Tag Archives: friendship

Tools for being human, part nine: Cooking and eating with others

Hostel eating

In my childhood, meals were consumed eye-to-eye. The family sitting, circling the table, forks and knives hovering under conversation. Even Friday-night fish and chips were elevated, the hot paper-bound bundle of deep-fried all-sorts steaming the glass table-top. Tomato sauce allocated in five small dollops. Buttered bread in a leaning tower. No TV, no radio, no tapping sly LOLs to mates under the table.

In the warmer parts of the Mediterranean, an evening meal with family might last for two, three hours. In our house it was usually forty-five minutes. Three-quarters of an hour of noisy retellings, prompting questions, and arguments over who had found the most chunks of toffee in their ice-cream. Then at around 6:48pm Mum or Dad would check a watch, and table clearing would begin, just in time for the marine weather forecast.

Food was the thing that unfailingly drew us together as a family, but in many ways it was the winds that were responsible for what ended up on the table. My father loves, loves, loves the sea. He worked any number of jobs, but his default workplace was between lapping waves and sandy seabed, hunting out the ocean’s bounty. So between 6:51 and 6:57 there was a communal silence as predictions were made. Light variables, Southerlies dying out overnight, squalls,  gusts and gales.

If the conditions were favourable, my brother, sister and I knew we’d be bundled up in the back tray of the Land Rover, sliding back and forth amongst the fish boxes and dive lungs. Most of the seafood limits were on a per person basis, so the three of us plus Dad meant twenty-four crayfish. I ate a lot of crayfish as a kid. Fortunately Dad knew a lot of the Greek and Italian families that had been drawn to Wellington’s rugged south coast. And seafood to them, was like cigarettes to the imprisoned. So after a day in the sand we’d park up outside garages and kitchens, having our cheeks pinched by enthusiastic Nonas as the trades were done. Prosciutto for cod, baklava for shellfish, wine for scallops.

If say an eighth of my early years were spent on beaches and bays, then another eighth must have been spent in the kitchen. My father was trained as a chef, in a fancy hotel, by men who ranted in French. It was only natural to him, to spend time with us in the kitchen, teaching us to make pastries, sauces and casoulets. He had a library of faded French cooking manuals, but he taught us that the best meals were made from simple ingredients, drawn by hand, from land and sea. Fresh mushrooms from an absent farmer’s fields, cooked in cream and thyme. Butterfish cooked on an open fire with a little butter and a few capers, as the tide creeps stealthily away.

My first experience cooking in a commercial kitchen was beneath an 800 year old church in Cambridgeshire. I worked, ate, drank and played with a mix of central Americans, Europeans, Australians and Brits. A delicious blend of accents, cooking traditions, and ways of interpreting the world. We all cycled Cambridge’s narrow, cobbled streets to work, our wheels juddering madly as we swept past colleges and chapels. We’d lock our bikes to the church gates, beside boxes of early morning produce, which we’d haul into the larder, flanked by hundreds of shelved ingredients.

There’s something visceral about catering. There is the short time-frames of production. Menus were clipped to stainless steel walls at 6:00am, the first batches of scones and breads lined the counter at 8am. There’s the physicality, the great dance, flashing knives, swooping trays, fast marching waiters, swinging doors. There is heat and cold, the spin up of enormous ovens, the gentle shudder of cheese fridges. And of course there is the end product, the gentle stacks and swirls on the plate, the scents and tastes and colours of the season.

I know I’ve never worked harder, but I’m also pretty sure I’ve never laughed more. The various roles are all so tightly interlinked: the baker, the dishwasher, the cake decorator. No failure is independent, no success singular. We’d picked each other up, wiped one another down, and limped across the finish line as one, coated in flour, drizzled in sweat and thirsty for a pint. It’s the sort of teamwork that can build great fellowship. And of course, produce the occasional drama.

After catering a wedding, or a bell-ringers dinner, we’d sometimes set off on our bikes, for a chef’s basement home. There we’d drink Suffolk ciders and Speyside Whiskey, while one of us cooked food from the homeland. Pierogi, Coca Cola pork, tea smokes mash. One of my greatest ever meals was wild boar sausages, in banana beer batter, at 2:00am, eaten to the sounds of our Welsh head chef playing Alice in Chains tunes on his jet-black guitar.

