Archive for the ‘Editorial’ Category

The Bird Is The Word

June 12, 2017

 

 

In 1963 a band called The Trashmen took a song called Surfin’ Bird  to the top reaches of the US charts. It was their only hit but the song endured and these days is best know for the phrase ‘The Birds the Word’ a line I happened across when I caught a segment of animated comedy show ‘Family Guy’ on YouTube recently.

It was revealed to be star character Peter Griffin’s fourth favourite song ever and for about half the episode (‘I Dream of Jesus’ Season 7 Episode 2) Peter drove everyone crazy with the question.

Peter: “Hey have you heard the word?”
Some Poor Sap: “What word?”
Peter: “The bird is the word.” 

But what does it mean? I had no idea until US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited NZ recently. I was driving around Hamilton when they started talking about it on the RNZ evening show. “Is the Bird impolite?” intoned the presenter “Well of course it is” he added fending off texts from the easily outraged, “I am simply asking the question to facilitate debate”.

This being public radio however it was mostly thoughtful people sending in considered opinion laced with witty asides and it was all very amusing but I had no idea why the ‘bird’ was being discussed. Maybe it was because I was in and out of the van and missed crucial bits like ‘Visiting US Secretary of State’ ‘motorcade’ ‘bemused American press’.

It all came clear the next day when I went online and there it was, a story about Wellingtonian’s letting the US Government know what they thought of its current policy direction. Besides the much-reported ‘bird’ there was the thumbs down, some jeering and a big Greenpeace banner hanging from a crane (yes, of course there was).

 

 

 

The story went global and was for a day or two something of a ‘hit’. Was there a better way to get under the thin orange skin of the Trump than to flick him or his representatives the ‘bird’ asked the ‘Fake News Media’? While some Kiwis were horrified by it all, (after all the US saved us from the Japanese during World War Two and didn’t we owe them some kind of respect?), most it seems were comfortable with using the ‘bird’ to express discontent.

 

For the last couple of hundred years the world has been coalescing in on itself and we have been forced to examine and reflect upon how we interact with each other in light of the harm that has been set loose by disparate cultures being thrust together so unevenly. It has been a hard and grievous journey but the last 50 odd years of endeavour has yielded results that could be described, by most standards, as positive and central to this process has been the USA.

With the recent and unexpected election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency (the worlds most powerful and influential leadership position) unified standards of human rights, environmental laws and a host of other measures designed to improve the way we interact with each other and the planet are suddenly under threat and it is unsettling many.

New Zealand has always been a world leader and lately I have been worried that we have forgotten our long tradition of social innovation and have fallen (somewhat) behind the frontlines of positive human endeavour but on the streets of Wellington the other day we witnessed ordinary Kiwi’s standing up and offering the world a potent new weapon with which to fight retrograde politics and this is how it goes:

Whenever a ranking member of he Trump Administration or the man himself is in town, take to the streets and flick them ‘the bird’. It’s a simple as that. Forget the Molotov cocktails, barricades and stone throwing; here is a non-violent way of making dissatisfaction clear. After all, nothing hurts a narcissist more than rejection and if we have learned anything about Trump over the last few months it’s that he is a textbook narcissist so dissenters lets hit him where it hurts the most, in the Ego.

 

As for the phrase itself The Urban Dictionary has this to say:

The Bird – To extend the middle finger and “flip someone off” is sign language for “Fuck you!”

The “Word” originated in U.S. Prisons. Original meaning was, “my word is my bond”, shortened to, “Word”, meaning to, “Speak the truth”.

Bird is the Word = Fuck You!

 

The Cheese Grater.

May 28, 2017

 

 

So it took me three years to get around to buying a cheese grater. Oh dear, it’s going to cost money. And where will I put it? I have no space for a cheese grater. Do I need a cheese grater anyway? Then I think about all the cool things I’d grate like beetroot.

Grate beetroot then cook it over a fast high heat with a little olive oil to moisten proceedings. Throw in some spice, a dash of sugar and some balsamic. Cook off the liquid, chill then eat. Goes well with crusty bread and a boiled egg.

A grater (also known as a shredder) is a kitchen utensil used to grate foods into fine pieces. Frenchman François Boullier invented the cheese grater in the 1540s to grate cheese, which is why we divide time into two epochs: Before Grated Cheese (BGC) and After Grated Cheese (AGC). Is it just me or does cooked grated cheese taste better than cooked slice cheese? I wonder if this is a thing. I am going to google it. Back soon and P.S: Microsoft Word, why are you urging me to capitalize google?

 

Toasting cheese in a toaster can be trouble but careful avoids that. The Internets favourite toaster cheese sandwiches are made from sliced bread but the goods are prone to run out the side and catch on the electricals, which is why I use Pita.

A Pita is a self-continued miracle of cooked bread dough that will hold a filling secure and stand up to a little heat. And you don’t have to tip the toaster sideways (to stop the filling running out of the bottom).“If toasters were meant to be used sidewise they would be ‘sideways toasters’ and not ‘upright toasters’” – Wise Chinese Sage. (Pita has a sealed bottom making it fine for upright toasting).

But first, why am I toasted cheese sandwiches in a toaster and not a toasted sandwich maker? Because I have toaster and I don’t have much space and the toaster and toasted sandwich maker together would push me out the door. Beside when you are frugal about money, a speciality machine for making toasted cheese sandwiches seems excessive.

 

Cheddar cheese (the most flavoursome of the cookable cheeses) is full of fat and leaks and burns and makes smoke and alarms go off. A low fat cheese like Edam avoids this. Likewise Mozzarella. NZ makes most of the Mozzarella used on Chinese pizza, which means this commodity is in demand, scarce and expensive. Hey I’m not complaining. Those exports pay for what is mostly a wonderfully carefree and relaxed Socialist Democratic paradise so the cheap flavourless Edam no one else wants will do just fine.

Grate cheese, mix in finely chopped onion, some diced olives, Kaitaia fire, pepper, herbs, smoked paprika whatever you want. Slice pita in half, stuff halves with cheese mix and toast on low heat (Pita is delicate around high heat). And don’t over fill the pita. It’ll stick and burn and make a mess. On the matter of cooked grated cheese Google/finecooking.com says:

Finely grating the cheese creates more surface area, allowing heat to permeate quickly for even melting. Large or irregular chunks of cheese melt at different rates, can melt first on the outside and then overcook, or become clumpy or oily before the inside of the chunk starts to flow.

 

The first time I heard the word google I thought it weird and unwieldy – clumsy and silly. When I realised what google could do the word became more meaningful. I got to like it but I never got to like U2. First time I heard that name I thought “dumb word play” and could never really take them seriously after that. This probably makes me a prat or a snob or some such. As for Google/google here is what Wikipedia has to say:

Search for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google’.

