Smuggling Contraband

I looked both ways before stepping over the small hedge. She forced her window open, slowly but steady as not to alert anyone.

My hands searched the plastic bag for the smallest items first. Two bottles of gel: I passed them through the window’s opening at the bottom.

The contraband smuggling continued until I got the larger items. Her window was latched so it could only be opened so wide, and I couldn’t fit the four pack of extra length toilet paper through the gap: too wide.

Extra length toilet paper? you may be thinking. What is this nutter doing?

Well, as some of you may know, Noel’s mother Molly is a resident in a nursing home. Having had cancer a few times and even more radiation — I swear the woman must glow in the dark at night — to treat it, she has lost the use of her right arm and must be looked after.

She called me laughing on Friday night. Well, that nervous sort of laughter as in, Oh fudgecicles, something is up but put a positive spin on it.

Ends up the home she’s in has a breakout of norovirus, that lovely, highly-contagious virus spreading rampantly throughout institutions like nursing homes, dormitories and cruise ships like there is no tomorrow. Christchurch Public Hospital — another type of institution — sent her neighbour home from hospital, and that neighbour had brought norovirus into the home.

So, she explained, they were all on lock-down. No one could leave their room. No visitors, no going out, nothing. Another nervous chuckle.

Molly asked if I could get her some groceries, things like toilet paper, magazines and so on. Of course I said yes. So, on Saturday, I ran out, got the supplies, and met at the agreed rendezvous point: her window.

I had to break up the 6 pack of soda water bottles (Schwepps, of course) to pass them through the window gap one by one.

The toilet paper, on the other hand, got wedged in the window so I couldn’t get it in or out. Molly clutching at it from the top, me pushing it from the bottom, and it still barely budged.

I did something that will soon probably be illegal in this country. I smacked it. Open hand, right on the bottom, and the toilet paper pack popped into Molly’s room. (Don’t tell TPTB I did that, okay? I might be up for smacking toilet paper pack on the bottom… am I bad or what?)

Molly laughed and talked to me for a little while, although I don’t think she understood what I said. She stood there and smiled that polite but thin smile that conveys, “I have no idea what you are saying but I will smile like I know what you are saying.” I left things at that and went on my merry way.

The good thing was: I didn’t get caught!

The Slippery Slope

Tertiary education in New Zealand is haemorrhaging some of its best and brightest teachers, administrators and providers.

If you aren’t familiar with the story so far, here’s the Cliff Notes version.

In New Zealand, Labour were voted into power in the late 90’s. The Powers That Be — hereafter abbreviated TPTB — decided they didn’t like private tertiary establishments (PTEs), and, in an attempt for their public tertiary establishments (namely Polytechnics) to catch up, Labour (now Government) slapped a moratorium on course developments on PTEs.

It didn’t work.

TPTB then decided maybe funding caps would help. PTEs would have caps; public institutions would not.

It didn’t work.

TPTB introduced TEC, the Tertiary Education Commission, an amalgamation of three organisations with some tertiary Ministry of Education units, to oversee funding in the tertiary education sector. TEC was, and still is, very disorganised, never meet their own deadlines despite demanding tertiary providers meet theirs, give conflicting or vague advice when asked about a vague statement in their “guidelines”, and so on.

They didn’t work. Three years on, a few restructures later, and what probably amounts to hundreds of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars, and TEC is still not “right”, with another restructuring at a price of millions occurring mid-2007.

TPTB tried to change the funding system, dropping subsidies 9.5% for PTEs and placing “Fee Maxima” — a fee ceiling based on type of course any provider in New Zealand could charge — on all providers. Of course, public institutions had the right to apply to go above this ceiling, and, from year to year, a lot of them do and TEC accepts their applications as being valid.

Fee maxima — an extremely vague and “one size fits all” approach — is not working.

In an attempt to get rid of more PTEs — and despite TPTB stating the contrary, they are still attempting to reduce or get rid of PTEs — TEC subjected them to an exercise called “Assessment of Strategic Relevance”, a paper-based exercise coming out of the blue, wasting yet more taxpayer and student dollars, unfairly targeting the smaller PTEs. Every provider had to complete 1 ASR for every course they offered at every site. If a course was found of low relevance, it lost funding (or that was the theory).

It didn’t work. The exercise found PTEs were more responsive to needs, were more “strategically relevant” than their public counterparts; not the desired outcome TPTB probably wanted. (As an aside, how many PTEs had to shut because of losing funding but amazingly, public providers received extra funding to help them become “more relevant” instead of getting their funding revoked.)

