Wandering Thoughts

October 27, 2008

A Country Beginning with the Letter ‘P’

To amuse ourselves on our walk yesterday Jo and I (along with our respective mothers) went through the alphabet trying to find a country for each letter of the alphabet (well actually, because we’re kindof geeks and needed a selection criteria, we restricted ourselves to UN member states).

As any kid who’s ever played this game will tell you it’s the letter X that’s the killer. (Xanadu isn’t a country, sorry). But there’s one other letter that no UN member state’s name begins with. Can you guess what it is? While you’re at it can you guess the letter the starts the most names?

Answers over the fold.

click here to read them

October 25, 2008

Beautiful Horizons

There’s something to be said for English. It may not sound like an extended poem like Spanish, or have the sweet-softened edges of French, but it’s a magpie’s nest full of words, either beautiful or, at the very least, fun. Luminous, wander, voyage, shade. Catapult. Caterwauling. Cacophony. Shout.

If there’s one area that does let us down it’s place names. Compare Johnsonville, Greytown and Lower Hutt to Rio de Janeiro (January’s River), Porto Alegre (Happy Port) and Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon).

A few years ago I spent 3 weeks in Belo Horizonte. I arrived groggy and folded from a 22 hour bus ride to discover myself in the middle of a metropolis home to a population greater than New Zealand’s. It was quite some time before I found the horizon. To do that I had to take us bus up into what my friends called favelas dos ricos – the favelas of the rich.

Once upon a time only the poor in Brazilian cities lived on the hillsides, the more affluent preferring the services and convenience of the flat. And so the word favela is associated by most Brazilians not only with slums but more specifically with slums on hills. You can still find plenty of these – perched above Rio, for example, are dangerous, violent ghettos with amazing ocean views. In Belo Horizonte though, in recent years the wealthy too have taken to the slopes. So some of the hillside suburbs are now covered in mansions – favelas for the rich.

The bus deposited me amongst big bold houses crouched behind fences. I picked a promising looking street, one which continued up, and began to walk. At first I wove between houses, thankful for the fences, protecting me from guard dog after guard dog, teeth bared between the bars. But, as I climbed the sections became larger until they stopped. The road now cut between trees on one side and a wall on the other – the edge of a military barracks, I guessed.

I kept going, puffing – conscious and anxious of the fact I was alone. Looking back at the beginnings of the view I watched a helicopter hover above a mansion’s helipad. If you’re really rich in Brazil you don’t commute on the dangerous, congested roads, you fly. In Sao Paulo, apparently, at rush hour the skies are filled by the wealthy avoiding the city they live within.

The end of the road, when I got there, was familiar in a way – two teenagers making out in their car, a dilapidated park, a light coating of rubbish – and Brazilian too: a man in a brown leather jacket holding a machete was selling soft drinks and coconuts. The machete was for the coconuts, of course, and no doubt it was just worry working my imagination, but something about the way he held that knife made me wonder what might happen if I declined to purchase something. Thirsty all of a sudden I bought a coconut when he asked, noting with some satisfaction that a car load of Brazilians who arrived shortly after me did exactly the same.

Sipping through a straw I wandered off and found my horizon already being swallowed by dusk and smog. Striving, like rainforest trees in search of the light, the buildings of the city below pressed up together in haphazard competition. Beyond them the suburbs stretched (the one I was staying in was so large that a taxi driver the night before had had to drive round for half an hour asking for directions to the address I’d given him). And then finally, after all that, the buildings gave way to the roll of hills and the undulating line that separated the darkening land from the orange of the sky.

Belo Horizonte earned its name, although in the interests of fairness I should disclose that Belo Horizonte itself is situated within a state called Minas Gerais (General Mines). Not all Brazilian place names are poetic.