It tells us that you can only goggle on Google. Little g is fine when using the word to describe a search on Google Corporations information gathering algorithm machine but a big G is in order for describing the auspicious company behind the brand. It is improper to say “I will just google that” on any search engine other than Google’s but you can ‘bing’ on Bing or ‘duckduckgo’ on Duckduckgo.

So anyways I got the damned cheese grater. It cost $3.00 at The Warehouse. If I had of known it was going to be that cheap I might have bought one years ago. Otherwise I have nowhere to put it except under the bed and that feels wrong.

 

“Do you have a cheese grater?” she asks.

 

“Yeah. Right there, under the bed,” he says pointing.

 

“Oh…… really?” She says raising an eyebrow at the thought.

 

‘Google it/on Bing/Fuck the Man/The thing is/I am a maverick/I keep my cheese grater under the bed/Bing/Bang/Boing/Take that bitch’!

“I’m a Rapper,” he tells her but she has already gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Pissing In Public.

May 28, 2017

 

 

I have no problem with pissing outside. I grew up on farm where the whole world is your toilet (you are 5km from any kind of civilisation so you just do as needs require. Besides, there is no one about so who is too care?). The only time you might use an actual toilet is when you are at home and even then its easier to go outside and give the ‘gift that matters’ to the lemon and feijoa tree where it will do some good rather than the rigmarole of toilets and seats and back splash and hand washing.

I remember suggesting to my newly minted 8-year-old stepson that he pee outside. “It’s easier and much more fun”. A well schooled town boy, he was visibly upset by the idea but he got used to it and hasn’t looked back. “Yes, it is convenient” he announced when he was about 10. The problem was getting him to stop pissing onto the one spot, that’s where excess piss had killed a good few square feet of lawn. “You gotta spread it around boy. It is potent stuff”.

Different rules apply when you pee outside. Hand washing is not always possible and you have to compromise standards a little. Otherwise piss is sterile and you can learn to hang your ‘willy’ out and do the job without touching anything. If you really have to wash, dewy grass is a good start.

The toilet is good for storms and impossibly cold nights but otherwise outside is easiest. Or in bucket. At one time the whole family peed in buckets and in the morning I would collect it, dilute it down with water and chuck it on the lawn. Visitors would kick off their shoes and walk about the grass marvelling at the velvety softness underfoot. “It was piss that did that,” I never told anyone.

The worst part about pissing is getting up in the night but a bucket close by makes it simple, comfortable and easy. ‘Easy’ unless you knock the bucket over which is why I switched to the bottle. I learned my lessons about peeing in bottles a few years back when I was stuck in traffic.

It was an emergency. I had no choice. I unzipped and let rip. It was one huge error of judgement. I jammed the head of my cock into the head of a bottle and forgot to leave room for air displacement. There was an explosion of urine and I was a bloody mess and the car was a bloody mess. “Fuck you Auckland Traffic,” I screamed helplessly to no one.

Growing up on a dairy farm gets one used to being pissed on and in the end its only “grass and water” (or in my case chocolate and coffee) grandpa would remind me when I was still getting used to this ‘fact of cowshed life’. After a while you stop thinking about it. Even shit becomes a mundane thing. “Grass and water, grass and water.”

I got caught short up on K-Rd the other week and damn did I not regret using the toilet at the café I left five minutes back. Three km’s till home and the pressure is building. In the end I ducked off the footpath and into a byway running through the University of Auckland and let loose against a tree. Jesus it felt good.

I finished and turned around to find a dozen people staring at me out a window, a mix of emotions on display. Some looked vaguely shocked, some offended and others amused. I waved and bowed and mouthed my gratitude for their kind attention. If you are going to do it in the daylight and in public do it fast and without hesitation and if you get caught, be gracious about it. It’ll confuse them while you make your getaway.

Piss is a miracle thing. Lawns, tress, and shrubs (including fruit trees) will benefit from its judicious application. It can be added to compost to invigorate proceedings (the nitrogen in urine is mana from heaven to the bacteria working at breaking down the waste) and used to fertilise commercial food crops. You can do a lot of positive things with urine.

We should not be afraid of piss but we are and for good reason. Historically we discovered that having a whole lot of people pissing on everything in built up areas is no good for anyone (it stinks for a start) so we developed some pretty firm strictures about the ‘where and when and how’ of pissing in places.

But when you gotta go you gotta go. Even on the verge of a busy road in the middle of the day. People are going to toot and point. Ignore them; they know not what they do. A full bladder can be distracting to a driver. Better to be safe than sorry.

I know this woman who can lift her skirt and point her stream as efficiently as any man. She’s a farm girl who does it with practiced amusement and god help anyone who takes offence: “It’s only bloody piss. Get over it”. Ah Kiwi women. Gotta love them.

 

The Strip Club.

May 12, 2017

 

 

So far I had managed to politely wangle my way out of every social invitation that first week on the job (I don’t like going out if I can help it) but it was Friday and my new boss was insistent. “I can’t afford it,” I said meekly. “You have already used that one” he shot back “and I am paying so come on, the Uber is waiting downstairs and we gotta go”.

Uber I wondered? I was only just up from a small provincial town and still adjusting to the ways of the big city and had no idea what Uber was. Turns out it was a car with a driver, like a taxi. “Where are we going?” I ask the boss. “You’ll see” he grinned and ten minutes later the Uber pulls up outside a strip club. I had never been to a strip club and wasn’t about to start, or so I imagined.

“It’s looks a bit flash and there is no way they are going to let me in,” I say indicating my jeans with holes in the knees.“ Ah, but I have this ” he says waving a wad of cash at me, “Opens every door every time”. And sure enough the blank stare on the huge Polynesian guy guarding the door quickly turns into a beatific smile at the sight and he waves us in. Damn.

Dimly lit, read velvet, cut glass mirrors and shimmering gold. Then there is the stage and the silver poles and a guy staring at a naked dancer the way a biologist might stare at a rare specimen. It was a lot to take in at a glance and feeling nervous I turn my attention toward the action at the bar.

“Four tequila shots” thunders the boss at the young woman making the drinks. “Are we expecting guests?” I wonder as the shots appear before us. He pushes two at me and watches to see that I knock them back before ordering the beers. “Two beers,” then “No”. He pauses dramatically then winks, “make that four beers.” So that I was how it was going down tonight.

The alcohol tickles my senses making everything shimmer more brightly. The young woman serving behind the bar carries a thick Italian accent and the kind of dusky Romanesque features I have long considered the epitome of female beauty. I could have happily sat back and watched her do her thing all night long when an arm falls about my waist. I had not been touched by another person for sometime and the sensation causes me to start. “Relax,” whispers an accent that turns out to be Hungarian, Budapest to be precise. She is tall, and by tall I mean very tall. I am tall, very tall, and she is looking me directly in the eye.

