Rehashing (iv)

I promise I won’t keep doing this too much longer. Maybe one more after this. But here’s one more rehashed newspaper column from the past, this one from June this year, which still feels like a long enough time ago to refer to it as the past. A lot has happened in the past month or so for me and it feels like I really was a different person in June.

On comfort

It’s 8:44pm and pouring down – rain as loud as a recycling truck. When it rains at night I feel myself come a bit more alive, like a worm wriggling up to the surface to see what’s going on. I feel safer and more comfortable, because heavy rain means that everything can stop. You can wriggle to the surface of just this hour, just this night, and stay there. You don’t have go anywhere else in your head, not even to tomorrow. Basically I’m saying it’s an opportunity to have a good old-fashioned wallow.

But to get really, deeply comfortable – I mean, a comfort that is more than just momentarily enjoyable, like going into a furniture shop and testing all the couches without any intention of buying one – you’ve got to get uncomfortable first. The more uncomfortable the better. Sitting inside listening to heavy rain is nice, but being caught in that same rain on your bike on your way home, in anticipation of sitting inside listening to rain, is even nicer. It’s like our spirits need to be broken down, just a little bit, so we can really feel what we have when we return to it. It’s why people run ultramarathons, or dive into lakes in winter, or go to Glastonbury.

That said, there’s a risk of overthinking the discomfort/comfort equation. I once bought a new duvet that was more comfortable than any other duvet in my life. Sometimes I would be lying in bed and I’d feel so comfortable under this duvet that I would start to panic. Had I done enough for this comfort? Had I been sufficiently uncomfortable during the day? And was this duvet as comfortable as I was ever going to feel, or was there something even better out there? It was the feeling I imagine people get when they install a big fancy pizza oven in their backyard, and eat pizza all the time – great, but every so often that nagging thought: is this it? (Of course it’s possible that the pizza people never, ever have that thought. I don’t know.)

It’s like the German philosopher Hegel said: ‘What the English call “comfortable” is something endless and inexhaustible. Every condition of comfort reveals in turn its discomfort, and these discoveries go on for ever.’ Those might be the bleakest two sentences I’ve ever read. Hegel wasn’t talking so much about duvets as he was about how others can profit from the discomforts we go on discovering, and how sometimes we don’t even feel uncomfortable unless someone tells us that we are and that we could do better. Either way, discomfort – some new sense of inadequancy, some new hankering – has a way of arising pretty soon after we’re satisfied.

I watched a short documentary this week about a guy who ate only tins of beans for 40 days, inspired by a Steinbeck novel in which a poor family lives off beans. The documentary-maker ate different sorts of beans – black beans, four-bean mix, baked beans – and he ate each tin cold, with a spoon, averaging five tins a day. At the end of the 40 days he ran a 50 kilometre race, I guess to see what it would feel like to be literally made of beans and what his bean body would feel like when challenged – not very good, it turned out. Without the variety of foods he usually ate, he felt like he’d lost his personality. His sense of humour vanished, his crankiness increased. He was lost to himself. For a film about beans, it got existential pretty quick.

I think that like the food we eat we are made of the things that make us feel comfortable. Our routines, our favourite chairs, our pets, our favourite topics of conversation, our opinions – they’re not who we are, exactly, but they allow us to access who we feel we are. And if those things are taken away or upended, it forces us to adapt, which at first feels horrible, even shaming – it can make you feel sort of weak.

It’s still pouring down. A branch lands on the roof with a crash. As well as the worms, I often think about the birds when it rains. What are their feelings about rain? What do they think it is? Does a bird feel discomfort, or does it only ever endure the moment it is in, huddling and shivering, tucking in its head and puffing up into the shape of a little tennis ball? But obviously the bird has adapted to bad weather. Its body knows what to do. Even as it shivers like crazy and clings miserably to its branch, its tiny heart keeps beating, keeping it warm, keeping it alive.

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Rehashing (iii)

Today’s rehashed column is from August 2019, just after Ronnie Van Hout’s sculpture Quasimodo was installed on the roof of the Wellington City Gallery.

The Hand     

I’m going to look at the Hand in Wellington’s Civic Square for the first time. My visit feels dutiful. There has been a lot of talk about the Hand, much of it strangely sexual in nature, some of it dismissive, even disgusted. I have to go and see the Hand in the flesh so that I, too, can have an opinion.