Belo Horizonte from Favela dos Ricos

View from the window of the ambassador’s residence in Brasilia

October 22, 2008

Pen Tide

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:36 pm

I can’t be the only person who suffers from this:

The number of pens in my life fluctuates wildly. A few months ago I couldn’t open a drawer without finding at least a couple. Sometime since, quietly, one by one, they started slipping away from me. Now a 15 minute search might turn up one pen – if I’m lucky.

This has happened before, so I know that if I wait long enough the pen tide will turn. And then, before I know it I will be wondering whether the lean times were just a dream.

But why? It’s almost like there’s a critical mass of pens. A minimum viable population which below which the herd can’t sustain itself…

Come back pens.

October 18, 2008

We’re all Bagels Now

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 3:19 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I have a theory which almost works. It’s an attempt to explain the unexpected excitement I felt the first time I arrived in Long Island.

Long Island wasn’t anywhere I’d ever dreamed of going. It has no famous surf spots and the water’s cold. It’s neither remote, nor undiscovered. And, unlike Coney Island, I’d never sung along to songs about it. It was simply the place Bill and I were going to meet up with a friend whom we planned to drive to Mexico with.

But right from the first strutting flag and the first giant car I was taken. As the Long Island Expressway swept us into the heart of it all I babbled like a Valley Girl.

“My god, this road’s like 10 lanes wide or something”.

“Housing project! Ouuu that looks nasty”.

“Ha! the school bus, the school bus! it’s painted yellow like the ones on the Simpsons!”

I was practically hyperventilating by the time we got to Islip and the flat where our friend Scott lived.

There’s a whole other story to be told about the characters we met in our first night there (a woman who extolled the benefits of drinking one’s own urine, a man who had to be reassured that London was indeed in England…) but that’ll have to keep. I still need to tell you about my theory.

According to it, the excitement I felt on arriving in Long Island was a spiritual homecoming of sorts. The same thing Muslims feel in Mecca or Christians in Jerusalem. Or that a member of the Irish diaspora experiences on arriving in Dublin.

Of course, I’m not religious, or Irish, but I was raised in suburbia. My parents never instilled in me any identity as such and so I grew up the consummate suburbanite. And on arriving in Long Island, without intending to, I found myself in uber-suburbia. The streets were wider, the used car dealers more frequent, and the shopping malls both more grotty and more colossal. The makeup was thicker and the hairspray more aggressive. This, was home – home on steroids. And, so the theory goes, it resonated. Which is what made me excited.

As far as theories go it does almost work but it’s still, of course, utter bunk. I may be a suburbanite but I have no spiritual umbilical connection with the suburbs. I was simply excited because I was somewhere new. And, the fact I wasn’t expecting to be excited just meant that I was all the more so.  So my theory doesn’t work but I thought I’d at least try it out for size.

The next morning Bill and I tried Long Island on for size. One of our friend’s roommates took Bill and I out to buy bagels for breakfast. The Bagel store was a franchise joint at the edge of the local mall but as we trundled there in his pickup truck we were assured that that wouldn’t stop the bagels from being good.

“There’s no bad bagels in New York, guy.”

The length of the line outside the store was further evidence that these bagels were going to be ok. It snaked out from the store and into the car park.

It was a long line but it wasn’t messing about, and before we knew it we were at the counter – Bill in front of me.

“Whaddya want!” There’s no such thing as a small New Yorker and the guy behind the counter was no exception. Tall with a barrel chest that was beginning to sag, he had a boxer’s nose and a head topped with pissed-off looking hair.

“Uh, er, I’ll have a bagel please”. Compared to the New Yorker’s brogue, Bill’s mild Welsh accent sounded like Oxbridge English.

“Whatkinda bagel!” The bagel guy frowned in a manner that suggested the last thing he needed this morning was a cretin at the front of his queue.

“Well, ah, what have you got exactly?”

“Buddy, wegot fiftykindsof bagels! Wegot, cinamon! wegot Rye! wegot fivegrain! wegot plain salted…”

Behind us the queue was growing restless.