“Do you know so-and-so?” I ask blurting out the name of a friend from the same city. Her response is to ask if I want to go upstairs. I follow her eyes toward a stairwell off to the side. “She wants to know if you would like a fuck,” whispers the boss into my ear pressing something into my left hand. “It’s strip club currency,” he whispers and then in a voice that is now no longer a whisper says “To pay for it.” “No” I blurt out at him and at her and just like that she is gone and for the first time I see her in perspective as she hones in on another man who is not tall at all.

The thong about her waist is but a suggestion and I tick off every question I might ever have about what a very tall women might look like naked. It’s all very positive. Two more tequila’s appear in front of me. “From your friend” says the Italian girl indicating that I might tip her with the strip club cash if I so desire. I desire and she smiles beatifically.

The boss was nowhere to be seen and with the alcohol fuelling my confidence I sit down and consider the naked young women swinging about the poles. “We have to wipe them down a lot” says a voice off to the side, “With all that pussy action they start smelling a little ripe after a time”. The speaker is a smartly dressed young woman with a tray. “Can I get you another drink?” I pass her some currency and she returns with another beer. That she is world-weary is obvious and I ask her to sit and talk. She sits and talks.

She is half-Maori and half-Portuguese which explains her exotic looks. She is also a student and appreciates the money if not the clientele. We are watching two well-dressed business types rubbing their crotches as they watch the girls polish the silver. “Welcome to my world.” Her grimace says it all.

I ask her if she dances and she says yes but tonight she is on the bar. We chat a while longer and she unloads a bit then touching my arm asks me to stay put before rushing of backstage. A while later she walks onstage and does a strip routine and some pole dancing. She knows her stuff. Later she reappears and asks me if I enjoyed it? I shove the wad of ‘strip cash’ at her but she politely demurs pushing it back with a blush. “I have to go,” she says, “study then sleep”. Then says “Thanks for listening.” It is my turn to blush.

Later a kid of no more than 18 and wearing something akin to bare flesh eyes up the ‘strip cash’ and asks me if I would like a lap dance. I say no and she takes this as a challenge and offers to throw in something extra. I ask her where she is from. “Guess” she says and I guess Rotorua. “How did you know that?” she laughs. “Your accent” I reply. She gives up with the lap dance thing and I give her some currency regardless. She gets me a beer. “On the house” she winks. The boss reappears and I tell him I have had enough and say I am off home but he is not listening. The girl from Rotorua has caught his attention.

 

 

 

Depression Is Not What People Say It Is.

May 10, 2017

 

 

When I was in my late teens my dad said to me, “You were such a happy kid. What happened to you?” I had no idea he even noticed me in that way and this deeply personal query came as a surprise and caused me to pause and consider.

The events that lead him to this question might have arisen from the sudden death of my sister in an accident in 1972. Ten months separated us and we were close. That was a bruising shock that came at the end of rather excellent day.

I remember thinking that this must be how it works – bad things follow good things. It took me decades to shake that feeling but it is problematic blaming all of life’s quirks and complications on one thing when there are probably other factors at play.

I also my remember dad saying once or twice that I was overly sensitive. I felt a bit punch-drunk a lot of the time and my emotions were like a wild beast that I was seldom able to contain. Those words were representative of the kind of reception I was becoming used to. It made me feel nervous about who I was underneath, deep down and within.

 

 

I spent a lot of time with Cath and Bob (my maternal grandparents) as a kid and while he was off at work she stayed in bed, often until early afternoon. I learned to move silently as she hated and kind of disturbance, especially noise. Otherwise the most she ever said to me was “move” or “shift” if I was in her way and I tried not to be. I didn’t feel good around her.

That she was depressed is obvious now especially in light of my own mother who was of similar disposition. Their rage was the worst of it and indicative of their deeper suffering. From the lofty position of age, wisdom and experience I can see the clear line of accession but there is more.

That would be my Dad. His two sisters described him as a moody sibling, one prone to silence and isolation. I worked for him for many years and learned he was obsessive and obstructive (though not without redeeming qualities). He was beset of complexities that when combined with mums have made for interesting genetic outcomes.

 

 

When people talk about depression they wax lyrical about ‘the darkness’ and ‘hopelessness’ and ‘the void’ and ‘the black hole swallowing you up’. I guess that’s why I never recognised it. Knowing what I know now I would say depression is also emotional pain, anger, confusion, lack of equilibrium, grinding physical and mental exhaustion, apathy, helplessness and abiding unhappiness.

There might also be some obsessiveness and anxiety as well as some of the poetical ‘black hole’ stuff and an uncomfortable sensitivity to outside stimuli especially noise. I just knew it as an unbidden thing that would rise up out of nowhere take a hold of my psyche and shake me about until I didn’t know if I was Arthur or Martha. Sometimes I thought I was losing my mind.

 

 

 

Mum and I were out in Hamilton in a department store called DIC one morning. She handed me some clothes and told me to go and try them on. The attendant took me down to the changing rooms in the basement and I shut the door and suddenly there I was alone in this silent and dimly lit cubicle and it felt good, really good. I wondered what it might be like to stay here forever.

From then on I sought out dark quiet places. It was here away from people and noise that I was able to experience some sort of liberty. As the years passed I finagled ways and means to live like this but always felt the pull of the outside world – I needed to make a living of course and I felt compelled to join in, for the usual reasons of wanting to fit in and belong. It was exhausting and behind my façade I felt like a drowning man. Still do.

 

 

 

 

I overcompensated like Cath and my Mum who by all appearances were otherwise gregarious and charismatic. I turned it on in order to appear normal and suffered acutely from the effort. Eventually I just gave up on that as I gave up trying to explain myself. I have grown wary of the uninformed and well meaning and out of self-respect have learned to keep myself to myself. This is why I never spoke about the ‘eating thing’ until 2015.

I stopped eating normally when I was fifteen after seeing my naked torso reflected in the bathroom mirror at boarding school. It was a distorted reflection and typical of the way visual messages were scrambled as they travelled between my eye and brain (as I learned later). I felt something had to be done and decided on a course of weight loss even though I was a skinny as a rake.

This was long before anorexia was on the radar. When the word finally entered my lexicon it was as a female complaint and I felt doubly stupid about the mess I had gotten myself into. After twenty-five odd years of struggle I eventually I found a way out though you never fully recover it seems.

Sometime during 2015 I was preparing to interview a big pop star. During the research I learned that he had been treated for anorexia. He clammed up at the very mention. Realising the sensitivity of the line I had just crossed I took a deep breath I told what I had never told anyone, that I suffered from it too.

Relaxing somewhat he explained that his public confession had resulted in a lot of negative commentary and he was now guarded on the subject. He went onto say that for him it became a way of having some control in a life that was otherwise out of control. I had never thought of it like that and I decided that same explanation could work for me but realised eventually that there was more to it than that.

Sometimes things were good, really, really good, then too good then the like lightening ‘good’ feeling would be gone and I’d be a castaway on a barren and bereft shore suitably gasping for breath. What had happened, what had gone wrong, how did I get to here from there?

