Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Keeping Fit (4) - Sailing

Heading up to the Bay of Islands last Christmas - This story has been posted somewhere on this Blog last year, but as this story sums up how I feel about sailing it bears repeating.

Sailing is at the heart of what I love to do. It's not just the sailing itself which as an activity and sensation is to me poetry in motion, it is the associated peripheral things, which when gathered together make for a pleasing and enchanting whole.

To steer her up the coast hard on the wind, at the tiller hour after hour thinking only of the relationship of the angle of the genoa jib to the eye of the wind and to exult in the way the boat cleaves herself through the waves; or to run downwind like smoke feeling her make use of each wave, is to be immersed in and aware of every interaction of the boat with its environment.

To do this is to enter into a meditation of sorts, it is a way for me to be entirely in the present moment and I rejoice in that.

For me, experiencing the many moods of the sea is a blessing. Each time it is as if I am experiencing it for the very first time. The wind, the waves, the sky all have an elemental cadence to them.Watching a mirror like calm change to the spindrift blown spray of forty knots or more of wind and wave, and to sail through all this after reefing her well down and watching the destination grow slowly larger on a bright or hazy horizon, for me is being immersed in contentment itself. Then the safe harbour, the snug anchorage, rowing ashore, pulling the trusty dinghy up on the beach. The walks along the beach and climbing a hill to look down at the boat now a toy anchored contentedly in the bay below.

At night the meal shared, to lights reflected in varnished mahongony and the warm glow of conversation and camaraderie - and the stars. Not just any old stars - sailing stars, high, high, high stars clear and bright, bright, bright, away from the pollution of the city. The whole sweep of the milky way and the cosmos - and as the chill of the night comes, seeking the cosy haven below in a little cabin made for reflection, reading, meditation and contentment.

But you must remember this, the nuances of sailing are a lifes work, it is always a work in progress and it doesn't suit a plastic caravan mentality, for you see wooden yachts are living things and if you are very quiet and listen carefully they will reveal to you their secrets.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Keeping Fit (3) - Swimming

Swimming proficiency certificate. Central New Brighton Primary School 1964.

It was earning the pink sticker titled "Water Skills" that was the most fun.
To gain this sticker you had to successfully complete two activities. The first was to swim the length of the school pool fully clothed.

The second was to dive into the pool, undress yourself and complete a floatation activity - After ridding yourself of your shirt etc, you took off your trousers and tied a tight knot in the end of each leg of your trousers. By holding the waist of the trousers open behind your head and bringing them to the front in a fast scooping action, the trousers would fill with air and provide some floatation for a short period of time if you held the waist of the trousers carefully just below the surface of the water. When the legs of the trousers had deflated the action was repeated.

I wish I had a photograph of my class of 35 children in the old school pool with trouser legs pointing to the sky like big fat sausages, but I don't - but never mind, I have another kind of vivid, Technicolour photo etched in my memory and its permanently wired to a big smile.

I remember that we had such fun doing this floatation activity but I also remember the great seriousness of it all - goodness knows when we would need to suddenly whip off our trousers to keep ourselves afloat somewhere, the examples came thick and fast in our minds.

I was convinced that when the aeroplane I was travelling on ditched in the Atlantic I would instruct all surviving passengers on how to do a good, good Kiwi down trou and save themselves. - Hmmmmmmm, maybe I would be awarded a medal by the Queen or even Knighted - "Arise Sir Alden, your quick and clever action in advising, nay! pulling down even, the pants of so many passengers saved lives, a grateful nation salutes you".
My picture would be on the cover of Time Magazine and The New Zealand Women's Weekly and I would alter the Smith family crest to include a pair of trousers rampant over a scudding sea.

These days I mix swimming with my other fitness activities. I swim about 20 lengths of the pool which takes me about 40 minutes to an hour. I like swimming mainly because it is low impact exercise and easy on the joints. Also because it involves arms and legs, it is a whole body workout.

To date I have not had to use my youthful skills, but if the occasion arises I will be ready. I am like a coiled spring ready for action. I practise simple knots on a daily basis, and I always wear trousers everywhere - just in case.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Keeping Fit (2) - Kayaking

There are actions and their receptive objects that just seem to go together, such as a hot knife cutting through butter, a decisive arrow on the resounding air, or an axe cutting kindling from straight grained wood.

