Archive for the ‘Ethics’ 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!

 

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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.

 

TV Review: The Handmaids Tale (2017).

May 4, 2017

 

The Handmaid’s Tale. (Dystopian Thriller)

9.5/10

Capsule Review: In 2004 the odious Brian Tamaki rallied his Destiny congregation for a march on Parliament to oppose Civil Unions. Some two thousand Evangelicals turned up (he had promised ten thousand) and dressed in black t-shirts pumped their fists in the air and chanted, “Enough is Enough”. Somewhat emboldened Tamaki predicted the Church’s political arm would triumph in the following years general election and turn New Zealand onto gods path. Want some idea of how that might have turned out? The Handmaid’s Tale will tell you all you need to know. One of the most potent and important stories ever conceived about the dangers of ideological theocracy (a system of government in which the religious rule in the name of a god) it has been turned into a TV series and the result is gut wrenching. Essential viewing for those concerned with liberty, freedom and justice. Otherwise The Handmaid’s Tale is brutal dystopian drama of the first order.

 

 

I didn’t want to watch this because knew what was in store: a horror of epic proportions (I have not read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel but I have seen the very excellent 1990 film twice). Psychopaths, sadists and bestial violence – yes that and more, all of which I am pretty loath to tackle these days (as I get older I am discovering that I am les able to cope with the stress) but it is important, I told myself, to be reminded now and again of just how badly things can go wrong given the right set of circumstances.

The most glaring example of how a society can be hijacked by psychopathy is Hitler’s Germany but this is only one example out of the recent past that includes Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Hoxa’s Albania and Ceaușescu’s Romania. Then there is Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the reign of the Argentinean Generals, Pinochet’s Chile and apartheid era South Africa to name a few worthy contenders not to forget the subjection and genocide of the American Indian and the brutal slave system in the American South………. but I digress.

In a future that is only moments removed from now, America’s second Civil War is set in motion by an infertility crisis and with the exception of Alaska and a bit of the Pacific Northwest, the Union is in ruins. A fundamentalist Biblical religious movement called ‘The Sons of Jacob’ have managed a successful coup and have renamed the USA ‘The Republic of Gilead’ achieving something very similar to what we saw the Taliban enable in Afghanistan for a time and what ISIS is trying to facilitate with its ‘pure’ Islamist Caliphate in parts of the Middle East at this very moment.

The result is a nightmare for women and male non-believers as the Constitution is suspended and a new ‘moral code’ is enacted. The ‘Eyes’, a secretive police force charged with enforcing the strict new laws based on old Testament biblical morality, are everywhere (akin to Iran’s Gasht-e Ershad – Moral Police) and brutal with it. People are hauled off the street for minor and serious infringements and punishments ranging from eye removal to arbitrary hangings are now normal.

The judicial system could easily be compared with the Nazi’s ‘People’s Court’ where the accused are formally charged and penalties are handed out with no right of redress. Otherwise society is confined to a series of strange and perverse rituals designed to appease god for the moral waywardness that has resulted in the fertility crisis. The Handmaid’s of the title are those few women still able to conceive and thus blessed are set aside for mating with high-ranking officials. They are both treasured and jealously despised. They are also slaves.

Of course this society is immensely sadistic, punitive and corrupt as all extremist ideologies are and those at the top of the hierarchy pay due tribute to the law but behind closed doors they live as they please. The philosophy of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is well-examined, reinforcing age-old warnings about those who flaunt their piety. These sort are often not pious at all, more like opportunists in search of the main chance. Images of American Republican notables like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruise on their knees and praying in public outside the White House come to mind.

 

We first met actress Elizabeth Moss in the groundbreaking TV series Mad Men (2007-2015) a few years back and latterly she has appeared in hit Kiwi mini-series Top Of The Lake (Directed by Jane Campion -2013). In The Handmaids Tale she tackles the complex lead role of June (later renamed Offred), a woman struggling under a kind of duress that is almost impossible to fathom.

A student, wife and mother with a job, she is a fairly standard representation of the modern American woman and through a series of flashbacks we examine her life in the ‘time before the fall’. An especially chilling scene is early on in the piece when June’s credit card is declined. “But I have four thousand dollars in my account” she says.