I was seeking out ritual acts that might make it right and I took it all a wee bit too far is all, like eating only the things I ate when I was feeling good This and lots of other repetitive and compulsive stuff that went around and around and around. This is OCD at work and anorexia is part of that family. So is anxiety.

Anxiety is: A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about life.

Anxiety is: Worry, concern, apprehension, consternation, unease, fear, disquietude, perturbation, fretfulness, agitation and angst. It is nervousness, tension, stress, misgiving and foreboding.

Anxiety is: overwhelming, exhausting, depressing and isolating. Acute anxiety immobilises, suffocates and drowns the afflicted. So does depression and OCD.

 

 

 

 

I have loved Glen Campbell’s music since I first heard his mega-hit Try A Little Kindness ringing out of over Dad’s little transistor radio in 1970. We were out the back by the garage and he was washing the car and I was dicking about with the hose and I stopped and listened, really listened.

You got to try a little kindness/yes show a little kindness/shine your light for everyone to see/and if you try a little kindness/then you’ll overlook the blindness/of the narrow-minded people/walking narrow- minded streets.

It struck a chord and in later years I could have used a little more kindness and broad mindedness but I don’t think anyone really realised what was going on except for mum. She figured it out but and did what she could but dealing with these things is not easy. Not for anyone.

I have to ask myself if I was kind enough to her and others? Sometimes I was but mostly I wasn’t. I had lost sight of myself in my own plight. Key to finding a way out I learned, was to give of yourself, just like the song said. Little things like a smile or a heartfelt compliment, some words of encouragement, an act of generosity. To lift others is to lift ones self. It is a self-serving but effective method that cures nothing but it does make life sparkle a little more.

 

 

 

We were driving along the Hautapu Straight and were stuck behind a meandering tractor. “Gah” said Dad in frustration, “Look at this bugger driving all about the road like a lost soul.” It hit me like a sledgehammer. That was what I was. Lost. I felt all at once shame, confusion and wonderment that the truth should be that obvious. Later I thought of myself as a ghost, a shadow, a passing cloud and wondered why I was and what purpose I served.

Later I concluded that life in its truest sense was meaningless, a by-product of a blind creative process called nature of whose origins we know nothing. All is a mystery yet here we are and like all in nature we are profuse and diverse. In order for species to flourish multiplicity is required and variety in brain function is especially important to a species success.

Sometimes that genetic quest for distinctive minds that might enable the group in unusual ways throws up failures and dead ends. This is how it goes and I came to the conclusion that it was less a case of ‘why me’ and more a case of ‘why not me’.

Dyslexic, depressed, anxious, and obsessed – my wiring is skewiff and I have given up trying to fix it. Anti-Depressants help a little but are not a panacea, unlike the meds for OCD. They worked a treat though I gave them up after five years. I felt it was time to go it alone and an unexpected and difficult with-drawl followed.

 

Prescription pills can be can be addictive too. One must approach the conclusion with care and consideration. Since I stopped I have never looked back. These meds did their job well.

Otherwise I like a little codeine. It makes me feel warm and alive. Pot is also nice in a similar way. I have also tried micro dosing with LSD after reading about the benefits. I can confirm that it helped though I did not much like the effect. I would prefer to be ‘fine as I am’ but that is not going to happen.

 

There is a kind of beauty that comes with ageing and its mostly about ‘coming to terms’ with ones self (if you are lucky –some never do). I know my limits and accept that certain proclivities will ever stalk me like a bad night without reprieve.

These days I live in a tiny room. Buried deep with a concrete high rise it has no window and is otherwise deathly silent. I leave it only as necessary and in the silence I have discovered equilibrium and the art of maintaining it.

* I wrote all this down not to glean sympathy or ask for understanding but for someone who is of similar disposition and is just setting out on the path of life and in the reading I hope she might benefit from knowing that she is not alone. Some of us are just made this way though you can be sure that those who aren’t will assure you it is all a matter of attitude. Be careful of these folk for they know not what what they say.

 

On Coffee, Tobacco and Steve McQueen.

May 6, 2017

 

 

Some people think Decaf is coffee. I am not so sure. Tea has caffeine but is not coffee and neither is beer, though it might as well be. Give me sunshine or coffee? I’ll take the latter – Roma style, (that’s ‘very dark roast’). Sun cannot outshine that. It’s the flavour the Decaf kids tell me, “It’s about the flavour!”

 

On Saturday at boarding school we were herded into the gymnasium to watch a movie inadequately displayed on a white canvas screen (home video was still a decade away). They asked me to choose the films once. It was supposed to be for the year it lasted a month.

I was picking stuff I’d been reading about in the newspaper but I didn’t take into account the whole censorship thing and after a few screenings the Brothers decided I was a liability and stripped me of my status as the film guy. I missed the weekly trip into the city to select the films from the warehouse and I missed the kudos that came with the job.

Later I became the music guy. Otherwise ‘persona non grata’ I was well read and if anyone wanted to know anything about a song or artist I was the guy. Once a kid sidled up to me and said, “I know its uncool but I like Abba. I reckon they are pretty good. Is that alright do you think?” I said yes but we both knew better than to say it out loud.

I remember Joe Cocker raging his away across the ill lit canvas in a concert flick called Mad Dogs and Englishman. I was thirteen years old and none of it made much sense. The supervising Brother spent a lot time with his hand over the projector lens during The Godfather. I had picked that film. I thought the horse head in the bed scene quite shocking and never quite got over it. He was more interested in protecting us from the sight of ‘sexy ladies’.

The best gym moment ever was Steve McQueen driving over the horizon in his big American beast car towing a horse trailer. He stops at a diner at the edge of a desert and refills on coffee and cigarettes while thinking about the next paying gig. I was a loner myself  and decided Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner was a loner worth emulating.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah Junior Bonner was not one of his usual things. Peckinpah was the shot em up king. No, more than that, he was an artist and his violence was beauteously studied. Junior Bonner was a character flick and quite a departure for the man. Of its failure to fire at the box office Peckinpah said, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”

In the Documentary film I am Steve McQueen (2014) Steve is painted as a restless soul, an intelligent self-involved Renaissance man with a destructive bent, McQueen did it his way or not at all. The establishment accepted that about him because he was box office gold. Lesser personalities would not have been able to get away with half as much I imagine.

I wanted to be just like him for longer than necessary. I rode my motorcycle hard and fast like he did and I drank black coffee and smoked cigarettes like Junior Bonner and dreamt of the wealth that came with great fame. I equated wealth with freedom. Many years later I realised that freedom was mostly a state of mind. A little cash helps but too much and that house of cards becomes a prison. My favourite ever Steve McQueen is Papillon (1973), a harrowing film that explores the harsh French prison system as it was for a time. McQueen is relentless in the lead role.