“Hey, you guys gonna order somethin’?” “Focking morons.” That chatter behind us took on the warning menace of a rattlesnake’s shaking tail.

Sensing trouble Bill interrupted the bagel-listing.

“I’ll have one of those please.”

“Wholegrain?”

“Yes, please.”

“And!?”

“And?” Bill voice began to tremble, just a little.

“Whatdoyawant on it!”

“Oh, ah, well, ah, what do you have to put on it?”

“Guy, we’ve got 24 different toppings! Wegot penutbutternjelly. Wegot creamcheese. Wegot creamcheesewithbacon…”

“I’llhavethat!” fear was helping Bill master the language.

“Creamcheese with bacon?”

“Yes”

“Great! and whattabout you littleguy?”

“I’ll-have-the-same-as-him!” I had no plans of messing round.

“Alright!”

And so it was. Bagels in hand we fled the store and out into the car park, where we had our first taste. They were good. Franchise or not. The first real bagel I’d ever eaten. (We did have things called bagels in New Zealand back then but they weren’t. They were donut shaped bread. No New Yorker could have eaten them and not felt grief.)

Anyhow, over the next 3 years I spent quite a lot of time in Long Island in separate stints – nearly 9 months all up. And the obvious way to end this post would be with me telling you that as time went on I adapted and adopted, and mastered the art of buying bagels from the store in the mall. Rattling off my order in a rapid-fire Kiwi-Long Island criole.

That would be a nice ending, but it wouldn’t be true. What actually happened is that I found a little family deli round the corner from the place I stayed and got my bagels there. Biking down under the quiet far-too-wide street and ordering my meal at my own uncertain pace.

October 15, 2008

Worthwhile Long Island Economist

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:12 pm
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Did you feel the jolt yesterday? That would have been the implosion of a certain portion of the political spectrum on learning that Long Island born economist Paul Krugman had won the (not quite) Nobel Prize for economics.

These days much of Krugman’s fame stems from his critique of the Bush administration (waged mostly through the his New York Times column). The Nobel, of course, wasn’t awarded for this but rather his work on New Trade Theory and Economic Geography.

Me personally, as a non-economist, I’ve got the most enjoyment out of another aspect of Krugman’s career: his vox pop writings explaining economics to the everyman (and woman). Have a look round his unofficial archive for some or read the Age of Diminished Expectations.

I also got a whole heap of enjoyment from this bit of satire in the Huffington Post (hat tip: mister Krugman himself).

October 13, 2008

Two!

I’m no fan of blood tests.

It’s not a rational thing. I know they won’t hurt. I know the needle is tiny. And I know I need to have them – both to monitor the progress of my arthritis and to make sure that the Warfarin has my blood clotting rates within a safe range.

I know all this.

But none of it can shake that feeling. The suspicion that the thirsty, nasty, little needle-sword is really up to no good.

So why then was so I happy this morning despite discovering that I got the wrong blood tests done last week? After all, wouldn’t this just mean that I had go back to the bleeding room again?

It did, but the mix up which took place was that I got my arthritis tests done instead of my INR (blood clotting). It’s my blood clotting that I need to monitor regularly and frequently at present, while I wasn’t planning to have my inflammatory markers tested for a few more weeks.

And so, had the mix up not occurred, I wouldn’t have learned this morning that my CRP is currently two.

Yes, people, you read that correctly – two. One more than one and so damn normal it makes Karori look edgy (normal range for CRP is 1-7). The last time I got tested my CRP was in the high forties which, we hoped at the time, simply reflected the shock of surgery. We worried though that it might be a sign that my arthritis was returning in the wake of the trauma that my body had just been through.

In the land of chronic illness there is little that can be said for certain and without crossed fingers. But learning that my CRP is normal is good news – it certainly seems much less likely now that I will be revisited by bad arthritis any time soon.

