Wedding crasher

I'm writing this from the other end of the country; I'm down here for my cousin's wedding which, unusually, is on a Sunday. I can't say I'm overly excited about it. Big social occasions are tricky for me at the best of times, but I find weddings especially hard to relate to; getting married is something other people do.

I've just seen my aunt and uncle; I get on well with them. I thought they'd be going to the wedding tomorrow, but due to some family politics I don't understand, they weren't invited. Come to think of it I don't remember getting an invite either. Perhaps my name was tacked on the end of my parents' invitation, or else I've come all this way to gatecrash a wedding I don't particularly want to go to. I guess I'll find out.

I thoroughly enjoyed last week's Italian course. I was surprised by the sheer number of people on it; there must have been forty, the vast majority of them women. It was interesting hearing people's reasons for learning the language. A lot of people had trips planned, some had an Italian speaker in the family or were even married to one, while a few were doing it for the sheer hell of it. Most interesting were a vulcanologist who is about to spend three years on the foothills of Etna, and another woman of about my age who owns a house over there (that got me thinking). On the last day we had to make up a short sketch in groups of about six and perform it in front of the class. I was an Aussie bloke buying lingerie from a boutique in Rome. This was good for me because it took me out of my comfort zone. My knowledge of Italian improved considerably over the five days, though confidence is always an issue for me, and I have an unfortunate knack of forgetting languages as fast as I learn them.

On Wednesday night I played pétanque with Phil; he wondered what I was still doing in Auckland now that I'm not working. The simple answer is that I don't want to have to start from scratch again. Not yet anyway. As flimsy as my social network is, it's a lot better than nothing. I did win the pétanque, not that it mattered, but one of our games ended in the most dramatic of fashions. With the scores locked at 12-all I was sitting pretty, just inches from the jack, when Phil supplanted my boule with his last throw. Then, with my final attempt, I did the same to him. If they ever make a Hollywood movie based on pétanque, they won't be able to top that. Boules Up. I can see it now.


On Saturday I met up for dinner with that woman from the autism group. I got to meet her husband (I wasn't sure what to make of him) and her daughter Charmaine who has Asperger's. I found Charmaine fascinating but realised she must be quite a handful. She quickly introduced me to Bakugan. "Battlegun?" "No, back-oo-gaan." Was it a game? A toy? A Japanese cartoon? I couldn't quite tell. Bakugan involved small plastic balls that, when dropped on the ground, opened up to reveal characters representing elements like fire and water. The balls were magnetised and would attract themselves to a series of Top Trumps-style cards. The purpose of the magnets was lost on me (in fact the purpose of the whole game, or whatever it was, was as clear as mud) but I played along, trying to impress Charmaine by juggling the balls or reading the French version of the instructions. To her amazement, some "players" had got their characters' power levels up to 1500 G's. "Fifteen hundred?" I said, "geez!" I was struggling to figure out how a piece of plastic could have a power level; the accompanying DVD, and Charmaine's enthusiastic commentary, failed to clear things up for me. It appeared some people even played high-stakes Bakugan, where you put your own plastic balls on the line; for some reason I found this amusing.

Charmaine also loved sci-fi and fantasy books. I suggested that she write a book of her own. She told me proudly that she'd already written six. Were her interests and obsessions typical of a twelve-year-old girl? Probably not. Her stepfather described her as being "like a nine-year-old girl" but I didn't see her that way. I felt she was age-neutral as well as gender-neutral (I can now see where Jen Birch was coming from in her book when she talked of her feelings of androgyny). Charmaine is a Kiwi born and bred, but you wouldn't know it from her accent. Instead she talks like a Pom who's spent a couple of years in the States. This underlined for me that Charmaine is very much her own person.

Autism in all its forms is intriguing and at times can even be entertaining. I find it easy to warm to people with the condition, but it's also easy to forget that it can actually make life very difficult, both for the people themselves and for those they live with. This was certainly the case for Charmaine. I think her mother (who homeschools her) and stepfather do a remarkable job.

