Monday, March 29, 2004

Thursday 25 March, midnight, having finally gotten everything packed into the car...

I was a little anxious about taking the car onto the ferry, it being the first time I'd done it. Would I get there in time, find the right place, have the right ticket, park in the right spot? Everything went ok at first - I got to the ferry terminal, checked in, and parked in the right queue. But I was so focused on doing the right things that I neglected to give the attendant my boarding pass when it was our line's turn to drive up the on-ramp. He gave an anguished yelp as I eased past in second gear, and I braked guiltily. He wandered over to my window, shook his head, held up his stack of plastic orange boarding passes and said "I've been doing this for fifteen years, and everybody always gives me one of these"

The tiny number of people on the ferry were an odd assortment of creatures, like refugees from a socially-inflicted gulag. Examples: a short, thin, bearded, fiftysomething man in short shorts and a cardigan, his legs covered in tatoos. An extremely obese family, shuffling along with difficulty, like reluctantly migrant tree sloths.

"Cruising on the inter-islander" is totally a misnomer. A great viewing platform on a clear day for the Kaikouras and Marlborough Sounds the ferry may be, but otherwise it's threadbare, draughty and uncomfortable. The Railways tearooms of travel. People travelling on the ferry are almost always predominantly weary or sleepy, yet there seems to have been some kind of "sleep-disallowing" clause in the original interior design spec. Serried rows of thin, stiff-backed chairs joined together with metal arms which dig into your back if you try and curl up in any way. I was so exhausted that in the end I took my pillow and lay down on the floor between the seats. I managed almost two hours' fitful nap there, as the boat gently pitched and yawed. Surprisingly, no one came along and told me I was creating a fire risk.

Picton 4:30 am and the cars rolled off the ferry, heading south in a procession of headlights. At Blenheim the lit-up strip of 24/7 service stations signalled blessed relief for my serotonin-deprived nerve endings - I was suffering from the feeling that William Gibson nicely calls "soul lack" in his otherwise banal novel Pattern Recognition. I drained a bottle of V and there were the first suggestions of a return of appetite as I ate at least the first half of my microwaved beef and cheese burger with some hunger.

I struggled out through the Awatere Valley and along the coast; it felt like the car was handling badly with all the extra stuff in it, yawing awakwardly like a pregnant fish. In hindsight, though, I think it was just my atrophied reflexes creating the handlingproblems.

I stopped at Ohau Point seal colony to watch the sun slip over the horizon; the seals were all asleep, apart from the infants, which splashed about in rockpools near the shore - the seal version of morning cartoons, I suppose. All the adults were totally crashed out on the beach. I looked down at them and thought: I'm up before you.

On the outskirts of Kaikoura I pulled over in a little park and took an hours nap in what may be my strangest sleeping position ever - my body still pretty firmly in the driver's seat, my head on a pillow on the passenger's seat. Despite the contortions, I droped straight off.

After that the neurotransmitter levels seemed to have regenerated somewhat and the rest of the drive was better. The Celica chewed up the Hunderlees, threw itself willingly into a 3rd gear 125 km/h to overtake a recalcitrant shuttle bus which refused to go in the slow lane, and in no time we were in the picturesque dry hills of Cheviot.

Coming down into the Waipara Valley, I got a bit of a shock to see the rows and rows of new vine plantings, still attached to their fenceposts and plastic, spread out beside the highway. The eighteen vineyards in Waipara have always been fairly unobtrusive, tuckd away on hill slopes or river terraces. But now Montana has bought a stake there, and the landscape is being transformed.

It saddens me a little. I've always loved the look of the Waipara Valley; coming from Amberley in summer the road suddenly dips down into the heat haze and an epic sweep opens up between the Teviotdale Hills and the stacked ranges of the Southern Alps. Everyone is always so eager to define New Zealand as green and lush and bountiful; in my contrariness I've always treasured the corners that are dry, gravelly and bitter. I like the fact that good wine grows in Waipara; I just don't necessarily want to see my dry hills buried in grapes.

The same thing has happened in the Cromwell Basin. There used to just be a few apricot orchards in a pit of gravel. It had solitude and arid romance. Then they put in the lake, and now the whole area is buried in pinot noir vineyards - sort of Burgundy-on-the-Clutha. It's nice enough, but something has gone forever.

I joined the southbound traffic at Amberley and wended my way into and around the Christchurch outskirts. At 10:30 am I pulled up in front of my parent's place at Rolleston. I was pleased to be there, but a little miffed that I was the first to arrive. With the four prodigal children (well, three of us at least are prodigal) reuniting for one brief weekend, I would have preferred to be the *last* oneto sweep dramatically in. Instead, waiting for the others to show up from Adelaide and Miami, I felt almost like a homebody.

