Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dachau Zen Moment

I took my zen to Dachau.
When I was in Germany earlier this year.
Of course, my zen goes with me wherever I go.
That's the beauty of it.
Dachau is a little town north of Munich.
Where the Nazis built the first German concentration camp.
The Germans weren’t the first people to build concentration camps.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that.
The British were.
In South Africa.
But that’s another story.
Or rather say another part of the same story.
Anyway, about Dachau.
It is famous for its welcoming sign.
As you enter it reads.
“Work will make you free.”
Ha ha!
Those fucking Nazis!
What a sense of humor!
We took the train from Munich to Dachau.
Then caught the bus to the camp.
It is free to enter.
It was free in 1933 too.
Iron clouds floated by and dropped a light, icy rain.
We passed through the notorious gate.
And entered the old Administration building.
As many thousands did between 1933 and 1945.
This is where the prisoners were admitted and documented.
Although they had already been beaten and robbed by their Nazi captors.
Even before they were admitted.
That’s Nazi efficiency!
On the wall is stenciled another funny sign.
“No Smoking.”
Oh! Those fun-loving Nazis!
As if anyone had anything to smoke!
Outside again in the rain I looked about me for clues.
To this monstrosity.
But I found none.
The camp was bigger than I expected.
Yet the prisoner’s quarters.
For they have restored and preserved.
One of the scores of barracks that once stood here.
The prisoner’s quarters were very cramped.
And depressed me so that I cried.
The whole place was strong with zen.
You could feel it all around you.
Especially at the gas chamber.
In a separate building at the back.
Out of sight.
It was the first gas chamber ever built.
As a test gas chamber.
So that other, bigger gas chambers could be built.
With all the bugs ironed out.
More Nazi efficiency.
Here too the Nazi sense of humor displayed itself in witty signage.
They’d even mounted fake shower heads in the ceiling.
To reduce the chance of panic.
Among the men, women and children.
That were going to be murdered within.
The bastards!
It saddened me further to learn.
That tourists have stolen all of these.
Fake shower heads.
But one.
Which now must be guarded.
Sometimes I almost doubt my zen.
Especially when I consider all the places on this planet.
Past and present.
Where men have fallen to the state of Nazis.
I want to cry and never stop.
But then I realize.
The world is man’s domain.
And men can be wolves to each other.
That’s why we need zen.
All the zen we can get.
But don’t worry.
There is an endless supply of zen in the universe.
Take all you need.
And if I may ask a favor?
Try a little kindness.
Toward yourself and others.
As you journey through life.

Friday, June 26, 2015


   “You have made a very poor start, sir,” said Mr Hamilton, the assistant headmaster. 
   Why did he call me ‘sir,’ I wondered, when the tone of his voice said ‘little boy?’ 
   I was in trouble for my conduct again. That was happening a lot since I’d arrived in New Zealand, about three months before. 
   “Stabbed who in the heart, sir?” I asked. I didn’t yet understand the New Zealand accent very well and wouldn’t you know it? One of the people I understood the least was Mr Hamilton.
   “Made a poor start, boy!” he corrected me raising his voice.
   “Yes sir,” I said.
   I really was trying my best at school, but it was hard being the new kid from America with the funny yank accent and baffling stupidity about everything. And the lessons. Who knew other countries had their own history and geography and social studies? Not me. Even English wasn’t English anymore, not the way they spoke it and spelled it. I was tall and gawky too, an easy target for the derision and ridicule of my schoolmates.
   Unknown to me at the time I was learning one of life’s lessons. 
   The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. 
   I sat and listened as Mr Hamilton droned on about what a bad boy I was and how much trouble I caused everybody and when would I ever learn? There was also the usual reminder about the glory of Avondale College and its noble traditions, and how I wasn’t living up to them either. With every minute in his musty office the feeling of confusion and failure weighed heavier and heavier upon me. It was like some dream where you are on trial for you don’t know what in some place that you never have been and everybody there whom you never have met is ready to convict you just to teach you a lesson that you never will forget.
