door to hell burning cave with people standing on edge at night

Burning much more than ever before

door to hell burning cave with people standing on edge at night
‘Door to Hell’ cave in Turkmenistan. Image by Ybrayym Esenov

“I don’t know if you know what’s happening back in my country,” said Natalie Mering aka Weyes Blood in a whispery Pennsylvania drawl, “but we’re all… kinda… freaking out.”

It was Friday March 13 2020, a day when a lot of people who weren’t already freaking out about COVID-19 began to do so in earnest. The bog roll all left the shelves days before; now people are realising it won’t be enough.

“I’ve spent most of today crying,” she said, as laconic as ever. You wouldn’t know it from her singing voice, sharp and true, as certain as anything in this wild time. Some artists — Weyes Blood above all for me right now — give me the impression they observe the Earth as a pale blue dot from space, seeing and understanding and making sense of it all for the rest of us. I often marvel at how her lyrics cut through the muddle of human existence to coruscate with clinical beauty:

Lift the heart from the depths it’s fallen to
We all want something new
But can’t seem to follow through

Some people feel what some people don’t
Some people watch until they explode
The meaning of life doesn’t seem to shine like that screen

Lost and tangled up in you
Everyone knows you just did what you had to
Burning much more than ever before
Burning down the door

It was hard to believe someone seemingly so plugged into ecstatic truth could be so vulnerable. But there she was, a person, imploring us to get on our feet and move with her in this frightening time.

A couple did. I wish I had. But I’m a shy Kiwi; it’s not in our nature to push our way to the end of the row and boogie in the aisle when overcome with the music. Instead, I sat there and let it fill my heart.

I hope everyone gets home safe.

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.

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.

Please do not recline your seat

There’s this video going around, filmed by a woman who has reclined her seat on a plane, of the man behind her — who is unable to recline his seat — repeatedly punching the back of her seat in protest.

It’s fuelled a good amount of this week’s outrage on social media and in news outlets. Who is in the wrong?? Tell us what you think in the comments!!

First of all, the guy punching the seat is behaving objectionably. Anger management classes might be warranted.

Second, the existence of the seat reclining feature does not entitle anyone to use it without consideration for the person behind them. There’s this books podcast I love, but I nearly stopped listening to it when one of the hosts ranted about how the seatbelts-no-longer-compulsory alert is ‘the universal signal to recline your seat’ and anyone who protests is being rude.

I never recline my seat, and that’s because if the person in front of me reclines their seat, I enjoy grooves in my knees for days afterward. I wish they would do away with it. If you want to sleep on a plane, pay more for a premium seat. If you just want to lean back while you watch MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT on a fuzzy seven-inch screen, you are a sociopath.

Which isn’t to say I’m not a sociopath when it comes to certain other controversial debates regarding personal use of public spaces. But when it comes to reclining your seat on a plane, I am Greta Thunberg standing up to the lawmakers and sycophants; I am The Resistance. I am fighting for good.

This is all just a distraction from the real issue, though. The real issue is that airlines have commodified comfort on planes, and that millions have bought into it wholeheartedly, to the extent that many of the responses to the video are along the lines of, ‘the guy shouldn’t complain it’s his fault he paid for a seat that doesn’t recline’.

A sane world would have plane seats that offered comfort to everyone at a consistent price.

A saner world probably wouldn’t have planes at all, as the temperature in Antarctica hits 20°C.

But let’s not get distracted from the distraction, which is the real real issue here.

PARASITE (2019) (W)

My fellow attendees walked out of the cinema with grins on their faces — “a superb black comedy!” “uplifting!” “they were resilient!” — while I left in a fug of depression, convinced both families were locked into their respective prisons (one gilded, one grimy) doomed to fight their private battles in the tight limitations of capitalism. It seems Bong had ambitions of provoking both responses, a serious commentary and a work of farce. Clearly he has succeeded. But, as you may also feel about the cultural appropriation of native American tropes near the end, I have reservations.

PARASITE’s key shortcoming is its failure to properly engage with the poor family’s poverty. They are so hard up as to have had all their phones disconnected, and so beaten down by their situation that they lie around their semi-basement in a stupor. Then, when the plot-driving opportunity to tutor a rich student presents itself, they suddenly have access to a hair and wardrobe department — actually, the daughter’s locks are fabulous from the first scene — and the iron confidence of high-stakes scammers. At that benighted level of society, tasks like getting a new phone contract take on Herculean impossibility, let alone showing up at a prospective employer’s workplace with a suit, a tie, and a memorised script to convince the rich man you belong in the support structure of his world.

I never believed their situation was as desperate as it looked because they were able to extract themselves from it so easily. When they do literally lose everything, they are back on their feet within hours. It’s too convenient.

Pity, because so much about this film is compelling. I could almost feel the impersonal chill of that art gallery of a home, the expensive fabric draped around the rich mother’s shoulders — who, incidentally, is the most complete and consistent character, also in a stupor when introduced. The schemes to establish the illusion are superbly executed. A scene in which a character smokes a cigarette on a toilet achieves a rare and ugly beauty. The film’s final lines beautifully express the fantasy of overcoming poverty while also addressing how much easier it ought to be.

I just wish it had tried harder to examine the reality of life in the underclass, especially as it tosses the rich family to the curb in its final act. Which suggests Bong, himself a rich man, is on the side of the poor, disinterested in telling the full story of what our society does to the wealthy, desperate to present how it keeps so many people down, but not sufficiently motivated to tackle the paralysing breadth of their predicament.

Originally posted as a ★★★½ review of Parasite on Letterboxd https://boxd.it/XfYz7

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.

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.

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.

superficial spreading melanoma stage 1a breslow skin cancer

Mole’s worth

Skin mole with animal mole nose and feetMy kids think my moles are animals. If they catch a glimpse of my bare stomach, they’ll dash over and say, “Hello mole! How are you? How are you today, mole?” And they’ll reach forward with thumb, forefinger, and middle finger joined, and say, “Here’s some food for you.” This is exactly how they talk to dogs, cats, ducks, etc.

I assume this comes from the many children’s books we’ve read to them that feature moles. Kinda specific, you might think, but you’d be amazed to learn how many picture books revolve around obscure and non-existent beasts. I guess it’s a gateway to empathy, getting little kids to care about and identify with animals so they might do the same with other humans.

Little do they know one of my moles became a cancer. Where’s the empathy there, mole? No more food for you mole!

It gets weirder. Turns out there are animals everywhere. The other day, we were driving past a fire station and one of the kids got super excited. “Hello, fire station!” And then her voice got really high-pitched and playful. “What you doing? What you doing there? Here’s some food for you, fire station.”

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.