I park my bike near the defunct library. The sun is out, the breeze is fussing. Surrounded by empty buildings, Civic Square has felt like a dead space for months. But as I enter the square and see the Hand, immediately I can see that it has changed everything. Its presence is electrifying. The Hand braces itself on the art gallery roof, like a weather vane. Perhaps in a former life it behaved as one, a finger pointing in the wind’s direction. Now it is unmoved by all weathers.

People stare at it openly, smiling. Some millennials arrive and start laughing and reeling about. The Hand remakes everything as its stage – the onlookers, the sky, the buildings, time itself. A few people are hurrying along and not looking at the Hand. The effort of ignoring the Hand radiates from them; their internal battle – Do not look at it – echoes in their footsteps. I hear a man say defiantly, ‘Well, I love it.’ Someone else says, ‘Yeah, not a fan,’ as if such disapproval could ever surprise the Hand, as if the Hand could ever be cheered by the validation of others anyway. A man ambles through the square with a ghetto blaster under one arm. His tracksuit has ‘Google Me’ written all over it. He is playing a grim karaoke recording of John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’. Normally this karaoke man would be the centre of attention. Today he is a distant star. The Hand possesses all gravity now.

I sit on a bench to look up at it, feeling intoxicated. At each moment the Hand surrenders to being looked at. Its expression is that of someone who knows we are looking but also knows we will look away, that its abject existence is too uncomfortable to contemplate for more than a short time. It knows that even the weather eventually turns away.

I recall watching a video of the Hand’s maker, Ronnie Van Hout, installing his sculpture Comin’ Down on the roof of 209 Tuam Street, Christchurch in 2013. The sculpture is of a very tall man, also with the likeness of Van Hout, wearing a suit and Converse sneakers. The man points his impossibly long arm at the sky, or maybe the arm points itself of its own volition. Van Hout adds the finishing touches to the figure and clambers, grinning, back inside a window, and suddenly the rain comes heaping down, and in that moment the pointing figure seems to own the rain and the sky itself.

As I look at the Hand, trying to form an original and tweetable opinion, I realise that my opinion is simply that I love the Hand.

But love is such an animal response. I need something more. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to say what the Hand means, beyond how wretched it feels to be an outsider, like Quasimodo in his bell tower. I sit there trying to figure it out. Is the Hand saying something about the exhausting process of creating, of producing? The knowledge that no matter how hard one works, they won’t be able to escape who they are, or how they’re seen? Is it something about how simultaneously we lean towards and recoil from the grotesque? I like what Van Hout said in a recent interview with Megan Dunn – that the Hand ‘never gets to go inside to hang with the real art. He’s like a working-class schmuck at a private-school event, who feels terribly out of place.’ You could say that up on the roof he’s at that same private-school event, still jostled by opinions and stares, still denounced as ‘not real art’.

But when I look around again – people smiling and laughing and recoiling – it’s clear that the Hand has made a sanctuary of itself, like a dancing man at a party who at first looks to be embarrassing himself but then suddenly becomes pretty good. From moment to moment, the Hand offers itself up. Here is something for us to love or despise. A reason to gather, with our pitchforks or bouquets or secret proclivities. The Hand gifts us its freakishness to make of what we will.

I feel very happy in the presence of the Hand. In the sky behind it, a plane leaves white trails. I have a plane to catch soon too. The sun flickers. Under the Hand, anything feels possible.

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Looking at a house

Hundreds of dolphins are in the Cook Strait. Dolphins and dolphins. The water is leaping with them. I look and look. Their bodies gleam and fizz, silver and white. It’s more dolphin than water. I will remember this crossing forever. The man sitting beside me on the plane – the same man I sat next to on the way over – is looking down at them too. We’re at the part of the crossing where it’s only sea in both directions. I look ahead and see that the dolphins go for miles and miles. They leap and gleam all the way to the horizon, and now I see they aren’t dolphins, they’re just waves that have a dolphin-like aspect to them, breaking out in the middle of the sea and reforming and breaking.

Earlier that morning I went out running early. My bad leg was hurting and I knew I’d pay for it later but I kept going, thinking I might as well enjoy the last few moments of running when I still could. I crossed the bridge and in the river a pair of ducks were leaving their tiny ribbons of wake and a boat was moored in total stillness. Around the corner from my parents’ house a white-haired man was walking towards me. About 100 metres away I saw that it was my dad. I hardly ever see my dad walking along a street – usually he’s sitting down or padding around the house in socks. It was almost unnatural, like when you see someone standing perfectly upright as they glide down the street on one of those one-wheeled scooter things. I kept running, and the man got closer and slowed to a stop, and it was Dad again.