These actions have an easy velocity about them, an effortlessness, a decisive linear purpose - Kayaking is like that. A kayak unzips the water rather than cleaves it, the narrow hull moving with the minimum of fuss.

The nature of kayaking conspires to create a 'oneness' between the kayak and the kayaker. In a sense you put the kayak on a bit like putting on a well fitting shoe. You are held gently in the cockpit by a spray skirt which encircles your midriff rather like, well, a skirt, and when you paddle you brace your knees against the hull so that you and the kayak become one, move as one.

It is an easy and satisfying relationship. After a bit of practise it is easy to find a paddling speed which can be kept up for hours at a time, the easily driven narrow hull making easy work of water and waves and travelling long distances with ease.

Once I have put my kayak on and we have exchanged pleasantries, nattered about previous voyages and generally shot the breeze together I like to head for 'The Boundary" if the weather is settled.

The Boundary is a strip of water that I like very very much indeed. It is at the immediate interface between the land and the sea. It is that area of ocean or lakeside that only lets you in when there is a suitable weather window - when the sea is flat, the wind is docile and the sun is shining. It is that area where there are huge jagged treacherous rocks, impaling reefs and small rugged unforgiving islands. Where soaring sheer cliffs with their cascading waterfalls plummet vertically into the ocean. A place where there are huge caves in the cliffs. A place where birds wheel and soar. A place where in a storm it would be certain death to be caught there in a boat.

To explore this boundary is like being in a cage with a tiger after he has had a very long sumptuous meal and you know he has no inclination to eat you. It is like being on the front on the Somme during World War One when the English and German soldiers met between their respective front line trenches to sing Christmas carols together beneath the silence of the guns. It is an eerie and exciting place to be - and a fast moving kayaking is the princess of boats to be exploring this area in.

Into the boundary in a kayak. Try it yourself. Its a wonderful place to be and great exercise. But make sure you know what you are doing. Wear a lifejacket. Tell someone where you are going. Don't go by yourself, and only go when you have a long range weather forcast that assures you of a long period of settled weather.

Paddling your kayak in the boundary is a bit like life itself - a calculated risk.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Keeping Fit (1) - Cycling

I can't believe how stupid cycle helmets are. A motorcycle helmet gives protection to the sides as well as the top of the head so why isn't a bicycle helmet made to give the same protection. Instead, a bicycle helmet sits on the head like a pudding bowl and means one has to have the magnetism and good looks of Brad Pitt to pull off a good photograph - I rest my case. (yes I am aware of the ambiguity).I love my bike. This model has 24 gears, a comfy seat and a good upright riding position. This means I can readily see where I am going in terms of other traffic and moreover I get to see all the sights because I am not leaning forward. Also there is no strain on my back.
I have since added lights fore and aft, mudguards, a carrier and saddle bags. Very soon I am off on a maiden overnight voyage - tent city here I come.

I was bought up in Christchurch New Zealand where it is very flat, not unlike the whole of The Netherlands and half of Belgium which are also great places for bikes and very bike friendly in terms of roads, tracks and trails.
Because my parents didn't have a car for the whole of my time growing up in Christchurch, a bicycle was the only means of transport available to us. My dad rode a bike to and from his work for 25 years through rain, hail and snow. His bike was considered a racy model with its 3 gears and the gravitas of a rear saddle bag. Many a time I would ride from our house, up the road to meet him on his way home from work.

All the Smith kids had bikes. We used them to ride to school, to go to shops for our mum (Two pounds of one and sixpenny mince please Mr M.M.M. Butcher with the sawdust on your floor and yes please I have been smiling as cute as I can in the hope that you will offer me a free savaloy just like you did the last time I was here).
We would ride them to the beach, to the yacht club, to our grandparents houses and to our friends houses to play after school - bicycles were very important.

On the weekends, if I wasn't racing my P class I would be riding somewhere. The best place to ride were the Port Hills where a long push to the top would enable a long, long, wonderful freewheeling ride to the bottom again. It was all done without parental supervision, without crash helmets, sometimes with marginal or inadequate brakes and was extremely dangerous.
But god did I feel alive doing all that - the wind in your hair, the speed so fast it made your eyes stream and every corner a 3oo metre plummet to certain death - and for me always a descent down the harbour side of that huge volcanic cone to Lyttleton harbour where I got to eat my lunch and ogle the yachts moored in the inner harbour and dream my sailing dreams.

