheap. Cruising and swirling in the stream, what you think is, wow it was totally worth wiping out a few thousand Iraqis for this.

And it took two days to do the Art Gallery, and one whole day to do the museum, and I learned some very sobering stuff about Australia's truly shitty history with its indigenous peoples.  I stayed in a cute suburb with cute apartments, and took the train (which I can do because I have been TRAINED haha). The sun was shining and the fish were jumping and the cotton was high, and you could almost believe capitalism is wonderful and will last for ever.

And I found this. Now you will have seen the famed internet meme the Three Wolf Moon tee shirt for sale on Amazon. It is famous particularly for its comments section, where people make witty comments about the shirt along the lines that it is associated with WalMart, poor people and bad taste. And it makes the wearer sexually irresistible, and so fabulously manly he can impregnate women simply by walking down the street while wearing it. One of the top comments is from the awesome George Takei, who is almost an internet meme himself.

Go here
Now, I can do better then this. From Crazy Clarks Warehouse Where Everyone Gets a Bargain, from one of Brisbane's better suburbs (I might add), I give you this, and I was lucky to photograph the last one before a slim middle aged well spoken Chinese man grabbed it off the rack. Note the brand tag: Oz Rocks. Of course it does.


This will make you sexually irresistible not only to humans but to Harleys (and probably dragons).


Monday, June 17, 2013

Forbidden topics - dreams, orgasms and acid trips

i am having a surprisingly coherent dream that i am in South Korea, in about 1970. It is a society in rapid transition to shiny modernity. The dream fades in patches, as my morning progresses. As i wait for the bus, i try to hang on to bits of it.

Ancient labyrinthine alleyways are populated with washing and puddles and running children. They are wide enough for a bicycle. They vanish into darkness around corners, like the tube houses of Penang. Above and behind, are soaring apartment blocks, some still under construction. Women are photographed on foreshortened balconies. The smell of kimchi. The dogs here seem to have extra teeth.

i am in the house of a famous courtesan. She wears an elaborate gown patterned with flowers, herons and rivers. Something is strange about how the fabric moves. Then i notice - the gown is transparent and the pattern is on her skin. She is exquisitely tattooed from neck to foot. Her clients are enourmously wealthy and enourmously fat. They pose for paintings like those impossible Persian miniatures. Children run in and out, a chattering game of chase that pervades the whole dream.

In a packing case shack, a tiny girl is doing my hair. It is platinum blonde and she piles it onto my head and carefully curls some of it down the left side of my face. She clips butterflies into it. i look like a pageant contestant, or a Gypsy bride. There is no room for me to turn, in the frowsy chaos of family life blooming around me.

i wake up.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Cooking with Jamie (and Jackson)

Jamie has a TV programme where he cooks a fabulous meal in 15 minutes. We have been watching him do it. For some reason it is on TV during my cooking night, so we are eating my quotidian offerings while watching Jamie cook. It is instant karma really, for eating in front of the telly. It was never done in my day.

So we found ourselves intrigued and I actually bought the book about the 15 minute meals. Actually, I sort of approve of Jamie. He seems to like people. He tells me what he is doing in a way that makes me think I can do it too. And he was very good about the school lunches in the UK, getting kids to eat veges.

My findings are as follows: you can't in fact cook these meals in 15 minutes if you spend the first ten of them up a stepladder with your head in the spice cupboard. And if you spend the next five minutes fishing in a drawer that looks like this:

well, that's your fifteen minutes done for. Gosh, there is a spoon from KFC. And we NEVER go to KFC. And there's Wally! (or Waldo if you are American).

This is such a great photo. It shows my kitchen has been designed by Jackson Pollock.

There is a way of finding things in this drawer. I call it the Zen Algorithm. First there is the drawer, and then there is no drawer, and then there just is. This is the Zen of drawers. Truly, if you see the drawer as a task to be completed, or a mountain to be conquered, you will never succeed. The drawer will remain mysterious and frightening. It will cast the shadow of things untamed and unnamed over the whole cooking process. To understand the drawer is to know the drawer, to unlayer it and discover its essential simplicity. First, stand in front of the open drawer and drop your shoulders. Then unfocus your eyes. Swivel your head gently around, practising looking in an unfocused manner at other objects, just carelessly developing your beginner's mind. Then bring your gaze to the drawer in an oblique fashion, catching it quite casually out of the corner of your eye. The employ the same technique with the contents of the drawer. You are not looking for anything in particular, you are just employing the open gaze of the genuinely mindful. Relax your shoulders. Breathe out. Sweep your gaze across the contents of the drawer and.... voila! You have it. The garlic press.

Funny how this never works with the potato masher. Potato mashers clearly have their own algorithms.