Friday, March 19, 2004

This is my Amazon reviewer profile. I have a current ranking of 325, 289. I guess I need to write some more reviews, especially of more recent releases. Perhaps some books. I also need people to click "yes, I found this review useful".

The only way is up.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

This is a relatively interesting meditation on the relationship between Science and Poetry by Paul A. Cantor - but, of course, I have to criticize it. Through discussion of how various Romantic writers engaged with the science and technology of their day, Cantor tries to show that literature is needed to flesh out the consequences and meaning of technological advances, otherwise:

"As [Shelley's] portrait of Victor Frankenstein suggests, such a liberated science may lead to a new kind of slavery, as human beings lose control of the products of their technological imagination, and perhaps end up serving the very forces that were meant to serve them"

This is a trite prognosis. I talked about it in my oral presentation on "avances tecnologicos" in Spanish class last year; I believe in the introduction I rhetorically asked whether "...nos volveremos esclavos a nuestras propias herramientas?" (will we become slaves to our own tools?)

My conclusion in that discussion was that the unpredictability of the consequences of technology, and the lack of control its creators have on its development, can have positive as well as negative results. For instance, the internet, developed by the military-industrial complex to serve its own purposes, has ended up being an immensely liberating force in the lives of many people. Technology developed from wave/particle physics resulted in the atomic bomb, but also the laser eye surgery which has corrected my chronic short sight.

Canton argues that literature can "help out" science by imagining the human consequences of technological developments. Bollocks. Literature provides insights into what it means to be human, and into our dreams and fears. The Prometheus/Frankenstein myth is about fear of technology itself, and is a variation on the Garden of Eden myth, which is about fear of knowledge. Specific science fiction writers tend to reflect the fears of their own age, and mostly get details of the future wrong. You don't see Philip K Dick being invited to sit on MIT's artificial intelligence development committee, and H G Wells was never an advisor to NASA.

It's right to consider the ramifications beyond the success or failure of one's immediate technological tinkerings. But you don't need to be a poet to look at the big picture and consider the wider human and ethical issues, which in the end is all we can ever do.

Why I am bothering splitting hairs over this article? I'm slightly irritated by the assumption that there ever could be an "unbridgeable gulf between science and poetry", as if they didn't inevitably cross-fertilize one another through the mediation of that swamp of paradigms, prejudices and ideologies we call "culture". But I think what's really bothering me is the suspicion that what this is really about is "the role that literature can play for science". Despite appearing to make a robust defence of poetry, Canton in fact appears to be cravenly buying into the view that all endeavours should have some kind of instrumentalist justification in relation to science. In the positivism-crazed 20th century, many disciplines desperately tried to show either that they were sciences themselves (psychology, sociology) or that they could "usefully serve" science (analytic philosophy, by clarifying concepts). Literature, it's suggested here can help by imagining the consequences of technological developments.

It can't. But it doesn't need to. Literature helps us grapple with what the hell it's all about (at least some of the time reaching into the grab bag of current scientific facts for its material; Martin Amis' London Fields is a good example). It needs no further justification or reconciliation - end of story.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Desert Island Discs Revisited
I'm submitting this to my work newsletter as a follow-up to my previous Desert Island Discs. But I think it might be a bit long...

When I had my first go at picking my Desert Island Discs, I got quite a few comments along the lines of “you have rather…eclectic tastes”, some of them accompanied by slightly sceptical expressions which suggested I might perhaps be a bit of an obscurantist tosser. I hastened to admit that yes, I’d probably played up the eclecticism a bit, and that nos. 4-20 on my list would be dominated by white guys playing guitars. So, to set the record straight and because, dammit, other people have had two goes, here are my “alternative” DIDs.

Honourable mentions (and these are all white male guitar bands, too): The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses, REM – Life’s Rich Pageant/Green, The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy, Counting Crows – August and Everything After, Suede – Dog Man Star, Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted, Radiohead – The Bends, U2 – The Unforgettable Fire/The Joshua Tree

Big Country – The Crossing

The greatest band many people have never heard of. Formed in 1983 by Scottish singer/songwriter Stuart Adamson, Big Country were often grouped with contemporaries U2 and Simple Minds as part of a new wave of Celtic rock, but their sound and style were truly unique. Driving, layered drums were mixed with soaring Celtic melodies from the twin lead guitars of Adamson and Bruce Watson; the songs vignettes from Scottish history, yearning romantic ballads or lyrical elegies about industrial decay in Scotland and northern England. Their debut album The Crossing was huge in both the UK and USA, and follow-ups Steeltown and The Seer also produced a number of hit singles. In all they made eight studio albums up until 1999, but never recovered the extraordinary creativity of the 1983-86 period.