They say that in many ways life is circular and we return to some of those things of our youth that were meaningful and forge them again in a new way for ourselves. I know I have certainly done this with cycling. I just love, love biking around. Its hard work but when I include it with the other fitness activities I do such as kayaking, sailing and swimming it provides a great contrast and brings back many memories.

Maybe if I get really fit, I might push off overseas and do a nice long bike ride somewhere where its mainly nice and flat, but has a few big hills so that I can put my crash helmet in my saddle bag and fly downhill again with the wind in my hair, my eyes streaming and my heart singing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Return To Limestone Island

Today I volunteered to go with a group to help the 'Friends of Limestone Island - Matakohe Trust' to plant out native trees on the island. It was a great day, hard work but very satisfying.
The island has an interesting history. It was first a Maori Pa site. Later it was a quarry and cement works. Today the extensive remains of the terraced gardens are protected and the ruins of the cement works remain.
We met at the Onerahi Jetty and waited for the Islands full time conservation development officer to pick us up in the barge.
The 'Petrel' takes us across the short length of water to the island. The fishing rods belong to an old stalwart volunteer planter who plants his allotted trees and then goes fishing. Today he caught a Kawhai.
Bringing ashore some of the native trees for planting. There were 12 volunteers today.
The barge has a set of fold down steps in the bow which makes for easy access.
This is the main beach. The caretaker and his wife live permanently on the island. The green belt of trees in the distance close to the shoreline is where I helped plant over twenty years ago.
These are the ruins of the caretakers house from a bygone era when the island had a cement works and a quarry.
The truck and trailer being loaded up with plants to be taken to the other end of the island.
My dear friend Gerry, a self confessed Conservationist Zealot. His hard work and practical ideas have seen the reestablishment of much native flora and fauna to the island. Today he railed against imported species to New Zealand, especially Pine Trees (Pinus Radiata), At the end of his lengthy dissertation I told him I would buy him a box of pine cones for his birthday - this nearly made him fall over laughing. Zealots with a sense of humour are no danger.
Brad Pitt gives up a days filming to do some planting of New Zealand native trees.
All you need to plant well is a small specialised spade for digging the hole and a pair of good strong boots. These plants are cabbage tree seedlings - the cabbage tree is an iconic Northland New Zealand tree.
From the top of the island you can see our place of embarkation from the Onerahi jetty in the top of the picture and the barge by the beach.
This is where we did the planting on the south side of the island. The tall trees with the spiky leaves are New Zealand Cabbage trees.
Lunchtime in the buffalo grass. I taught Ann's (on the left) son Phillip over twenty five years ago and last year taught his son Oscar - I guess I could have stayed teaching and taught the grandchildren ?
Margaret (on the right) nearly lost her hat on the way over on the barge. She vowed that if it had gone into the water she would have jumped in to get it. It was her very special hat that she bought in Arles, France last year. I can identify with that, there are some things worth attempting to walk on water for.
We all took turns falling backwards onto the buffalo grass. Brad of course overdid it, falling a number of times until everyone told him to stop showing off and sit down and eat his bloody lunch like everyone else - you can't take some people anywhere.
The view East from the island. Whangarei Harbour stretches away into the distance.

It was a very successful planting. The day started at 8.45am and was over around about 2.00pm, not too long but with concentrated hard work we managed to plant over 400 trees.
This is only my second volunteer planting. The first was over twenty years ago and it was interesting to see how well those trees had grown.
What a great day. It was so nice to be out with nice people in the sunshine, fresh air and wide open spaces - and the panoramic views from the top of the island were stunning. They are asking for volunteers for next Wednesday - maybe I will go, its a small thing to do - planting a few trees - but lots of people each doing a small job of planting adds up to a big thing together when it comes to repairing and preserving our environment- and as in most endeavours that you care about, action speaks louder than words.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Valued and Affirmed