On Monday I played interclub tennis for the first time this year. For some reason tennis is a flashpoint for me; it exposes my mental frailties. I used to love the game but in the last two years it's become a struggle. I wasn't at my best mentally when I stepped on the court yesterday, and playing the doubles match with Superman certainly felt like hard work. My mind was never in the present moment; instead I was thinking, my partner's playing so well, I'm an embarrassment, God I hate this, I wish I could just get off the court. A typical service game from my partner went like this: service winner, ace, botched volley by me (I'm so hopeless at the net), crunching forehand winner, second serve ace. Looking back now though, for all his flamboyance, my partner probably made as many mistakes as me. In the end we were a tad unfortunate to lose in two tie-breaks, 9-7 and 7-4.

In my singles I expected to be blown off the court by an opponent with a far bigger game than mine. In the first game I didn't get a return into play and I felt sure I'd be on the end of a severe hiding. However my own serve had improved markedly from the doubles, and I clung on until the tenth game when he broke me for the set. I'd played a very good set, but once I'd lost it to an opponent who hadn't got out of second gear, I was almost resigned to defeat. But instead of moving through the gears in the second set, he slammed into reverse, and I shot out to a 5-0 lead simply by targeting his backhand and chasing down every ball. Then he started to play again, and I really had to dig deep to close out the set 6-2. At 4-3 and 30-all in the third set, I was half a dozen points (but in reality a million miles) from winning when my opponent twisted his ankle, collapsed in a heap on the ground, and couldn't continue. I've never won a match that way before. We iced his ankle (the bar fridge came in handy) and he went home seemingly OK, while I went home feeling a lot better; exercise always helps me.

Quiz Question (2) Literary Connection

Consider these four men. What fact about their lives connects them?

Giacomo Casanova
Philip Larkin
Mao Tse-Tung
Jorge Luis Borges

I will post the answer in a few days!
Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse will be the subject of a future post

Plumbings and goings

The plumbing in the kitchen has been playing up for some time. I did tell my landlords but they never did anything, so I've just muddled along. Until this morning that is, when all hell broke loose. I couldn't turn the tap off (neither could I really turn the water main off with three other flats being affected) and water gushed out, accompanied by a deafening high-pitched screech. I had no luck with any of the plumbers in the Yellow Pages so in desperation I rang 0800 PLUMBER and that did the trick. He replaced the tap and some of the dodgy piping under the sink, and handed me a $330 bill which I'll pass on to my landlords.

It's now been a month since I left work. I don't miss it. I did my best to fit in there, but even though I started out in the actuarial department where I at least had something in common with my colleagues, it would always be a struggle for me. I realised this three weeks into my job, when I happened to have a birthday. Apparently it was tradition to bring in a cake on your birthday, but as nobody in the team had had a birthday in the short time I'd been there, I was unaware of official cake protocol. Anyway, I dashed down to Foodtown and bought a cake for something like $3.85, to be shared among the ten of us. I was told I needed to send an email, which I did, but things started getting serious when I was informed I'd sent the wrong kind of email. "You need to send a meeting request." "A what?" "A meeting request in Outlook, so that everyone knows what time cake is, then they can accept or decline the meeting or say they're not sure." "But I don't really mind what time. People can help themselves if they want." "I'm sorry, you'll have to pick a time." By that stage I'd had enough. "Man, are you serious? There are only ten of us here. I could just shout 'cake' and it would be a hell of a lot easier. Look everybody, cake! CAKE!" In the end I did send a meeting request, when someone had shown me how, as did all my colleagues, unquestioningly, when their birthdays came around.