Thanks to Jamie, we have now had acceptable and even slightly 'cheffie' vego meals in our household. Although my husband has been known to say 'What's that plant in there' when faced with coriander. And to ask if we could not have 'that Farex' again, meaning couscous. But we get there. Just not necessarily in 15 minutes.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The dovecote

The dovecote was a gift from her ex, which should have hinted at things to come. It was adorable, though. It was the charming domestic white of picket fences, and went with the outdoor furniture, which was in the French provincial style. Her section was long and narrow and she set the dovecote up among the trees lining the driveway, so it could be admired on the way in and out.

Of course what it lacked was doves, and so she got three little ones. They were also adorable. They were the pure white of gulls, and their breasts were soft and when she held them gently their tiny hearts beat into her hands. And they made that slightly pathetic little cruu cruu noise that doves do.

A few weeks later, delight! She heard peeping noises coming from the dovecote. Her doves had had babies. The future beckoned.

We are now two years later. The doves have been a-shittin' and a-shaggin' and a-feudin' and a-fighting'. Long ago she stopped feeding them. Now the dovecote bulges with dove shit. The doves squeeze past it to get inside. And there are many of them, uncountable in fact, and the doveliness has gone from them because they have been a-shaggin' with the local pigeons. In fact, she describes them as now 'Well, pigeons, really'. She runs the gauntlet of them when she heads down the driveway - they shit on her car and they don't even move aside when she runs down to get the mail. She thinks if she had a headscarf and sunnies she would be channelling Tippi Hedren. 

Well que faire? as they would say in the French provincial style. What can a girl do about this Hitchockian nightmare?

She has had a lot of advice, most of it unhelpful. She has considered rat poison, but doesn't think she could emotionally manage the deaths. Some advice involved shooting one every day at random, the way you do with hostages, until they accede to her demands and Go Away. Pipe bombs and vaseline bombs have been discussed at length, but it seems a bit anti-Peace Movement and doves are supposed to represent peace (rather than how they actually behave, with the a-shittin' and a-fightin' and so on. How to get rid of the 'pigeons, really' without disturbing the peace?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Reasons for Not Drinking Part II - It goes down. It comes up.

We are home. It is not a good time to be home. It is the bad hour, five aye em. The cold, clammy hand of sobriety clamps itself of the backs of our necks and say, you're nicked.  We need something to take, and fast. There is nothing. We rummage through cupboards and he finds a packet of nutmeg. How despicable is that. That's what you take when you are about 13. Don't do that, for fuck's sake. Have some self respect, man.

He mixes half the packet into a large glass of cheap powdered orange juice and sculls it. He retches a bit, but takes it like a man. OK OK OK. i mix the other half into a large glass of cheap powdered orange juice and scull it. It is as vile as it would be. It goes down. It comes up. It lies on the kitchen floor in a greasy puddle and sneers at me. Defeated, i wander off to the bedroom. Vowing sententiously never to sleep in a bed again until i am reunited with my beloved (whoever the hell that is) i lie down on the floor.

Nevertheless i wake up in a bed. The first thing i notice is someone left the lights on. And i am still wearing my earrings. In fact i am still wearing the little retro black woollen suit that unfortunately never actually does make me look like Audrey Hepburn, regardless of my state of consciousness. i roll over. A pile of vomit sits snugly among the huddled bedding. It is sweating slightly in the gathered sunlight, and a little crust adorns its top, like a bun. I am strangely fascinated by it. Titanium rainbows writhe in my brain. I watch them. Then a hot wire of pain is pulled through the darkness inside my skull, and it is all on.

An entirely undeserved sense of beatitude washes over me. It is morning, or at least what passes for morning, being some time before five pee em. Time to do it all again.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reasons for Not Drinking, Part I - So You Think You Can Dance

I don't know why, fights just break out around me. One minute I am on the dance floor at the wildly indigenous Surabaya Nite Club, and then there is some sort of altercation involving payment, and next thing I know I am crouched under the hand basin and there is literally an angry mob at the door. Latifah, the Surabaya's resident trans, is standing in the doorway, legs apart, arms locked in the frame,  looking positively majestic, at least from where I am on the floor. She is protecting me, God knows why, I don't deserve it.

'I may look like a woman' she snarls. Honestly, I have never heard anyone actually snarl before. 'I may look like a woman but believe me I still have the strength of a man and I will use it'.

I regain consciousness underneath a sailor from Hull. Yeah, he sounds like the start of a bad limerick and it doesn't get any better. I can hear my friend involved in yet another altercation in the next room. I am babbling on and on about the Battle of Agincourt. I have somehow conceived the notion that if I just keep babbling random facts about medieval military history my friend won't get the kicking he is probably overdue for. It seems to be working. The sailor from Hull helps me with my clothes, leads me gently to my friend and thence to the door, all with a bemused look on his face, and I babble all the way.