 

Back in 1960 -70s New Zealand it seemed that everyone smoked except my Dad. Our house was dominated by women and for ever so long I thought that smoking was a female thing until one day we were out in the car and passed by a farmer herding sheep, a smoke dangling from his lips. “Look Dad” I said excitedly, “that man is smoking”. Noel then explained that men smoked too. I found that hard to accept.

Second hand smoke from Mum, Aunties and Grandmothers – I loved it. I would inhale it and exalt in the heady rush but mostly I would stare at the blue plumes drifting up and about the car, the living room or wherever it was we were. The smoke shifting in the tidal air currents was a kind of artistry as was the way the cigarettes were held, waved about and stubbed. Everyone had a method and my mothers mannerisms were especially stylish I thought.

Of course I took it up as soon as I could and by age twenty I was a seasoned smoker. It was my bulwark against a cruel and confusing world for which I was little enabled and with that cigarette sitting between me and everyone else I felt safe. I promised to love tobacco forever. Forever lasted until six months ago when I just stopped and that was that. It was easy really and I have only looked back twice when I caged a couple of rollies off a mate just to see. Yes they were delicious but I had lost the love. Where did it go? I have no idea.

Smoking looks glamorous in the movies but in reality it stinks, clinging to clothes and breath in the most ungainly way and the people who smoke heavily don’t look great. One of my favourite film stars Humphrey Bogart died from a smoking related cancer, and painfully so it is told. Over the years you can see this chain-smoking matinee star loose his lustre as his skin dried up and puckered.

Happened to a whole slew of generations who smoked themselves to death. Long before the authorities got in on the act people intuitively knew it wasn’t great. ‘Smoke Smoke that Cigarette’ goes a hit song from 1947 – ‘Puff, puff, puff and smoke yourself to death/Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate/That you hates to make him wait/You’ve gotta have another cigarette’.

But that’s what cigars are for, a taste from time to time. God help you though if you get a ‘real liking’ for those bastards. True, you can’t draw the strong smoke down into your lungs, which is why people think they’re the ‘safe option’, but puffing causes cancer too. Sadly.

My grandmother’s cousin Old Kamali died when he was ninety-five. He grew his own tobacco in an allotment on the outskirts of Suva and after curing rolled it into cigars that he chain-smoked from his perch under the eaves of his house. My grandmother, died in her late eighties. A lifetime smoker of cigarettes she was a ‘puffer’ like Kamali. So was I.

I had my lungs checked a while back and they were clean. I was both surprised and pleased but this had nothing to do with my giving it away. They both might have lived longer had they not been smokers someone once suggested to me. I thought that an odd statement given their overall longevity.

 

 

I like my coffee ‘very dark roast’. That’s a certain variety of bean burned and then finely ground (not all beans can stand up to a heavy roast). Get the espresso grind. The filter grind does about as good a job as ‘tits on a bull’ as a friend used to say. The finer the grind the more intense the end result.

I use a one-cup drip filter device, a two-dollar plastic thing that fits over the top of a mug. Place a filter paper into device, add some coffee, pour in some boiling water and as soon as the top of the heat has drifted off, it’s ready for sipping (the brew needs to cool a little for the myriad flavours to become fully apparent). No milk, nor sugar – these things ruin it.

My brand of choice is Robert Harris (a big commercial roaster), their bold Italian and Roma styles being a perfect fit for my sensibilities. ‘Very dark roast’ coffee has none of the astringency of lighter roasts. I am not a fan of this ‘astringent’ quality but many are. I like it bold and gold, angst and man, burnt caramel and bitter carbon. Many don’t.

Food is our medicine it is said and I medicate readily. Eating is a game as much about pleasure as it is about nutrition. Sometime part of the pleasure of eating is knowing that you are looking after yourself. Sometimes you can’t help yourself and that is pleasurable also.

Tobacco, beer and coffee: Only one of these is bad for you. Spent coffee grounds should go to the compost. Plants, earthworms, beneficial fungi and bacteria love em. Got no garden? Then feed the compost to a public tree or shrub somewhere. Caffeine is essential so if you ever see me drinking Decaff then you’ll know the decline has set in. Life without narcotics is a life half lived and flavour is only part of the equation.

 

Morris and the Comportment of a Good Heart.

April 11, 2017

 

 

Morris was not long married and father of one when he signed on with the British Army as a Chaplin in 1939. He would not see his family again for five and a half years.

“I feel asleep in a trench in the Burmese jungle and woke up to find myself surrounded by Japanese soldiers. They must have thought I was dead because they were taking no notice of me so I stayed dead for a few hours. Suddenly there were shots and two Jap’s fell down about me and the rest fled. A moment later members of my unit piled into the trench and one said ‘we got about five miles down the line and we realised we had lost you Padre’. They fixed me some food and a hot drink and off we went”.

About two months before he died he grabbed my hand and said he had a confession to make and needed absolution. I looked about like a startled hare and wondered if I was the right person for the job but he wasn’t hearing any of it. “I have never told anyone this but I need to get it off my chest. I had two affairs during the war. Once with an Indian nurse while on leave in India and once with a Chinese schoolteacher while on leave in South Africa. “You have to understand I was young and lonely and sure that I was going to die out there and I was looking for warmth and connection”. He paused for a moment then asked me if I thought he was a bad man? I didn’t and told him so. He seemed relieved.

 

Morris was an Anglican vicar who had felt the call to serve ‘the loving Jesus’ since he was a child. “I never rose through the ranks because I refused to play the game.” The game he was referring to was politics. Morris didn’t care about being seen to do the right thing, he did as he felt and this included tending to the needs of homosexual parishioners in a time when homosexuality was not only a mortal sin but also illegal with it. This did not make him popular with his peers nor did his acceptance of other faiths including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. “At their best they are all paths to love” he confirmed.

It was his open mindedness that bought him and his wife to New Zealand, that and a daughter who had married a Kiwi and had moved out here several years earlier. She sent him a clipping from the NZ Herald about an iconic Anglican church in the heart of a major NZ city that was falling on hard times and in need of a vicar who could make a difference. Morris got the job and in 1967 he and his wife made the big move and began life afresh.

I wished I had of asked him more about these times because as I am writing I am only beginning to realise how spare my knowledge of him is. I am recalling snippets about how he revitalised the parish by organising dances for single Christians wanting to meet other single Christians and putting on special services for Gay Christians. They retired in 1979 and moved to the Central Waikato to be near their daughter.

Morris flirted with my then wife, a pretty and vibrant young woman of considerable charm while reassuring me that it was all a game. “I am a eunuch you see old boy so I am no competition to you.” He had contracted testicular cancer a few years before I met him and they had been removed. Not long after he had lost his beloved wife to illness. This last one was real blow and he staggered back to life determined to find new meaning. “I lost interest in the Church of England. It was moribund and had forgotten the essential Christian message of love”. Like me his searching had bought him to the Rosicrucian Lectorium, a Gnostic Christian sect based at Karapiro just outside of Cambridge.