My actual work was tedious and as far as I could see, meaningless. I'd been very determined to get that job, and the two-week wait to find out whether I'd got it was agonising. Now I wondered why I'd bothered. I quickly became depressed and went back on the citalopram I'd only just come off. I'd shifted my life from East Anglia to South Canterbury four months earlier and I'd just moved again to Auckland where I knew nobody. My living arrangements were far from ideal; I was boarding in Bayswater with a couple in their thirties and forties. I found the bloke - all eighteen stone of him - easy to get on with but I could never relax around his wife. At night they would argue; I could hear everything through the paper-thin wall between my room and theirs. They did however have Sky; I'd become a virtual insomniac so I used to stay up and watch Roland-Garros or Euro 2004, or sometimes Super 12 rugby even though I couldn't have given a rat's razoo about the score between the Stormers and the Waratahs. It was hardly surprising I was depressed given that I was in a soul-destroying job in what seemed virtually a foreign country.

Eventually I figured out how to complete my various tasks at work, but I never figured out why I was doing them. Unfortunately my superiors in my team were beyond why, and I soon gave up asking the question. I learnt little about how the business operated; my job was simply to follow the process, to press the right buttons in vaguely the right order. I felt a real loss of identity. When I'd finished checking our 400-odd-page report, I would file it away and consciously label the file in my handwriting instead of in block capitals, as a way of getting a shred of that identity back.

Most of the time I didn't have enough work. But my first pair of actuarial exams were looming, so my strategy was to concentrate on those, even though my depression made concentration of any sort difficult. Still, it had been two years since I finished university and I quite enjoyed the study. As the exams got closer I was allowed one day a week to study at home. Some people use their study days to lie in, or play golf, but I got considerably more work done on that day that on any other day of the week. To my surprise I passed both my exams and received a welcome boost to my pay.

In August 2004 I joined the tennis club at Belmont; this was hugely beneficial for me - I got to meet new people playing the game I loved. In November I moved from my Bayswater flat to one in Milford, this time sharing with people my own age. Again this was a good move for me. I was no longer depressed, and in 2005 I passed another three exams. Work still hadn't improved but I was past caring; I left the office on the dot of five and by 5:05 I'd completely switched off. It was perhaps fortunate that the chap I sat next to at work was even less engaged than me. At least I showed up on time. He would roll in hours late and fall asleep at his desk; sometimes he didn't even wake up when his phone rang. His record in the exams was shocking and he left halfway through 2005.

In mid-2006 I took on a new role in the marketing department, which was a great improvement. However in August I suffered another bout of depression which forced me to pull out of an exam. The following month I made a trip to the UK, which perked me up a bit. I'd hoped to catch up with my brother but he was sent to Afghanistan two days after I arrived (he's a Commando in the British Army). In early 2007 I fell out with my Japanese flatmate - I wasn't tidy enough for her - and in May I moved from Milford to my own flat in the delightfully named Pluto Place in Birkdale. The flat itself was far from delightful: it was in the bush, in a cold, damp, dark hole. Despite my best efforts with an eight-litre dehumidifier, everything got mouldy. In spite of the conditions I wasn't depressed - well not until March 2008, just before I moved out. I passed some more exams and managed to set up my own website. In May 2008, before winter set in again, I shifted to my current flat in Devonport, thinking for some bizarre reason that the great location might set me free from depression for ever. Hmmm. Shortly after, my role at work changed once more, and suddenly I had no idea what I was doing again.

Last week I bought some font creation software for US$79, and I've spent some time designing some letterforms. To my surprise I've found myself using sin, cos and tan, beasts I haven't encountered for a decade.

Realising I have no real edge in hold 'em, not above the lowest couple of levels at any rate, I've switched my attention to badugi. I haven't got the bankroll to play cash badugi so I've had a go at the $2.20 tournaments. In my three attempts at the limit version I've finished 33rd twice and a card-dead 22nd, all from eighty entrants. The structure of the limit tournaments is poor; brick out on your three-card 32A and have your pat nine cracked by someone drawing two all the way and you're pretty much toast. The pot-limit structure is much better; it can be because people eliminate themselves by playing all-in kamikaze badugi or just by getting unlucky when they hit a monster and run into a slightly bigger monster. Early in my first crack at the pot-limit version this morning I was lucky enough to be on the right side of that equation with a 6432 against a 6543. A few hands later I made the stone-cold nuts and I led the tournament. It was a disappointment, therefore, when my pat 10-4 ran into a pat 9-8 and I finished 11th out of 66, only just inside the money.

