Wandering Thoughts

April 28, 2009

Life in the Slow Lane

I was living in London when I had my first attack of reactive arthritis. Every couple of days I’d take the underground from Bethnal Green where I was couch sitting to Charing Cross Hospital. Sometimes, when I felt up to it, I’d stop and sight-see on the way. I was more mobile then than now, but still painfully slow.

And so I spent a lot of time hobbling in and out of Tube Stations. I would alight from the train, shuffle out of the way, and start towards the exit. First amongst a throng, then a crowd, then a trickle. Then by myself, in the empty echoing tunnels. If the station was large enough, or the walk long enough, other trains would arrive, and the walkway around me would fill with sound and people again, before it emptied out. Occasionally, I’d have company; the brave or determined elderly. Sometimes there’d be a line of us, spread out along the handrails like mountain climbers on a rope.

The other day, I was having coffee with a friend who also has a chronic illness. We talked, as we often do, about the frustrations of being unwell. One frustration that I wouldn’t have predicted in the days before the arthritis is the frustrated grind of expectations, the things I want to do with my life, still set by the norms of the people around me and life before I was sick, against the realities of being unwell. Things could be much worse, and I’m lucky and have a lot to be thankful for. But it’s hard not to feel sorry for yourself sometimes when it seems like life’s bustling out of the station in front of you, and you’re left limping along behind.

Or, at least, that’s the glum view of it all. What I need to remember is that, despite the faltering steps, I still made it out of the Underground in the end, and got to see most, if not all, of the things the city had to offer…

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April 26, 2009

Close Enough to Home

I took a creative writing course once. In it, the lecturer explained that the tension you feel in Shakespeare’s sonnets is that of the English language being stretched to breaking point. Well, it looks like it just snapped.

Picture taken on our way out to Jo’s mum’s.

The Hutt Valley tries hard to throw off it's stereotypes. Unfortunately, some residents just keep letting the team down.

The Hutt Valley tries hard to throw off its stereotypes. Unfortunately, some residents just keep letting the team down.

April 25, 2009

Agnostic Wonderings

Yesterday evening I caught the wrong bus and ended up by Te Papa. Lured by the salt-smell I limped to the wharf’s edge and watched the street lights prick the dusk. Hills wrapped round the windless harbour like the frame around a mirror. And above it all quiet grey sheets of cloud began to fade back into the sky.

Standing there, listening the burble as a wake washed against the bollards, I started thinking of the sublime. Surely, a universe which is so beautiful, so often, and in so many different ways, has to have a purpose. A meaning, an order, a reason. Surely. Standing there I could feel it. I could almost be convinced.

And yet. In 1994, in the space of 100 days, Hutu genocidaires killed 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda. During the 1970s Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge wiped out nearly a quarter of the population of Cambodia.  Millions died in the Holocaust, and in Stalin’s Gulag. How can all this have a purpose or a reason? What order did it serve? What kind of higher power would let all that happen?

Both meaningful and meaningless universes seam impossible to me. But one of them must exist.

April 20, 2009

Reviews

Filed under: Books,Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 6:51 pm
Tags: , ,

Via a couple of threads at Crooked Timber, I’ve joyfully stumbled upon the reviews and essays of George Scialabba. As someone who tries to write book reviews from time to time I’ve been reading Scialabba’s reviews both for the books they detail and for the techniques in use.

One trick, which Tim Flannery is a master of, is to sneak the niftiest facts from the book and put them in the review. And so, a delighted ol’ me read last night that:

On October 25, 1946, Popper addressed the Moral Science Club at Cambridge University. Wittgenstein was Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and chairman of the club. Popper had recently arrived in England to take up a post at the London School of Economics, and “The Open Society” had just been published to great acclaim. He was on a roll. But Wittgenstein was already a legend, enthroned on his own private Olympus. He was accustomed to ignore, interrupt, and generally intimidate visiting speakers. A clash was inevitable. The meeting room was crowded with dons and students; even Bertrand Russell was there.

Popper’s talk was titled “Are There Philosophical Problems?” This was a red flag for Wittgenstein, who charged in, interrupting Popper. Popper stood his ground. Wittgenstein waxed wroth. The chairman’s seat was next to the fireplace, so Wittgenstein picked up a poker, jabbing the air with it as he paced and spoke. At one point Popper asserted that moral principles revealed the existence of philosophical problems. Give me an example of a moral principle, thundered Wittgenstein. Quick-wittedly Popper replied: “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.” Dumbfounded, Wittgenstein flung down the poker and left the room.