Usually my dreams disperse quickly but lately they hang over the whole day. And I can’t sleep well because I find it hard to commit to any one anxiety. I lie awake for hours arguing with myself over what I should feel the worst about. Eventually I fall asleep for a short time, then wake up again with some even better ideas.

We’ve gone to look at a house. Although the house itself looks small and barren, standing up on little sticks that keep it clear of the mud, I’m feeling hopeful. There’s a triangular lawn with a sprinkler on it, and a lemon tree. Across the road, waves crash over a beach. There’s a feeling of prosperity in the air, as if some things might be within reach again. This house was formerly owned by a family of bears, the real estate agent tells us, but they’ve taken good care of the property. He shows us inside. A rapidly flowing stream runs through the house; the water is full of giant eels and salmon, though they are all belly-up and being swept along chaotically in the current. The house is dim, mostly windowless. One room is filled with cooked peas and we have no choice but to go through them, holding out our arms to push our way in. ‘Be careful. Harold loved these peas,’ the real estate agent says. ‘A condition of ownership would be upkeep of the peas.’ Desperation seizes me and I say, ‘Of course. We’d make it a priority.’ Back outside, the agent tells us, ‘I know it doesn’t look like much. But this is top-notch when we look at other homes in the area. And structurally it’s very sound.’ He tells us the asking price, but I can’t hear the number he’s saying, only the noise that the number makes – it’s a guttural hiss, like a goose warning us to steer clear of its nest. The number blurs into the waves.

I’ve downloaded this experimental app called Woebot. It’s meant to help you with your mood and so on. It’s not perfect because its responses can only go along a few particular paths, and sometimes it gets stuck going in circles. ‘Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious,’ Woebot says. ‘Afraid of being forgotten,’ I type. ‘Did you mean to delete something?’ Woebot replies. ‘No,’ I reply. ‘OK. Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious.’ ‘Afraid of being forgotten.’ ‘Did you mean to delete something?’ ‘No.’ ‘OK. Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious.’ I give up and say, ‘Can’t sleep.’ The bot has an upbeat, empathetic persona and it praises you for saying things that it know how to respond to. It knows what to say about ‘black-and-white thinking’, ‘self-blame’, and ‘defeat’. But the truth is that the bot is almost completely useless. At the end of an exchange it asks you to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down for the session. Sometimes I give it a thumbs down, but I feel bad about doing it. It’s like when an engineer kicks a robot dog to see whether it can get back up. The bot replies to my thumbs down, ‘Okay. Thanks for letting me know’ and something hardens between us. The next time I open it up again, it says ‘I’m so glad when you reach out!’ as if nothing ever happened.

I meet my friend for a beer and he mentions, quietly, ‘We have a new baby in the house.’ It almost sounds like they’ve just discovered that the house has been bugged and they’re still deciding whether to go to the authorities, or just play it cool for now. My brothers and I used to be very interested in bugs – I think we assumed that by setting up a tiny recording device in a hidden place, we would immediately be privy to top-secret information. If people were ever out of your earshot, secrets would fall from them. A secret house would rise around them, secret rooms would open up, secret lives, but if you had been smart enough to plant a bug in there you would know all of it and you would become immensely powerful. Not being a spy wasn’t an option.

I get into the habit of repeating ‘Calm and safe, calm and safe’ in my head when I can’t sleep. I wake up looking forward to when I can look back and see that nothing is what I thought it was, it’s just a wave breaking.

I’m in a crowded stadium to see a band that my brother is performing in. My friend is somewhere in the audience too, but far away, on the other side of the stadium. I search with my binoculars and eventually find them sitting in a row far up in the sky. They’re sitting with their new family and a long time has clearly passed, years, and we’re both so much older, older in a way we swore we would never be. But they are so high up in the cloud that they keep appearing and disappearing, the way the South Island does when you look for it from the North Island, and I feel homesick for them. I’ve never forgotten, I have just been waiting – though, for what? Soon the band starts playing, and it’s a new sort of music, where the songs are actually just heated arguments about different subjects, set to a laser light show.

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Send in the clowns

A while I wrote something about clown collars for Metro magazine, but a month later Metro folded. I thought I’d post this here anyway – something from the Before times. I remember being a bit nervous about this piece because I thought I’d get in trouble with anti-cat people about it. But I’m pretty sure none of them read my blog, so we should be safe here.