TPTB pulled a surprise measure in May 2006’s Budget: “If your course doesn’t get subsidy, it won’t get Student Loans or Allowances.”

It didn’t work. Providers affected jumped up and down to be given a fair chance, and, reluctantly, TPTB allowed them to apply for funding so they could offer Student Loans and Allowances.

TPTB are changing the funding system yet again; their previous changes (as I have been saying all along they wouldn’t) haven’t worked. Some tertiary providers — public and private — are still abusing the old system and are not playing “fair”.

Will it work? Probably not. It is a radical departure from how providers have been previously funded, and, while the bulk, three-year funding cycle might help providers gain more long-term stability (their words, not ours). But, as my dear readers can see, there hasn’t been stability in tertiary education for a long time. How, as Noel and I asked at a recent meeting, can we be assured of stability in such a volatile era for tertiary education in New Zealand?

But back to haemorrhaging. Tertiary education is losing valuable resources. Not only money, but also people. Academics. Administrators. People with the know-how to make New Zealand a “knowledge economy” like TPTB spout on and on about.

TPTB spend heaps of money on bureaucracy: inefficient organisations like TEC, for example; however, they are reducing the money going to providers, having a flow-on effect on students. (Side note: TPTB are not paying providers but paying providers for tuition for students, so, theoretically, it is the students’ money, not the provider’s.)

TPTB make the assumption that by shutting down PTEs (through corralling them into a corner for the slaughter funding-wise) that those educators and administrators will then seek out jobs at public institutions. But that assumption is very flawed.

in our industry alone, out of the original six tertiary providers — all private — 1 (ours) is owned by its original owners. 2 still have some of their original owners. The other 3 saw the writing on the wall and sold up and moved on. And, for your information, they did not flock into public tertiary education. Other newer players have come and gone as well, either shutting down or selling up and moving on. All that knowledge — hundreds of years worth collectively — is gone from our “knowledge economy”. All that “wealth”, all gone.

Our friend, Lorna, ran the Elite school in Auckland. She left; TPTB pushed so hard that it was affecting her physical and mental health, not to mention her home life. Another academic with many years’ knowledge and experience: gone.

And NZQA periodically updates all providers in a newsletter about how many PTEs are registered in New Zealand. This figure continues to fall. Originally about 900, there are now 720-odd at latest count. If we figure each provider employed at least 2 people, this means at least 360 people lost their jobs as a result.

At the most recent meeting I spoke about before, I met up with someone Noel and I had met at a TEC meeting a few years back. She asked how we were getting on with TEC; I said we were holding in there but were thinking of suing them for wrong or negligent advice. Asking her about her provider, she scoffed. “Screw this all. I sold up. The new owners have me on a two year contract to transition to their way and then I’m out of here.” Yet another academic lost.

And that story is being repeated throughout New Zealand.

My burning questions to TPTB — and since they don’t listen, now I open them to the general public — are:

How do we create a “knowledge economy” when we’re quickly becoming “knowledge bankrupt”?

Will this supposedly-stabilising shift in the way tertiary providers are funded work, or is it yet another poorly thought-out plan, like usual?

Why aren’t tertiary providers, like ours, who consistently and constantly prove we are amongst the best and play by the rules all the time given some slack and allowed to grow and have our compliance reduced so we can raise our already high quality even higher? (In other words, why are TPTB trying to make us just mediocre?)

And, when some of us have been right again and again and again in telling TPTB that some hare-brained plan isn’t going to work, when are they finally going to listen to those who are in the trenches and are always right?

Computer Programmes

Okay, I’m getting old.

You know how it is. You get a new computer programme or a new cell-phone or whatever and you get the instructions out. You try to follow the instructions. If you are lucky, they were written by someone who actually writes English quite well (not Ginglish or Janglish or whatever). But no matter how hard you try, by page 5, you are like… “WHAT?!?”

I bought Adobe Creative Suite 2.3 for my new Mac. Adobe CS2 (as it is called) has several computer programmes in it, the big ones being Adobe Photoshop (to manipulate photos), Adobe Illustrator (to create illustrations and images) and Adobe InDesign (like Microsoft Publisher but better) amongst other programmes.

Eagerly, I awaited delivery of these programmes. Once they arrived, the programmes were installed and I tried to use them. Confused.

Noel and I made a trek to Borders, as you do, to get books written by Adobe on how to use their programmes. Three were in stock, so I bought those.

The first book I started to use in conjunction with the programmes was an introductory book, like a basic “how to use CS2” book.