In 2001 I attended the University of Tasmania's second campus at Launceston for a UTAS Master of Education Summer School. A short introductory task for one of the many courses that I attended during that summer school was to write an anecdote to share, about a time in your own primary schooling when you felt valued and affirmed. This is the ancedote that I presented.
"The year is 1960, the class is Standard two at Central New Brighton Primary School in Christchurch New Zealand and the teacher Miss Coe is straight out of training college. We all really liked Miss Coe and she really liked us, we just knew she did. She said and did things that told us quite plainly that we were important. She said things like:
"I like that idea"
"That sounds like fun"
"Yes that sounds great, let's do that"
"That is interesting, tell me more"
"Yes great, I think we can do something with that idea"
I remember lots of stories being read, lots of music being played and lots of 'hands on' art and craft activities.
One of the art and craft activities was a simple way to make a puppet. You cut the top off an old sock, stuffed it with old rags, sewed up each end and sewed on buttons for eyes. A lot of the class made these puppets at home as well as at school and by the end of the week the puppet population outnumbered the pupils.
One day Miss Coe read us a story called 'Baba and Celeste'. Baba and Celeste were elephants and in this story they got married and went on their honeymoon in a hot air balloon. Now around about this time I was desperately in love with a particular girl in Miss Coes standard two class, and after the reading of the story I declared that my puppet wanted to marry the puppet that belonged to the girl of my deams (this girl was either Ursula or ProtoUrsula). After bursting forth with this rather confused declaration of a sort of proposal of marriage by proxy I felt embarrassed and I remember blushing and feeling rather foolish, but luckily I was saved by the lunch time bell.
When we returned from lunch we were confronted by a large bright red balloon with a small puppet sized box cellotaped underneath it. This apparition was hanging from the classroom rafters by a long piece of string in such a way that it could be raised and lowered easily. We weren't at all surprised at this because this was vintage Miss Coe, she liked our ideas and acted on them, she had heard my request for a prompt marriage of the two puppet paramours.
I remember a large number of marriages between various puppets took place that afternoon and I remember the smile of nuptial bliss on my puppets face as he soared above our heads in a bright red balloon with the puppet of his dreams.
I think this classroom marriage was celebrated by doing lots of written language afterwards. Miss Coe had turned my embarrassing moment into a teaching moment.
I felt valued and affirmed as a result of all this and I remembered this incident 38 years later in 1998 when I recieved back from my marking tutors, one of my assignments for the Diploma in Educational Management. My assignment came with a note stating that she thought she had taught me in Standard 2. My tutor for this paper was a Mrs Eleanor Burt, whose maiden name was Coe."
Postscript - Eleanor Coe later sent to me two pieces of work that I produced in Standard 2. One is an alarming piece of writing (Thank God there were no school psychologists around in those days), and the other was a little book titled "The Hunter and the Tigers and other stories, A Smith Book, By Pal." It contains a couple of interesting stories amongst a large amount of very dull material. I found out later that she kept a huge amount of childrens work and had a very large archive which she gave back whenever she met her former pupils. I found this out on this very same MEd course in Launceston. One of 4 kiwis that attended the Summer School was an Advisor to Schools. She told me that Eleanor Coe was the head of the Schools Advisory Division. Nothing much had changed, she was well loved and respected still.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


One of the reasons I like Brian Turners poetry is because it holds up a mirror to something that he loves, i.e. the braided rivers of the South Island, the back country and trout fishing. He loves these things in the same way that I love sailing and the sea. It is the passion and the love that I identify with as well as the landscape that I am familiar with. His identification with his passion somehow becomes a sounding box and a comparison for my own passion. He uses his poetry to celebrate this love he feels and also as metaphors for life itself - Again I identify with all of this within the context of my own passion of sailing - but there is something else about all this, something deeper, something about love itself, whether this love be of a hobby/interest or of a person - authentic love fully embraced and lived breaks through into something timeless, something beyond language. You live it, you are speechless before it, your eyes gleam, there is a deep resonance of meaning and wonder - braided rivers, fishing, sailing, the ocean, love itself, a source of wonder and symbolic of something beyond ourselves.

In this poem Brian Turner is talking about a time we all have in our lives, a time of crossroads, a time of change and again his beloved rivers provide the perfect metaphor.