   I was sitting there listening to Mr Hamilton's oration about what a failure I was when suddenly, unbidden to my mind came a childhood recollection.
   I can’t help it. Sometimes things pop into my head. 
   It probably happens to you sometimes, too. 
   It was a vivid recollection about Mr Wilson, the angry man who resided in the house down the street when we lived in Englewood, California. I must have been about seven or eight years old at the time. 
   It was summer. 
   Hot, bright, dry. 
   I could almost hear the cicadas singing and smell the newly mown grass. 
   His grass! 
   “Keep the freaking freak off it, you little freaking so-and-sos!”
   He used to run out from his house hitching up his trousers as the screen door slammed behind him and shout forth a volley of hateful cuss words if we ever so much as set one foot on his precious lawn! He spent countless hours in his yard, pruning or mowing or whatever, glaring at us all the while, daring us to, “Just try something, you little sons of bitches!” 
   When I later mischievously asked my mother what a ‘sons of bitches’ was, she said to ask your father, then she instructed me to pass Mr Wilson’s house on the other side of the street in future. To spare her feelings, I had not asked my mother about the really bad words he had hurled at us. 
   Stupidly, I asked my father what a couple of them meant and all I got for my trouble was to have my mouth washed out with soap and sent to bed early without my dinner. 
   We children of the neighborhood (I recall there were at least a dozen of us together at any one time that summer) applied our fairy tale morals to the situation and came to the conclusion that the angry, cursing gardener was simply … evil. 
   And mean. 
   The worst sort of grownup. 
   Thankfully, apart from our teachers, they were rare. 
   There could be no other reason, in our limited experience of life, for Mr Wilson's angry actions, and we believed the most fabulous myths about him. How dogs that did their business on his lawn were never seen again. Why? Because they were roasted and eaten, that's why. How he had murdered the weird little runny-nosed kid who lived two blocks over (no one had seen the boy for weeks, it turned out he and his family were on summer vacation). How he buried his victims under his immaculate lawn in the dead of night when the moon was full, or cut them up with garden shears and burned them in his backyard incinerator (which seemed to belch smelly, mysterious black smoke on a regular basis). 
   Most terrifying of all, how he had caught and skinned little boys and girls, and had their hides hanging on the walls of his backyard greenhouse, right beside the dog skins! This last myth, especially when told after dark, would start the little ones to crying, and they never went past his house but at a run, madly dashing past the manicured garden and the angry gardener. 
   Their hysterical crying only increased his ire and he would laughingly taunt them with foul oaths, even throwing things at them sometimes.
   Ha! Ha! He looked so funny, a grown man cussing at children! 
   Turns out he wasn’t 100% right in the head. 
   So my mother told me later.
   Mr Wilson couldn’t help it, she said, he was ill and that made him the way he was. He used to be very kind. She was a little disappointed I hadn’t treated the old man better, she added, and that I had allowed the smaller children to believe such nonsense. 
   “You know he doesn’t eat dogs or hurt children!” she said. “Rusty! I’m surprised at you!”
   But I wasn’t so sure. 

   I surreptitiously appraised Mr Hamilton as he continued to remind me of what a useless little schoolboy I was and how I was letting everybody down. 
   He had the look of a villain from a James Bond novel if you ask me. 
   (I had begun reading Ian Fleming’s 007 books on the ship which brought us from California to New Zealand. I was still reading them. There was one next to me in my schoolbag as I sat there in Mr Hamilton’s office.)
   Yes, he certainly had the look of a Bond villain, with his eerily glowing eyes behind soulless pince-nez, his wrinkle-free skin with its strangely orange tint, his crooked little teeth and his highly polished cranium housing his evil-genius brain. When he smiled he resembled a Halloween jack-o-lantern. The two fingers and thumb of his writing hand were always stained with ink from the fountain pen he used which, because he used red ink, I somehow found upsetting.
   Like he’d stained them doing something unspeakable to some innocent schoolboy. 
   What would his character’s name be, I wondered? A good name was important to a Bond villain. 
   Doctor Odd? Inkfinger? Pumpkin Galore?