Big Country fans the world over remain convinced that the band produced some of the most original, passionate and moving rock music ever made and that if other people would only listen, not only would they become converts, but the world would be a better place. No other music has ever provoked such a visceral and instant response in me.

The best known Big Country lyric, from their signature song, “In a Big Country”, says:
“In a big country, dreams stay with you/like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside – stay alive”.
Tragically, Stuart Adamson didn’t take his own advice. After battling drinking problems for many years, he was found to have committed suicide in a Hawaii hotel room in 2002.

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run

There are a lot of misperceptions about Bruce Spingsteen. Many of these are based on an awareness dominated by 1984’s Born in the USA (he’s been releasing albums since 1972) and a view that that album is somehow a piece of flag-waving jingoism (it’s not). But while Born in the USA and subsequent albums have plenty of merit, it’s in Springsteen’s 70s catalogue that the real genius is to be found. Before the smoothed-over, commercial production of Born in the USA, Springsteen and his E-Street Band created a warm, joyous wall of sound in which horns, piano and organ wrestled for space with the drums and guitars (think Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”). Lyrically, Springsteen had a snappiness and verbosity which would embarrass many a hip-hop artist. How’s this from “For You”:

“Princess cards she sends me/with her regards/Her bar room eyes shine vacancy/to see her you gotta look hard”

The pinnacle of this period was 1975’s Born to Run, which achieved the near-impossible task of living up to the hype (Springsteen had been described as “the future of rock and roll” and appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek). It opens with “Thunder Road”, which is one of my favourite and most-played songs ever. It also happens to be one of Nick Hornby’s favourite songs, and he dedicates several pages in 31 Songs to an articulate defense of it and Springsteen himself. He has considerably more space and talent at his disposal than I, so I highly recommend checking that out for further elaboration on the topic.

The Pixies – Trompe le Monde

Goodness me – I’m quite surprised that this has got in here. On another day, one of the other discs from the “honourable mentions” would have supplanted it. It’s not even the Pixies album rated most highly by informed opinion – their debut Surfer Rosa or perhaps Doolittle are normally considered their finest moments. But because I’m writing this today, and because I’m not constrained by informed opinion, Trompe le Monde sneaks in there for several reasons. Reason one is the supercharged version of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” – a nasty and sexy surf guitar anthem which sounds like it has petrol fumes blowing out the back of it. Reason two: “Planet of Sound” – a lesson in how to make a song that’s evil and horrible yet totally groovy and poppy at the same time – with lyrics like “I got to somewhere renowned/for its canals and colour of red”. Reason three – and this is the clincher – is “The Sad Punk”, and the lyric which I consider is the coolest, like, evah. After a couple of mad, million miles an hour verses, the song completely changes and there’s a long, lilting guitar lead out in which Black Francis sings:

“And evolving from the sea/would not be too much time for me/to walk beside you in the sun…”

Why do I like this so much? Who knows. But I think it has something to do with expressing something sentimental , corny even, without ever losing the façade of sunglassed cool – which somehow makes it seem more sincere. Or because it produces a genuinely surprising image, and fulfills the function of hyperbole at its best – to provide insight into the literally inexpressible.
There you go – now I’ve ruined it.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Went to see “The Spanish Apartment” last night in Brooklyn with Paul and some of his frisbee friends – my god, it was like somebody had made a movie of my life. It captured the working/studying/travelling abroad experience really well – the excitement of the mix of nationalities, where you swap between languages but there’s always someone who speaks your own, and people are from all over but are all young, educated and middle class – so it’s exotic and familiar all at once; the “alien, virgin” city becoming just as (or more) familiar than home once you’ve crossed the same street “10, 50, 10,000 times”; the painful tribulations of finding your way around which become amusing adventures in retrospect; the romantic liasions – the opportunism, infatuations, bitter jealousies, tradeoffs and regrets at lost opportunities; the realisation that national stereotypes are actually mostly well-founded (apart from in your case – you’re a citizen of the world); the desolation of going home, like waking up from a warm crazy dream to the cold blankness of reality where nothing’s changed and no one understands.