The river's not so solitary
the way you're turning out to be

and maybe it's better at life.
You've been walking

down by the river, you've
been talking to the wide river,

you've been observing
the rivers of sky in the river

running by, and bye and bye
is what time says to you

and the river is sliding by
sly as sly. And when you

step in the river and go
to cross to the other side

you pause half way
and the water piles high

against your thigh
as you wonder whether

to go forward or back,
where you've been, what you had.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Falling In Love

The needle head of the arm of the old record player was rising and falling as it scribed its way across the slightly buckled black vinyl record. It may have been some classical piece from ‘Swan Lake’ as it was a ballet tune. I was watching as she came out rising and falling to the beat of my racing heart. On her head was a tiara. On her back were a pair of gossamer butterfly wings which matched the tiny butterflies on the top layer of her tutu and the butterflies in my tummy. The tutu stood out from her body like the rings of the planet Saturn. I became a moon of Saturn, drawn in by the gravitas of this apparition in white and blue and ballet shoes.
On her left arm was a small basket filled with bread crumbs. As she danced, her right arm and hand described a graceful arc in the air with a flowing motion which always ended with a flourish above the tiara. Every few steps she would rise gracefully onto the tips of her shoes in an exquisite Pa Des Deux and with oceanic eyes fluttering cast forth a small handful of breadcrumbs. The dance venue was a Kindergarten concert of some sort. I didn’t ask for whom the crumbs fell, for the crumbs fell for me. I was in love. I was 7 years old.

Apart from the obvious stirring of youthful testosterone this event was significant in another way. It began a significant shift in my cultural education. Let me explain:

The house that I lived in at 587 Pages road, along with about a dozen other houses backed very closely onto a huge commercial egg farm. An arrangement like this would not be allowed in the modern world but in those days you just put up with the smell. To our parents the farm was a mixed blessing. It meant a disgusting smell when the wind was in the wrong quarter but it was a source of cheap ‘cracked’ eggs, a boon to a working class family with eight children.
To the Smith boys the egg farm meant one thing – Entertainment. On many a still night we would hurl clods of dirt or stones onto the roofs of the battery hen houses. The huge squawking cacophony of alarm was like music to our ears. This was followed by a visual feast as peering over the fence we watched the outside lights of the farmhouse turn on and see torch light stabbing the darkness on its way to the chicken runs. The other form of entertainment was to take a stout stick, climb our back fence, creep under the farm fence and push over the huge mountains of bird guano which piled up under the cages. Grubby boy heaven indeed – So for me to see a dancing angel at the age of seven was to see a different kind of bird, a swan, and to begin to look into an entirely different world.

My response to the dance of my butterfly angel (I shall call her Ursula Bergsten to hide her real name of Helga Rasmussen) was to reply with a dance of my own. Let me explain: Young boys love to play war. Informed by movies and war comics we acted out our dramatic play with energy and panache. The props we used were often the real thing, bought from the ‘Army Surplus’ store with money obtained from soft drink bottle returns to the local dairy. The bottles were scrounged from the Aranui dump, one of the great treasure fields of my youth.
So, armed with our war toys we would fight each other to the death on the battlefields of Central New Brighton Primary School. Amongst the explosions and flying shrapnel was Ursula and her friends. Ursula became my target audience, I became the archetype of Brad Pitt, smouldering soldier.

My dance was a dance of death. In children’s war games death is a temporary thing. You get shot, you die, you lie on the ground like a dead beetle, you count to 20 then get up and start shooting again. With Ursula watching I made being shot and dying into an art form – a hail of bullets would have me clutching, falling, pirouetting, flailing, and tripping, in a long slow death dance. After falling to the ground and lying there writhing I would bravely and gallantly rise to my feet mortally wounded to fire yet more shots at the enemy – Brad Pitt and Rudolf Nureyev, what a combination.

Of course for the duration of this I was looking furtively at Ursula to see whether she was watching my deep, superbly choreographed mating dance. When she turned and watched, my heart sang.

