Combating shyness. Part one: The school years.

Panning

When I was a young fellah, I was the class clown. I wouldn’t like to call it desperation for attention. It was more a variation of Attention Deficit Disorder, where instead of being unable to maintain my own attention on one thing, I needed to have more than one thing’s attention on me. Then a Prince came along and spoiled it all.

We were told that Harry and his younger brother Fillipali were Fijian royalty when they came to Bellevue School. I’m not sure if this was some form of ruse by the teaching staff to alter our behaviour towards them, but it certainly focused attention. Harry was placed in my class, and Harry was a smiley, funny boyo. A bit too feckin’ funny. And when I was a wee lad in the seventies, far too many comedy duo’s relied on a straight man. Damned if I was going to be the Wise to his Morecombe (or whichever was ’round that was). My regular role had been usurped, and I couldn’t even be pissy at the guy, we ended up pretty good friends. Grr. I found new ways to steal the limelight. I could draw a mean Star Wars character, I sold a life-sized sketch of Boba Fett to a class mate for fitty cent and a week of infamy. But I slipped a little back into myself for a while.

By the time I was finishing my year before college (High School) at twelve, I’d recovered my ability to focus attention. On me. I had a good little posse though, a solid crew. And I’d needed this over the last year or so, as puberty and its dancing partner hormones had gotten busy the summer prior. All those girls that had chased us nippers on horseback as we fled on our BMX’s, had somehow transformed. Their teasing had become something to be courted. For someone cursed with ginger hair (thankfully now heading towards strawberry blonde) and the associated propensity towards extreme blushing, the ladies were lethal. Fortunately the lads could ferry my notes to girls, provide back up for my bluster and denials if I was ever rejected, and be just as petrified of being picked last at school dance classes.

That transition to college was a small bump, some of the lads went to Catholic schools, one disappeared, and there was a whole new selection of girls to invoke my colour shift to scarlet. The first two years were solid though, the work wasn’t any harder, though I found a nemesis in the Physical Education teacher, Mr Hornell. He was one of those pricks who liked to point out your flaws in front of others. I encountered his ghost in a guy I met here in Colorado recently. He’s the sort of twat that constantly talks the ladies up while trying to undermine the lads. They register you only as something to smear on their ego to shine it up, and get frustrated if you have the tools to undo them. Usually wit, intelligence, and dumping Tobasco sauce in their pint when they’re not looking. But I digress.

My great withdrawal came at the first year of formal exams, “Fifth Form” in old skool…school. For some unfathomable reason we were all shuffled into new classes, and I was stripped of my defence. This was a hard year, my parents had emphasised the importance of exams, and al that came afterwards (more exams). I curled up a little, I studied, in fact the next two years were quite insular. I spent too much time with my computer, my art work, and my reading. At the end of two years of social cellar dwelling, I had great exam results and blonde hair. My penance was paid, my red-haired curse undone. I had to implement change, so I held an end of year party at my parents house. They had a sauna in the basement, a hose long enough to run the entire length of the house, and the good grace to leave me to it.

Seventh form was my rebirth. I chose new friends, I did a Toast Masters course to combat my terror of public speaking, and I got invited to go on booze runs for “Darren’s Parties”. THE parties. I took lots of pictures, I didn’t study quite as much as I should have. I rejoined the football team, this time in social (very) grade. Girls still petrified me, but I had my mojo back, some friends who weren’t afraid of the limelight (cross dressing seemed a little too prevalent…) and a growing confidence in myself.

I hadn’t yet regained all my powers though, and all of us that had made it to Seventh Form were under pressure to make decisions about our future. The only ones capable of making those decisions had already left school, or were determined to be Architects. I made a decision to do what I thought was sensible. Follow my mates to Victoria University of Wellington. This was to be a shock.

Coming soon: Shyness Undone: The Heavy Metal Years

The thrill of inspiration

There are few things I like better than discovering new ideas. As an adventurous cook, encountering Carolina Mustard is a marvel for the senses and another tool for the home grilling arsenal. As an author in training, having a crazy new focus for my first book pop into my head on a long drive between The Black Canyon and Aspen is like finding a crisp tenner in an old coat pocket. Two days before pay-day. Ok, maybe even better than that.

