On critters

A little more exciting than the walk up Mt Kau Kau...
A little more exciting than the walk up Mt Kau Kau…

Prior to, and soon after arriving in the wild west, I received earnest advice on what to do if confronted by a bear, and none of it seemed particularly satisfacory. “Don’t run”. That’s not particularly assuring, it merely eliminates one option. “Cover yourself in faeces”. Whose? Mine? The bear’s? It hardly seems a timely mechanism for avoiding having my head separated from my shoulders by a grizzly mother with PMT. But I was thrilled to be considering my options. PROPER animals to interact with. Over the first five days in Colorado I’ve encountered elk, deer, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, hummingbirds and wildflowers. So far bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes have proven elusive, probably for the best when I’m wearing flip flops, whomever I’m hiking with will have a considerable advantage.

The neighbours over Francoise' back fence

Some of the most enjoyable days of my life have been spent in the outbacks of various nations, and of these some of the very best were horseback rides with my sister. From early evening treks through the “fairy chimneys”, in Cappodoceia, to thrilling canters across unpredictable pastures in Rodez, I’ve found myself in novel environments on noble nags. And I feel linked again to that greater world which lies beyond the human enclosures of Paris, Prague and Budapest. I see one of our largest issues as a species as our separation of ourselves from “nature”. We forget our place within the natural world, that we too are animals, and that  it isn’t the environment that owes us a living. We take, and forget to give. We look at the consequences of our actions and lifestyles without considering their impact on the rest of the world.

Deer below the cabin near Mt Evans

I am not a vegetarian. I’ve cooked beasts (ok, and vegan stews) for a living, and I take too much pleasure from being able to taste anything from any culture. Admittedly this may be tested when I head to Iceland, the home of the rotted shark concoction, Hakari. I’m an omnivore, I was born with incisors for a reason, and I really can’t think of a solid vegan alternative to a spit roast. I don’t see this as arrogance, a placement of myself above the creatures I consume. I see it as an understanding of my position in the food chain, and a respect for a natural order that has existed for several thousand generations. But I make efforts to choose to eat humanely raised and slaughtered animals where possible, and to educate myself further in how my choices affect my environment.

Elk crossing our path near the cabin

Societies that remain somewhat closer to their roots, the aboriginal tribes around the world, still tell the stories of our place within nature. They have a host of cautionary tales about what happens when we forget that we’re linked to the seas, the earth, the whales and the eagles. I think these should be told to more of our children, and that those children should be encouraged to interact with the natural world, rather than fear or distrust it. Through comparing notes with others I have grown to appreciate how fortunate I was to be chased by “horsey girls” across rolling farmland, hearts pumping for so many reasons. To be forced up trees to evade farm dogs, and then squat amongst the branches with my friends, eating Vegemite sandwiches until the canines below found new distractions. Come to think of it, maybe they were just after the yeasty treats. Many of the most exhilarating moments of my life have involved tangling with nature, and I think that these adventures helped me build a respect for the world around me.

Critter 4

Since the various empires of man spread about the world, and eliminated so many barriers to their growth, the arrogance of our species has swollen. And now commerce is placed before all other considerations, by all corporations, some governments and too many citizens. I honestly think it is good for us to understand that we are all part of something greater, that our actions have consequences, and that nothing is forever. The world’s most powerful economies have been rejuvenated by the instigation of wars for too long. If we treat the reversing of our environmental negligence with as much enthusiasm as we do for hunting down mythical weapons of mass destruction, we could eliminate national debts by doing something positive.

I wonder who the Governor of Colorado is…

Walk behind Francoise' home
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On the first three days in Colorado

Dude ranch

I love the idea of the United States of America battling my expectations. It’s the country on which I have the most opinions on, from the least reliable sources, from The Dukes of Hazard, to anything written in New Zealand newspapers. I’ve found that from the few opportunities I’ve had to engage with wandering US citizens, I’ve been left with reassessed opinions and altered prejudices. So how will spending ten weeks based in Colorado, and the resulting experiences, chats and observations, affect my views of this rapidly changing empire? Well, three days in, let’s look at three areas: food, just how many places I recognise, and hospitality.

