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.