My first American BBQ tasting was last weekend, in a sweet little playground of a town called Nederland. We had driven up to check out photo opportunities around the quirky mining museum, but this place is a confluence of madness. After happy snaps of rusting machinery and coiled ropes, aiming for that classic sepia shot, we decided to pay homage at the information centre. Boomshanka! Firstly, Nederland happens to be the home of the “Frozen Dead Guy Days”, a yearly festival inspired by…a frozen Grandpa. Bredo Morstoel was cryogenically frozen in 1989, and has been on ice ever since. He’s cocooned in dry ice in a Tuff Shed above the town, and each March a range of events are held to celebrate life, and ostensibly the vague possibility of his future reincarnation. These wintry fun times range from coffin races to a cryogenics workshop. That’s right, DIY immortality, what’s not to like? Unfortunately we’d missed the event by four months, the frozen turkey bowling wouldn’t be as effective on this midsummer scorcher.

Nederland 3

Fortunately bizarre festival t-shirts were just a start, the kindly volunteer behind the counter suggested “The Carousel of Happiness”. Who could possibly resist? A 1910 wooden carousel had been purchased sans animals by a Vietnam Vet, who then spent 26 years learning to carve replacement figures. The experience is a delightful mix of creepy and delightful. You get to choose from over thirty different beasts to mount, from the first eerie carvings of mermaids and dolphins, to the more competently sculpted gorilla. Once you’ve strapped in (it’s the US, everyone needs a thrill stopper wrapped about their ample midriff) a huge old Wurlitzer Band Organ starts pumping out a jaunty tune, and slowly you accelerate. About now the nervous “I’m a big kid at heart, this will be fun any minute now” grimace slides into a genuine mirthful grin. Based on my voyeuristic viewing of the next group of riders, the facial expression half way through “Chatanooga Choo Choo” is 90% “wheeeeeeeeee”, and 10% “Wow, this is really seriously getting quite fast now”. One dollar per ride? Magic.

Nederland 5

So buzzing like meerkats on amphetamines we decide on the Wild Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery for a stomach settler. Here you can get a beer taster in the form of a “Brewski”, literally a foot long chunk of ski, with five beer tasting glasses inserted. Second drawcard, I’ve never tasted American Barbecue. The beer was weak, but this was more than made up for by a “tasting” of BBQ sauces. And yes, of the six delicious blends, the Carolina Mustard was the star. As often seems to be the case with American cuisine, the most interesting new (to my kiwi taste buds) sensations are drawn not from molecular gastronomy, nor from classic French techniques. Instead just blitz five or six other sauces and pour on or baste. See the recipe at the end of this article. Simple, effective, wrong and yet right.

Travelling the back roads of this continent is bound to spring intermittent surprises, from ex-top-secret missile silos, to towns called Climax (haha, I kept every single one liner to myself, ever so proud). But it was a lightbulb moment on the drive between Gunnison and Aspen that rocked me a couple of days ago. I found an old copy of Steven King’s book on writing in a thrift store (charity shop…) a couple of weeks back. Steve taught me at a very young age, that the thoughts in a person’s head could be as interesting to read about as the actions that they performed as a result. And on the second read through of this lumpy explanation of his (and now my) craft, I began to worry that the central “idea” of my first book wasn’t really all that powerful. This thought sat in an uncomfortable place in my head, parked somewhere between “Do I tell my parents I love them enough?” and “Do I really REALLY need an iPad mini to write while I’m on the road?” Somehow, the easy comfort of being a passenger in an ever-changing landscape put my head in the right place for dramatic internal inspiration. Mr King had also explained that no author could really explain where the ideas came from. And this new idea, I have no idea how I came up with it. And once again I believe in magic. It certainly wasn’t the car corpses and mountain vistas that had been keeping my eyes entertained.

I’m so glad the world still has this ability to take me by surprise. I guess I try to frequently put myself in situations where I will discover new things, but it is always the unforeseen eye openers that have the most impact. At the moment I can’t share the big idea with you, that will have to wait until the publishing of my novel. But I can share the recipe for that delicious sauce. Enjoy!

Recipe for (South) Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce

1 Cup yellow mustard

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup wine or cider vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar.