Wittgenstein’s supporters, it should be said, dispute this version of events.

And, I have to confess, I laughed harder than I ought when I read that, ‘[a]ccording to the late Ayatollah Khomeini: “Economics is for donkeys.”’ Which is not my opinion, I hurry to add, nor that of the reviewer, or of the authors of the books being reviewed. And what’s wrong with donkeys anyhow?

April 19, 2009

Gravel Roads and Aching Bones

Wednesday

Holidays in aching bones are different, but different isn’t always bad. I’d rather be walking or surfing but I’m not. And so –

When you can’t move much you think carefully about the place you’re going to stay. And when you’re there, you notice things that might have passed you by had your own momentum been greater.

We’re at Riversdale, staying in a cabin in the grounds of Orui station. A quiet bend in the coast; the weather tempered by topography. Other than summer holidays it’s rarely busy; on weekdays in winter it’s on the edge of empty. There are irritations – joyriding teenagers in quad bikes first amongst them – but they’re usually escapable.

On calm mornings, the sun wakes up over the glassy sea, warm from the first, washing everything in melted red, then green. On days like today when the Nor’Wester is blowing the sky becomes stretched; rain clouds trapped far to the west along the Tararuas, high clouds spread out, hurrying – bent by the jet stream into streaks and sweeps.

The first afternoon we were here I went for a bodysurf. Limber enough, just. Catching the waste high waves that pitched over the sandbars. I even got a couple of barrels, a couple of moments watching the pitch and swirl of watery light before being tumbled through the shallows. As I did all this – some weird middle aged guy in a wetsuit and a hood, bounding about in the already too cold sea – the day gave way to evening and strokes of sunlight turned everything to a weary rural gold.

Yesterday we drove up to the empty coast at Otahome, looking north to Castlepoint. Today I’m sitting by the cabin, on the edge of the homestead’s gardens, kept company by the farm cat. There’s a grey warbler singing somewhere and the wind is in the trees, coaxing quiet applause from the poplars and sighs from the ancient pines.

The sky is sailing by – a storm in the Tasman maybe but here, two mountain ranges East we’re far enough away for all of that to be missing us, resting by the sea.

-~-

Sunday

And yesterday we drove home, via Flatpoint, along the gravel forestry road, break pads smelling of burning dust. I scanned the coast for surf spots and we made it to Gladstone by late afternoon. The grass was still summer brown but the willows and poplars were filled with autumn colours. Chocolate in Greytown and sun set as we got home.

April 13, 2009

The Evening

Filed under: Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 8:44 am
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The wind was howling when I got there, clattering out of the valley, blowing chops up the faces of the waves, blowing plumes of spray off their backs. It filled the air with salt water rain, making it almost impossible to see. Still wondering if I should have stayed at home and finished that essay, I paddled out and caught a couple, free-fall drops, bouncy walls, racing barrels.  A few other surfers joined me. It was fun enough in a difficult sort of way.

Eventually, the evening worked its spell and – sun beyond the horizon, water changing colour – the wind dropped back. The waves got better as the day ran out until, right on the edge of dark, the set came through: shadowy swells filling the bay, the biggest waves of the afternoon. One of the Maori guys who lived up the valley caught the first one, dropping out of the lip to the hoots of his mates. I was next in line, the second one was mine, thick low swell bent into the bay. Humming with nervous excitement – don’t blow it, don’t blow it – I paddled out, spun and starting paddling in, matching the wave’s speed as it steepened, jumping to my feet as it became vertical. With a yell I called an interloper off and dropped, board falling under me. Turning at the bottom, I could see the wall beginning to bend in on itself. After that everything was instinct. I held my turn back for a moment, then angled up the wave, stalling, loosing speed, and then back down again, now pointed for the shoulder, in the pocket, accelerating. The wave turned concave, it’s dark-dark green lip throwing over me, and I was standing in the tube, chattering mind silenced for a moment, weaving my way through, section after section throwing over me.

Just before the closeout the wave backed off, letting me out and leaving me time to straighten out in front of the whitewater. Laughing, singing to myself; happy, happy at the end of the day.

April 10, 2009

Wipeout!

Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 9:10 am
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On You Tube – the Verizon Wireless big wave wipeout awards. For what it’s worth, Ross Clark Jones gets my vote.

Funnily enough, the worst wipeout I ever saw didn’t involve a surfer at all. I was travelling north through Latin America and had stopped for a week in Puerto Escondido. The last two days the swell got huge – long lines of menace heaving in from the unending Pacific. Grinding top to bottom closeouts exploding sand-saturated water into the sky. Evil rips snaking out to sea.

I quit while I was ahead and, along with everyone else, sat it out in my hammock. Safe on the hill, yet still swallowing adrenaline with each set that thundered in.

On the second afternoon, cooled by a gentle sea breeze, I was sitting watching, scaring myself with thoughts of actually going for a surf, when I saw the Pelicans. Just beyond the breaking waves, two of them, feeding on a school of fish.

Pelicans are actually amazing surfers. You’d see them in the morning at Puerto, riding the offshore breeze, skimming along the tops of the steepening swells, sailing to safety on the updrafts above the breaking waves.  But these two were concentrating on the fish – caught up in a feeding frenzy. And, as any big wave surfer can tell you, when the surf’s huge it really pays to keep your eyes fixed out to sea. They’d been feeding for maybe 15 minutes slowly following the fish in, when a giant set groaned in out of the green and blue. Tripping on the shallower sand, the waves stood up like apartment blocks. And the Pelicans figured it all out too late. Desperately flapping, clumsy in take off, trying to get above the rising swells. The first bird made it, just squeaking over the top of the biggest wave. The second one didn’t stand a chance. By the time it was flying properly, the wave – at least five times overhead for a human, impossibly huge for a bird – was on top of it, a giant, barreling righthander.

It was hopeless but, in do or die-mode, the bird did everything right. Rather than try and fly over the beyond vertical breaking wave, it banked off the wall and sped south, heading for the shoulder and a chance of escape. It’s exactly what any surfer would have done. And for a moment I thought it might win the race, gathering speed in the mouth of a cave-like barrel, desperately aiming for unbroken water.

But it wasn’t to be. Not quite fast enough, it got winged by the upwash of the exploding lip and in an instant was gone, engulfed in detonating water. Unaware, the wave steamed on in but I was on my feet now, shouting at the wind.

Caught right in the heaviest part of a huge set wave, on a maxed out day at one of the world’s most dangerous surf spots, the bird had to be dead. Ripped wing from wing, I figured. Sitting back down, I stared out over the stella white sweep of foam that followed in the set’s wake, looking for a body. Nearly a minute went by. Then, all of a sudden, there it was! Way on the inside, near the beach, flopping around in the water. Alive, but broken surely. It tried to take off, but got hit by a whitewater, and washed further in. And then, in a gap between waves, the impossible happened. It steadied itself, flapped its wings, built up speed, got gliding, made it over the next whitewater, and soared to safety out to sea.

Up on the hillside, the witness to all this, I stood back up out of the hammock and started to clap and cheer.

April 7, 2009

Obligatory Wednesday Post

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:24 pm

Or something. Anyhow, a very good review by John Gray(?!) of Margaret Atwood’s Massey Lectures.

April 4, 2009

Fishing

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 6:44 am
Tags: , ,

As the setting sun etched Marlborough from the western horizon, we set on a bench by the melted-glass sea, watching a husband and wife bring a long line in. He waded into the gentle swash and gathered large sweeps of nylon, while she looped coils; division of labour thread together by quiet chatter.

I envied the passtime that brought them to the beach amongst the evening’s calm.

We waited until the fish came in, hooked on bifurcations from the central line, swerving left and right, fighting against the water that left them behind. He plucked them out one by one, different shapes and sizes, and set them in a plastic crate of freshwater to drown. Killed by rules no one explained, they flipped and flopped against each other. Ebbing. Ebbing. An orange fish opened and shut fins like Japanese fans, trying for purchase in the unanswering air. I chewed glumly on my pizza and thought of drowning swimmers waving for help off empty beaches.

Behind us a car drove by, a trailer in its wake, an unshackled safety chain rattling angryly as it bounced along the road. Kapiti Island sat patiently, as the evening dressed it in shadows. Seagulls watched our dinner sulkily. And the fisherman took the smallest fish, freed the hook from its jaw, and set it back into the sea.

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