I am, a few weeks later, up to chapter 6 in the book. And, quite frankly, totally bewildered.

I remember getting cross with my Mom or Dad when they used to use the computer and I thought, to borrow a line from Little Britain, “Oh for fuck’s sake!” But now, I find myself a bit bewildered by these programmes.

“Open the ‘Create Selected Layer – Transparent’ command from the Palettes menu.” What fucking Palettes menu? And when I get there, what bloody “Create Selected Layer – Transpa…” Oh. That “Create Selected Layer – Transparent” command. Hmph.

I think, to be honest, having to remember so much for work and in life has given me brain overload!

Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

Time went all wrong.

For some reason, Don and I were standing in my parents’ kitchen. James, Jacqui, the girls, Don, Soni, Noel, Jamie and I were staying at my parents place near Chicago in the US. Don and I were up early and I was showing him where to get breakfast. The clock on the microwave read 7 something in the morning.

My hand opened a cupboard to reveal cereal boxes when I looked at another digital clock my Mom has hanging in the corner of the kitchen; it reported 10 something in the morning.

“Something must be wrong,” I told Don when I turned around to check the first clock, but it also said 10 something in the morning. Scratching my head, the clock adjusted itself again. 2 something in the afternoon. Our dogs (Jenah, Levi and Nyota) who had somehow accompanied us back to the US, whined to go out. The clock was now 6 something in the evening.

Opening the back door, the dogs ran out to do their business. On the patio, a paddling pool with crystal clear water quickly then slowly then quickly changed, the water muddying, the pool’s sides growing moss and mould. A pork chop I had in my hand for the dog — God knows where it came from — rotted away, and I tossed it, the chop’s flesh peeling away as it rotted mid-air.

“There must be pockets of super-accelerated time,” I told Don. Jacqui, James, Noel and Jamie were awake now and wondering what was going on. I stepped outside.

The sky was a dark cornflower blue, the stars hanging large and bright. The moon was accompanied by several other planets, all so big I could make out features on their surface. A cartoon-like asteroid stood still to their left; it looked somewhat like the Man in the Moon with the rocket poking out his eye, sans the man and the rocket.

Inside, the others were discussing breakfast, or was that now dinner? Time was now sped up. Did anyone think, I asked, about the repercussions? That fresh food — lettuce, meat, that sort of thing — would decay at a quicker pace? What would we eat?

The ground suddenly shook. I pulled myself into a doorway, but everyone else seemed less worried. “It’s a timequake,” Jacqui explained calmly, a smile on her face. “We’ve been having them for months. Everything is okay; they’re not as damaging as real earthquakes.”

The news was on; CNN reported yet another plane had fallen out of the sky. This time, its pilot and co-pilot hit a pocket of accelerated time and aged so quickly they died. People were ransacking stores, mobbing in the street. Others gathered at churches and mosques and other places of worship, to pray; was this the end? And other people gathered at airports, trying to get back to loved ones and family before the end.

The waitress who served us a Portofino in Auckland appeared. “Don’t worry… time will start to return to normal on 25th of April,” she said in her eastern European accent. After I asked who told her that, she replied, “My husband Vadim of course. But everyone’s saying it.”

Time jumped. I was in traffic, waiting to get to a store at Woodfield to get some non-perishable or long-lasting food, like cookies or something similar to keep us going. A trip normally taking 15 minutes was crawling along. The sun was rising and setting quickly. Police were trying to control traffic but had pretty much given up. I thought about how long I had been gone in our new time: days? a week?

I picked up what I could get and suddenly I was back home again. The sun was rising, the sky a pale yellow colour, ablaze in light. A girl named Jessica turned 13, and, for some reason, her parents left her presents across the street from my parents’ place. Her parents brought her to our neighbourhood, someone explained, with other children as the effects were less severe in Mount Prospect. Besides Jessica being excited and tearing open her large mass of presents, the scene remained very quiet. No birds twittering. No planes flying overhead. No sound of cars or horns or anything.

Another quake hit and kept shaking the ground. Everyone else stood around as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. A jolt struck, and the quake grew more intense…

And I woke up. My rational mind had woke me up in the middle of the dream (the part before I went out to get groceries), thinking, “But digital clocks wouldn’t be affected by an increase in time, would they? And how would time increase like that? Was it the Earth spinning at a faster pace? Was it our perception of time — time being a man-made measurement — that was altered?”

So… now those of you who don’t know me very well know I have a very very overactive imagination. I get dreams like this on and off all the time!