The setting in Barcelona was just right, too – universal but distinctive. It brought it all back for me – la Rambla, Parc Güel, la Sagrada Familia, Placa Real, the waterfront, the bars, la Barria Gótica, the palms, the sun, broad avenues and tight alleyways, the dirt and rubbish, the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the details were just perfect – the gormless yet know-it-all American from Santa Fe who goes on about “this crazy experience at the Taj Mahal” and plays “No Woman No Cry” on his guitar (on the island in the middle of La Rambla, the main street of Barcelona, between the jewellery stalls and the people creating sci-fi space scenes from spray paint, there is an average of about two guys on every block with acoustic guitars singing “No Woman No Cry”).

The plot was a bit by-numbers – the mandatory madcap dramatic irony set piece, “everyone ending up in the same place with different ideas about what the hell’s going on” – was contrived, but I still laughed till my sides hurt.

The end wasn’t realistic either – Xavier runs away from the terrifying prospect of his job as a faceless bureaucrat, “to write”. That’s not how it goes – or at least it’s more complicated than that (you’ve got to cop at least three years as a faceless bureaucrat first). But hell, it was a lightweight film. And maybe that *is * how things work in France…

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

It's a little ironic that I've managed to get everything set to leave town just at that point when I'd got somewhere in that long and incremental struggle to "settle in". This state of being, which is not at all the same as "settling down", is partly about having friends and knowing people. But also something subtler about being comfortable in the sociogeography, about knowing where to go and what to do and how to get things done.

I had my hair cut the other day and there was some mutual sense of regret when it was established that I wouldn’t be back in the medium term. As I was going Natasha said “well, it’s been a pleasure cutting your hair over the last year and a half”. I went a little red and said something stupid like “well, thank you for working on it so assiduously”. They gave me the salon email address and told me to send photos (here’s me looking a little straggly on the Inca trail, probably not using enough product; here’s me in the Amazon, six days without a wash…)

I had to inform my ophthalmologist that I wouldn’t be able to make the six-month check up on my laser surgery. There was even a smidgen of regret when I told my dentist I couldn’t make a repeat appointment with the hygienist. I’m having to cut short my fledgling relationship with my preferred auto mechanics. A little tailor’s shop on Willis St may miss my occasional need to have pairs of pants adjusted. The library will definitely miss their regular income from my overdue books.

There’s also my salsa class, soccer team and university Spanish department to farewell before I even get on to flatmates, workmates, and those rare beasts, non context-specific friends.

The irony is that some of these people are saying things like (slightly wistfully) “oh, so we won’t have you round for much longer” and “we’ll have to go out for drinks” when for the majority of the time I’ve known them it’s seemed that going out for drinks, or even having a conversation outside the designated context, just wouldn’t be the done thing.

Why has it taken so long to get to this stage? Partly because for at least the first year I was here I was emotionally somewhere else, quite convinced that I would be out of here bien prontito. But also because it just is hard – it really takes quite a long time to settle in somewhere without the context of university or backpacking. A moderately pretty girl who isn’t cripplingly shy can probably cut the time in half or even a quarter, but for the average person I would say it takes at least a year. Is New Zealand worse than elsewhere? I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure. Wellington, for all its claims to be vibrant, cosmopolitan, transient and bohemian, is actually supercilious, cliquey, insular, and monolithically family-oriented. Though it’s better than Christchurch - I used to comment that Wellington had been voted New Zealand’s “most liveable town” but that I would replace the “most” with “only”. In truly big cities there’s a shared anonymity amongst the crowds which makes you feel less like an outsider. But I suspect it’s still just as hard, if not more so, to get to know anyone.

Now I’m leaving I’m getting these twinges of fondness, and wistfulness about things I haven’t got round to doing (like replacing my curtains, getting a decent computer, moving closer to town, going on more tramps, taking up cycling, revamping my wardrobe, doing French classes, setting up a stand-alone web site, starting another band).

This precooked nostalgia undeniably has something to do with the fact that I’m escaping. It’s always easier to feel fond about something (or someone) that you’re not bound or committed to.

I remember a character in a novel by “young adults” author S E Hinton saying something like “there are people who go; and there are people who stay”. I’ve always thought I’m one of the people who go (though I’m a Cancer; I’m supposed to be one of the people who stay). As a lazy and - I would have to admit – rather fearful person, it’s the one thing that’s always got me to beat the ennui and timidity – moving on.

Monday, March 08, 2004

How sad is this: the great excitement today is that it’s a sunny, almost windless day, even up in Brooklyn, and this gives me the opportunity to indulge in an orgy of clothes and bedding washing. Not only is the weather improbably good; no one else is home and the clothes line is empty. I’ve already washed and hung out pretty much my entire wardrobe and am now moving on to my sheets, pillowcases, duvet and duvet cover. It gives me an almost physical pleasure – since they closed down the Brooklyn launderette, being able to dry our washing within one day is a rare and precious thing. All things are relative.