This evening I'll be having dinner with a woman I met at last Saturday's autism group, and presumably her family. It should be good.

Kiss Democracy Goodbye

I'm not a political commentator.
I'm not a fear-mongerer. 

But you must WATCH THIS:

Flights and frights

There never seems to be any news at this time of year. I'd almost given up watching the so-called news on TV (of which very little was news at all) but on Wednesday I tuned in just in case. Oh boy. It was hell on earth. The reported death toll from the Haiti Earthquake varies widely, but it looks like being somewhere between the population of Cambridge (the one I was born in, not the one in the Waikato) and the population of Wellington. An enormous number. And most of those who survived have a very bleak future ahead of them.

The better news from my end is that I've booked a holiday. I'll be flying to the UK in early May and will spend twelve days in Thailand when I come back. I get back into Auckland towards the end of June. I was very pleased with my fare which came to $2400. I've got definite plans to go to Italy (I'm going on an intensive Italian course next week) and I'll maybe even spend some time in France if I can fit it in. I'll also want to see my grandmother, who isn't getting any younger, and my brother who I've only seen once, briefly, in the last six years.

With those six or seven weeks blacked out in my calendar, I can now set about finding some temporary or contract work. I phoned four recruitment agencies this morning. No luck yet but I'll keep trying. My best bet might still be Andy's place of work; the last time we spoke he seemed reasonably optimistic about a temporary assignment there.

We had the the first men's group of the year on Tuesday. As is often the case, Brendan dominated the first part of the session with his obsessive anger over a job he had more than ten years ago. He has a problem here and somebody really needs to talk to him (maybe me); it disrupts the meeting and doesn't do him any good either. We then watched the first two-thirds of Shirley Valentine which has so far (in my opinion) been a bloody good movie.

Talking of movies, I went with Julie on Wednesday to see an Italian film called Mid-August Lunch, a translation from its italian title Pranzo di Ferragosto. It was a bit like some of those French films I've seen, where not a lot happens but not a lot needs to. It did make me want to go to Italy, and I was able to pick out a surprising amount of Italian without looking at the subtitles.
On Saturday we had the monthly Autism NZ meeting which was fascinating as always. I had a long chat to a woman of around forty whose daughter had Asperger's and we'll be meeting up for dinner next weekend. I'm still toying with the idea of getting a diagnosis myself. When I was small my parents didn't want me officially diagnosed, even though the doctor said I was perhaps mildly autistic, mainly due to the stigma and lack of knowledge of the condition back then.

Yesterday I felt down and don't exactly know why. I put on my relaxation CD and did 750 pulls on Bazza's exercise machine, and that helped a bit. Maybe I was worried about finding work, or perhaps it was because of my poker bankroll which has been heading due south since that royal flush. I've also had two panic attacks in the past week. I still find them frightening, though now that I know what they are, they seem to subside after a couple of minutes.

Somebody commented on my last blog post. This was exciting for me because I average something like 0.0274 of a comment per post. There was one snag however - it was written in Chinese. Luckily you can go into Babel Fish and get a deadly accurate translation, even for languages that don't use the Roman alphabet. The message, in English, is "The semblance with the fact itself symbol, the common people actually easily is often not deceived by the incrustation." It's always been a major concern of mine that ordinary people aren't fooled by incrustations, so on reading that message I breathed one heck of a sigh of relief.

I like sad songs

In liking sad songs I am definitely excuding bathos and the sentimental and mawkish. This does not mean that I enjoy being miserable; quite the contrary but I like genuine emotion.