Until recently my understanding of food culture in the 50 states, was that in general, huge unhealthy meals, and bizarre sounding snacks were king. I imagined travellers would be hard-pressed to find alternatives to chicken wings done 50 ways, corn dogs, and anything where they ask if you’d “like fries with that”. And that when they needed something to stretch overfull bellies between meals, they’d have to order snickerdoodles or Ding Dongs with a straight face. But within hours of arriving in L.A. (and before I had a chance to eat) I had relocated to Boulder, Colorado. This state is an enormous, beautiful, natural playground, and has the lowest levels of obesity and sedentary lifestyle in the nation. I’m prepared to confront other sides to the “what American’s eat” story, but here I’ve been enchanted with the foods, and a passion for “good” eating. The edible options I’ve been tasting and cooking with so far are frequently organic, carefully selected, and genuinely delicious. Mexican ingredients seem to take centre stage (adventurous salsas are a favourite so far), and game foods are far more prevalent than back home. For those who decline flesh, there seems to be substantial vegetarian delights, indeed the predominant incisor despisers are reportedly vegans and raw food zealots. So for now, my US diet has been more healthy, more tasty and contained less high fructose corn syrup than expected. Prejudice adjusted, to be reviewed over my next hundred meals, and after a weigh-in.

We travelled from Boulder to a cabin in the woods near Mount Evans, over memorial weekend (think flags, flag pants, unrelenting patriotism). On the way we passed Red Rocks Ampitheatre (where U2 recorded “Under a Blood Red Sky”) and Dinosaur Ridge, an incredible mecca for Jurassic nerds around the world. The next day I was unexpectedly taken to South Park (the very same), where I walked a section of the Colorado Trail. All of this within a radius of under fifty miles (local slang for 80km). I had no idea just how packed with recognisable locations America would be. What are already entertaining road trips (trailers boasting 80 flavours of jerky, scenery out of Road Runner crossed with any John Wayne Western), become events in themselves, as reference packed as a wander through central London. I’m discovering that this ridiculously huge landscape is fair over flowing with must see, wouldn’t-mind-seeing, and funny-to-note destinations. Ten weeks is looking a little weak, for even one state.

I was warned by a number of people over the years, that Americans were friendly, welcoming and hospitable. So far this is an unadjusted notion. I’ve been humbled by the warmth with which people (three in three days) have welcomed me into their homes. My third and briefest host invited us up for a chat after spying us walking the trail under his mountain perched cabin. John and his friend Eve gave us the grand tour of his self built timber paradise, from the humid greenhouse, to a koi carp pond that frequently hosted bears and other wildlife (evidence provided via an always on “Game Cam” mounted above the fish filled pool). They then plied us with travel tales, local gossip, beer, and a feeling we’re not intruding on their privacy. We walk away not quite sober, with photos of the wild turkeys stalking his garden, slideshow CD’s, and a copy of Eve’s world beating photo of a “sad squirrel”. Bless.

My cautious optimism has been boosted to unbridled enthusiasm by a country which I hadn’t yet visited, because I didn’t know where to start. An opportunity to have my introduction led by Francoise has proven one of my life’s great decisions. She has a truly adventurous heart, and I have already been spoilt with daunting landscapes, fascinating commentaries, and the promise of brewing beer together. It’s always the people that make a country for me, and based on my experience so far America is a beautiful, eclectic country, hopefully finally taking steps towards self reflection. I’m glad I got to meet her now, and I am eager to explore further.

On fatalism versus taking control of your life

Glacial Exploration

I’ve always resisted the idea of fate, of pre-determination. For better or worse I like to think that I have a degree of control in my direction. Take a simple (hopefully universal) example. When I was in Northern Ireland, I frequently used a coin toss to help me make decisions. “Ho Hoooo!” some of you may cry, “That’s fate right there, boy!”, but wait a second. I’d toss the coin, and call tails. And I found that where I may have thought I wasn’t sure about which result I wanted, if the coin toss result felt wrong, then I’d make it “best two out of three”. It was the only way I sometimes found, to determine what my heart was trying to tell me.

I’m not sure what it is that enables/disables people to put their trust in some divine force or energy plotting a path for them through life. I can’t get away from the thought that it’s merely an excuse for not trying to make the right choices, and of course accepting the blame for when you choose poorly.

I have to admit though, that I haven’t always attacked my goals with enough gusto. In hindsight though, that was usually due to misunderstanding what it was I wanted. I was pretty keen on being a Rock God at around 19-21 (ok, maybe 19-35…), so I bought a guitar, learnt a few chords, and joined a band. Over that brief period of attempted musicianship, I put a degree of practice in, but it was the trappings that I was enthused about. There were so many things to master, and growing my hair took considerably less effort than endlessly practicing scales. I realised some time later, that the issue lay within hoping to be a Rock God, rather than wanting to be a musician. Yeah, you got me, I haven’t always been the conscientious, aspiring writer philosopher. I blame my hormones. Bless ’em.