The Rosicrucians suited Morris to a tee. They were Christian but they also borrowed heavily from the Eastern spirituality that had long impressed him. He liked their egalitarian attitude and enjoyed their fellowship though he couldn’t cope with their vegetarianism. He was part Basque and carried that peculiar Basque genetic profile that meant his body could not absorb iron from plant food. He needed flesh.

Otherwise he saw through their more pretentious allusions and made a great deal of fun at their expense. These Rosicrucians, (or as he liked to call them: The Rosy Crustaceans) were of Dutch origin and being typically dour were ripe for the picking. He referred to their founding figure Jan van Rijckenborgh as J Rickenfuhrer or Rickenburger as the mood took him all in honor of Rijckenborgh’s instruction that the leader should never be exalted. Of course they exalted him, at every turn, but Morris was always there waving the satirical flag to remind them of their obligations.

In this context he referred to their bi-monthly magazine The Pentagram as The Penthouse. To their credit they put up with up with it possibly because he was creakingly old and to protest would just be wrong headed. Still, for those of us less inclined toward unswerving fealty he was fresh air blowing out the bull dust.

Once he decided to surprise his daughter and her husband by going out to their farm with the idea of completing the renovations underway on their house while they were on holiday. He managed to pull the roof in on their living room while inadvertently setting their entire winters wood supply alight. That story followed him about like a bad smell and any mention of it were the only times I ever saw him look displeased.

Halfway through his ninety-third year his body shut down and he went fast. It was a peaceful death at home in his own bed surrounded by friends and family. The Anglican Bishop of the Waikato officiated at the funeral and stood before us all in his finery and waxed lyrical about Morris’s eccentricities (his Gnostic faith) and suggested that god would take into account all Morris’s good work and forgive him for his aberrations. Seriously, I wanted to kick the smug bastard where it hurt the most and regret that I didn’t. I have seldom before or since met a person with a truer heart than Morris’s. A man who judged no one but himself, he didn’t deserve to go out on a snipe like that.

 

 

 

 

Grandpa, Rabbits and the Value of Non-Human Emotions.

March 18, 2017

 

Grandpa lived just down the road and would often stick his head through the backdoor of our house and say “Want to come down the farm E-Hoa (Maori for ‘my friend’)?’ Of course I did and after putting on my gumboots on we were off. First stop was the cowshed where we would collect the shovel which he would heft onto his shoulder before making that long guttural sound that meant the phlegm in his throat was being loosened and prepared for the big theatrical ‘hoik’, a kind of exclamation point I copied for years after in my quest to be just like him.

We were on the lookout for rabbit burrows but along the way he talked about many things including one of his favourite subjects, trees. “That’s a Macrocarpa” pointing up at one of the grand specimens he had planted decades before. “They come from the Monterey district of California which is near San Francisco. They are endangered there but not here. Here they grow like weeds!” he chuckled. “We call them abortion trees because if cows eat the green early on in her pregnancy she will more often than not loose the calf. Nothing worse than a branch from one of these buggers coming down in a storm and the cows getting at it.”

“See that plant there?” he said pointing at a sprawling large leafed plant with a pink flower that grew on the pasture margins all over the farm. “Yes” I said bending down for a closer look. “It’s called mallow and the cows only ever eat it after they have given birth. “Why is that Grandpa?” I asked. “Well,” he mused “can’t say for sure but I suspect this plant contains something the cows need at particular times. When they are hungry for it they will do just about anything to get at it. Not even an electric fence will stop them.”

This would bring him around to his most treasured subject, soil. “We have very poor soils in New Zealand and lacking in just about everything” – referring to minerals and trace elements. “See this one here” he says pointing to a white umbelliferous flower atop a feather shaped flower. “Yes” I said. “It’s called yarrow and we plant it because it prevents scouring in calves (a broad descriptive term for diarrhoea). It is also a good at finding selenium in the soil and New Zealand soils have almost no selenium so it is a handy plant to have around.” He goes onto explain about white muscle disease in calves (caused by selenium deficiency) and how distressing it was until they figured the cause.

Then there were the yarns. “Our neighbour was a grumpy old man and we used to tease him and one day he chased us up a tree and we couldn’t escape so we (siblings) peed on him. That got rid of him” he chortled. I must have heard this story umpteen times over the years and it was never told the same way twice. Some of my cousins held this against him but not me; I was fine with it sharing a proclivity for embellishment as we did.

“Right, here we go” he says and sure enough in amongst the waving grasses he has spied a bare patch. Bending down on his knee he scoops away the dirt with his puffy dairy farmer hands and explains that when the mother is away feeding she fills the entrance to the burrow so that it is hidden from predators. He urges me to reach down into the hole and I am always little hesitant imaging that there might be something down there waiting to bite me or worse. He is patient and taking a deep breath I do it and discover soft warm wriggling bodies laying on dry grass. A sweet musky aroma lifts from the hole. It all feels very comfortable and secure. I withdraw my arm and Grandpa takes over.

Hauling the wee bunnies out one by one he knocks their heads hard against the steel of the shovel and tosses them on the ground. The bodies wriggle for a bit and blood leaks out their noses. When he is done he puts them back down the hole and collapses the burrow with the shovel.

“Cows can break a leg if they stumble unawares onto one of these damned things” he says without affectation. I feel a little uneasy and wonder out loud if the mother will be sad when she returns to find her babies dead and home ravaged. “Can’t afford think about those sorts of things” he says, “got to stay on top of them or they will overrun the place.”

Farmers can’t afford to think about animals in that way, it’s a fact of life. Once you do you are on a losing run to nowhere. Grandpa tells me the story of Laurie Discombe. The Discombe’s were an early settler family in the district and had a road named after them. Laurie was one of those strange breed of dairy farmers who never married, just settled into a life of cows and remained that way. He was quiet and shy and a bit uncomfortable around people.

As he got older Laurie found it harder and harder to part with his cows once they reached the end of their productive lives so he just started keeping them. Eventually he has more retired cows than milking ones and then no milkers at all. He ends up losing the farm. That’s why farmers can’t afford to be sentimental about these things.

I was twenty-two when Grandpa died. He dropped right in front of dad and me while we were down the farm one day and it was the biggest shock I ever suffered. I grieved harder than I did when my sister was killed a few years earlier. He and I were close and I felt understood by him though more recently I had become aggrieved when he criticised my penchant for tight jeans saying that I looked like a homo.

I was a musician and this was my uniform and I felt a bit miffed about the comment (I was also more liberal in my attitudes than he was) so I stopped talking to him for bit. He died before I could get past it. Now I realised there would be no getting passed it. I was a bit of a mess for a while after that.

Eventually I gave the farm away. I was too sensitive and cared too much and felt ashamed for many of the cruel things I did because I did not know any better. I thought often about a story attributed to the prophet Muhammad I had read somewhere. Some boys plucked a baby hawk from a nest and seeing the distressed mother following them about the Prophet asked who was causing this mother so much pain? In the asking I imagined he was also querying if non-human emotions were any less significant than human emotions?