Six months ago my cat brought in a young sparrow. I recognised the sparrow immediately. It was the same one he had brought in just the day before. I’d thought I had saved that sparrow’s life. I had scooped it up and it chirruped and flapped and looked like it might be okay. I locked Jerry inside and carried the bird deep into the scrub below my flat and released it into a small, seemingly hidden nook. It had flapped away energetically. Now here it was again. Both our nightmares, playing out again.

‘Dammit, Jerry,’ I yelled. I scooped up the bird. It barely moved. As I carried it outside, it died in my hand. I have never felt anything like it: that tiny life fading away.

That was when I knew I had to recommit to the BirdsBeSafe collar. ‘That’s right,’ I said to Jerry, now lolling like a failed pavlova on the floor. ‘You brought this on yourself.’ But I had brought it on him too. I was the one who let him roam freely outdoors. The times I’d tried to keep him consistently indoors during the day, he’d go so stir-crazy he would develop a urinary blockage. It was time to put him back in costume.

The BirdsBeSafe collar is a brightly coloured ruff, both regal and clown-like, designed to detract birds, especially songbirds, whose eyes are especially sensitive to bright colours. The idea is that the birds are more likely to notice a clowned-up cat from a distance, so they will have enough time to fly away. It looks like the collars detract reptiles too. Field studies in North America, Australia, and the UK have found that they make a difference, with a reduction of at least 50% in birds and reptiles caught, and in a 2019 study a reduction of 78% birds. They’re said to be more reliable than the old bell-on-the-collar trick, which cats can sabotage with some especially judicious creeping. I first tried the collars in 2016, as part of a short Wellington-wide study of their efficacy, and after the study finished I kept Jerry in the collar for a few months. He brought no birds or lizards home. But he kept losing the collars – he’d go out in full regalia then come home naked. I wondered, darkly, if someone in the neighbourhood was stealing the collars, and entertained the idea of fitting Jerry with a Go-Pro so that I could catch the culprit. The collars were making me paranoid. And broke. BirdsBeSafe is a US company, and ordering a pack of three ruffs and the safety breakaway collars that go inside them, plus postage, is over US$100. After Jerry lost one collar too many, I gave up. The lost collars issue was one of the reasons why the 2016 Wellington study was ultimately inconclusive, the lead researcher Heidy Kikillus tells me (though there was anecdotal success).

Still, after the sparrow incident, I was determined. I got more collars. Each morning I fussed to get the collar on properly while he waited – he seemed almost to enjoy this ritual – then he would trot out the door cheerily like a kid off to clown school. He wore the collar well. I would glimpse him around the garden, sprouting up like a weird flower. Disconcertingly, he reminded me of an Anne Geddes baby. I read that to other cats he might look more formidable, which would discourage fighting, so I hoped the collar would give him an advantage in stand-offs with Kevin, the tallest cat in the neighbourhood.

I was about to move to a new suburb, though. It was nestled right up close to Zealandia, where over forty different native bird species have been recorded. This was high risk. I kept thinking of the horror story of the lone cat that decimated a colony of banded dotterel in Eastbourne, wiping out all of the eggs and chicks – two years in a row – and how conservationists were powerless to make the cat’s owner do anything about it. I thought of the small, drab, but iconic Lyall’s wren, said to have been both discovered and exterminated by a lighthouse keeper’s cat. Forest and Bird estimates that New Zealand’s domestic cats alone kill more than one million native birds each year. (This doesn’t include feral cats, which also do great damage.) In the new neighbourhood, while keeping Jerry indoors to adjust, I saw collarless cats plodding about freely.

Many cat owners, myself included, see their cats as extensions of themselves. We don’t like to be reminded that cats are apex predators that, if we’re honest, shouldn’t be here at all. Some people take this personally and get defensive, like the wild-eyed guy in a bandana who came up to me once when I was buying cat biscuits at the dairy and hissed, ‘This bloody council is trying to take away our cats!’ He told me to check out his website, before riding away on his motorbike laden with Fancy Feasts. Underlying a love of cats is the human susceptibility to soft, podgy, friendly creatures. If Wellington’s most gregarious cat, Mittens, were a bird or a lizard, he’d be a nobody. But at the sight of a cute creature, our brains are flooded with dopamine, the same neurotransmitter involved when we fall in love, and most of us have a strong urge to pat that belly. In 2009 scientists found that when people looked at pictures of kittens or puppies, their fine-motor skills were enhanced, as if readying to hold a newborn baby.