The song Now I'm Easy by the Scottish-Australian folk-singer Eric Bogle is a case in point.

The 'voice' is of a dying Australian farmer (the 'cockie' referred to in the first verse and final verses). Both of his sons died as soldiers in Burma, his wife died in childbirth and his only daughter married and moved away. He scraped an existence from the parched soil but the song never descends into sentimentality......'but it's nearly over now and now I'm easy'.

Give yourself a treat and listen to it here.

'Cargoes' re-examined

Cargoes by John Masefield

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

This is one of those poems that should be read out loud because the words feel wonderful in your mouth.

The poem works well even if taken superficially because of its beautiful use of language and metre but it has multiple layers of meaning if one delves deeper as I intend to do now but briefly.
The three stanzas describe different times in history. The first cargo ship is a quinquireme, a Roman galley with five levels of oars on each side and it is moving, in Biblical times, from North Africa to Nineveh. Nineveh is not mentioned in the Bible but it works nicely in the poem because of its metre. The ambience is stately and purposeful,
Next the Spanish galleon “Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores”, what a fabulous line of poetry! The Isthmus from which it sails is The Isthmus of Darien, now known as Panama but centuries before the canal was built. The Spanish brought home incredible amounts of precious jewels and gold from their American possessions. The mood has become triumphant. Miodores, incidentally, were Portuguese gold coins that were widely used for hundreds of years.
And the third, and final, stanza brings us to contemporary times and describes the dreary British vessel with the “salt-caked smoke stack”. The romance has gone and modern reality cuts in like a banjo chord! A tacit invitation to make comparisons has been made.
Whereas, it could be argued, all of the ships are carrying the spoils of empire, this last boat brings home the reality of cheaply made mass-produced products for workers. We may ask ourselves is this progress? The cargoes have ceased to be items of high worth or intrinsic beauty but evolved into the mundane and “cheap tin trays”, a possible comment on the state of the British Empire, still flourishing when the poem was published in 1902.
If you now read the poem again, out loud if you may, it will hopefully carry more meaning.

Jumping in

Yesterday I had an enjoyable day at the Heineken Open tennis. The big names weren't there - the top four seeds, who all hail from Spain, get a bye through to round two and don't play until Wednesday. But that didn't matter. I decided not to watch the first match on Centre Court, instead seeing my fellow Pom Daniel Evans play his final qualifying round match against someone called Wang from Taipei. I made the right decision too; it was a very good match which Evans won in three tight sets. I felt sorry for the players who had to contend with Centre Court's ridiculously loud PA system, the announcer mispronouncing the players' names and getting all the countries wrong at full volume. "Turn it up a bit," Evans said as he faced a big point in the third set. It would have driven me potty too. I then moved to the main court see the two wild-card Kiwis who happened to draw each other in round one. Rubin Statham ran out a well-deserved winner against his higher-ranked opponent Dan King-Turner, playing like a man possessed to reel off the last four games. The rest of the day's play didn't quite live up to the earlier action but I stayed till the end regardless.

After six years of living close to the sea I've finally figured out how to get in it. In the past I'd gradually ease my way in on tiptoes with my arms outstretched above me. This works fine until the water reaches my nuts and I start to wince. Once I'm over that hurdle I'm OK again until it reaches my chest. Finally, after all that agony, I'm in. At the weekend I changed my strategy completely, deciding to run in making as big a splash as possible. It turns out that's a far less painful method.

On Saturday I popped round to see Brendan. He's reorganised his living area again; he now has two TV rooms, labelled Cinema One and Cinema Two, complete with viewing schedules neatly set out using the 24-hour clock. Talking of clocks, he has dozens of them. And that's not all. He has precisely nine telephones, a calendar for every month of the year (all with pictures of naked men - he is gay after all) and every kind of calculator known to man including a novelty foot-high one and a retro one that prints out receipts. Hanging on his wall is a seemingly innocuous photo of a rugby team, but it turns out it's a Where's Wally-type picture, except the object isn't to find Wally but willy. I could go on, but I won't. I'm sure you'd only need to spend five minutes in my flat to have a jolly good laugh.