Yes she does, except the new laws enacted that day restrict a woman’s right to an independent life and require that a close male relative manage her finances. Besides “We don’t serve sluts here” she is incredulously informed. The next day all female employees at her work place are laid off and sent home ‘where they belong’. This brave new world is a man’s one and you conform or die. Simple as that.

She is now a slave womb in servitude to one of the most powerful men in Gilead the powerful and high-ranking Commander Waterford and through her eyes we examine the ritual, process and fear that makes up the machinery of the Handmaid system. The Commander and his infertile wife are counting on Offred to provide them with the child they need to bolster their social position and salve their precarious emotional state.

Besides Moss’s contained and deeply nuanced portrayal of Offred (whose head is being kept above water out of hope she might find her confiscated daughter) the talented cast includes Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Enemy at the Gates, American Horror Story) as the Commander, Yvonne Strahovski (Dexter, Chuck) as Serena Joy the Commander’s bitter wife and Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) as Ofglen, Offred’s Handmaid shopping partner (shopping for the ‘families’ food is part of a Handmaid’s duties).

Her real name is Emily and she is a ‘gender traitor’, the new term for gay people, and when she is discovered having an affair with a ‘Martha’ (a lowly infertile female household servant) her punishment is genital mutilation. (Her life is otherwise spared because she is fertile – not so lucky the ‘Martha’) but the after Moss, the standout performer is Ann Dowd (a instantly recognizable character actor of roles to numerous to mention) as Aunt Lydia, instructor and guardian of the Handmaids.

Margaret Atwood talked to RNZ Broadcaster Kim Hill recently and in a wide-ranging interview shared her thoughts and feelings about The Handmaids Tale. A child of the 1930s she was born under the shadow of totalitarian regimes of various stripes including fascism and communism. She describes how these regimes happen as well as the personality types that make them work – from the complaint though to the sadistic and Aunt Lydia is nothing if not sadistic. In fact Aunt Lydia is exactly the type who made the Nazi extermination camps work as efficiently as they did.

 

I don’t usually review a TV series until I have seen the first season at least. It’s for reasons of clarity – making sure that I have seen enough so I can provide as substantive review as possible and besides, it hardly matters if you are a bit behind as streaming has changed the when and whys of viewing. A decent series is going to be just as potent in two years from now as it will be tomorrow so there is no real rush but there are exceptions and The Handmaids Tale is one of those because it is such an important and prescient story in light of the ‘populist’ politics at work in the world today.

Here I am thinking of Trump’s America, Duterte’s Philippines, and Erdogan’s Turkey among others and while the series sticks close to Atwood’s sharply drawn premise it manages some decent commentary on the current state of the USA and the growing influence of Evangelical politicians.

 

This is a skillfully conceived production and the attention to detail is astonishing. The camera work in particular needs special mention with every frame being a minor miracle of composition (often like something out of a Vermeer painting) and an example to all about how the lens can be used but so often isn’t. My only quibble is with Moss’s voice over which veers from commentary to diarist. When it is the former it works superbly. When it is the latter, not so much. Here it seeks to explain unnecessarily what the visuals are already describing aptly. In this context it is irritating.

Otherwise this is a gut-wrenching affair. I began this review by calling it a ‘Horror’ and that is what it is and the beast under the spotlight is not something exterior, but something from within – a monster created by the psyche and cast into life by social dysfunction. This is the greatest terror of all, man’s inhumanity to man by way of extremist devotion to belief and Atwood’s story reminds us that that this beast lurks behind every heartbeat waiting for the right moment to appear. This is why The Handmaid’s Tale is so important; because it reminds of how easily social cohesion can be undermined in times of stress and confusion. Beware, be wary and be warned.

 

Check out Kim Hill’s interview with Margaret Atwood here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/201841216/margaret-atwood-the-resurgence-of-the-handmaid’s-tale

 

Other notable works exploring dystopian political themes include:

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (The 1966 film version was directed by French film master François Truffaut and is a lot better than many critics would have you believe)

The Children of Men by P.D James (The 2006 film is well on its way to ‘revered cult’ status)

Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison (the very excellent film version is called Soylent Green)

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin (Like Orwell’s Animal Farm this work puts the ideologies of communism and capitalism under the spotlight and finds both wanting)

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Giver by Louis Lowry

The Trial by Franz Kafka (The great film director Orson Welles’s 1962 film version is hard work but visually stunning)

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (The brilliantly conceived TV series is well worth a visit)

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.