1/2 cup honey

2 tablespoons tomato sauce (ketchup)

Mix all, and ideally refrigerate 24 hours before use. Apparently it’s also deelish with corned beef and hash…

On making meals with strangers

Hostel 3

On a number of occasions I’ve helped my sister Kylie run her backpacker hostels in Northern Ireland and Scotland. In the middle of the busiest summer we’d have over eighty people check in each day. That’s eighty-five people you’ve never met sharing your kitchen, assaulting your bathroom and hugging you and singing Galway Girl at the top of their lungs. It can be a tall order making friends with that many random punters each day, so I didn’t. But I did discover many, many gems. A group of Finnish music students who alternated Finnish folk with Metallica covers, photo journalists who’d catalogued the transition of Bulgaria, nightclub singers from Essex. Passionate, interesting, interested friends. Sometimes for three days, occasionally for life.

Over these periods I discovered more about the wider world in a few months of crazy experience sharing, than from thirty years of book absorbing and Woody Allen films. I got to learn about “The Troubles” with Basques, watch New Zealand get ejected from the Rugby World Cup with a room full of Australians (shudder) and lead hilarious pub crawls through Irish streets with my sis. I debated Gaza strip politics with ex-Israeli soldiers (unsuccessfully obviously…), nearly convinced a French plumber that NZ could make good wine, and almost finished painting an Asterix mural in an Irish summer. Ok, so not all victorious moments, but I also grew confidence in myself, got a little heavier (Irish food, Danish beer, minimal exercise), and increased my places-to-visit list by eighteen items. In short, it was the most elucidating period of my life, and at times I missed the camaraderie (if not the toilet cleaning) of strangers in strange lands.

It had been around two years since my last stint in the bunk-bed paradises, when I found myself single, living in a big apartment in central Wellington. I loved my home city, had far too many couches and I was missing conversations with travellers. And then I remembered discussions of Couch Surfing. couchsurfing.org is a little like an online dating site for travellers, and those of us in between travels. If you have a spare couch/bed/pillow-pit, and you love introducing people to your lifestyle, in exchange for learning of theirs, you can set up a profile as a host. If you’re off for three weeks in New York and can’t afford $300 hotels, you can set yourself as a surfer. Whichever side of the sofa you’re on, you fill in a profile about who you are, what you like, and how you like to travel. Then it’s time for hook-ups!

Hostel 6

I hosted around a dozen people last year, meeting some ridiculously entertaining legends, along with a couple of dullards. For every five up-for-it mental health nurses from North England, I encountered a lobotomised iPod-insulated graduate from the mid-west of the U.S. But I learnt about snake breeding, seaweed soup and swing dancing, and that was just from one Canadian (props Linds, my frozen-rodent delivering food hero). In return I dragged people through tide pools on the South coast, took them surfing on Lyall bay, and even dolphin swimming in Kaikoura. Then it was time for my own travels, and two days ago one of the women I hosted caught up with me in Colorado, where I’ve been learning about the U.S. with another. Bliss.

Hostel 01

Frequently people express concerns at the thought of inviting strangers into your home, or spending the night on an unknown potential train-spotter’s/Viagra-addict’s/Republican’s couch. Fortunately couchsurfing.org prompts you to make comments on your host/surfer after your stay, so you can get a sneak preview of the sort of person you might be spending time cooking sea snails, scarfing mulled wine, or arm wrestling with. You can also bitch about their lack of hospitality, or their leering, sweating, side-burned flatmate once you leave. More importantly though, you just need to put a little faith in humanity, and hopefully an equal amount in your ability to judge others on meeting them. In general I’ve found that around the world, people are good. They may have ulterior motives, they may be stingy when it comes to buying a round, they could have different political or religious viewpoints. But there are very few of us aiming to injure or take advantage of others, without remorse.

We often get to know ourselves better through our encounters with strangers, than our times with our friends. If we spend time with people we meet through a simple desire to exchange viewpoints and share a couple of meals, we hopefully both part enriched. To all those friends I’ve met and befriended while travelling, or while they were travelling, thank you for contributing to my adventures. And for providing endless material for my writing…

To my sister Kylie, thank you for the opportunity to join you in a mad, mad, but thrilling world. You’re always an inspiration.

Hostel 2