My friend dives off a small bridge into a culvert. We are singing Iggy at the tops of our ragged voices. 'I shot myself up...' The Police arrive rather promptly. I didn't know it was illegal to jump into a culvert. Seems like a victimless crime to me. All he is is a bit wet and grazed. 'I refuse to be harassed by Police of lesser intellectual standing than myself', I announce sententiously. 'Well, that wouldn't be very difficult then, would it', says the officer sarcastically. I have no answer to that one. That wasn't supposed to happen. The last thing we need around here is witty cops.

In a car, somehow. We are getting a lift home, our dignity more or less intact. We sing Iggy at the tops of our ragged voices. 'I shot myself down...' Someone, not me I am afraid to say, has the presence of mind not to reveal where we are staying. We are dropped off a block away and with a bit of wandering and some more sterling imaginary accompaniment by Iggy we are home. *

*This account is highly fictionalised. Latifah** is real though. You don't get any more real than Latifah. Latifah, honey, you really did save my sorry little white ass and I wish you all the luck and love in the world.

** Not Her Real Name.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Prison visit No. 2

That was the day I went with Mikaylah, who was then 15, to the men's prison, to visit Bronson, the father of her baby.

Bronson was already a neighbourhood legend. At seven, he accounted for most of the family income, providing sexual favours for gang members. Now at 17, he was doing his first lag in adult prison.

When I rang to make the appointment, I was expecting the usual unsupervised chat in a room with a plastic table like a child's desk and plastic picnic chairs. But for Bronson, I was told it needed to be a non-contact booth visit. So we sat in a tiny booth like the ones people go to have joke photos taken, on two stools behind a thick perspex partition, with a rose of small holes in it, and we were told  if we when we had had enough we were to push the button.

Bronson turned out to be beautiful. Snake hipped, sloe eyed, cheek bones as high and fine as a Disney princess, the colour of caramel. His eyes were heavy lidded and languid and long lashed, and the most unusual dead black. He looked like a Persian catamite.

I briefly explained the purpose of our visit. The baby, Galaxy, named after the car, was now nine months old. Mikaylah had shown little interest in her. Mikaylah's mother Jax was already her main carer, and Jax was doing well on methadone and kept a tidy ship. We wanted to keep Galaxy away from the child protection services. We needed Bronson's agreement for Mikaylah's mother to have the parenting order in her favour.

Bronson readily agreed. He had no interest in my proposal. I had nothing to offer him. He had more pressing matters to hand.

Their conversation was demotic, barely verbal. I can remember almost every word, because they used so few of them. They made no eye contact. Bronson sat directly in front of Mikaylah, hunched and tense and barely flexing, except for his eyes, hypervigilant under their lids and lashes, always on the move.  Mikaylah sat leaning back, almost as if she was relaxed, turned half away from him, fiddling, buying little escapes with tosses of her head.

- Whatcha been doing.

- Nothink.

- Whatcha been doing.

- Nothink.

- Who you been with.

- Nobody.

- Who you been with.

- Nobody.

I hear you been with that Teina.

- (She shrugs).

- I thought you hated her guts.

- Well, she's got a car now. (Mikaylah looks aside to me and shrugs and grins briefly. I interpret this to mean What you must think of me. But I may well be wrong. Today, Mikaylah is as mysterious as quantum physics.)

- Whatcha been doing.

- Nothink

- Who else you been with.

- Nobody.


- I love you babe.

- (She sighs and stares at the wall).

- Babe. You know I love you babe.

- Yeah, well.

- D'ya love me babe.

- (Silence).

-  Cos I love you babe.

- I dunno.

- I still love you babe.

- I dunno.

(He leans forward and drops his voice)

- Babe, you know. You know what I do.

- (She shrugs).

- You know what I did in your room.

I pushed the button. An alarm sounded. The prison officers arrived just as Bronson launched himself at the perspex partition, howling and punching it. They pulled him back by his shoulders. He kicked out. He was in the air. He was horizontal when he left the room. The door slammed. We could hear punching and kicking and dragging. He was still howling, wordlessly, he never had any words anyway.

The prison officer escorted us out. He seemed impressed. Who was that? he asked. I told him. Where's he from? he asked. D Block, I said. Jesus Christ, he invoked.

When we got outside into the dazzling heat and the wind that was stripping the decent earth, I lost all professionalism. I rounded on Mikaylah. You can do better than this! I shouted. You will do better than this! You will have nothing to do with him! Whatever becomes of you in the future, Mikaylah, if he ever comes near you again I will hear about it and I will Do Something! I mean it!

She stood there, that big pale girl in her giant shoes, in that unholy heat, and gaped at me. Lines of dust had slaked themselves in the crevices of her makeup. Her lip gloss had formed a viscous pink pool on her lower lip, a sorry substitute for a tear.