I remember a song from those times – some of the words go like this:

“Putting on the agony, putting on the style
That's what all the young folks are doing all the while
And as I look around me, I'm very apt to smile
To see so many people putting on the style”

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Simpler Times

If you ever need to replace your letterbox to make way for a new one I can help you. Its easily arranged. I will provide my son and you provide a car with a reverse gear. He removed ours in great style and with awesome audio effects. The sound the exploding letterbox made was one of those run to the window - “What in Gods name was that” kind of sounds. The birds in the trees stopped singing briefly and our cat went out to investigate.

There is a forlornness about a thick post with a large piece of concrete on one end and its decapitated crowning glory lying expressionless some meters away. Never again would that particular letterbox chat idly with the postman or wink at pretty girls strutting their plenitude in the street.

Thoughts of the French revolution and the guillotine ran through my mind as I looked at this corpse and head. I didn't metaphorically guillotine my son, or even give him a cat o’ nine tails lashing with my tongue. Accidents happen don’t they, and besides, none of my children has ever inflicted property damage on the scale that I did when I was young. So in a way I am grateful to him for unwittingly preserving my hard won record.

When I replaced the letterbox I replaced the street number but couldn't’t find the little sign that stated “No Junk Mail or Circulars”. Within a few days the Tsunami of unsolicited mail began.
You know the kind of stuff I am talking about – The one I am looking at advertises an “Electric Knife with steel blades” (No rubber blades here, I am instantly impressed of course by their huge common sense) - the knife has “an ergonomically soft grip” - God almighty, love handles as well, I think I am in love.
In the same magazine I find I can purchase a “Glass Body Fat Analyser Scale” (whatever the hell that is) for $79.99 or a set of “Coloured RIVET Handled Knives”… mmmmmmm riveted handles, so strong, they will never break when I am out hunting on the plains, cutting into buffalo steaks – so, so, so, handy to have.
All of the advertisements in this junk mail make me think back to simpler times. A time when there weren’t a thousand different gadgets, geegaw's, widgets or triple nipple back shackles to make life more complicated.

I thought back to the way we used to wash the dishes at 587 Pages Road all those years ago. There were 8 children and 2 adults in the house – 10 of everything come wash up time. My mother would fill up the sink and vigorously thrash the water with a bar of ‘Sunlight Soap’ which was held in a little wire cage on the end of a wire handle – none of this fancy detergent stuff for the Smiths. She would always wash a cup first – a good strong cup. Against this cup a plate was placed, then another, and another and so on - cups, plates, saucers, bowls, pots, pans etc, etc. The size of the pyramid of crockery would wax and wane according to the number of children doing the drying and the amount of fighting that went on amongst the dryers as to who was doing the most work (oh happy days) - (“If you kids don’t stop your bloody fighting, I will give you a bloody good clip around the ears”) – ah yes, don't ever underestimate the decisiveness and fluency of working class language – and woe, oh woe, oh woe betide any smart arsed kid who pulled a plate out deliberately so that the great mountain fell and slid back into the sink or onto the floor – that would involve intervention by our father whose kind hands could metamorphosise into paddy whackers the size of Texas in an instant.
My mother always did the dishes like that. It was only decades later and when my parents were retired in Northland that one day I went around to see my mum - and wonder upon wonders, on the bench next to the sink was a dish rack – I think it must have been about the time that junk mail started to be posted – and the world was never the same again.

I thought too of how we would ‘make do’ in so many ways. I remember going to my first dances at St Chads Church. I would borrow my oldest brothers black suede winkle picker shoes and another brothers flash pants. The shoes were ok, a size too big, but I could cope with that - But the flash pants were too big in the waist, but never mind, I just folded the waistband a bit and held it in place with the biggest safety pin I could find.
Ah, those were the days! Fifteen years old – first dance, first kiss, first feeling of a warm body close to mine - all amidst the slow dancing and the warm glow of adolescent pimples in the half light – Ecstasy until the bloody safety pin popped and tried to skewer me.

I gathered all these memories to myself today as I went off for my daily exercise on my bicycle. I had just bought a fluorescent yellow safety vest at the local discount store for $6.50. They only had one size (huge) - it flapped like a flag in the wind as I sped down hill – yes, that’s right, I probably need a safety pin - or perhaps some new fangled arrangement I can purchase from a catalogue that comes through the new letterbox - perhaps a new type of safety pin with an "ergonomically soft grip" that won't skewer me.