Since then I’ve cooked puddings at Scottish festivals, supported by spliff-rolling Spaniards. I’ve whipped up dishes from the gardens of an Irish castle, and I’ve woken in the early hours to help bake bagels in Jewish delis. But many of my favourite memories are set in my Sister’s kitchen, under her backpackers home in Derry. Whenever I spend time there we end up cooking a slow meal, maybe a course each, starting some time in the mid afternoon. By the time the hot trays are drawn from the stove, the heavy wooden table is surrounded by people from all nations, wine from New Zealand, and throaty laughter.

 

For me, cooking allows me an opportunity to create, to interpret, to participate in something universal, something which transcends linguistic borders. It is an endeavour of creation which always finds a grateful audience.

So thank you Dad, for teaching me that if I dedicate myself to my passions, then there are fewer gaps in my life. Thank you Mum, for being the one who taught us the value of communion and companionship, and for occasionally letting us eat our steak in slabs of soft, white bread. And thank you to all of you that I’ve shared a kitchen with. You helped me expand my creative boundaries, diversify my cultural understanding, and extend my range of curses.

Bon apetit!

Tools for being human, part three: Understanding mortality

mortalityThere are dates within a year which tend to prompt self-reflection. My birthday, St Patricks Day, Hallowe’en. On these dates I usually find myself attempting an appraisal of my existence. I think of highlights and disappointments, of what has been present and what has been missing. I often then end up giving myself some sort of school teacher’s assessment. ‘Regan needs to find more productive activities on which to focus his energy.’ ‘Regan is prone to spending a little too much time day-dreaming in class.’ ‘Must try harder.’ And then there’s some sort of mental promise to myself to make changes.

I never thought to apply a score when I look at my life to date. I mean I can’t really look at it like an album or film review, I haven’t yet had a chance to enjoy the entire performance. But if I did have to rate myself, I can’t think of a time when I’d have given myself a perfect ten. Perhaps today I would give myself a seven. Recognition that there have been some standout achievements amongst the scattering of self-triggered disappointments. And as always, acknowledgement that there’s room for improvement. Up until quite recently though, I never really thought about whether there was time for improvement.

Death has always been an abstract idea for me. I thought occasionally about the final moments, the actual end point. Would I rather drown in a sea of lava or choke on a hotdog? Which Metallica song would I have play at my funeral? But not until I started losing people did I really understand that my time on earth is finite. I only have an unknowable number days left in which to train for a marathon, write a best-selling novel, and/or undo the psychic damage of mistakes I’ve made in the past. Lately though mortality has started to have an effect on my understanding of the world. I’m beginning to understand that my choices are made against a finite span of time.

And now I can see the that I might be able to utilise those times of deliberation and contemplation in order to make useful changes.  I can imagine two different personality-dependent approaches to ensuring that the rest of my life can be used to drag up my overall rating. If I imagine my life as a graph, a jagged chart of time versus enjoyment, with each upward spike a moment of joy, or kindness or ecstasy, and each downward dip a failure of morality, character or heart. If I want to use my remaining days above the ground to improve my overall score, I can look at affecting either the time-scale, or the enjoyment-scale.

If I was a certain type of person, I would concentrate on extending the time scale. I would make choices which I hoped would ensure I survived for long enough to achieve more happy spikes. Maybe I start to reduce my exposure to risks. Perhaps my next birthday would be a meal in a small restaurant, close to home, rather than two weeks in a war zone. I might take out insurance in order to protect myself from incidents. Rather than saving for airfares, I’d harbour money for my later years, protection against poverty. My New Year’s resolutions would be used to set restrictions and goals which promote durability over excitement. ‘Drink less’, ‘eat better’, ‘run more often’. You can probably tell from my tone that I’ve opted to take another path.