Meanwhile, I seem to have now gone almost 48 hours without a cup of coffee, which must be something of a record. It’s been more inadvertent than anything; I ran out of plunger coffee last Sunday and didn’t buy any more. Then yesterday I slept in late, was somewhat hungover, and faffed around the house until I made it down to the Brooklyn shops at tea time to get fish and chips. So I find myself this morning still coffee-less. I certainly feel like I want some, but the world’s not ending yet. Last night I even went pretty much straight to sleep. So maybe there’s something in this “limiting your caffeine intake” thing…

I try and trace the beginnings of my truly massive coffee habit, and I suspect it dates back to the last carnival I worked at in Miami before coming back to New Zealand. Back then, James and Rick got me hooked on the café cubano; we would buy "una colada" and drink it in thimblefuls. Café cubano is made by pouring a quadruple-shot espresso into a cup directly onto several spoonfuls of sugar. They call it “liquid cocaine”, and it did have almost miraculous powers of rejuvenating the most beat and trash-tired carnival worker. Even just prior to that, in Guatemala, I can recall enjoying my morning coffee, but not feeling the need to have another and another, like I do now at work. I could maybe blame the carnival experience for the subconscious certainty that what I need if I’m feeling listless and jaded is just one more cup. But I suspect the real reason for the compulsion to chain-drink coffee is the crushing ennui created by your common-and-garden sedentary job. Coffee assuages this; it provides an instant little narcotic kick, gives you an excuse to get out of your chair and go for a (purposeful) walk, and it’s something to pick up and put in your mouth from time to time. I do usually try and make 1 or 2 pm the cutoff for coffee ingestion, but what interferes with that resolution is if there’s an afternoon meeting. Meetings are a bit of a bete noire for me; I find I have to bring a cup of coffee as a crutch against the dread and nausea they provoke.

Of course it all goes in a vicious circle. It’s got to the point where not even excessive amounts of exercise will send me quickly to sleep – I lie there physically exahusted with my brain fretting and worrying. About what? It isn’t sure. But it must fret, preferably about several poorly-defined things at once. And then the next day the whole process starts again. I’ve never really considered making a concerted effort to break the cycle, though. Coffee is my friend; I like at least part of how it makes me feel. I’m not sure that cutting down or even cutting it out would transform me into the kind of person who leaps out of bed at 7:00 am and works through their day in a measured, efficient way. There are worthier things to focus my limited supply of will-to-power on.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Orewa speech and all that
I’m really a little saddened by the Government’s so-called “about-face on Maori issues” following the reaction to Don Brash’s Orewa speech. We had moved on too far; we were out of step with public opinion, says Helen Clark. We’re not reacting to polls; we just want to take account of what people are saying…
Leaving aside the disingenuousness of that statement, why is there no reasoned account of why they might have “moved on too far”? What happened, not only to having the courage of one’s convictions, but being prepared to explain how those convictions were formed in the first place? If a government isn’t prepared to give a reasoned defence of its policies, what does that tell us about how they were formed?

Now we have Trevor Mallard combing legislation and departmental policies for “race-based” approaches. Overnight, “need-based not race-based” has become a sort of catch cry, while it has been left to the unlikely voices of the Dominion Post and Sunday Star Times leader writers to point out that any apparently “race-based” targeting in health and education is well and truly justified on the basis of need. But the Government knows that, surely? Didn’t they implement the policies?

What is truly surprising is how easily Brash has been allowed to define the terms of the debate – the first time in my memory that the Opposition has managed to achieve such an advantage over this Goverment. His Orewa speech may have been inflammatory and divisive – but it was certainly rather vague and waffly. Most people who were polled as “supporting Dr Brash” haven’t read the speech itself but were responding to choice soundbites served up by the media (“Brash tells Maori they’re not special”, etc.). Yet instead of calling Brash on the facts and arguments, the Government has thrown itself into an embarrassing retreat based on vague public reaction to a vague speech. Michael Cullen did have a column in the Dominion Post in which he attempted to dispel some of the misunderstandings about the foreshore and seabed (which is a completely different issue from public policy in health and education but has been allowed to be bundled together with them under the heading “Maori Issues”). In general though, there has been precious little attempt to engage in clarification, explanation or debate. This seems to imply one of two things. Either the Government really doesn’t believe its policies are defensible. Or it has an insultingly low opinion of the public’s intelligence. Neither option is particularly inspiring for the citizen and voter.