 

 

Film Review: Suffragette

February 4, 2016

The 2015 film Suffragette gives the viewer a broad overview of the struggle of women in early 20th century Britain for the right to vote offering a glimpse into a world where the law was structured to favour the rights of men over women. Here women gave birth and were responsible for the raising of children, but those children like the woman herself, were deemed property of their man to do with as he liked. In fact one of the methods the police used to deal with non-complaint Panky’s (a colloquial term for the suffragettes derived from the name Emily Pankhurst, the movements leader) was to turn them over to their husbands for a good hiding, the sort of violent affair that might haul them into line. We learn that in the Laundry Factory where much of the film is set, that the female employees earn 7 shillings a week less than their male counterparts and for the privilege have to work 13 hours more. On top of this, the social pressure applied to the non-conforming women from men, the law and other women was, in a word, brutal.

Yes, by the standards of modern Western society it is all pretty damned awful and thoroughly unjust but the actuality of the situation is bought home in the film finest moment, right at the very end where the timeline of international voting rights for women scrolls up the screen. Beginning in 1893 with NZ (although women could not stand for Parliament until 1919) and followed by Australia in 1902, Latvia in 1905, France, Italy and Japan in 1945, Tonga 1960, Switzerland 1971 and Western Samoa 1990 to highlight but a few. In 2015 Saudi Arabia began the process of changing laws to allow women the right to participate in that communities political process demonstrating vividly that 122 years after New Zealand women become the first female participants in the democratic process the work of the much-derided feminist movement is still far from complete. I should say here that in this advanced age in a country otherwise considered the worlds most socially progressive, Kiwi women are still being paid less than their male counterparts for the same work.

While investigating the timeline of the Women’s Suffrage movement over the last 100 plus years I was interested to note that every country went through exactly the same arguments on the anti-side, stuff like “Women just don’t have the temperament or intellectual facility for voting.” The same nonsense over and over, not unlike the debates on Gay rights, Gender pay-equality, environmental causes, children’s rights and so on. All of this of course begs the question: why can’t we learn from the example of other societies, take their lessons and apply them to our own situation rather then rehashing tired old arguments that NZ disproved way back in 1893?

Note: Since its first election in 1853 New Zealand has been world leading in voting rights. All Māori men were able to vote from 1867 and all European men from 1879.  By comparison Australian Aboriginals did not get the right to vote until 1962, Canadian Natives in 1960.

As for the film itself it’s an unsophisticated narrative that wastes lots of grand opportunities, most notably in the body of the great Irish character actor Brendon Gleeson, whose role as the police detective charged with rooting out the leaders of the suffragette movement is a pitiful slight on his considerable talents. Nevertheless, Cary Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter act up a storm in the lead roles, doing a lot with what little the script offers.

2/5 for narrative, 5/5 for the inspiration and insight. Worthy and worth seeing.

Waitangi Day, A Good Outcome for all Concerned.

January 27, 2016

A few weeks back I was stopped by an anti-Treaty protestor on Queen Street in Auckland who informed me in no uncertain terms that Egyptian explorers had discovered the islands of New Zealand a thousand years before the Polynesians, (shoving some photos of rocks that may or may not have Egyptian like markings on them under my nose as proof), therefore making null and void the Treaty of Waitangi. “A compelling case is it not?” he said nodding vigorously while I looked about desperately for an escape route.

Yes, Waitangi day is just around the corner, annual event that brings the crazies discontented and self-righteous out in force, folk represented at one extreme by privileged Pakeha like Mike Hosking whose line is that Maori just need to get over themselves, (I mean how likely would you be to just ‘get over’ an orchestrated and ongoing campaign designed to divest you of your most valuable asset), and at the other end by Maori radicals who would see all non-Maori sent ‘home’ tomorrow, an intellectually indefensible position that ignores the fact that most non-Maori have nowhere to go to, coming from genetic lines that have been here long enough to make us fully as one with the soil of these islands.

The series of events which lead us to the current state of affairs begins 175 years ago when a group of Maori chiefs signed a treaty with the British Crown at the northland settlement of Waitangi that gave the Crown the exclusive right to buy lands Maori wished to sell and in return, Maori were guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions and were given the rights and privileges of British subjects in return for their co-operation. Later that year the British claimed full sovereignty over these islands kicking off the story of modern New Zealand.