Rather than plotting to make it to my hundredth birthday I’d rather make the most of however many birthdays an active and varied life grants me. If my life is a book then I’d rather it was a mid-length thriller than a thousand-page health and safety manual. I’d rather take a few risks than avoid all of them. At the end of a year I’m more interested in promises to myself which excite me. ‘Visit a country that scares me’, ‘make my own surfing movie’, ‘learn enough French to say “Two beers please, my friend is paying”.

Of course there are issues with opting for a (potentially) shorter, brighter life. Most of the time I don’t have a Plan B. I go to the doctor when I’m in pain rather than when I want assurance. But the one really problematic side I see to my approach to life, is that there is a degree of selfishness implicit in focusing so much on my own desire to extract all I can from as many moments as possible.

My drive to see more of the world, to hear more from its people, necessitates that I’m rarely in one job or city or neighbourhood for very long. This means that my new friendships are frequently fleeting, that I don’t get a chance to warm them into something more permanent. There’s a melancholy there at times, when I see an update on Facebook from someone I once spent just a few days with. Someone I wish I could have engaged with more, offered more to, drawn more from. One thing experience has taught me is that people are always a component in my happiest moments. Someone to help gather wood for the fire, someone to play guitar while I sing, someone to high-five when I hang ten.

As I write this on the last day of 2016, consideration of my mortality helps me understand what I want from whatever remains of my life.  I’m not great at making promises to myself anymore. I’ve failed once too often at the ‘must eat less at Christmas time’ pledge. But tonight I’ll be thinking of the people who I’ve met, who have triggered curiosity, and wonder, and who have inspired me to be a better version of myself. And I’ll promise to try harder to reach one hand back towards old friends as I hold the other out towards new ones. Because although I don’t know how many days I have left in the world, I do know that I want as many of them as possible to be shared with those people who teach me to fly, rather than those who tell me it is too dangerous to try.

So to all those who shared smiles and laughs with in 2016, thank you. To all those I wish I’d had more time with, I’ll try harder in 2017. And to those who passed beyond my reach, I’ll look for you in the stars when I next dance under the blanket of night.

Losses and gains

Cognitive dissonance is a term for what happens when you experience something which upsets your understanding of how the world works. Like being told by the people you surround yourself with that a comet will destroy the world on October 12th, giving away all your worldly possessions, breaking ties with your  family and friends, and then waking up on October 13th to someone’s Beyoncé alarm.

As I climbed into a yellow cab outside JFK three weeks ago, I believed that Trump’s loss was inevitable. I believed this with the same depth of surety with which I’d once dismissed the Internet as ‘just a fad’. I was about to become very familiar with cognitive dissonance.

As I looked out the taxi window onto the streets of Queens I was also preparing myself to be lonely in a new city, to be ready for rejection on both sides. But despite my anxieties, New York City and I just…clicked. Within days we ended up giggling together, telling in-jokes and slamming Hennessey and Red Bulls in dive bars at 3:00am. I remember a moment, maybe a week before I flew out of New Zealand, when I read something about New York being a place that all sorts of dreamers headed, in order to birth their ideas. And that was it, I met so many people who had dreams, and talents, and self belief. And they talked with me. They shuffled along the bench and made room for my ass and my ideas. My imaginative soul had found a new home.

This all began well before election day. I had made what ended up being a very good decision to begin my exploration of the city from a Williamsburg base. From there I found great coffee, astounding vegan Reuben sandwiches, and hundreds of artisans practising intricate arts, from distilling to button-making. I found centres for Judaic thought, summer food-markets that looked out over Manhattan, and people who looked me in the eye when I explained who I wanted to be. And looking back on it, I realise that as much as that time was about New York charming me, it was also about me appealing to her.

It isn’t easy to explain, but I think it was about being open to anything. It was about starting the conversations, sitting at the bar rather than the booth, dancing on the rooftop rather than in my dreams. It was about expression and engagement. It was also about being comfortable and confident. I was surprised to find I was more comfortable in that city than anywhere else I’d ever travelled. I was frequently a racial minority of one, but most of my endearing moments were with people who had been labelled as minorities their whole lives. I was often lost, but I quickly built a trust that lost was a euphemism for ‘on the way to an unexpected experience.’