[applause]

October 11, 2008

The Correct Response

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:11 pm
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Back when I began loosing sleep over the financial crisis, Matt Nolan of The Visible Hand in Economics remained relatively sanguine. This was kindof calming: after all he’s the economist and my only real qualification is as a worrier.

These days he appears to have changed his tune. Which won’t help me sleep, but the spoof Economist cover will at least give me a few dark chuckles as I lie awake.

Summer’s Calling Card

Filed under: Staying Places — terence @ 3:36 pm
Tags: , ,

Three things I love about Nor’Westerly Gales:

1. The way they sweep across the harbour and over the Eastbourne hills, tearing at the native bush until whole hillsides roar with the motion of trees.

2. The way they peel white squalls from the sea at Sinclair Head and set them running, like ghost ships, south into the horizon.

3. The way they end, eventually, and leave days like today in their wake.

October 9, 2008

What makes me tick…

It was always going to happen and yesterday it did.

In a quiet meeting room, something was distracting my colleague, eventually she told me what.

“That watch of your is loud isn’t it?”

It wasn’t my watch.

Not all artificial aortic valves make a noise. Mine was silent for the first few days but overnight a couple of days after surgery that changed – to the consternation of my surgeon.

Anyhow, now I tick – like Peter Pan’s alligator. Like an over-loud wristwatch. Like a time bomb in a movie.

Like a turning car; driving today I caught myself checking my indicators, mistaking my valve for the tap they make when on.

The good news is that it is amazing how quickly I’ve gotten used to the sound.

I am thinking, though, that it might lead to some interesting times in airports…

October 7, 2008

Tormenta de Pirata

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:26 pm
Tags: ,

Tormenta de pirata – a pirate’s storm. A Costa Rican friend of mine used the phrase today to describe Wellington’s weather (85 knot gusts at Mount Kaukau this morning!)

It’s probably even more apt a term for the financial gale currently flattening banks and upturning markets.

Two questions:

1. Can governments and central banks do enough to prevent a complete capsize?

and

2. What will the implications for the global political economy be?

On the latter, Dani Rodrik gets it.

October 5, 2008

Wandering Stats

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 12:33 pm
Tags:

Would you think less of me if I confessed to following my blog stats?

I guess I deserve it, but I’m completely perplexed by them.

Why do they fluctuate so much?

The peaks and troughs seem to vaguely follow my posting activity; does this mean that most of the people who read this blog get the heads up from RSS feeds?

Or are there certain days of the week when people read blogs more often?

Maybe it’s all just spam-bots and crawlers, but WordPress’s stats are meant not to count these. And, anyway, why would the number of web crawlies change on any given day?

Signed:

Perplexed of Vanityblogville

Not Here!

Filed under: Angry — terence @ 12:00 pm
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Via Paul and Reading the Maps comes the depressing reminder that anti-Semitism still exists New Zealand.

This is not a political blog but there are some things that just need to be said:

If you believe that Jews control the world’s banking system you are not only stupid, you are also indulging in the essence of history’s most evil act.

And if you (as is alleged of Radio Live) provide a platform for this, you are not supporting free speech, you are aiding and abetting insanity.

October 2, 2008

A Holiday to Remember

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 6:11 pm
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I have a friend whose name isn’t Darren, and because it isn’t that’s what I’ll call him here.

And Darren had a friend whose name I really can’t remember, which is a pity cause she was definitely cool. Part Malaysian, well-travelled, smart and fun to hang out with. For the sake of this story I’ll call her Trish.

Darren and I ran into Trish in Bali. We’d been chasing waves around Indonesia for a couple of months and she was stopping through on her way home from Europe. Darren and Trish were happy to have stumbled across each other, I was happy for any excuse to party, and so we went out and got drunk in the bars of Jalan Legian.

Sometime towards the end of the night we ended up in the Sari Club (which a few years later was destroyed in the Bali bombings). I’m not exactly sure where Darren was but Trish and I were dancing. Or, more exactly, we were silly dancing. Sadly, I’m one of those men who when they try and dance seriously end up statuesque, anchored to the floor by self-conscious feet, and so if we wanted to dance it had to be the silly dance.

