Category Archives: New Zealand

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

After the Prime Minister’s announcement of an imminent shift to COVID-19 alert level 4 (mandatory self-isolation and physical distancing, essential services only), I immediately went out and panic bought a slide.

I entered Kmart as at least three other parents exited with literal armloads of board games. A woman and I circled around the two last remaining slides — massive boxes that wouldn’t fit in our trolleys — until I finally pounced. She stood staring at the last one for a few more seconds before hauling it up.

I only learned at checkout that it cost $139. An insane amount of money, and completely out of character for me, but what if we need it? What if the country locks down even further? What if vigilante mobs sweep the streets in snarling, two-metre-spaced rows? What if the Defence Force is deployed to enforce a full curfew? These are the kinds of thoughts you have because no one knows what, exactly, is going to happen. No one in the country has ever lived through anything like this before. Even in wartime, you could still go out for a drink.

It was just me and the other parents, mostly, stocking up on games and arts and crafts. A minimum of four weeks at home with the children. We love them — they’re a blessing, a joy, we are so lucky to have them and all that — but can you see why we were panic buying playdough and poster paints?

There was also a guy in stubbies yelling into a cellphone, “Nah mate, I’m at Kmart. Yeah nah, it’s basically dead here.” Compared to queues out the door at the supermarket, most definitely.

We’d already been to the supermarket that day. Limit: two of any similar item per customer. I tried to buy a third bottle of milk for my friends in self-isolation (trim milk! As if I would drink that swill) but was quietly and awkwardly denied by the cashier and her supervisor.

When I jetted off to do the Kmart run and pick up those same friends’ dear little dog from the kennels, I forgot to take the trim milk. It’s still sitting in our fridge, unopened. Maybe I’ll end up drinking it after all.

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Phantom Planet

Here’s how this post was initially drafted to end:

So I cut the red AAC wristband, straightened my non-existent tie, and walked off on damp pavements to catch my bus.

When I wrote it, the wristband still encircled my radius, bright and crumpled. I didn’t think it mattered whether or not the words were true; they evoked letting go, a holiday beginning its transition from vivid recency into hazy past. I felt that the inclusion of an absent tie signalled my awareness of whatever lies I allowed into my account. I wondered whether the words written down here would eventually become truth in my memory.

But what actually happened ended up being more interesting than the lie.

The last big activity of this year’s summer holiday with the kids was a trip to Splash Planet. It used to be called Fantasyland, a crumbling, community-built theme park famous for the train that ran around it and the smell of urine in the big castle. There were no water slides or pools with slow-filling buckets that saturate you if you time it right, or wrong.

I think I was about five or six when we went as a family in my own childhood. I recall some bright colours and the thrilling, uncontrolled motion felt by a small child going down a large slide. Above all, I recall the joy of riding that train, possibly with a grudging (though smiling) parent or older brother on child-minding duty.

For months afterwards, possibly years, I would counter any mention of Rainbow’s End with the superiority of Fantasyland. Have you been to Rainbow’s End? they would say. No, but I have been to Fantasyland, which is AWESOME. None of my friends had, so I had the pleasure of smug exclusivity and their complete indifference, because nobody cares if they haven’t been themselves. It’s not so different when you tell fellow thirty-something friends about your travels to the backwaters of Alappuzha or the beaches of Asturias and Cantabria. They’re mildly pleased for you, but they will quickly move on to the boats of the Bosphorus or the golden sands of Bali.

You move around the world and colour in the parts you see. You flood your senses and your mind and try, sometimes desperately, to commit them to your memory. But you can never hold onto them as they were, because your memory is fallible and the world’s constant physical change is undeniable.

When I visited Christchurch at the height of its post-earthquake demolition in 2012, my brain couldn’t make sense of the absence of buildings I used to take for granted. They existed in my memory but were in the process of being crushed, snuffed out, by reality.

A drive past the Tokoroa house in which I grew up was even more disorienting, with the big filbert trees replaced by a high wooden fence. The current residents scowled at me as I drove away. In this case, I could maintain a strong image of the past because it was so familiar to me as a kid, but I’ll bet nobody outside my family can call it up if required. And it was impossible to lay that image over the shocking disparity in front of me.

And that image is also likely to be wrong in some way. We know this from study after study: the brain misremembers. Its truth is mine, and mine alone.

To my surprise, many of the elements that made Fantasyland so memorable for little me were intact. Large slides, though more dilapidated than before. The tiny town. (Or am I inserting that into my memories?) The train.