While some Maori leaders wanted no part of the British plans for these islands, others accepted that the growing wave of European migrants was not going to stop and they had better get used to it and find a way to adapt. Some also hoped that British law would unify the various the Tribes and put a stop to the endless wars of conquest and retribution that had been plaguing the Tangata Whenua (a Māori term that means ‘people of the land’) for the last several hundred years. For these tribal leaders, the Treaty of Waitangi was a pragmatic act that they hoped would secure a better future for Maori.

 

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In many ways the Treaty was a resounding success. Unlike the less than satisfactory fate that befell almost every other colonised people at this time, the Maori were never racially marginalised nor excluded from the mainstream of political and social life. Maori men received full voting rights in the fledgling NZ democracy in 1867, (12 years before European men), and in 1893 all women, both Maori and Pakeha, were ‘allowed’ the right to vote.

The problem was land, the new settlers wanted it and Maori, still figuring their way around the European philosophy of land ownership, found themselves ripped off left right and centre and when land sales were not forthcoming, some new migrants took it upon themselves to form militias and simply take it at the point of a gun which lead to the only internal war New Zealand has ever experienced.

Between 1840 and 1860 Pakeha and Maori faced off in a series of conflicts that introduced the British to trench warfare (a Maori innovation) and the world to the concept of non-violent resistance, an idea developed and refined by Taranaki tribal leader Te Whiti. It was a brutal time and while Maori lost a great deal of land, they proved themselves to be a formidable foe, but in the end war proved to be the least effective way of appropriating land so for the next 120 years or so the Crown used legislation in various guises to sequester land as required, deliberately breaching the tenants of the Treaty under the guise of law.

 

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Redmayne, Thomas:Attack on the Maori Pah at Rangiriri. [1863].

 

By the time the 1970s rolled around Maori had had enough and Dame Whina Cooper sparked a fire than wasn’t going to be put out when in 1975 when she led a march from Northland to Wellington protesting the unjust and ongoing confiscation of Maori lands. In 1978 Eva Rickard led an occupation of the Raglan Golf Course in the Waikato, an incendiary act that caused a great deal commotion, arrests and breast beating but she won, claiming back a large tract of ancestral land that had been ‘borrowed’ by the Government for the building of a WW2 airfield and that somehow had ending up as a golf course for local Pakeha.

 

 

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1975: Dame Whina Cooper (aged 80) begins her historic land march

 

At the same time in Auckland a fuss was brewing over a parcel of land on Bastion Point, one that the Government had ‘borrowed’ in 1882 for strategic defence purposes, (it was feared that the Russian’s were planning an invasion and Bastion Point and its position overlooking the harbour entrance to Auckland was the perfect place for defensive gun impalements), and that had not been returned as promised.

It ended up in the hands of the Auckland City Council who in the early 1970’s were planning to sell off the land for housing development. This upset the local Iwi who moved in and after 507 days of ‘illegal’ occupation were forcibly removed by 600 police and army personnel. Messy as the whole business was, it proved a turning point for Maori. Bastion Point was eventually returned to the Iwi concerned and the era of intense soul-searching, apologies and financial restitution for past wrongs had begun.

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Maori Protestors occupy Bastion Point 1977

 

The relationship between Pakeha and Maori has not always been easy but underneath all the shenanigans there has always been a strong impulse toward unity and by and large, two culturally disparate people have forged an extraordinary bond while building an exceptional first world democracy.

In the end Maori are only doing what the law allows, challenging a breach of contract and the reactionaries are doing what reactionaries do, finding ways of invalidating the Treaty for whatever ends they are serving. For the rest of us, the Treaty has given cause for honest self-reflection on the nature of justice, obligation, kinship, loyalty and nationhood and the result has been deeply rewarding for almost everyone concerned.

Vegetarian or Vegan

November 15, 2015

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I’m a vegetarian, that is: I don’t eat meat but I do consume animal products like milk, milk products and eggs. A vegan, on the other hand, eats neither flesh nor animal product. A vegetarian should not wear leather (I do … I was given a leather belt years ago and it seems a waste to discard it), a vegan would certainly never wear leather, a product formed from the skin of a slaughtered beast.

To the militant vegan, I am worse than a meat eater, because although I subscribe to the idea of animal welfare, I still participate in the exploitation of animals. I enjoy yoghurt and from time to time, grilled cheese. I am also partial to blue vein cheese since reading that scientists researching the blue mould discovered it to be a powerhouse of beneficial bio-medical compounds, ones that protect the heart, arteries and brain. My body says yes, but my mind is full of hesitation.