Seeing Double

The Atherton Twins in Varekai
The Atherton Twins in Varekai

They soared above us, their chiseled bodies flowing through the air like sleek sharks quickly moving through water.

I was awestruck; I think we all were. At Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai”, all heads aimed upwards as the Atherton twins performed their infamous aerial strap act.

Amazingly.

Breathtakingly.

Flawlessly.

For our anniversary, Noel shouted us tickets to “Varekai”. We’d seen “Quidam” two years earlier at the ASB Showgrounds in Auckland after becoming fans by watching any Cirque du Soleil DVD we could get our hands on. To be honest, “Varekai” remained one of my more favourite Cirque shows, so when we heard it was coming to Auckland, Noel eagerly bought tickets.

James, Jacqui, Don and Soni accompanied us (see Noel’s blog for more information on that), and, in anticipation, we’d even shown James and Jacqui both the “Varekai” and “The Fire Within” DVDs. (For those of you who don’t know, “The Fire Within” chronicles several performers in their journey to make the final cut of “Varekai”.)

I admit, I thought the Atherton twins — Kevin and Andrew — were both very fine specimens of manhood. It would be wrong to think otherwise. The two could very easily find their way onto an Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement with no problem. Hell, they were the faces of the “Varekai” show, emblazoned on every poster and publicity shot to be found.

But as “The Fire Within” DVD progressed I discovered something totally different: how professional those two were for the most part. (Some of the others were professional too… don’t get me wrong. But if you’ve seen the DVD, you can tell the twins are several steps ahead of the rest.) They got in and did what’s required. Even when they felt their act, spruced up by a famous choreographer on crutches, might suffer, they performed it with 110% in front of the remainder of the group (most of who were struggling with their acts at the time). Their boss and the head honchos all loved it; so the twins performed it in that matter, not too proud to protest.

And it was that act we saw. The beautiful aerial ballet, a strap act, with two buff, beautiful twins, soaring through the air, making it look so easy and effortless, like the rest of us could do it too if we only tried.

I loved it. It was amazing. These two men I admired so much for their professional attitude — and I have to admit, it did challenge me in my own job to be more professional — for getting stuck in and giving 110%, even when they didn’t agree personally with the changes, and implementing them when the bosses liked it were performing their act, as they had for thousands before us, right above us with every ounce of freshness they performed it at their first live show.

And at the end, as on the DVD, they give each other an indescribable look, as if to say, We made it again… and they loved it!

Absolutely amazing!

Intersections

I felt strangely profound and strung from one time frame to the next via memory and experience.

The Sapphire Princess stood proud, still bright and slightly worn, berthed at Auckland’s Princes Wharf on Friday. We didn’t know she’d be there; we tore open the curtains and there she was.

Later, on a walk down to Princes Wharf, I stood there, staring up at her, a ship feeling like an acquaintance I knew years ago. Noel was taking pictures of Jacqui and James (who were very lovey-dovey that day, holding hands as we walked from our hotel on Albert Street to Princes Wharf) and Don and Soni were doing something unremarkable. Only a few meters from where I’d posed for a picture years before, my eyes met my old acquaintance and many thoughts flooded through my mind.

How many people walked her decks since we’d last been aboard? Did they have fun? Were her fittings more worn than the last time we were aboard? What interesting and mysterious tales could her crew, past and present, and passengers (ditto) tell? What beautiful and exotic ports had she visited on her journey back here?

Earlier that morning, I’d found a picture of me from 2004, standing inside the security gate at Princes Wharf, the ship’s bow curving towards the city. The words “Sapphire Princess” in a greenish-teal colour curved across the bow, written in italics but appearing, at the angle, to be written in a normal font. Janine from Steiner — world’s largest recruiter of beauty therapists, hairdressers, nail technicians and fitness instructors aboard cruise ships — was off to my right, talking on her cell phone. Noel took the picture.

And here I was, in nearly the same spot, staring at this ship all these years later. Strange coincidence, being two years later, with a slightly different cast and under totally different circumstances. From our balcony at the Quay West — right down the hall from where we stayed in 2004 — the Sapphire Princess sat regally at the Hilton’s side, nearly in the same position and condition she’d left us in in 2004.

Pointing to various areas of the ship, I explained to Jacqui, James, Don and Soni about the Sapphire, how the nightclub extends beyond the ship to over the water in some places. (This excited James and sent shivers down Jacqui’s spine.) The pools on the steep back decks. The blood red show lounge at the front, the stunning indoor areas, the rooms… all the images were crisp in my mind.