I had no sense of the physical details and how they had or hadn’t changed. I couldn’t tell you whether the grassy parklands were laid out as before, or whether the train followed the same path around the castle. But I knew this was the place I had been to and loved all those years ago. I felt a child’s uncomplicated delight at being there again. For me, it was easily the highlight of the trip.

Tara cut her wristband off before going to sleep that same day. I kept mine on, not just overnight but for days afterward, even through an entire workday. I liked the way it reminded me of the feeling of being at Splash Planet the way a watch used to remind you of time passing. I liked the way it peeked out garishly from under my cuff.

I also liked showing it to colleagues when they asked how my holiday was. Fortunately, there was nearly always a connection, because so many people have been to Fantasyland and Splash Planet over the years.

That night, we discovered our chest freezer had been switched off for days. Possibly by us, in our harried and sleep-deprived state, or possibly by a vendor who carried out some work on our house while we were gone.

Point is, hundreds of dollars and dozens of kitchen hours’ worth of uncooked meat and home-cooked meals — perfect for, say, a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period — had to be thrown out. I stacked thawed containers of dinner saw on top of the oven and carted them in batches of five to a dark corner of the back yard, where I hiffed their contents onto the lawn. A feast for neighbourhood cats.

After I’d washed out all the containers and left them to dry, I collapsed onto the couch next to Tara, who had buried herself exhausted and grieving in a puzzle. I felt the wristband tug at my skin so I looked at it. There was a small blob of refried beans on the palm side. Time to let this past go, too.

“The really good thing,” said Tara, sarcastic but sympathetic, “is the scissors are out in the shed.”

I stood and went to the laundry, where I spent a minute using a pair of garden shears to uselessly shave colour off the wristband.

Then I went to the kitchen and levered a blade under it. The circle was finally broken. Pop. Toot-toot. Wheeee.

I can still feel the bracelet. It’s like my brain wants it to be there. In twelve hours twenty-four hours forty-eight hours it’ll be gone for good, but in forty-eight days it (or its imperfect neurological echo) won’t be forgotten, because I wrote this.

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Shayne P Carter

I finished reading Shayne Carter’s autobiography Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press). It’s an excellent book: reflective, honest, occasionally moving, occasionally funny. It also contains the best descriptions of music since AMADEUS.

I saw Carter perform one time, a Dimmer farewell gig at Bodega in 2012. Bodega is now closed, its central, eyeline-spoiling pillar a collective sigh in the memory of Wellington’s gig-going faithful.

From my vantage point at the extreme right of the room, I gripped the bar on which my beer bottle rested while Carter ripped through one face-melting, feedback-laden guitar solo after another. He seemed in a mood to indulge his fingers more than his voice that day, and that was fine with me. I barely remember him speaking, let alone singing.

What I do remember is his body doubled over in submission to his guitar. His fringe hung down over his sharp-featured face. His lips pursed out in a demonic grin. He must have spent half the gig in that pose.

“The facial expressions,” my friend and I agreed over a beer a few months later when the subject of Shayne Carter live came up. “The facial expressions.”

Years later, she would edit his book. And I would borrow the book from another friend, whose photos are in the book. Just so you know how small New Zealand is.

And I say again, it is an excellent book, worth reading even if you couldn’t name a single one of his songs. It’s almost as good as his facial expressions.

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Cheezy Weezys

I was at Waikanae’s famous Fed Up Fast Foods fish ‘n’ chip shop with Stephen when I first encountered Cheezy Weezys.

I felt like they should have been advertised on an A4 printout in all-caps Arial Black, like all the other speciality items, but there they were on the big menu alongside hot dogs and spring rolls, as if they’d always been there.

We speculated as to what Cheezy Weezys might be. I suggested six or seven strips of mozzarella, battered and deep fried. Stephen proposed a scoop of chips with plasticky orange cheese squirted all over them from a bottle.

A subsequent image search proved Stephen right. Given they were called Cheezy Weezys, he was always going to be right.

But we didn’t order the Cheezy Weezys. I decided not to risk it, which is unlike me, because I usually try any old rubbish if it’s junky enough.

In the ensuing weeks, Cheezy Weezys seemed to be everywhere. I assure you, I’d never seen them on a fish ‘n’ chips menu before that rainy evening in Waikanae, and I’ve eaten a lot of fish ‘n’ chips. But there they were, again and again without fanfare, about $5.20 a pop.