What if we don’t aspire to lofty goals though, are some of us destined to merely support the ambitions of others? It is possible in societies with relatively low levels of poverty, high levels of employment, and a tendency to promote moderation, to amble your way through life. From high school, to the first office job that doesn’t decline you, to the first girl or boy that doesn’t laugh and point. From there it is so, so easy to impregnate the female in a romance free coitus. And then wheeeeee, you can shift the entire responsibility achieving anything significant on to your children. But as those little critters grow, they extract moral structure, a desire to improve, and belief in achieving their dreams from (amongst others) their parents. And so your hopes at living vicariously through your children’s fulfilment of your own unexpressed desires…it ebbs away before your eyes.

Ok, so that’s a pretty dreary interpretation of a life lived simply, but that’s what I see happening if too many of us decide to let the universe dictate. Without the struggle, without the strive towards goals more ambitious than mere existence and reproduction, we’re gradually reversing Darwinism. And unfortunately there are too many people happy to jump on the bandwagon, to profit from helping you eliminate any need to struggle. From drug companies pushing pacification by pill, to a media that too frequently seeks to entertain rather than inform, we’re at risk of being coerced towards mental neutrality, and being left with dwindling decision making powers.

Not this boy, and not those I admire. I need to actively live my life, to strive, struggle and fight my way to the things I believe matter. If we raise children, we owe it to them to provide them with role models who hold onto their own dreams, while inspiring others to discern their own. We can all achieve so much more if we realise we have the freedom, and the power, to make choices. If we meekly relinquish control of our existence, if we leave it in the hands of fate, I think we do ourselves a disservice.

I never made it to the stages of Glastonbury or Coachella as a guitarist, nor have I sold a painting for a Damien Hirst thrashing sum, but I don’t dedicate my failures to fate. We deserve the things we focus on, and struggle for. So understanding what sorts of things bring you happiness, should allow you to set goals that are positive for you, that improve you as a person. Unless of course the accumulation of capital at the expense of others ACTUALLY makes you happy. In which case I’ll happily close my eyes, whistle a tune, and let karma king-hit you in the balls.

On acknowledging (and thanking) your influences

Dock

I talked a little earlier about how useful it can be to understand where (and who) I draw your influences from. But I think it’s also valuable to take the time to thank those who have helped me, and contributed positively towards my outlook on life. I’ve found that very often these people weren’t aware that I took note when they explained their philosophies, or complimented their boyfriends kindness, or ranted capably about the insidious impacts of lawyers on societies.

One of the most influential women in my life, especially early on, was my grandmother Zoe. My father’s mother grew up in a rural environment, on the Western edge of New Zealand, spearing flounder in rivers, and luring eels with rotten eggs. I think the tomboy side of her nature made her easier for her grandsons to relate to. It also meant that she believed in boys being boys, and if you were the younger sister to two boisterous elder brothers, she believed in girls being boys too. Much to my sister’s glee.

Zoe encouraged adventures, from hunting for freshwater crayfish in streams, to tracking down and harvesting aquatic life in tide pools. I can’t remember if she actually encouraged us kids to set more and more elaborate traps, for the birds that (for 360 days of the year) dwelt peacefully in her beautiful gardens. No doubt she figured that the blackbirds faced little chance of imminent extinction, despite beer crates balanced atop pencils, tied to 40 yards of string, held by the twitching hands of excited children.

Zoe also travelled. She spent time in Europe with my Uncle Brian, back in the days when him and his hippy mates used to get mistaken for the Bee Gees. No doubt a more exciting prospect in the 1970s than it would be today. When she returned, she was armed with tales of grand squares, enormous galleries, and statues taller than giants. She had a way of explaining Paris that excited even my eight year old mind. Her gentle enthusiasm for all she’d seen no doubt contributed to my sister and my nomadic aspirations.

I’m not sure if her love of painting came before or after her visits to the great galleries of Italy and France, but as long as I remember, she encouraged our fledgling artistic talents. She had a room full of easels and canvas, and though we tended to be let loose with water colours and charcoal, occasionally I got to dabble with the rich smelling, sumptuously coloured oil paints. She explained to me what she’d learnt in her latest art classes, and after a while it wasn’t as a grandchild, but as a fellow artist.

As importantly as any of this though, and probably the one lesson I try to value above all others, was that she never judged us. She didn’t try to push us grandchildren in a particular direction, and she was supportive of whichever goals and dreams I chose to share with her. When I went through difficult things much later in life, she took the time to let me know she was thinking of me, and she didn’t express disappointment. She was the only person that still sent me letters, which somehow found their way to me in far off lands. And she was one of the only people to whom I wrote them, when I thought I had tales which she’d enjoy.