I've finished all my Joe Bennett. He has a remarkable knack with words; he even managed to get the words "rootling" and "fossicking" in the same short story. I'll have to get hold more of his fine work soon.

After 7000 hands of limit hold 'em at the lowest stakes, over two months, I plucked up the courage on Sunday to move up to the nosebleed nickel-and-dime level. Though I was well ahead, in big bet terms at least, I bemoaned my lack of monster hands. My best hand had been four fives, until Sunday evening when this happened:

Of course thousands of players catch royal flushes every day, and they make little difference to your overall win rate, but it's still nice to have hit the poker equivalent of a hole-in-one. After being stuck in a holding pattern around the $30 mark, my bankroll has now nudged over $40.

Tonight I'll be seeing my counsellor/psychologist and going to the men's group shortly after.

My Heroes: (23) John Gribbin

The other 22 can be found in my previous blog click here for 1 to 20, here for 21 and here for 22.

For me, the science writer John Gribbin has that rare and wonderful gift; the ability to make 'difficult' ideas from science accessable to the non-professional reader. He belongs to a distinguished group of scientists who posess this skill: his fellow British writers Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones and the late Americans Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman. I would like to hear of recommendations of other 'popular science' writers that you may know of.

He has published more than 100 books and has written for New Scientist and leading UK newspapers and the BBC.

His best-known book is In Search of Schrödinger's Cat (1984)which tackles the elusive subject of quantum theory. Richard Feynman had once said that anyone who thought he understood quantum physics "did not understand quantum physics". In other words it cannot be understood! Grisham helped me get beyond that point but it is the most dangerous assumption to make.

My favourite of his books is The Birth of Time: How We Measured the Age of The Universe (1999) which tells a fascinating story and explains the importance of Hubbles Constant.

According to Wikipedia, his book, Get a Grip on Physics (2003), saw a sudden surge in sales at after it was spotted in the pictures of Tiger Wood's crashed car on November 27, 2009.

Quiz Question (1) To discover ice?

I've finally returned to blogging after a three year lay-off.

Let's start with a quiz question: The title of this blog, 'To discover ice', consists of the last three words of the opening sentence of a novel not originally written in English. The photo is a further clue. Any ideas?

Obviously you could Google the words but you wouldn't do that would you?

After all, there are no prizes. It's just for fun. I will post the answer in a week.

Joe Bennett - one clever bloke

Yesterday I started reading Barking, a collection of Joe Bennett's columns. I've already finished it and am about to start on a more recent selection, entitled Eyes Right (and They's Wrong). Boy do I wish I could write like Joe Bennett. Sometimes I even wish I could be him; I certainly envy his lifestyle. As it happens we share the same birthday. Joe Bennett, Adolf Hitler and myself: an unlikely trio.

My favourite column in Barking (there were plenty to choose from) was on the subject of apples: pick up any apple from a supermarket and it'll be a beautifully polished but utterly tasteless eight-ounce water bomb. As a kid we had four apple trees in our back garden: a Bramley (for making yummy apple crumbles), a Worcester and best of all, two of the delicious (and wonderfully named) Bohemian Blenheims. We sometimes had more than we could eat so when I was ten I started selling them, or trying to at least, outside the front gate.