There are close to 7 million dairy cows in NZ and let’s face it, they pay the bills. Besides producing some 18 billion litres of milk every season, they are a major source of meat protein. Every year these several million cows give birth igniting the lactation process. Male calves are a by-product and some are kept for rearing into beef but most, along with undersized and unhealthy females (quality females are kept as replacement dairy stock), make up the mega bobby calf cull. The 2013-2014 season saw around two million four-day-old calves being turned into veal, sausages, meat patties and pet food.

As for mum, her life is fast and hard.  While she is offering an economic return she is well-cared for, but the moment she falters, she is dog meat. A cow can live for 20 years; the Kiwi cow averages 5-7 years. Besides pet food, she makes a profitable hamburger.

But she’s just a dumb cow?

I began my working life on the family dairy farm. The attitude was appalling and I look back on my education with a degree of horror. I am ashamed of the harm I caused on the road to my enlightenment and I especially regret the Camel Incident.

She was a unique beast, named for her height and posture. I always thought that by cow standards she was a genius. She could open the gates precisely designed to be cattle proof and she had no fear of the electric fence. The method of the NZ farmer is to start putting aside pasture in late summer so that by winter there is a surplus of fresh feed to sustain the herd through winter when grass growth is at its slowest.

The paddock is divided in portions by a strand of electric wire of which the cows are totally in awe. Not her – she knew that a whole paddock of fresh grass was for her and her alone, all for the price of a couple of uncomfortable shocks.

She decided that we were friends and every time she saw me she rushed over to a bunt, a cuddle (this is a creature that weighs close to a tonne and is more than capable of crushing a man), a tickle and a good cleaning. The cow tongue is rough and smelly, her saliva copious but her affection real and heart-felt, to the point of procreation. I learned to be very wary when she was on heat. The affections of this massive beast were frightening. Imagine an avalanche trying to mount you.

She was fat, unproductive and troublesome. She had to go.

I begged for her life, but Dad insisted, “That’s the way it is, any exceptions will only cost us money and set a bad example.” Most cows need to be forced onto the truck but she ambled up the ramp, ever curious, looking for adventure.

An hour later she was at the works and her life at an end. I lost faith in the farm after that but it wasn’t the trigger for my vegetarianism, which had come years before in a way I can’t adequately explain.

I was standing in line with a group of Hindu boys out from Fiji for a Kiwi education. It was a Catholic boys’ school and the fees these boys provided helped to pay the bills. Regardless of the economic benefit they allowed, they were treated with disdain; preached about Catholic truth and were directed to the end of the line in the dining hall awaiting special meals. This is where I found myself one night, late and at the end of the queue watching these quiet boys receiving their meals, mixed veges and a few deep fried potatoes. It was sparse and there was no meat. I had never seen such a thing. When my turn came I asked the cook about this strange dinner. “Hindus are vegetarian,” he said, cigarette dangling from his lips (it was the 1970s), “they don’t eat meat.” A light went off in my head and I said without further thought, “I’ll have what they’re having.”

I didn’t go full on vegetarian right away, it was a process, but a genie had awakened in me and there was no going back. Chicken, beef, sheep and pig were right off the menu but fish took a little longer. This went south after I read an article on fish intelligence. It seems that by large they experience pain and pleasure on a scale discernible enough to rate alongside whales, dolphins and octopuses and I could not eat a creature that enjoyed living.

I explained to animal rights campaigner and vegan Lynley Tulloch that when I eat cheese I give a thought for the cows that sacrifice so much for my sustenance. She tells me this is a cop out and in a way she is right. I do it salve my conscience because I do feel guilty.

I could give up dairy but I don’t want to. If I could source affordable, sustainable and readily available product I would.

There is a retired couple in the deepest darkest Wairarapa who have created a cottage industry from a cow they rescued. She became fallow, and a fallow cow produces no milk. They bought her from the farmer (she was waiting to be sent for slaughter), offered her care and lots of quality feed and she got pregnant again. Years later she is the backbone of a small herd, an outcome almost unheard off the in NZ dairy system. Sadly, their cheese is priced way beyond my means.