The collar didn’t help in reminding me of Jerry’s inherently villainous nature. In fact, it humanised him further. In certain lights, it made him look like a nice man on his way to a poetry reading. Again the collars seemed effective – he brought in neither birds nor lizards, though his mouse-hunting skills were clearly uninhibited – but before long he lost a collar during a brawl. I heard the unmistakeable yowl of fighting cats and went outside; Jerry was sprinting down the driveway naked. I half expected to see the other cat parading about triumphantly with the collar on.

Jerry in clown collar

Jerry is getting older and slower now. He spends a lot of time sleeping on a bunch of tomato plants. But when awake he still surveys his territory like a nerdy detectorist, and I don’t trust him. I wish it were possible for my love of Jerry to end any argument about whether cats should be allowed here. I wish all I had to do was rhapsodise about this tiny presence who shapes my days, who follows me to the top of the driveway each morning to see me off, practically waving a handkerchief as I cycle away. Embarrassing to say it, but there was a time that Jerry’s calm, jolly presence saved me from a full-blown mental breakdown. But it is difficult to justify owning a cat when you also love and fear for native wildlife. It’s possible, obviously, to love both fiercely. I understand why some people are vehemently anti-cat, but extreme calls for eradication are, frankly, messed up. Cats are too deeply interwoven in our lives. Caring for an animal teaches us how to respect more vulnerable creatures than ourselves and to consider sensibilities beside our own; these are skills that humans need more than ever. So we have a responsibility to minimise their impact, and clown collars are really due a more comprehensive study here. Also, imagine if every cat you saw was wearing one. It would be like the greatest circus came to town and never left.

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Rehashing (ii)

It’s a strange feeling to revisit some of my old Canvas columns. Last week I was trying to write a short piece for Essential Services, a new magazine by former Metro editor Henry Oliver, about writing a column and why I decided to stop writing mine. I went back and looked at some of my old pieces and mostly it’s like someone else wrote them. This one is from February this year, a few weeks before lockdown.

On moving

I’m standing outside my old flat, waiting for an Uber ride to my new flat. I feel bad about the Uber, but I’m tired enough to let myself off the hook of ethical conduct – which in itself is a worrying thought. Maybe the tireder we get, the more evil we become. But the bus wasn’t due for another forty minutes. I am carrying a vacuum cleaner, a mop, some sponges, Jif, and about 700 cables in a bucket. I can’t remember what any of the cables are for. It seems important not to throw them away. Cables will always hold an aura of preciousness to me, because they used to be so hard to get. Now I feel overwhelmed by them.

This is the last bunch of stuff from my old flat. I have been cleaning the ceilings there and worrying about landlords and money and the future.

When I get into the car with my things, the driver says, ‘Take it easy!’ I think, maybe he has a point. Maybe easy is right there and I just have to take it.

We are going up a twisty narrow hill and the driver seems uncertain. I don’t blame him. It’s a stingy bit of road with lots of sudden blind corners, like it was designed for a psychic stunt driver. There is a car coming fast towards us. There is also a cyclist just in front of us. The driver pulls out anyway to pass the cyclist, but the road is too narrow with the car coming the other way. The driver clips the cyclist and the cyclist falls off, with a dull clank, onto the road.

My blood goes cold and I open the door and jump out. ‘Are you okay?’ I say. The cyclist is a young woman and she is dragging herself and her bike up off the road. There is no obvious blood but she looks upset. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I keep saying. ‘He shouldn’t have done that.’ It is terrifying not knowing if someone is okay and the reason that they might not be okay is because you called an Uber to take you up a hill that cars shouldn’t even be allowed to drive up. ‘I’m okay,’ she says, but her expression is one that I recognise from being knocked off my bike and almost knocked off my bike by cars a number of times, when they haven’t seen me, or have seen me and decided to just drive into me anyway. There is some anger in the expression, and shakiness, but also bewilderment, like: ‘Did you just forget I was a person? Did you think that maybe I was a supermarket trolley trundling along the road, instead of a person, and it didn’t matter?’ I sometimes have this sense – and maybe this is unfair, but it’s just my sense – that certain drivers see cyclists as body-shaped piles of debris moving around in the air and if you drive into them it will scatter the debris gently, like a leafblower scattering leaves, but it won’t cause any real harm.