And then just as all was going so well, there was that election night. At around 4:00pm I stood on the corner of 46th and 9th Ave, debating which party to attend. A tall beggar in a thick coat asked me for a dollar for cawfee, and I declined. He began an explanation as to why I was making a poor choice. As he talked I noticed shapely sculptures outside an Irish bar, The Playwright. I gave him a ‘waddayagunnado?’ shrug and explained I had no change and I was meeting a friend. A friend called Bud. Who was apparently half-price between 4 and 6pm. Good timing Bud.

Half the screens above the bar showed sport, the other showed a mute countdown to the first voting results. I dragged a stool under myself and drank in the scene. There was a good mix of characterful faces, and there was a password for free wi-fi. So I ordered a beer, connected, and an hour out from the start of Trump’s ascendency I found out a young man I knew had taken his life. I looked about the thickening crowd, I looked down at my hand about the pint glass, and I looked back to the last times I heard from him. I swallowed back my beer then I noticed a woman next to me was drinking from two different glasses.

‘What are you drinking?’ I enquired, hoping for something more exotic than Budweiser.

‘Hennessey,’ she replied, ‘and Red Bull.’

And in that exchange I found a new friend. And even as I struggled to come to terms with a feelings of loss, either I or the universe found a way to balance some sort of scales. I’m not suggesting that a new friendship can offset such dreadful loss. No, it was simply my head trying to find a way to reconcile a fresh case of cognitive dissonance.

The next morning I said goodbye to Matt from Bow Bridge in Central Park. I think he would have appreciated the view, and my imagining characters from the film Highlander beside me, talking about the coming end of days. I looked to the water below, the layer of fallen leaves. Then I looked up to the skyline, to the sunshadow forms of skyscrapers, and the sun behind them. And although I felt lead in my centre, I also felt the lightness that acceptance in a strange and new place brings. And now I wish that somehow I’d been able to help Matt find that. Or whatever it was that he’d needed to make a different choice.

The days following the US election results have reminded me of the importance of finding our voices. Of telling stories, and of being actively, positively human. And so I am going to start a new set of writings in the coming weeks. I’m going to try to hunt out 100 tools for being human. From Eye Contact to Trees, from Hope to Lego, I’ll be exploring the things that help me maintain my positivity, my humanity, in what can be a difficult world if we let it. Because I need to ensure that I’m doing, rather than simply being. And because I want to be there for people, more effectively than I have been in the past.

Unbinding myself from my masculine story in order to grow

Women

Photo coutesy of the fantastic Roni Kay…

There have been two points so far, at which I have had to re-invent my novel. The first was when I realised that the central story wasn’t big enough, and I replaced a distinct vodka with a unique religion. The second rewrite became unavoidable when I realised that if half of my characters were going to be female, I had a lot to learn a lot more about what it means to be a woman.

That epiphany was the result of three awkward periods of self-discovery. I experienced the first of these after I managed to almost completely destroy a friendship with an adventurous and astounding woman, Elza, through my inability to understand her perspective. The two of us spent several months travelling together, and yet the whole time we also moved further apart. The silver lining to what was a dark cloud was that honesty on her part allowed for introspection on mine. I was at least able to learn a valuable, if emotionally expensive lesson.

The second flashlight to be shone on my gender naiveté was held by another inspirational woman, Linda. I’d always found ways to convince myself that there were no vast differences between men and women, that it was simply our individual experiences that led to misunderstandings. But Linda helped me see that as my own experiences had only ever been as a man, I had ended up with a strongly gendered bias to my thinking. Yes, I was a product of all the things that had happened to me, of my environment, of the people I’d spent time with. But it would have been impossible for a woman in similar circumstances to have the same experiences. Society’s attitudes towards gender trumped my hope that we weren’t so different as we all seemed to think. Shit.

Around this time I read a Margaret Atwood quote, which compounded my understanding:

“Men’s great fear is that women will laugh at them. Women’s great fear is that men will kill them”

I spent some time bouncing between the two sides of that quote, combating my defensiveness. Both Margaret and Linda had helped shift my perspective in a new direction.