Veganism and vegetarianism are not new phenomenons. There have always been a minority who have urged their fellows to act more thoughtfully toward those creatures over which we have dominion, the most notable being the Jain, a religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. The Jain faith, once the dominant religion of the Indian sub-continent, dates back some seven centuries BC, giving some indication of how old the animal rights movement actually is. More closer to our own time, Mohammed, the founder of Islam, urged a more compassionate attitude toward the beasts that toil and provide for us.

Some people see past the conditioned norms that tell us that animals are lesser and not subject to the same feelings that humans are. Cutting edge neuroscience, informed observation and Facebook are teaching us differently. The latter in particular is a veritable goldmine of videos showing us pigs, dogs, cats and goats playing, bonding and doing goofy things. These videos that remind us that emotions like love, joy, and the need for companionship are universal traits, ones not confined to the human sphere.

In 2011, an estimated 58 trillion chickens,1.4 trillion pigs and 300 million cattle were slaughtered internationally.

Pigs are smart and rate better on intelligence tests than dogs, humanity’s erstwhile best friend; and cattle, while they may be incapable of operating a digger or driving a laptop, possess emotional qualities not a hundred miles removed from their human masters, but what about chickens?

Chicken was the first meat I happily gave away. Unlike a carefully butchered joint of meat that bares little resemblance to the creature it is carved from, the chicken maintains its complete shape and form after slaughter and all I could see (this is before my vegetarianism), was bone, sinew and bits of blood, all of which caused me some degree of unease, a hint of the latent and as yet undiscovered proclivity within my nature.

But it’s just a chicken?

The orthodox view is that a chicken is a pretty basic kind of intelligence, again an assumption that is not borne out by the latest research into bird intelligence. Okay, so maybe chickens don’t rate as high as the clever crows of New Caledonia or parrots like the kea, but they are clever wee beasties with reasonably complex emotional lives.

I did not realise this when my wife turned up with two red shavers a couple of years back. Katie and Christina became a subject of intense fascination as they followed me about and around the garden, scratching and pecking and speaking in sympathetic tones that spoke of reassurance and contentment.

Because they were so thoroughly rough on the garden I decided to build them a run. It was as large as your average backyard (big enough, I thought, to satisfy their wandering nature), and built to contain.

Their first hours locked away were consumed by investigation as they poked and prodded for a way through the defences. Within two hours they were out, thus setting the pattern that was to follow. For every gap I bridged, they found another escape route. Despite my best efforts I have never been able to imprison them as intended.

Chooks are creatures of habit. They leave their perch at a precise time in the morning and return to it at the same time every night. At 6am it is their habit to enter the house through the cat door and seek us out in bed. They like to cuddle up close and chat for a while before going about the routine of their day.

The other thing that amazed me about these remarkable girls is the way they quickly established a hierarchy within our larger family of cats and guinea pigs. The cats were left in no doubt who ruled the roost and to our immense surprise they became the guardians of peace, tolerating none of the occasional cat fights, rushing into conflagrations and quickly and assuredly prising apart the warring parties. How could I ever consider even eating these girls? I wouldn’t and I couldn’t because I love them, and in their own way, I know they love and more importantly, trust me.

I have come to the conclusion that my mysterious vegetarian proclivity is based on my natural empathy toward all living creatures, my choice and not one I care to impart on others. I am a pragmatic kind of non-meat eater that accepts that not everyone feels as I do. My only wish is for a more enlightened attitude toward the creatures that serve us. Here I quote Temple Gradin, a mildly autistic animal behavioural scientist whose special talent is her ability to see the world from the point of view of the animals she studies. Her work has revolutionised the design of slaughterhouses, making them more “compassionate” toward the beast walking towards it demise.

She says: “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.”

I will leave the last word to Tommy Lee, drummer with Motley Crue and occasional meat eater, who said in a recent interview with me: “We do some pretty shitty things to animals and it isn’t right.”

Animals slaughtered worldwide 2011:

Chickens: 58 trillion

Cattle: 300 million

Ducks: 2 trillion

Pigs: 13 trillion

Goats: 430 million

Turkeys: 3 trillion

Sheep: 517 million

Biggest meat Consuming Countries:

1. Luxembourg 136 kilograms per capita.

2. United States 125 kilograms of meat per capita.

3. Australia 121 kilograms per capita.

4. New Zealand 115 kilograms per capita.

5. Spain 110 kilograms per capita.