Archive for the ‘Life’ 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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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.

 

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)

Cats I Have Known.

April 27, 2017

 

 

Tum Tums, T-Two and Sara.

Tum Tums would jump up onto the bed with a distinct “hello, here I am” kind of chirrup and land in a precise sitting position right side front paw already at his mouth ready for a grooming session. It was a deftly choreographed move and the family, gathered about chatting or listening to bedtime stories, would stop and say as one “Tummies” and sometimes even applaud. Tums was nothing if not cool. I think he would have taken a bow had it occurred to him.

One day a huge swelling appeared on the side of his face. The vet said it was a cancerous tumour and just like that his time was up. He had come to us via Sara, a little black cat with a white bib who showed up out of nowhere one day. She was a feral, barely an adult and heavily pregnant. She was distressed and looking for reassurance. I opened the door and in she came, hissing me off as I reached down to touch her.

She found a bed and a couple of hours later a flood of kittens emerged. When they were weaned she left us and but the kittens stayed with the exception of T-Two. The rest were boys and they hassled her a bit. There was a brief scuffle one morning and off she fled out the door and we never saw her again. Fortunately she’d been spayed so at least she wouldn’t be having kittens.

Sara popped back a for visit every four to six months and might stay for as long as a month if we were lucky. She’d announce her arrival with a very specific call aimed squarely at me and after a voracious loves session that included lots of kneading and heads butts she would settle down to feed.

I was late to marriage and never adjusted to sharing a bed so had my own room. Some of the cats slept with Jane, some with me. When Sara was about the other cats fled (to the warmth and safety of Jane’s bed). She wanted me all to herself and made no bones about it. Nights would be filled with her cuddling close and purring up a storm. Then she would was off. We left that house a few years later during one of her away periods so I have no idea what became of her.

 

Ben.

Ben was a survivor. We lived just off a main road and every cat we had was killed on this road, with the exception of Ben. His wanderlust pulled him in the other direction, down the farm and far from the prescient danger of speeding cars. He was a lean and rangy type who was loving and affectionate at home but elusive down on the farm. I would often see him prowling about along the hedgerows, sometimes impossibly far from the house, and thrilled at the sight would call out his name but he was having none of it running off to the hide at any approach.

When my male cousins came down from the city to stay during school holidays I worried that Ben might fall prey to their habit of shooting anything that moved. They answered my pleas to be careful by promising to kill him on sight. I was an anxious and sensitive kid and they were boys bought up to be proper boys and were rather callous with it. I was always relieved when they went home and Ben was left to do his roaming unmolested.

He liked to sit on the carpet and pull himself along with his front paws giving himself a good bum scratching in the process. It drove Mum to distraction. “Ben” she would hiss while clapping her hands, “dirty boy”. We got him when I was about ten and when I was thirty Mum phoned me and asked if I would take him to the vets to be ‘put down’. He had lost control of his bowels and was becoming ever more confused. “I can’t do it,” she said. It was bloody sad but at least he made it where the rest had failed.

 

Gee Bees and Little Kirry.

Charlotte named most of our cats and Gee Bees was no exception. A derivative of ‘ginger balls’ it was the perfect fit, as was the oft-quoted “Get off the bloody road Gee Bees”. Yeah, he had no idea and we could often be found doing whatever we could to scare him out of this habit. He was a rescue kitten and arrived with a tortoise shell tabby who ended up as Little Kirry. When we eventually moved to the country we found ourselves a magnet for feral strays and before we knew there were cats everywhere.

Gee Bees hated the interlopers and disappeared. We discovered him months later living with some elderly neighbours at the other end of the road. He was fat and happy and they doted on him. For years after we would call in to say hi and he never forgot us rushing out to present his belly from his custom made cat bed and bowl full of specially prepared food. He did well. Little Kirry was another story. Rescued from a household of raucous boys she was shell-shocked and easily startled and forever remained elusive preferring to live outside in all weather coming in only to feed.

She relaxed somewhat the years passed and was in her own way loving and affectionate. She had a particular way of standing up on her back legs to greet a head scratch, but nothing more than that thanks. No picking her up and certainly never any kissing. She loved her food, especially ‘wet’ food from a can. Anything else was meet with an expression that can only be described as disappointed. She always seemed to be at pains to say “Look, I don’t want to seem ungrateful but…….”. She was quite fat when she was caught short by a tractor mowing down the long grasses in the paddock beyond the house. It was a sad end for a cat who turned out to be a gentle if wounded little soul.

 

Bijou, Katie, Boy, Wednesday and Thursday.

I was given Bijou as a gift. She was a Burmese and before I had her fixed she was mated with another Burmese and had a litter. I kept a little female and the rest went off to good homes. Bijou was hit by a car while still very young but Katie managed a long life. She had two litters and I kept Boy from the first and Wednesday and Thursday from the second. They spent their entire lives as a close-knit family unit, sleeping, eating and socialising together.