On our 2004 visit, an old Pacific Sky crew member, now aboard the Sapphire Princess, remembered me and said hi. What ever happened to her? Another crew member I knew from the Sky served aboard the Sapphire later too but was now gone on to bigger and better things.

We’ve returned home now, and Noel and I have cannibalised our old matching cell phones — one with a good battery but bad keypad and one with a bad battery and a good key pad — and gave it to Jamie to use (it has a camera, which I said was okay for him to have as long as he didn’t take pictures of his rude bits. He just laughed and mimicked taking a picture of his crotch. I digress). Scanning the pictures on the phone, Jamie asked about one of the photos: the Sapphire Princess, taken from the Quay West suite balcony, in 2004. Amazing.

So I ask myself… are these intersections all a coincidence or is some grander scheme emerging, something to do with sapphires or, even more specifically, the Sapphire Princess? And if so, what?

Izaac

I was nearly in tears.

Last night, Dave O brought over his Madonna Confessions Tour DVD that he and I watched together. (Noel watched some of it. Jacqui and James, in their house across the road from us, cursed as their windows rattled).

Some of Madonna’s songs have special meanings to me. One of her songs on her latest album is called “Isaac”, which, every time I hear it, reminds me of one of our friends who is also named Izaac (with a zed).

We met Izaac through our friend Adam, and Noel, Izaac and I hit it off almost immediately. The first time Izaac came over to our house (with Adam and Adam’s flatmates) he was enjoying our conversation so much he asked if he could stay over, to which we said yes… and proceeded to talk until 5 AM! He is a very intelligent and creatively-talented young man.

So, when we heard he was moving to Perth in Australia to be with his father — his parents are divorced, so his father and sister live in Perth and he, his mother and his brother live in Christchurch, New Zealand — I was a tad bit saddened. (We later found out it was his mother who wanted a change of scene and Izaac was going along whether he liked it or not.)

Noel and I always felt this young man was looking for a father figure, something missing in his life. His mother (who, don’t get me wrong, I do like and have plenty of time for) seemed to drag him from one situation to another without fully taking into consideration his feelings (but to justify this, she did have her welfare as well to look after as well as his and his brother’s: a fine balance to try to achieve). So, somehow, I felt that Izaac was always displaced, a vagabond or gypsy of sorts.

Izaac and his mother left for Perth earlier this year. Noel graciously gave him an out; if he didn’t like Perth, he could always come back to Christchurch and live with us until he got back on his feet.

I did get an email from Izaac a week ago; he loves Perth. Having a great time. For some reason he felt he needed to justify to me (or maybe us) that, while he was grateful for our offer, he didn’t know where he was heading in life. Maybe he’d come back. Maybe not. But, he felt, there was so much of the world he’d never seen and needed to explore.

For an artist, I think exploring the world is important. Works become more real and identifiable when an artist is well-rounded. I think of it like a collage; he is now taking bits and pieces from different aspects and time frames in his life to create and inspire him and his works.

So I told him to spread his wings and fly. To tell him to come back to Christchurch because I or Noel or Adam or whoever wanted him back would be selfish. Because, surely, if you love someone — and I do love Izaac, in the same way I love Dave Owen or Jacqui and James or Adam — you can let them go to fly, and if they are doing what they love, isn’t that the best thing?

Last year, Izaac created a painting for us, in an art deco style, inspired from a china cat Noel’s sister gave him for his birthday. We have yet to hang the painting up, but I do often go into the library (where it is stored) and have a look, one last remnant of Izaac in my life here and now. On a pale white canvas, like the ghost of him, he painted circles and sweeping, steady lines and arcs, all merging, all red like blood, merging like blood in arteries and veins pumping through the very real and very alive me in my own here and now.

Madonna’s song Isaac, for those of you who don’t know, goes:

“Staring up into the heavens
In this hell that binds your hands
Will you sacrifice your comfort?
Make your way in a foreign land?

“Wrestle with your darkness
Angels call your name
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

“Remember, remember
Never forget
All of your life has all been a test
You will find the gate that’s open
Even though your spirit’s broken

“Open up my heart
Cause my lips to speak
Bring the heavens and the stars
Down to earth for me”

And so the song is very relevant to Izaac, I feel.

The last verse I have listed hits me hardest, as he did open my heart, rekindled a passion for art and writing again that I lost long ago (causing my lips to speak), bringing his inspiration and creative energies (the heavens and the stars) to me (down to earth).

If it wasn’t for him, my blogs (which seems to just flow most days) would not have happened. And for that inspiration, I am truly grateful.