   Try as I might though, I couldn’t see Mr Hamilton as a preeminent Bond villain. Oh, he had enough insanity in his eyes, I could see that, but he lacked the driving egotistical ambition for world domination necessary. He’d be a smaller character in a Bond novel, I figured, with a distasteful quirk of some kind, and have a number or a letter instead of a name. Number Two. That seemed to suit him, scatologically speaking. And there would be dark hints of his unnatural (and by unnatural I mean with animals unnatural) sex life, if he had any sex life at all. 
   Then he’d be killed off with much ignominy by the real villain for his incompetence in chapter four.
   I mean he was killed in chapter four. 
   His incompetence occurred in chapter two.
   Chapter two is the chapter that starts off with a steamy sex scene of Bond and twin flight attendants from B.O.A.C. named Barbi and Bambi.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Load of Undeserved Crap

   At the bell announcing lunch, I gathered up my schoolbag and hurried out of the classroom, down the hallway and through the doors outside to the open fields in the sunshine. 
   I was having another bad day at Avondale College.
   I’d only been in New Zealand a month. I’d only been at Avondale College two weeks, but I was a miserable, lonely little schoolboy. 
   I didn’t want to speak to anybody or see anybody. I was sick of their taunts and insults. I was tired of being the foreigner they all laughed at. I wanted to be by myself. Finding a secluded place on the fields at the far side of the cricket pitch, I lay down in the grass, on my stomach, and tried to read. 
   I was reading a James Bond novel. I was reading them avidly at the time, having acquired all the cheap paperback editions I could find at the bookshop of the SS Oriana. They were ridiculously cheap, marked down to three-and-six and dumped into rotating wire racks which stood twirling in front of the ship’s little bookshop. What a wonderful pleasure to read the thrilling stories in the beautiful, sun filled lounge at the stern of the Oriana. I’d sit in an oversized chair with the sun streaming through the large windows and read for hours and hours. Now and then I’d look up from the book and admire the frothing wake the huge ship left behind. 
   It stretched all the way back to the horizon. 
   Bond, James Bond. 
   How very English on this very English ship. I’ve never met a book I didn’t like and there’s always time for reading, but sometimes one is lucky enough to come across the right books at the right time. The Bond books were perfect to pass the time on the voyage. From them I was gleaning a look into the world of travel and glamour and sex. 
   Things I've found interesting ever since. 
   They were first books I ever read that were spelled in English English, by the way. You know, tyre for tire, colour for color, that kind of thing. These little things gave them great sophistication in my eyes. 
   To a reader little things can mean a lot, but I suppose, you being a reader, you knew that already. 
   Today though, it was difficult to concentrate on the book as I kept reliving the events of the past two weeks. What a mess my life was in! Ever since arriving in New Zealand, things had gone wrong. At school I was laughed at by the students and punished by the teachers. At home I confused and infuriated my parents while my younger brother and sister thought I was going cuckoo. 
  I closed the book and lay there, feeling the warmth of the sun through my clothes and on the backs of my legs. (The silly school uniform sported short pants, which looked absolutely ridiculous on me, for I was a tall, gawky kind of kid.) I lay on my stomach and cradled my head in my arm, using the Bond paperback as a pillow. I could hear the other schoolboys at play kicking a ball, shouting in fun. Closer by, I could hear the wind droning through the oleanders at the field’s edges. 
   Lying on the warm earth, listening to the boys play and the wind drone while the sun was beating down on my back, I fell asleep in the soft grass.  
   “Hey! Wake up! You asleep?”
   I opened my eyes. It was Hugh’s voice, coming from above. All I could see of him was a pair of black school shoes, just like mine, only scuffed and considerably smaller.
   “The bell’s gone,” said he. “Didn’t you hear it? Bloody hell! You’d better get moving, mate, if you’re going to class.”
   I scrambled to my feet. I was in a daze from the sleep and for a minute I didn’t know where I was, literally. 
   It had been a deep, black, dreamless sleep.
   “Right,” I said more to myself than to Hugh. “New Zealand. School. Avondale College.”