His column on Singapore was interesting. I visited recently; my experience was very similar to his. We even stayed in the same hotel, the Excelsior. He was on the 21st floor while my room was on the 13th, a floor that most hotels superstitiously skip over. I tried to fit as much as possible into my four days: Sentosa Island, the zoo, the amphibious boat, the Singapore Flyer (their version of the London Eye), the river cruise, Chinatown, Little India, you name it. Like Bennett I got very sweaty in the process. He said Singapore was a very ordered place - mainly I agree, though a couple of exceptions that spring to mind are the seven-storey shopping malls with names like Lucky Dragon Plaza, and a rabbit warren of eateries in Little India called Lau Pa Sat Market, which serves appetising food so long as you can get past the signs:

I watched one of the women's tennis semi-finals today. At the change of ends before what turned out to be the last game of the match, Shahar Peer called on her coach. She said she was struggling to pick up Wickmayer's second serve. While this was interesting, which muppet decided to allow on-court coaching? I realise tennis players now have coaches, agents, physios, psychologists, the whole nine yards, but while you're on the court it has always been one-on-one, mano a mano, and should remain so. In Agassi's book he likened tennis to boxing, and there are definite parallels. While they're at it, could the WTA also eliminate those tactical momentum-upsetting loo breaks? And that supposedly high-octane doubles scoring system, which is in fact anything but, is also a farce.

I've been back in Auckland for four days and until this afternoon I had yet to make human contact. Lack of human contact is the biggest danger I face in being out of work - hell, it was bad enough in work - so I gave Brendan a ring. We chatted, or mostly he did, and we agreed to meet up tomorrow.

My thoughts are free

Like many people, I was both stunned and puzzled a few weeks ago when I heard that the infamous sign over the entrance to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz had been stolen. The sign, which said in German "Work makes you free," was a cruel lie told to the 1.5 million people who were slaughtered there.

Who would steal that sign? Who would want to have such a piece of Auschwitz? What motivated the theft? Anti-Semitism? Holocaust denial? Notoriety? Money? (But who would buy it?)  Now that the sign has been recovered -- in pieces, but recovered -- I'm sure we'll get some of those answers. 

In the meantime, I've been looking for a word, an adjective that describes my response to the news that the sign had been recovered: Glad? Pleased? Not appropriate. Relieved? Closer, but not quite right.
I was sickened by the theft, feeling it as a desecration of an important piece of history. Even though I am not Jewish, even though I wasn't yet born when the Holocaust happened, the theft of the sign touched that part of the collective psyche where the horror is imprinted. My original title for this piece was "the truth will set you free," as counterpoint to the foul lie of the sign, even though in a literal sense, knowing the truth of what was happening in the death camps did not set those prisoners free, any more than "work" did.

But I was thinking about how important historical truth is, how important it is that we know the truth of what happened in Auschwitz and Dachau, that we teach our children what happened there, and in Rwanda, and in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and in Deir Yassin, and here in the colonial Americas.  I would like to believe that teaching our children the truth of these atrocities will prevent such things from happening again. But history shows that hope to be misplaced. For whatever reason, truth notwithstanding, human history is one of wholesale slaughter and genocide.

Even so, truth and freedom seem to go hand in hand.  The Nazis, like oppressors of every era, sought to twist both.  They even tried to ban an old German folk song about freedom:  Die gedanken sind frei.
Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They flee by like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them,
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!

I think what I want, and what delights me,
still always reticent, and as it is suitable.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all this would be futile work,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart. Thoughts are free!
(Translation from Wikipedia.)  

When this song, familiar to me from both Mahler's liede and its use in an old World War II movie, started running through my head, I understood my reaction to the news of the sign's recovery.

The Auschwitz sign represents a particular truth -- an ugly truth, but an important one -- and its theft felt like an attempt to steal the truth, to stifle it and lock it away, just as surely as the tortured millions were imprisoned.  With its return, I felt free again. Free to breathe. Free to know the truth.

It seems so timely: It feels as though there is much that we are not allowed to know, not allowed to talk about.  People on THE RIGHT don't want us talking about x; people on THE LEFT don't want us talking about y. THE GOVERNMENT surely doesn't want us talking to each other.  The truth gets hidden away, but it is there. It may be hard to find, hard to talk about, but the truth does exist.

And the truth shall set us free.