As we flapped and wiggled on the dance floor, Trish attracted the attention of a local guy. Someone who – judging by the way his long, well-groomed hair swum in gentle waves over his shoulders and the size of the muscles that tugged at his just-too-tight shirt – must have devoted plenty of time and self-worth into winning with the ladies. On another night, or in another place he might have been attractive. But that night, as he tried to triangulate the dance floor so it was him not me dancing with Trish he just seemed creepy.

Trish certainly wasn’t interested and I was going to run out of dance floor if he kept it up.

And so, following the advice of the Lonely Planet, I told him we were married.

“Sorry mate – kita karwin”

There was no need for me to use Indonesian, he spoke English just fine, and my slurring probably rendered what I had to say incomprehensible anyway. Which probably explains why my attempt at steering him away didn’t work. So next up Trish, who had the unfair advantage of speaking Malay (Malay and Indonesian are mutually intelligible) had a go.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t read the guide book.

“Not interested: I like girls and he likes boys.”

That was a mistake. Not because he actually believed her, I think. But more because he could now tell that we really, really didn’t take him seriously.

Puffed up in anger he turned away from Trish and shoved me. And then – whap! – punched me in the throat. It was hardly a hay-maker but, aimed as it was, it was enough to press the front of my windpipe against the back. I can still clearly remember, woven amongst my shock at what was happening, the distressing momentary choke.

Now I went to high school in the Hutt Valley which, at least back then, was a pretty rough place. Parties usually ended in fights and schoolyard legend was full of tales of the ‘morning-break when such and such broke so and so’s nose’. The consequence of this was not, however, any urge to be violent myself. Instead, I grew up to be a runner not a fighter or, if I was cornered, like I was this night, a real fast talker.

And that was a good thing. As anyone versed in surfing law will tell you, a bar fight in Bali, with a Balinese, will only end in disaster. Right up there with publishing a map of the last secret surf spot in Oregon (you’ll get shot), or stealing waves off large Hawaiian blokes (any number of things might happen – they all hurt). Locals always have more friends around than you and in Bali the locals, quite understandably, back each other.

But I can talk and Darren came over and helped too, and eventually, if slightly improbably, things were smoothed over.

And that’s the end of that story. Or at least it would be if it weren’t for the the life of tales.

Maybe 5 or 6 years later Darren and I, who hadn’t seen much of each other in the intervening years, were at a barbecue. As surfers do when drinking together we ended up telling travel tales. And Darren retold the story of the bar fight that night. Except that in his telling he was the one dancing with her and he was the one who got punched.

I didn’t say anything at the time; I didn’t know what to say. But I’ve wondered about this ever since.

I was there when Darren retold the tale. He knew I was there. He even started the story by turning to me and saying, “remember that time in the Sari Club”.

So I’m pretty sure that he must have told it believing he was telling the truth. Beer and travel have produced plenty of embellished tales over the years, as well as outright falsehoods. But if he was actively making this up would he really do so when the one person who could call bullshit on him was right there in the room with him?

So why then? My best guess is that, in the years we were apart, he retold the tale plenty of times – on the road, around camp fires, in bars… When you get it right it’s a pretty good story. The trouble is, to tell it well, you really need to be the centre of it. Stories where the other bloke got punched aren’t half as interesting as those where you did. So I suppose he tweaked the narrative to improve its telling, swapping my and his roles.

And eventually, over the years as he did this the tale became more tangible than his actual memories, and shifted them aside. By the time we were at the barbecue, his telling of the story had become the truth in his head.

I guess.

There is, of course, an alternative explanation. That he was the one who got punched and I’m the one guilty of telling tales until they they become more tangible than actual events. As you may have noticed from this blog I do like telling stories.

But I don’t know though, that punch still feels awfully real…could I actually have woven it together with words?

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