   “I’m not bothering with any more today,” bragged Hugh. “I’ve had enough of their crap!” He sniffed and rubbed at his nose, then pronounced, “I’m wagging school this afternoon!” I noticed he was smoking, a cigarette was dangling from the stubby, nail bitten fingers of his left hand. He raised it to his lips and puffed nervously. 
   “Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.” 
   Now, while I truly believed that I had been dealt a load of undeserved crap over the last two weeks, as Hugh had just said, when I said ‘yeah, me too’ I meant it only rhetorically. I wasn’t going to skip school. I had never skipped school in my life. 
   That was what bad boys did. 
   Bad boys also smoked and cursed and left it for others to take the blame. 
   That very morning I’d been caned for smoking in the toilets, when it had been Hugh who was smoking in there, not me. He’d handed me the cigarette while he tired his shoelaces, then he’d hidden under the sink when Mr Hamilton had suddenly appeared. 
   Mr Hamilton caught me in a room full of smoke with a cigarette in my hand, and I was caned for it. 
   Now Hugh had stopped to find out what kind of trouble he was in, if any. He’d probably stumbled upon me accidentally while crossing the playing fields on his way out. The selfish little so-and-so, I thought to myself, he couldn’t even show human compassion at the misery of others, meaning me and my misery of course, when he was the outright cause of that very misery! 
   Hugh was impressively self-centered, I thought with admiration. I’d never met anyone quite like him. 
   “Ah, I wanted to, ah, ask you how it went with Mr Hamilton,” he stammered. He gave me a worried look. “You know. You gettin’ the cane. Haha. You didn’t mention me, did you?”
   “Your name never came up.”
   “Really?” His face completely changed, now creased by a big smile. “That’s great!”
   “Hugh, believe me, nothing I could have said would have availed me,” I said and I laughed as I said it. 'Nothing you can say will avail you now.' That was exactly what Mr Hamilton had said before he caned me. 
   I think the beginning of the dark, ironic side to my sense of humor was born that day.  
   “Bloody great, mate,” said Hugh, all smiles now. “I owe you one. Well, I’m off. Cheerio!” 
   Saying that, he turned and walked away, instantly forgetting that he owed anyone anything.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Unless It’s a Lioness

   I’ve always loved going to the movies.
   Movies have constantly been a part of my life. 
   Never more so than when I was a lad of fourteen newly arrived in New Zealand. I was a tall, gawky kind of kid who couldn't seem to fit in, especially at school. The long week would drag by, waiting for Friday night when I could take the #10 bus from Avondale into downtown Auckland and see a movie.
   “Go to the cinema and see a film,” as New Zealanders said.
   My favorite theater was the giant Civic Theatre on the corner of Queen and Wellesley Streets. It was easily the biggest cinema in Auckland, holding over two-and-a-half-thousand people. Built in the 1920s as a spectacular cinema palace, it was extremely ornate with deluxe red and gold plush decor. Even the ruby colored carpet under your feet felt rich and luxurious. Crystal chandeliers hung gracefully here and there. Within the vast auditorium the stars of the heavens, rendered in tiny electric lights, twinkled high above in the deep blue ceiling, while colossal Romanesque statues of crouching lions with menacing lighted eyes proudly flanked the stage. Rows of red velvet seats stretched as far as the eye could see. Long, curving rows that stacked up and up and up, so close to the deep blue dome of heaven that they nearly touched the electric stars.  
   I used to arrive early and luxuriate in these otherworldly surroundings while I watched the other patrons find their seats. 
   New Zealanders were still strange creatures whose language and customs I had yet to learn. 
   Before each show ‘God Save the Queen’ was played, during which everyone arose and stood to respectful attention. As the anthem ended and all were reseated, an imitation night befell us as the huge room slowly darkened. The stars above and the eyes of the lions below would fade out as the houselights slowly dimmed. The heavy red velvet curtains parted, revealing the pure white, virginal screen. 
   A wonderful moment of anticipation and silence followed. 
   Then came the fantastic flickering shadows that would transport me to another world.