After some thought I realised that for me feelings were feelings regardless of the species but I also understood the practicalities of managing land. Recently I found a rat nest under a friend’s chook house and did exactly what Grandpa would have done. It was necessary given what rats do on these islands. The upset mother camped about the wreckage and made herself vulnerable. The cat found her and that was that. Bloody tragic and I am still struggling with it.

I sometimes drive past the family farm but never call in. I can’t, it’s all too painful the place being the minefield of memories it is for me. I was supposed to take it on but was emotionally ill equipped for the life and my rejection of the legacy caused a world of familial disappointment that still haunts me to this day. The last thing Grandpa and I did together was set about planting a dozen Algerian oaks he had grown from acorns.

I thought his evergreen tree was an odd choice being the notoriously slow growers they are. “They’ll take forever to be something,” I told him. He just winked then set about winding up for one of his pointed hoiks. That was thirty-five years ago. These days the trees are quite something and when I drive past I look at them and their magnificence and think about him and the lasting power of grief and wonder at life’s grey contradictions.

 

 

Fate has its Way.

October 28, 2016

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Laozi  was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. He is known as the reputed author of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ and the founder of philosophical Taoism.

 

So there I was once again without money and prospects so in desperation I applied for a job to which I was probably unsuited but they offered me an interview, the first opportunity of its like in two years, so who was I to argue? Giving myself an ample two-hour lead in time I caught the appropriate bus and 45 minutes later was in the right area but unable to read my scrawled street directions missed the stop and it was another two kilometres before I realised my mistake.

At this stage I had no idea where I was but I did have my laptop and did find a chain burger joint with free wi-fi. Finding my bearings I set about my way arriving at the interview with a safe few minutes to spare. Never once during this wholly mismanaged process did I panic, as I would have done when I was much younger, because life had learned me a valuable lesson – things tend to turn out, not as expected but as they should and mostly fortuitously.

If I had made the right stops I would have been almost an hour and half ahead of time and would have had to ‘kick at stones’ for more time than I would have liked. Fate, happenstance – yes all that stuff. Rationalists like myself would have us all believe that it does not exist, that it is but a mere conjuring of the wayward imagination and that we make our own destiny by hard work and planning, by personal fortitude, by setting goals….you know, all that stuff and not because of mysterious and obtuse forces working behind the scenes.

Frankly I have never been up to much. Too flaky, easily distracted and bored I have drifted through life trying this and that and then moving on, mastering numerous things but not able to glean anything resembling even a modest return for my efforts. This lack of success has caused me all manner of grief and angst but I have never given up trying and despite my best efforts to sort myself as I think I should be sorted life grand game of cricket keep’s on bowling me googlies and pushing me in odd directions.

I have learned a lot on the way and have became better for it but to what application financially and with that in mind how many times have I thanked the gods for being born into a society that provides easily accessed unemployment benefits? At this task I am roaring success. Yes, it often seems that these mysterious fates have other ideas for me than the ones I have for myself and I often feel like a stick being tossed about on rough seas and every time I sight dry land and try to swim for it the winds whip up and I find myself adrift again.

 

 

I did some radio in my home town a couple or three years back and thought that this might be something I could do for a living so off to Auckland I went to do a technical course which I thought would get me a leg up into the industry. One morning about halfway through the course I sat down at a café next to guy who the publisher of a magazine that was about dead on its feet. “I need a writer” he said and I replied “I could do that” with all the naivety of a lamb chatting up a pack of wolves. (The money was crap but I had none so it looked promising on paper at least).

After a time I did get the hang of writing and because it was just me and me alone I became editor by default. By the time the creditors moved in I had learned more than I bargained for and among other things found myself at the centre of a scandal that ended up as national news (courtesy a piece I wrote for the magazine)  and naturally with all this going on I failed the course putting an end to any dreams I had about being a radio personality.

I limped out of there only to be immediately approached by another publisher to do some freelance work for his website ending up a good million miles more from where I expected to be when I set out on this particular adventure. “Where is this all going?” I asked myself more than once especially when the freelance work began to dry up?

 

 

As I walked to the interview it suddenly occurred to me that I knew these streets. I had walked them before as a callow youth fresh out of school and door knocking. It was during one of NZ’s regular economic downturns and it was a futile experience.  When I did eventually find work, in Melbourne as it turned out, it was of the mind-numbing sort, which was all I was qualified for. “Oh dear god, what am I doing?” I thought as I walked toward an interview for the kind I mind numbing job I flitted between as youth while tossing about thoughts of the joys of having actual money with which to pay rent and buy food and clothes and have fun with. The refrain of a song I had recently written echoed about my head – ‘Be careful what you wish for’ as I contemplated another thought – “Full circle”.

I could tell the guy did not think I was suitable for the job (“You are too well spoken and nicely mannered” were his exact words) but he said he knew somebody who was looking for a guy with my experience in the Pie business (I was the sales guy for a major brand for a number of years – a long story of weird design). “Oh dear god, not that again” and while accepted his offer graciously I was thinking “Look, all I want is a job to pay the bills, one that is not going to grind me down with care and worry and require that I exhaust deepest part of me, that one I want to keep safe for writing” and by writing I mean songs. This last year of writing stories has taught me the hard way that I am not made for it.

 

 

I have been writing songs since I was a kid and of all my endeavours this is the one that has remained constant though I have to say, like everything else, it has been an exercise in economic futility. By chance (fate?) I had run into an old musical associate early on my return to Auckland and he pretty much dragged me into his home studio setting me up in front of a microphone before I had a chance to resist. “Whatcha got” he asked. “Nothing” I replied, “I don’t do this anymore”. “Why?” and I explained that it was pointless. Then he explained he always thought I was a bit of genius at the art and encouraged me to give it another go. So I did and between us we have written and recorded a batch of songs of the like I have been trying to write all my adult life.

I couldn’t do it the way I wanted when I was younger because of the missing ingredient – life experience. I could make tunes but not words and now the words poured out – words about heartbreak and loss, about grief and triumph, disappointment, failure, fantasy and the meaning of love. There it is, that bloody fate thing again and perhaps I am back where I belonged all along dreaming up melodies and concepts and arrangements like there is no tomorrow. Full circle.

 

 

The ‘Tao De Ching’ is a treatise of Chinese origin that examines a particular brand of metaphysical philosophy that dates back to the fifth or six centuries BCE. The author, one Laozi, tells of The Way (The Tao), a neat little package that combines all the physical laws inherent in the universe with musings on the mystery from which they arise. He says that while it cannot be understood or ascribed but it can be intuitively ‘known’. To ‘know’ it is to is to find peace and fulfilment. To deny is to experience grief, pain and angst.

To Quote:

It (the Tao) is filled with infinite possibilities, hidden but always present.

Practice not doing and everything will fall into place.