The driver does not get out of the car. He sits there idling. Eventually I’ve established that the cyclist is okay, so I give her my cellphone number if she needs a witness and tell her I’m sorry again and then get back in the car. ‘Did she lose her balance?’ says the driver as he continues on. ‘It looked like she lost her balance and shouldn’t be on the road.’ I want to ask the driver if he has lost his mind. Instead I say, ‘No, you didn’t give her enough space.’

I feel myself puffing up, the way I sometimes do when any conversation turns to drivers v. cyclists. It’s like the Hulk, but instead of muscles popping out, it’s like Lycra pants suddenly appear on my legs and a helmet pops onto my head. ‘I’m a cyclist,’ I huff, ‘and often people don’t give me enough space either. You have to be more mindful when you are passing.’ This outburst over, I subside back into my ordinary form.

The driver repeats his assertion that the cyclist lost her balance. I give up and hug my bucket of cables.

We continue on and the hill grows ever more full of itself. The hill is verging on prima donna, now. I think about the cyclist and how someone’s day can be turned crappy while someone else’s day rolls along just fine, and how if there was more basic thoughtfulness and care then they both could continue to have fine days. It takes a long time to reach the new flat. It’s been ages since I lived in a different neighbourhood. Finally I am out. Rattling and staggering, I carry the vacuum cleaner, mop, sponges, Jif, and my 700 cables in the bucket through the door, and they are going to power my new life, and the sun is out and I feel incredibly lucky.

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Rehashing

I had a thought that I might revisit (well, rehash), every week or so, a column from my old(ish) Canvas column. This one is from October last year. I had just been to a writers’ festival. Looking back on some of these columns, I realise I wrote about writers’ festivals quite a lot, mostly to complain that I was bad at talking to other writers. But this one was a bit different.

On finding yourself in places

A dog has a special kind of run when it’s about to get you. Its head and torso barely move but its legs are like four little tornados tearing up the earth. I was thinking about that as a dog streaked towards me. The owner, in shorts and jandals, was weed-whacking nonchalantly in the backyard. The dog looked aggrieved as it ran, like a parent rushing towards a child about to break something. Probably it wasn’t used to seeing people walk past its house, because sensible people drove. I froze and said, ‘Hello!’ to the dog, because I only have one way of talking to dogs, and it is to greet them over and over. Maybe I, too, would attack a person if they kept saying ‘Hello!’ to me over and over. The dog bared its teeth as I greeted it again, and I thought, Why am I in this situation.

I asked myself the question again a few moments later when I was walking along the edge of a busy highway. I was going to a small literary festival in Mapua. I’d decided to do a Will Self – the novelist who walks everywhere, including, once, from Kennedy Airport into Manhattan – and walk the few kilometres into town from where I was staying in the countryside. My walk had felt good for a while. I felt carefree, with the steady pace of the old millennial. But then, as traffic rushed past at 100 km/h and I broke into a sweat on the narrow roadside, I started to wonder what I was doing. A car pulled over and the writer Paula Morris stuck her head out the window. ‘Ashleigh . . . what are you doing?’

A few hours later I was on stage at the festival. I tried to ‘be present in the moment’, but each question seemed to widen into an impenetrable forest. The chairperson was saying, ‘It seems to me that when animals appear in your writing, they provide points of certainty around which the more tentative elements of the piece can move about without getting lost – elements about human uncertainty, perhaps. Where do you locate yourself in relation to the animals in your writing? How about your relationships with animals in real life? What do they provide that your relationships with humans cannot? Is there a special reason for including so many animals in your writing?’ It was a good question; it was a terrible question. I said, ‘Yes.’ In these situations I am suggestible, blowing this way and that like the plastic bag in American Beauty. I hoped I would come up with something to say next. Surely, in the future, in three seconds’ time, I would be better equipped.

Many things seem like an okay idea at the time, so you say yes. Yes! You will do it! It feels so good, so hopeful, to say it. The self who will have to deal with the fall-out of your decision is always a smarter and braver self than your current one. ‘She’ll think of something,’ you say. It’s not just a matter of failing to think things through properly, although there’s plenty of that; it’s a reckless faith that you’ll figure it out when you get further along, disregarding all the times when you just became more panicked and uncertain. I think the only reason I do anything is because at some point I tricked myself into it – persuaded myself that in the future I wouldn’t be scared; in the future I would have things to say; in the future the answer would be obvious. Jobs, speeches, university, relationships, going to a party – all have been subject to this self-trickery. It’s a soothing delusion that the passing of time is the same thing as readying oneself, the same thing as learning.