Last weekend, when we went away to Foxton Beach, I cracked. Not only did Mr Grumpy’s have Cheezy Weezys, they also had Curry Chips, Cheese and Gravy Chips, and Blood ‘n’ Guts Chips. I ummed and aahed and eventually decided on Blood ‘n’ Guts Chips.

This is what they handed over:

That’s a scoop of chips, tomato sauce, sour cream, and grated cheese from one of those ready packets with loads of de-caking powder at the bottom.

Needless to say, my fascination with novelty hot chips is cured.

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The call bell

Ding goes the call bell.

I pressed the button fifteen minutes ago when Tara’s tramadol wore off, four hours since the previous dose. A big, angry wound in her abdomen is giving her acute pain. One of our twin infants dozes in my lap, the other in a cot. Tara lies in bed, brows knitted in pain and exhaustion.

It’s about 2am.

There’s a speaker right outside our room. Every couple of minutes, the call bell dings again.

We’re waiting on one of the two overnight duty midwives to come and assist us. After a few more dings, she arrives, and we ask for more pain relief. Of course, she says, and promptly leaves.

Another fifteen minutes pass. In one of the other two dozen rooms served by two midwives, someone else presses the call button. Ding.

Approximately thirty-five minutes after I initially hit the button, the midwife returns with the tramadol. Tara ingests it and waits for it to take effect. Eventually, after a full hour of agony, she gets some relief.

Ding goes the call bell, on through the night and day, summoning health professionals that don’t exist.

*

This is far from the most gruelling episode of our six-day hospital experience when the kids were born, but it’s one that stays with me. It’s symptomatic of a system that is desperately under-resourced.

You look back on times like that and think, well, we got through it. And people are more than willing to tell you it’s just something you have to get through. Some people, anyway.

But I’m sharing this tiny story today because a much worse case of maternity ward understaffing and negligence is being widely reported. A baby died after a labour and birth in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Individuals made mistakes but the system overall is accountable.

And if so many people are ringing the bell to say that the system is inadequately resourced, that midwives are constantly at breaking point, that having a baby outside business hours loads significant risk into an already risky process, that the trauma of their hospital birthing experience haunts them for years, why are we still talking? Is anyone listening?

Ding.

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Louis Sergeant

A variety of macarons in different flavours and colours

I saw Louis Sergeant at the vegetable market the other day. He was selling a variety of macarons, some croissants, some pains au chocolat.

Louis Sergeant used to have an inner-city patisserie where delicious dessert sculptures and pots of artisanal tea were conveyed to your table by bright-eyed women in black aprons. The cabinet presented at least a dozen options with shiny mousse spheres, gold flakes, and curved pieces of chocolate. I thought $14 was a rip-off until I tried one.

Then Louis Sergeant opened a second patisserie about two hundred metres away. They both closed within six months, and it seemed like that was that.

But here was Louis Sergeant himself, previously unglimpsed, peddling fine French pastries in a packed carpark alongside greengrocers from Levin.

“Got plans to open another shop soon?” I asked as he bagged a pastry.

“Yes,” he said, after some hesitation.

“My wife and I really miss your patisseries,” I said.

“Thank you,” he replied. “2019 was…” He grimaced and didn’t finish the sentence. I could only imagine the disastrous spreadsheets and red numbers flashing before his eyes.

“I hope 2020 is better,” I said.

“Yes, me too,” said Louis Sergeant.

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War of the worlds

Pōhutukawa stamens collected in gutter by road

It’s been cool and damp in Wellington today. Cue a dozen overheard conversations in the office about it being a typical Wellington summer, i.e. over in a flash and barely there to begin with.

In reality, the sun has shone bright in blue skies recently and will shine again soon. But in order to belong, you must sign up to the mass delusion.

Christmas time is however ending. I know this because everywhere I go, I see millions of brilliant red pōhutukawa stamens collected in drifts on the footpath, like the spreading alien tendrils in War of the Worlds.

The pōhutukawa is also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree because of its vague resemblance to holly and its seasonal blossoms. When the flowers die, their crimson threads fall to the ground in clumps, the blood of Tawhaki under our feet. They’re beautiful and then they’re gone. They are our hair that has fallen out.

You can be sure they’ll be back next spring, though, until we’ve burned it all down — back from the underworld, leaping for the heavens, caught in flight on evergreen branches.

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