Originally published on this date on the now-defunct 50-Something Moms blog

It's a new year ...

... and I am entering 2010 with more optimism that I expected -- certainly with more hopefulness than I started any of the recent years.

The boys and I went on a wonderful 2-night getaway with one of my dearest friends from Maryland. T and her family had been up to the Grand Canyon and we booked rooms at a bed-and-breakfast outside of Phoenix for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.  The setting was spectacular.

Between us, we had four boys between the ages of 7 and 13, and this place was a boys' paradise. Water, boats, rocks to climb, and rocks to throw, not to mention foosball, pool, and shuffleboard. The parents enjoyed watching the wildlife. Boys in their native element are so entertaining! We also identified about a dozen species of waterfowl, as well as some desert birds I don't have in my back yard.

We sat around the campfire, drinking champagne and toasting marshmallows while waiting for the New Year.  In case it was cloudy where you are, here's what the Blue Moon looked like in central Arizona.

There were just enough clouds for the sky to turn silver before the full moon came up over the rise.  T and I were practically giddy with the thrill of it. It was so beautiful, so exhilarating, and we were so happy to be bringing in the New Year together.

We hiked, we talked, we laughed, we shared silence. The time was such a gift, the perfect way to enter the New Year. The day after we came home was also the beginning of a new year: My birthday.  My mom had a nice family party at her house, and I got a zillion greetings on Facebook, as well as a text message or two. I really did "feel the love."

So I'm starting this new year with warm fuzzies that I haven't had in a long time -- and that's a very good way to feel.  One of my FB friends sent the perfect message: May you have many new dreams to come true. That struck a chord. It sometimes feels like all my dreams have been lost or they came true and then *poof* or they've been scorned by reality.  But "new dreams." New dreams that could come true. I like the sound of that.

Here's to new dreams in the new year!
I have a new post up over at 50-Something Moms, about the sign stolen from Auschwitz last month.

It took me more than two weeks to write that short piece, and I'm not sure why -- aside from the interruption of the holidays. I had such a strong reaction that I knew I wanted to write about it, but it was hard to capture what I was feeling. I was also afraid of stepping on a landmine, daring to write even peripherally about such a sensitive subject.

Anyway, wander on over and leave a comment, if you have one.

The first week of the rest of my life

I’m back in Auckland now and it’s a lovely day up here – too nice to be stuck in an office, which of course I no longer am. In fact I plan to have lunch soon and finish my latest book at the beach. I’m most of the way through Vroom with a View, the Vespa book. It doesn’t lack humour, and gives a flavour of Italy useful for anyone planning to go there, but I feel it could have been much better written. Over Christmas I finished Jen Birch’s account of life with Asperger’s, Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open (an excellent read, thoroughly recommended to anyone with a passing interest in tennis) and Joe, a fascinating book about one boy’s severe autism which raises some interesting questions about what makes us human. I’ve often wondered whether my humanity is compromised by my limited social life.

New Year’s Eve was as uneventful as I’d hoped. The concert didn’t reach the heights of the one earlier in the week; at 11pm I tried my hand once more at the darts game, this time breaking even (which was better than I managed on the chocolate wheel). At midnight we watched the fireworks display which was impressive even if it lacked a rousing finale (or rather there seemed to be so many false finales that by the time the real end came I was still expecting more).

On Saturday Dad and I saw the new half-billion-dollar blockbuster Avatar. Only nine cinemas in New Zealand are showing it in 3D and of course Timaru isn’t one of them. But even without the fancy glasses (which by all accounts can give you a headache after watching a 2¾-hour epic) I didn’t need any more visual stimulation. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It seemed there was no special effect that they couldn’t pull off. Dad and I agreed that the film carried a political message, but while Dad thought it was “save the planet”, I thought it was more of an anti-war message, i.e. don’t go into Iraq just because they’ve got all that oil, or in this case, “unobtainium”. Whatever, it was refreshing to see America painted in a not-so-flattering light.