I do most of my learning in short, sharp bursts – in the moments of panic, when the thing I decided to do is happening and the situation is disintegrating. In those moments, I finally locate myself. There I am, still hoping for the best.

The dog sprinted towards me with its teeth bared. I thought, like some sort of climate change denier, ‘Things will work out, in the future, when the dog attacks me.’ And I was lucky, and they did. The weed-whacking man whistled, and the dog retreated. And then the car full of writers rescued me. And I got through the interview, and now that it is in the past I can say that it probably went okay, and I can say yes to something else that I am already, brainlessly, imagining I will be well prepared for in the future. Maybe averting disaster is sometimes just a combination of luck, other people’s kindness, and standing still instead of running away.

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Excitements

I was eating an apple when I got self-conscious. The student on work experience sitting at the table nearby would be able to hear my crunching and was probably bothered by it. But I also thought how freeing it would be to just continue to eat the apple with abandon. The idea excited me. So I did.

In my first office job, I got into the habit of eating a carrot most afternoons. One afternoon I was sitting at my desk eating my carrot, and another editor who sat in same pod as me cleared his throat and said ‘Ah –’, the way he always did when he wanted to say something. I looked up and he placed his hands on the top of the dividing wall and leaned over and hissed, ‘You’re enjoying that goddamn carrot, are you?’

A poet came into the office. There was a problem with the illustration on the cover of his new book. The dog in the poem was male, but the dog on the cover was decidedly female.

‘I was hesitant to mention this,’ the poet said, sliding the drawing out of his bag to show us.

‘You want me to draw a penis on the dog?’ the illustrator asked him.

‘Well –’ the poet said. ‘It doesn’t have to be … an enormous production, but if you could tweak it somewhat, it would put my mind at rest.’

Most days, we get in at least one expression of disbelief about the passing of time. ‘I can’t believe it’s only Tuesday.’ ‘How dare it be August.’ ‘How is it ten o’clock already?’ We’re almost indignant as we say it, as if time is an old-fashioned family values party that refuses to adapt to the realities of people’s lives now. I say it even though the passing of time is one of the few things I believe in unwaveringly. How would time really have to behave for us truly not to believe it? I think it would have to start glitching pretty seriously before we paid attention. Maybe we would see slivers of twenty years ago in it, like noticing a run in a stocking and seeing your skin through it: you’d be walking along and a bit of the street would peel back and show you what used to be there. Maybe your cat would just never die. Twenty, thirty, forty – still snoring, making a sound exactly like that ancient mummy with the vocal tract that scientists reconstructed with a 3D printer. ‘I don’t believe it,’ the vet keeps saying. ‘I just don’t believe it.’

The man in the running shoe shop put me on the treadmill, had me run for a bit, then called me over to show me the video. He got lost and we had to scroll through a whole bunch of other legs until we got to mine. We watched them for a while. ‘They’re moving well!’ he said. I couldn’t really tell what I was looking at. He rewound the video and we watched the legs again and he slowed them down then sped them up again. The legs looked like they were excited about something, and were trying to explain it to us – either that, or tell us some kind of elaborate lie about what they were actually doing. ‘I’m excited,’ I said when I paid for my new shoes. I’d told him I was coming back to running after two years of getting injured all the time. ‘I’m excited for you,’ he said. ‘One time I couldn’t run for eight months, and I would’ve stopped doing anything at all if it wasn’t for my dog dragging me outside at the same time each day.’

I was up late because I had this idea for a poem about going rafting with my aunties. All of them, living and dead. Just all of us on a raft, going along the Waitaki River. I tried writing it and realised I didn’t know any of my aunties well enough. I didn’t have good details. Uncles would be easier. The poem became about going rafting with my uncles. The first bit went like this:

I’ve gone rafting with my uncles.
Earlier, Uncle Neil lost our only paddle.
The river tore it out of his hand like corn from a husk.
‘Aw, no,’ he said, as the wind came up
and my other uncles and I looked down into the water
and back to Uncle Neil’s hands. His carpenter’s hands
from the 70s. How good he once was at everything,
how hungry we were for salad bowls and cabinets.

The poem ended with my mother appearing in a bush on the side of the river, with a small dog in her arms, and she called for help and everybody was saved. As a poem it didn’t work. The problem was Uncle Neil’s losing the paddle at the start. Also it wasn’t a poem. More and more I think I will have to give up poetry. Every time I start a poem these days I immediately lose it. It feels like looking at a playback of my legs and trying to figure out what the hell they’re saying. But also, more and more, the idea of giving things up excites me.