   I went to the movies as often as I could, usually on a Friday night when the shops on Queen Street stayed open late. I always went by myself. Only having schoolboy means at my disposal, I couldn’t afford it any more often than that. To me, money spent at the movies was never wasted. Like books, there wasn’t really a bad one, just some that weren’t very good. Movies opened a window to the past, grappled with the present and pondered the future. They were endlessly fascinating. They were alive with hope. They were art. They were humor and beauty and magic and funny and sad and, well, I’m sure you get my point. 
   Movies were important to me. They still are. 
   Maybe they are to you, too.  
   Back in those days (I’m speaking of 1968) they often showed a newsreel and a cartoon before the main attraction. 
   The newsreels were a mix of local and international items. Short pieces meant to inform and entertain. A baby born to someone famous, the happy couple with swaddled infant standing outside their home waving to the cameras. A government official opening a stretch of highway somewhere in the South Island. Or perhaps the splashdown of a Nasa space mission, American astronauts grinning as their shiny helmets are removed.
  Then came the cartoon. Ha! Ha! I love cartoons! And it’s fun to laugh with an audience! Ho! Ho! Who wouldn’t laugh, when that wily old coyote is proved a fool yet again by the speedy little roadrunner? He! He! The look of utter failure on the coyote’s face as a 10-ton safe falls from a great height upon his head!
   I sat in the dark and laughed with strangers, and for a moment I forgot I was lonely at school and unhappy at home.
   At the Interval, as the Intermission was called, young attendants would lope down the aisle and begin to sell ice-cream cones from trays held at their waists by straps round their necks. These ice-cream cones had been previously frozen solid, so that by now they were as hard as a rock. One needed the entire feature to lap their way through one. These ice-cream cones came in Vanilla only, by the way, although theoretically there was the option of chocolate dipped, which they ran out of immediately so it always came back to Vanilla only.
   Then the houselights slowly dimmed.
   The feature was about to start.  
   Ah, the movies I saw at the beautiful Civic Theatre! 
   That was many years ago.
   I am now a writer and a blogger. 
   One of the things I’ve learned as a writer is that each story one writes requires a set of rules. This is to anchor the story in some sort of reality, help insure a smooth flow and avoid reader confusion. 
   Ironically enough, this is true of the movies too.
   One of the rules I made for my blogging was that I wouldn’t bore my readers, if I collected any, with talk about specific movies and what I thought of them or what they meant to me. We all have our opinions on movies, just check your Facebook timeline for proof of that. And movie critics of one kind or another are not in short supply in this world, either. They’re probably pretty numerous in the next world too, I should think. 
   Regarding movies, there’s nothing new for me to add. 
   So I don’t see any point in my discussing movies, unless I actually worked on one (which I will have occasion to do when I write now and then of my career as a film animator) or something of interest happened while I was watching one. 
   Like the time at the Amanzimtoti Star drive-in theater near Durban, South Africa in 1976.
   I’d been living in South Africa a few years by then with Suzie, my second wife. She was from South Africa, although we had met in New Zealand. Her mum and stepfather and two grown brothers with girlfriends lived in the Durban area and we all used to gather to eat Jean’s (Suzie’s mum) curried chicken and go to the “bioscope,” as South Africans call the movies, or the cinema, or the flicks or whatever you call it wherever you are.
   Anyway, one night at the drive-in, as dusk was falling, a lioness and her cubs calmly walked through the playground area, dragging what was left of a zebra carcass behind them in the red African dust. It was just before showtime and children where frolicking in the playground beneath the giant outdoor screen. Ha! Ha!! You should have seen the children scatter! Ho! Ho! You should have heard the shrieking of the parents as they collected their offspring! He! He! You should have smelled the curried chicken as it flew from the paper plates of Suzie’s excited brothers!
   Uh-oh! I should have avoided spilling my beer in my lap!
   Only mildly disturbed by all the excitement they’d aroused, the lioness trotted off with her cubs into the gathering darkness of the nearby veld, not forgetting to take the dusty zebra carcass with them. 
   “Ach man, no problem,” as they say in South Africa. 
   The movie started right on time.
   We saw a double feature that night. 