The last twist to my viewpoint was a short, sharp one, encountered around half way through the film ‘Wild’. In the scene that challenged me, Cheryl Strayed is alone in the woods, and she’s approached by two hunters. My presumption at this point was that things were going to go dreadfully wrong, and I wanted to be anywhere but in the theatre, watching what I thought would happen next. It was my intense relief when the men didn’t attack her that shook me. For years I’ve tried to point out that the media’s to blame for other people’s heightened fears, but I have to accept that I’ve been shaped by the way ‘they’ portray the world as well. And if the media’s amplification of a history of men subjugating women has made me uncomfortable at the idea of a woman caught alone by two men in the wild, how much more fear must that idea hold for some women?

I spent a lot of long walks rattling around inside my head after that, trying to make sense of all this. I explored my past. To what degree had I sexualised past friendships? How many relationships had I destroyed through wilful ignorance? How many women had I scared through my actions, or words, or attitudes? It would have been easy to tie myself to my failures, to see myself as a bad person. But in my heart I believe that I am good, and that I am the engineer of my own future. So I decided I needed to stop digging a pit and start building a bridge. I resolved to do better, to be better.

The interesting thing about taking so long to write a novel, is that the rewrites can mirror your experiences. This rewrite of my story began with a look at my characters. One character was blind, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to write as a person without sight, as someone who draws the world inside her head. But two of my four central characters were female, how much consideration had I given their experiences as a women in determining their paths through the story? Not enough.

So I began to read more by female authors. I examined the great conversations of my past, how often was it a woman who kept me awake, offering me new ways to examine Christianity, or gun control, or Israelis? Or Batman?

And then I walked from one side of Spain to the other, usually in the company of astounding women. And through this time I began to rewrite my female characters, as women. My principal character is a man, but he had to change too, his motivations, his confrontations with himself, the impact of these women’s new decisions on his plans. In fact he really had to step the fuck up. To say much more would give away too much of the plot, but I know that when I write the foreword I will be thanking a number of influential ladies.

I don’t want to be an apologist for men, I don’t see much value in trying to explain what shaped my biases in the past. But I do want to say thank you to all the people, men or women, who have contributed to me being a better person today. Some of you managed to improve my world view in as little as 24 hours, astounding. I will always be to a degree the result of what surrounds me, so I’m making a promise to myself that I’ll continue to as often as possible surround myself with good people. And I make a promise to all of you, that I will do my best not to cause fear, or anxiety, and to try to put myself in your shoes.

Horizons (charging into)

Kapiti cropped large

Two days ago I finished writing a story. It began as a tale about two kiwis and a Canadian who decide to use gangsters and mobsters to market their new vodka, hoping to gain street cred and instead attracting a range of terrifying challenges. But I was somewhere between New Mexico and Utah two years ago, watching electrical storms on four horizons when I realised that Vodka just wasn’t enough. As I viewed spectacular lightning splitting dusky widescreen horizons, I knew my characters needed grander problems than smuggling spirits into Liberia and the Ukraine would earn them. I needed to take on something that would echo across the world, something which would require commentary from the Pope.  So these human lightning conductors decided to invent a better religion, and the vodka became part of the back-story. But that’s another story for a different day, publishers willing.

Soon after I began work on the book, I started writing this blog. As I set off on a research trip to the USA and Europe my life seemed to have become interesting enough for me to find something to write about every couple of weeks. I find that when I’m travelling I live at a much faster pace. Each day lived seems so visceral, so textured, so rich. Every meal is newly spiced, every conversation has an accent, every dawn is described by new sounds. Each morning makes a promise, that the day will harbour some lesson, some learning, some new understanding. I want to share the revelations, the encounters, the mistakes and consequences. And then I return home, and that pace drops away.

I haven’t posted anything here for eighteen months, not because I haven’t been inspired, but because the achievements were gradual ones, and their rewards were ones of delayed gratification. And because working in a job for an income rather than outcome stifles my imaginative creativity. It’s been a period of building for me, a passage of time during which I’ve managed to set myself up with foundations for a simpler life, one which enables freedom and creativity. And it has helped me further understand the joy of simple living, with kind and thoughtful people. But my passport hasn’t been soaked with the sweat of border anticipation for far too long, and my pack lies forgotten beneath my bed, comforted only by memories of a brief and beautiful jaunt through a Buddhist kingdom. And I want to write a new book, so I need character inspiration, semi-autobiographic comic relief and the rewards that come with making simple mistakes in unknown lands with friends I haven’t met yet.