Katie was something of a control freak and used to like torturing her family with little games the best of which was this thing she did at feeding time. I would put the food out and she would stand over it looking ‘nonchalant as all hell’ as she licked a paw with studied disinterest. Bit by bit the family would inch closer until they were almost in reach of the prize and then Katie would act. A big swipe and everyone would scatter as if their lives depended upon it. When she was ready she would feed and thus sated leave them to it and under no illusion about who the boss was.

Boy was especially devoted to his mother and was the first to die at about sixteen years of age. Wednesday who had a distinct and rather amusing greeting meow died a year later. Thursday who was just about the prettiest cat one might imagine was a superb hunter who was undone by cancer not long after her sister. Katie went blind and lost her faculties and I delayed having her ‘put-down’ through a misguided sense of loyalty and love. Still, she was just about as old as I cat might get when I finally let go. She was always waiting at the top of the driveway when I got home from work and greeted me like I was the last great thing. Who could ask for more?

 

Noggie and Pej.

I was driving to work one morning when I noticed a little black shape on the very edge of motorway. I drove on for bit before coming to the conclusion that it was probably a kitten and taking a deep breath decided to be late for work and spun the car about. It was a busy road and an onerous task but I got back the kilometre or so and sure it enough it was a wee kitten about the right size for the palm of my hand. I put it down on the car floor and phoned Jane and said I was on my way back with a new cat and when we got home he drank his body weight in warm milk. He was hungry and would remain that way for the rest of his life.

Winston, Jane and I proposed all manner of names but Charlotte (as usual) got it exactly right and Noggie it was. He was a complaint cat, the sort that would put up with being dressed in dolls clothes and pushed about in pram for more time than was perfectly reasonable. He decided that Jane was going to be his favourite and that was that. He was devoted her in the same way Peej (another feral kitten we had found and nurtured) was devoted to Charlotte.

I have this abiding mental image of Peej following Charlotte about the lawn with his tail high in the air. His loyalty to her was absolute and though Noggie tended more to broad socialising when push came to shove it all came down to Jane. If she left the house just for a minute one would hear the thump as he jumped off her bed to see where she was going. By the time he found her she was often on her way back in and a comedy of errors ensued as they collided on intersecting paths.

It got really crazy if she got in the car and went off somewhere for any period of time. After collecting an item of her clothing, usually a bra, he would haul it about the house and yard howling with grief before falling into a heap and tangling himself up into a knot with said item. A lot of time was spent detangling Noggie. It was both funny and tragic.

Once he managed to pull her heavy bath towel through the cat door and drag up and down the driveway for two onerous hours. When she got home he was wrecked from exhaustion and went to bed for the rest of the day and by bed I mean the middle of the kitchen floor right under Jane’s feet, tongue hanging out and oblivious to the mayhem he was causing.

To say he was fat is an understatement. He eventually reached the stage where he could no longer clean his bum so we had to clean it for him. We put him on various diets but it made no difference. Otherwise he was the undisputed king of the household and would take each new arrival under his wing and show them the ropes. He was sociable, affable and dominant. If ever one of the kids gave up their spot on the prized seat in front of the TV he would pounce on it and no amount of “bloody Noggie” and pulling would shift him. He would put his ears back and dig in his claws and that was that. He knew his place. Jane was first, he was second. No argument.

He increasing bulk eventually reduced his mobility and I remember watching him size up the kitchen bench one day from the floor. He crouched, put his ears back, waggled his bottom, checked his position, rechecked, made a couple of half-hearted practice flexes then got up and walked away. He knew his limits. Sadly he suffered a congenital bladder condition which would cause him great pain and the vet warned us that his life would be cut short. It was and it was a great loss to us all. Noggie was by and away the most distinct feline I have ever known.

 

Barty.

I found Barty right down the end of farm. He was tiny, ginger and starving. Rickets had warped his bones and he had no strength to resist me, not even the semblance of a hiss. I was living with my paternal grandparents at the time and grandma, long denied a cat by grandpa who was not a fan, took to him immediately and with a bit of feeding and nursing he was soon growing and glowing. I wanted him to be mine but he had other ideas and for the next eighteen years followed grandma about everywhere. Relatives nicknamed him ‘Sylvia’s Shadow’.

After grandpa died Sylvia and Barty went to live in a small unit in town where he slept in her lap by day and at the end of her bed by night. When she went shopping he walked (limped is more like it – the rickets had maimed him for life) with her to the end of the driveway where he waited until she returned. He died of old age four years before she met the same fate. In her hundredth year she told me that she missed him and dreamt about him every night. In the dream she would get back from the supermarket and there he was waiting at the end of the driveway. “I thought you were dead” she said relieved as she bent down to stroke his head. Then she would wake up and go about her day alone and disappointed.

 

Epilogue.

There have been many cats over the years. Little companions with a fierce emotional intelligence and personality variations as distinct as the flavour of each passing day and I remember them all. Annabel, Georgie-Nins, Wendy, Sammy, Cody, Old Sara, Blue. Fierce predators with an independent disposition, funny, amusing, affectionate and loving. Easy to care for with remarkably human centric ways and methods, their short and fragile lives are their only real drawback, that and the grief we endure when we lose them over and again. I am fifty-four now and there will be no more cats for me. I do not want to got through all that again. I have my memories and that is enough.

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.