I had a dream that I was eating. I ate seven jam sandwiches and kept going, casting around the shelves for the next thing – old biscuits, half a bag of chips. I was like a massive tunnel borer. I had to keep the eating going, because it was hard to throw up bread and I needed to delay that process, even if delaying it was only making it worse. I knew that once I couldn’t eat any more I’d have no choice but to make myself throw up, and that whole thing would go on for at least an hour. Then there would be the recovering, and who knows how long that would take. I woke up feeling a heavy dread, then relief when I realised that I hadn’t even eaten any sandwiches. I felt excited too: there were all of these things I could do, now that I didn’t have to recover. It was like the end of that Raymond Carver story: ‘It is August. My life is going to change. I feel it.’

On Saturday I spent a couple of hours watching a series of YouTube videos called ‘The Worst Pain’. I was supposed to be reading manuscripts or maybe writing something. The video series was devoted to a physiotherapist giving men sports massages. The physio had the nickname ‘Thumbs’. After he’d been introduced at the start, the camera always zoomed in on one of his thumbs, and you could see that the thumb looked unusually strong, almost like a horn or a talon. The physio wasted minimal time warming up the muscles: it was just a few brief strokes over the skin with his palms before he went deep into the trigger points.

Like with this guy I was watching now, the feet were often a problem. Typically, the feet were the root of hip and knee and calf injuries. But they were painful to treat. The physio was kneeling at the end of the table with one of the man’s feet in his hands. He had wedged the ankle underneath his armpit, which allowed him to cradle the foot and also stop it from escaping. In his tattooed arms the foot looked tiny, like a face in the window of an airplane. The physio worked mostly in silence, though sometimes he murmured gently when the man on the table was in a special kind of pain.

In every video, the physio had a solid, serene presence as he carried out his work. He was like a rock on a cliff while, below, the man on the table was a sea, thrashing about in both predictable and unpredictable ways. I should have been disgusted with myself, but I didn’t feel like I was. But whenever I was watching I did get pretty tense – my face pushed back into my neck – and maybe my body was trying to tell me how I really felt, reminding me of a time back before the internet was showing us things like this. Still, there would be a before and after shot of this guy’s feet soon – twisted and sore-looking in the before, relaxed and pain-free in the after – and I can’t lie, I was looking forward to seeing those feet.

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Feet of clay

Feet of dirt.

Feet of tree that will not fruit.

Feet of elephant that died and was buried at the school.

Feet of someone walking down the driveway with torch.

Feet of pay day.

Feet of landlord at the door with a spanner.

Feet of neighbour turning to me with horror.

Feet of air.

Feet of stars. Feet of sun again.

Feet of England.

Feet of clay.

I run and I run but never quicken my pace.

 

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Eleven

I was cleaning up my desktop while avoiding writing my column, and I came across this old photo of Jerry. It’s him at the vet’s in July 2014 after he’d been hit by a car. Not pictured is his big shaved bottom, which took the impact. He came to the Waikanae SPCA as a flea-ridden stray when he was about five (though, his age is a guess). I often wonder what his life was like before. I feel jealous of this other life he must have had. Sometimes I imagine his old family turning up and he runs towards them, overjoyed – like in that video with Christian the lion in Kenya, in the 1970s – then they pick him up and bundle him into their car and speed away, brakes screeching. Jerry turns eleven soon. He’s just a really good cat.

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The haircut

My childhood sweetheart rang. We hadn’t spoken in twenty-five years. He said, ‘Also, I am seeing somebody else now.’ It was as if we’d been in the middle of a conversation, as children, and he’d only just remembered to mention it now.

My whole body started to tremble. I said, ‘Can I speak to her?’ but he told me she couldn’t come to the phone because she was out getting a haircut.

A wave of grief rose up in me. It was the thought that this person had hair, hair that needed cutting, and presumably also then a whole head with a brain inside it, and a body that was alive. She was a whole person, and I was not.

After the phone call, I sat in a chair, sobbing, and tried to eat a long raspberry bun. I had read that when you’re feeling down you should eat, and this was all I had. The bun was delicious, but eating it was a miserable experience. It grew larger and larger in my hands, and my mouth seemed to keep changing its location, until eventually I was just smashing the raspberry bun into my face, hoping some of it would get in. I had the sense that my childhood sweetheart was watching me trying to eat and feeling relieved at his decision.

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