I’m six weeks out from a flight to Paris, I’m buying walking shoes and train tickets, and my heart beats louder in my dreams. The world is opening up again, my skies are wider than an office window, the winter storms are all around me, unframed, unbound. The pace is picking up, the sound of a jet overhead has regained a personal significance, and as I watch others post photos and thoughts from Castle Donnington, Positano, the Orkney Islands, envy has given way to a feeling of fellowship. I’ve written 150,000 words about another man’s journey, it is time to slip back to first person perspective again. And it’s time to share my ideas once again, and hope to strike a chord, provoke a response, or even provide inspiration for someone else’s adventures.

The great thing about horizons is that just like tomorrow, they lie just out of reach. But unless we’re clinically depressed, our progress towards tomorrow requires no effort, no act of change, no brave decision. But to approach the horizon, that demands a building of momentum, a setting of sails, the anxious lottery of purchasing Easyjet tickets. And most of all it require the triumph of adventurous spirit over apathetic submission.

The people we choose to spend time with

Friends 2

We spend a large portion of our lives with a number of people due to circumstances, rather than choice. Life starts this way. We don’t get to choose those assigned to nurture us, those kin who will contribute significantly to our initial ideas on how the world works. Whether we’re raised within a family, a tribe, or an orphanage, those around us during our formative can either inhibit or develop our sense of self-worth. Their actions act as a template for our moral framework. They can help us to understand that we are valuable and valued, or they can damage us beyond repair.

Once we leave home, many of us will spend eight around hours a day with a new mix of people in order to earn a living. Our workmates are likely to affect our day-to-day mood, the degree of satisfaction we derive from our jobs, and our desire to seek new opportunities and advance ourselves. They may also influence our diets, our political views and our prejudices. And we don’t usually get a say in the selection process for these people either.

So we spend a lot of our lives being influenced by an arbitrary assortment of people. How important is it then that we take care in selecting the rest of the people that we hang out with? I was at a wedding in the United Kingdom a few years ago, and I was asked to make an impromptu speech. I thought about the friends of the groom that I knew, some witty, most currently drunk, and all affectionate. I spoke of how a person might be judged by the qualities of their friends. Looking at those we choose to share our time with can help us understand a lot about ourselves. Do I like Karl because he’s the only person who will stay out drinking with me until 5:00am? Do I like spending time with Kelly and Janine because they are gorgeous, and when we’re seen together around town feel like I’m living in a music video? Or do I spend as much time as possible with Di, because she reminds me to be myself, and at times inspires me to be my best self?

A good friend’s father once told her that the worst place to meet a lad was in the pub, that she should instead hope to find a boyfriend in more positive environment. I can understand the logic behind this, though the population of the UK and Ireland might dwindle if it were to become a popular idea.

Meeting people through an activity which improves us, seems more likely to lead to positive relationships. Marathon clinics, Spanish classes, football teams, all these activities bring us into contact with people who want to improve, and who are happy to share the experience. Over the past year I’ve found my closest new companions through hosting travellers on my couch. We shared a joy for exploring new country’s and trying new activities, and we aren’t afraid to stay in a stranger’s home. They’ve accompanied me on sand castle building competitions, glacier climbs and surf lessons. They’ve been people who have actively encouraged me to live more enthusiastically, and I’m hopeful that at least a couple of them will become friends for life. And now I get to catch up with some of them in their homelands. I haven’t connected with every single one, but i know from experience that if I had met ten strangers in a pub, I wouldn’t end up rafting the Grand Canyon with any of them.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power that others have to transform us. I owe it to myself to find friendships with people who I admire, respect and am occasionally envious of. They’re more likely to motivate me through their actions and inspire me through their ideas. And if I am brave enough to be open and honest with them and they still want to spend time with me, then that’s an amazing and rewarding thing.