I took Francoise with me to visit her a few weeks ago. She was smaller and more frail than I remembered, but told stories of her past with a twinkle in her eye. And she was as ever, interested and engaged in our own tales, especially of travel. I told her how much we’d enjoyed our time with her as young children, and how much she taught me about art. I told her that despite all my cooking experience I’d never dared try to replicate her famous banana pancakes, for fear of failure.

Zoe passed away on Sunday. One of her most important art lessons was around distancing yourself from your subject. If I was struggling to draw from a photo, she showed me I could take the picture and invert it. You could then forget about trying to draw an elephant or a unicorn, and instead concentrate on drawing the shapes. In trying to come to terms with her death, I’ve found it easiest to do something similar. I’ve turned my sorrow on its head, and I’m starting to draw from the shapes that form it.

I think I’ll look out for over ripe bananas when I go shopping tomorrow.

On incorporate my writing into my living

beach-IMG_2790

When I decided to replace my painting non-career with writing, it was always with the intention of working towards a novel. It’s at least partly my Dad’s fault. Every wintery Saturday morning down at the Ngaio library, I’d end up lost amongst shelves of books that smelt like wisdom wrapped in parchment. My Pa introduced his three children into incredible new worlds, for the price of an occasional lost book. I know it’s unlikely that my book will shoot to the top of best seller lists, get optioned for a film, and in two years I’ll be turning down Ryan Gosling and Reese Witherspoon (shudder) for roles. But as the lovely couple who sold me a reconditioned typewriter on Paekakariki Beach explained, the most important thing for me is going to be self belief.

I needed help understanding my strengths and weaknesses as a fledgling author, so I took on a freelance writing course. I aimed to use magazine articles as a way to make money from the research and character development I was doing for my fiction. One of the key elements of my first tale is a very special vodka. I spent a month investigating vodka marketing, vodka production (first hand) and vodka history. And doing just a little sampling. Just a little, because to tell the truth it tastes universally shite. I ended up with an entertaining article on New Zealand’s vodka marketing stories, and a solid understanding of why you don’t challenge a Polish woman to make a distilled spirit from courgettes and boiled sweets. I found it was very easy to get side tracked investigating and researching.

I guess some authors wouldn’t need (or want) to employ “method writing” in order to communicate informatively and persuasively about Afghanistani heroin production, or the Modolvan slave trade. But without my time in Northern Ireland I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing of the effect of “The Troubles” on tourism in Derry. And without a confrontation with Hungarian gangsters in Budapest, it’s unlikely I’d develop a plot involving the Eastern European mafia. Admittedly Mr McKinnon and I would also be 3000 Euro better off, but even the naive decisions made fumbling your way through foreign lands inspire new ideas. Excuse for further travel…tick!

Locations and ideas though, are just the framework. My stories are fundamentally about people, particularly people who find themselves displaced. My characters have to be unique, interesting and truthful, or who would want to spend four hundred pages with them? I need a way to access other people’s perspectives, or my characters will end up as just different versions of me. Fortunately my writing course provided a solution, a set of assignments requiring that I conduct interviews. Now some might shrug their shoulders at this, but I had my share of shy times as a young fella, and the idea of attempting to pull intimate stories from strangers was difficult to get my head around. But over the years I’ve grown bolder about attacking my anxieties head on, so I procrastinated for only a couple of months. I conducted my first probing question-and-answer session with a talented New Zealand artist, Greg Broadmore. And of course my fears were unfounded, he proved more than happy to explain how he managed to develop his own opportunities in a country with negligible arts support. We downed pints and a couple of roti bread, and my only issue was remembering that it was an interview, not a discussion. Nerves eliminated.

Interviews have turned out to be not just an incredible source of character ideas, but also a tool for countering my misunderstandings. I’ve been developing a blind character, so I decided to write an article on how the visually impaired deal with social media. I imagined they must struggle socially every day, having to do without such useful social tools as winks, colour co-ordination and carefully applied lipstick. And I presumed that interaction had become all the more difficult with the gradual shift from face-to-face chit chats, to technology based relationships. I mean have you tried using Facebook with your eyes shut? Exactly. So I set up an interview with a blind gent who teaches people how to use “adaptive technologies”. I’d seen a picture of him in a newspaper article, and he had been photographed wearing a Metallica t-shirt for the interview. I thought either his Mum had played a cheeky wardrobe prank, or he was a metal fiend, and we’d click. I met him at his workplace, and click we did. I found he was ridiculously capable, and I was embarrassed by how much this surprised me. His Uncle and Father had been raised blind, so he was brought up as a kid that bumped into things, rather than an incapable, lolling eyed burden. And over a couple of hours of conversation, my character developed a voice that wasn’t just mine.