Free from desire you realise the mystery, caught up in desire you see only the manifestations.

 

Maybe I should do as Lao Tzu advices  through the course of his writing – roll with the flow. Resistance is counterproductive and when you let go and let the currents to carry you along it works out a lot work a lot better.

Society says that I should be aspirational, I should be planning and pro-active. That luck like success is made and all that, but no, the harder I try the messier it gets and yes, with all of this in mind, it seems that at the end of the day I am a fatalist, one who is happy to let the strange currents that flow through space and time do as they will with me. It makes no sense but by the same token it makes all the sense in the world and when I allow the fates to take their course everything seems to work out suitably and me feeling happier. I wish I could say it better but I can’t. It is all too strange. As for the job, well I get the sense that something has been set in motion and as to where its going to lead I have no idea but I looking forward to finding out.

Full circle….. I can’t but help think that here in the last round of life I have been taken back to the beginning, that place where I made so many errors and took so many missteps and have been offered a second chance to try it again, this time with a little wisdom and experience on my side. A chance to make better choices and more suitable decisions.

 

I will leave the final word, a counter to everything I have just said, from one S.L Scott who I found in the Huffington Post:

Most people use fate and destiny interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. Fate is the life you lead if you never put yourself in the path of greatness. That’s the direction your life moves in without any effort on your part. That’s your fate. Fate is a negative and is defined as the expected result of normal development. Normal development. Never taking a risk is your inevitable fate.

(S.L. Scott is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author. She spends her days escaping into her characters and letting them lead her on their adventures. Live music shows, harvesting jalapenos and eating homemade guacamole are her hobbies. Scott lives in the Texas Hill Country with her husband, two young sons, two Papillons and a bowl full of Sea Monkeys).

Raul Castro and Why he should have Negotiated the TPP For NZ.

April 4, 2016

 

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Cuban President Raul Castro.

“Democracy and the Free Market,” Obama beamed to his Cuban audience outlining the path to prosperity.

“Free Health Care, University and gender pay equality,” Cuban President Raul Castro shot back reminding America before it starts telling Cuba what to do it needs to gets its own house in order first.

The context was Obama’s recent and historic visit to Communist Cuba who have been on America’s blacklist since the early 1960’s when a plan to host Soviet nuclear missiles and point them at Washington didn’t go down as well as everyone on the ‘yes’ side might have hoped. With the world only moments away from nuclear war the Soviets backed down but it has taken this long for the US and Cuba to start properly speaking again.

While Cuba is certainly no great model of democratic freedom Castro had a point, taking America to task as he did about social equity. To his credit Obama acknowledged this gracefully responding, “America is not above criticism.” A nicely played piece of diplomacy where he suggested ever so subtly that America is, in certain areas of social development, behind the main thrust of developed nations and really needs to start getting in on the game.

America’s evangelical mission to democratise the world belies the fact that its own Democracy rates down the scale for effectiveness and transparency. It is a system whose integrity has latterly been undermined by a vast industry of lobbyists who spend some nine billion US dollars a year buying influence from elected representatives, a practice outlawed or severely constrained by most other mature democracies.

American law considers lobbying to be fully in line with the nations constitutional right of free speech and despite the myriad regulations aimed at keeping lobbying above board, politicians and special interests are forever finding new ways of subverting the rules. The money is just too good to ignore and as we all know, money can be a terribly corrupting influence when mixed into a political cocktail.

As for the Free Market, that shinning brass ring of a world where business is conducted on a level playing field across international borders and where goods and services flow unimpeded from farm and factory to consumer without trade barriers and subsidises distorting competitive value……. America’s rhetoric belies the actuality.

America is still home to some of the most restrictive trade barriers in place anywhere and the nation supports a bewildering array of manufacturing, farming and other subsidies that make a mockery of the so called ‘Free Market Purity’ of the American business model. America is a nation who encourages one and all to open their doors to American business without properly reciprocating. This ‘Do as I say not as I do’ position grates but it is impossible to argue with a nation as immersed in it’s own mythology as America is.

Americas’ central vanity is that it is world’s greatest country in every conceivable way and if your country is not like America then it is somehow wrong. “This great country,” “This great city,” “This great State,” the words that preface every American introduction to all things America. Yet America at times seems like the fervent Evangelical Christian Preacher who stands and decries immoral lifestyles to his rapturous audience while entertaining rent boys in clandestine motel rooms. America’s problem is that it talks the talk without fully committing to its own idealism.

If all this sounds Anti-American, then I apologise. There is much to admire about this democratic collective and it’s manyfold positive contributions to the world but its tendency to wave the flag of superiority in defence of its position does not stand up to rational scrutiny. The now infamous scene from the opening episode of the US TV series ‘Newsroom’ (2012-14) underscores this point. The star anchor of a fictional network Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is asked during a public Q&A: “Why is America the greatest country in the World?” His answer was so astonishing it became actual news and perhaps the first time someone fictional or otherwise actually said what many Americans already suspected but were reluctant to articulate least they be perceived as unpatriotic:

Will: There’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labour force, and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only 3 categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defence spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined. 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student. But you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the worst, period, generation, period, ever, period, so when you ask, “what makes us the greatest country in the world?” I dunno know what the fuck you’re talking about! Yosemite? It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours. We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in our last election, and we didn’t we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things, and to do all these things, because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.  Enough?

 

The advent of the TPP ( an American led international free trade deal between Pacific nations including New Zealand) has bought New Zealand closer to the American method than ever before and perhaps the time has come for this little trading nation to examine its heart with the goal of confirming our place in the world. NZ is a robust and pioneering Socialist Democracy with a long tradition of human rights focused public organisation. We are secular, progressive, caring, generous and commercially sharp, having traded our way to first world prosperity despite our distance from often-hostile international markets. Our problem lies with the deference we tend to bestow toward other nations while failing to acknowledge our own strength as an international leader, opinion maker and all round positive influence, one who indeed walks the walk while talking the talk when it comes to human rights, commitment to democratic values, freedom of expression and free trade.

We are in danger of selling aspects of our soul for a slice of the American pie, that while a tasty enough tends toward empty calories and second-rate pastry fat. While we grapple with the supposed promise of the TPP we are forgetting the potential of our existing free trade deals, ones we have negotiated off our own bat and all without the caveats that come with US style horse-trading. America not only wants our business, it wants our hearts and souls as well and the concessions we have agreed to, aka Pharmac, underline the potential dangers ahead as regards our rights to democratic self-determination.

While I may not be fully in tune with Raul Castro’s politics (Cuba’s treatment of dissidents is questionable) I certainly admire his balls: ‘you wasn’t to trade with us America? Fine, just none of your bullshit please. We go into this as equals or not at all’. Sadly, NZ has erred toward the ‘bend over and pick up the soap’ route, afraid that if we don’t do as we are told we will end up excluded from the holy grail of markets, Club USA.