So now I listen much more closely when an old man in a pub tells me of the day he realised that maybe God had never listened to him nor his younger brother. I try to understand at what point a friend abandoned her hopes and dreams as something she might one day achieve, and began instead to project them onto their daughter. And I sit and share a coffee every morning with the homeless girl huddled with a border collie, because I’m trying to understand why when she speaks of the father who beat and abused her, she describes him as if he’s the next messiah.

I hope that through my attention to the lives of others, that my characters might earn a readers sympathy, their empathy, or their disgust. So next time I meet you for a pint, and ask how you how your new relationship’s going, be wary…

On trying to be different versus trying to be the same

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As a young lad I once read something about how difficult (impossible?) it was to have a “free and independent thought.” This became an unmeasurable goal. I’d squint my eyes, push hard and come up with a thought, and then I’d examine it to try to determine where I might have derived it from. This introverted pastime soon merged with a wider desire to do things differently. Think Natalie Portman’s character in “Garden State”. From taking random missteps as I walked down the driveway at home, to making up new words each day (complete with pygmy clicks and space whale groans…), I set myself up to be a perpetual victim throughout my younger years. Fortunately I was socially adjusted (or societally adjusted?) enough to keep a little of this under the radar. Ginger lad plus imaginary friends equals a lifetime spotting locomotives and collecting other peoples cats.

Many years later I proudly explained to Kara (the anarchist-Canadian) that I’d spent my life attempting to think differently to anyone else, to come up with thoughts and ideas that few had considered before. She replied that this was the first serious thing that we didn’t have in common. She’d spent her life trying to find was in which she thought like the rest of the world. And on inspection I realised that was the truly different one in our particular and peculiar relationship. Oh shit.

So my attempts to separate myself from the crowd have at times been a little pretentious. But I honestly find that in many ways I struggle to fit the mould society shapes for its citizens. Just after University (now there’s a while other blog topic…) I flirted with the idea of fulfilment through acquisition,  the quest for happiness through stuff. Despite “Religion 201: An Introduction to Buddhism.” But it wasn’t for me. I found that I could fit all the things I needed to live happily in a 60 litre backpack. I’m content with photos of me with friends, music, and a notebook with enough free pages for me to sketch a characterful face, or write of my feelings for someone five thousand miles away. And though I love the cosy feeling of a home, I feel a constant urge to discover new lands and experiences. I dreamt of visiting Ireland from a very young age. And since discovering a slice of cold pizza and a “welcome, I’m upstairs downing Guinness” note from my sister in a backpackers on my arrival in Dublin, I decided to always set my sites on a new destination. That’s grown into an ever changing wish list of new destinations. Most governments build their structures around an ageing idea of everyone settling in one spot for their existence. But nomadism is back on the rise my friends.

On those years that I’m back in New Zealand I also find myself struggling with the concept of a “polite society”. The unwritten rules whereby we avoid inflammatory conversational topics, the “not talking religion, politics or trans-gender operations” at the dinner table. Recently I explained to a small group of people I didn’t know, that I was “line blind”, so they would have to excuse me when I frequently over-stepped it. Of course I know, I just don’t often choose to care. I don’t like the idea of restricting conversations based on minimising the chance of a difference of opinion. It prevents us from having our less worthy ideas and beliefs challenged. If you abide by all this convention, you’ll end up recycling the same 38 “ideal adult conversations” repeatedly between the ages of 24 and 67. So try not to ask me about the weather, or “how I know Judy” when we meet for the first time. Instead, ask me if I’m as aloof as I appear, or whether I think buddha could take Jesus in a UFC matchup.

There are deeper, more difficult differences within this boy, which I’ll discuss in the near future, but I know now that differentiation may well be the rule rather than the exception. I’ve met enough people from a variety of backgrounds to realise how important it is not to think I have the monopoly on new ideas. I’ve been humbled by the sheer variety of experiences I’ve had related to me. Many of situations and upbringings that others have endured have been uncomfortable to listen to, they’ve brought tears to my eyes and rage to my heart. These people sometimes emerge stronger, and more capable. But it’s not all happy endings, sometimes they’re left terrifyingly damaged. So now I’m disappointed by those who dramatise the difficulties they face, which endanger only their pride, or their societal standing. But all of these encounters help me understand myself, and as someone who wants to share stories of outlandish lives, they are an essential part of my education.

I think the one thing that is important, is that we take the time to understand each others differences, and to learn of other ways to live. It is intolerance and ignorance that conspire to push many of us to the fringes. I hope that eventually my writing will help at least a few people understand the value in living differently.