   Jaws and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
   I couldn’t swim in the ocean, nor don a scarlet red silk corset, for weeks afterwards.
   So you see there are good reasons for these little writer’s rules. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Magic Words

   “Knock knock!”
   “Who’s there?”
   “Godfrey who?”
   “Godfrey hairs on me chest!”

   One of the reasons I decided to write this blog was to be able to get a few things off my chest from time to time.   
   Which is a funny thing, now that I think about it, because there’s nothing on my chest except a little hair and a couple of nipples.
   No rings or tattoos. No piercings. Nothing like that.
   No, the things that I want to get off my chest are really in my mind.
   My friend John suggested it, after I’d bored him silly over a beer one day with all the complaining I did about something, my boss, my wife, my sports team, I can’t even remember what.
   "You're a writer," he said. "Well, why don't you write about it?" 
   So I put my impossible-to-finish second novel aside and started blogging, mostly as a way to explore new ideas and keep limber as a writer, and of course to try to understand and make fun of life and it’s impossible moments. 
   With that said; 
   You know what’s been bothering me lately? 
   Who knows? Maybe it’s been bothering you, too.
   The lack of “Pleases” and “Thank Yous” that I do not hear all around me anymore.
   That's what's been bothering me lately. 
   Everywhere you go, nobody is saying it.
   It came to me last night as I was having a beer at my local. It’s a friendly place with a good crowd and cold beer, but guess what? Nobody there says please or thank you either. 
   I noticed this as I sat there, sipping my beer, listening for once to the voices in the tavern instead of the voices in my head.
   “Gimme a Bud!” demanded a guy at the bar.
   I turned and looked. He sported a magnificently large spare tire type belly. A Dunlop, as my wife calls it, not because it’s a spare tire, but because it's ‘done lopped over’ his belt. His nervous foot tapping made his flip-flops flap loudly against the bottoms of his feet.
   He was handed a Bud. He took a sip.
   “Got a menu?” he demanded instead of saying thank you.
   He was handed a menu.
   Nothing from Dunlop, who immediately started scanning the menu. 
   The server turned to another patron. 
   “I’ll take a dozen chicken wings," ordered a young man with a tattoo of Huckleberry Hound on his forearm. Huckleberry Hound. Of all the images in all the world to permanently apply to yourself, why Huckleberry Hound, I wondered? Oh well, at least it was well drawn. I should know, I used to be in the drawing end of the cartoon business. Ye Gods, how many so-called Stitches have I seen tattooed on someone’s shoulder or ankle that broke my heart! On his other arm is a tattoo of his mother, I think. It’s either his mother or Chewbacca from the Star Wars movies, it’s difficult to tell from where I’m sitting. 
   But judging by the family resemblance, it’s his mother.
  “Not too spicy!” interrupts his girlfriend, sitting next to him. You can tell she's his girlfriend, she's been sharing his drink through the same straw. You don't do that with your sister or a coworker. Not if you're over six-years-old. “And some twirly fries!” she adds with delight.
   Delight, but no “please.”
   She’s no Princess Leia, I notice.
   But then these days, who is?
   To my left I hear, “Gimme a burger. No, a cheeseburger. Uh, make it a double.” 
   I turn to see another patron straight out of Star Wars, who really does look like Chewbacca, at least he does from the neck up. Must be the long blonde hair and beard, I figure. And something about the dark, somewhat canine nose. But that's all. 
   From the neck down, he more closely resembles Jabba the Hutt. 
   He adds, shouting at the server who has turned to go, “Put some bacon on that burger! And a diet Coke too!”
   “Okay hon!” the server answers over her shoulder.
   “Could I please have another Yuengling?” I ask as she passes.
   “Sure, sweetie!” she responds. “Anything else?”
   “No thank you. Just a beer.”
   I know she doesn’t mean it, she’s just being friendly, but I’m nobody’s sweetie. 
   It occurs to me now to mention, seeing as I started it, that I look more like the evil, hooded Palpatine from The Emperor Strikes Back than anyone else I can think of from Star Wars. 
   You know. The bitterly angry guy who shot electricity out of his hands.
   Him, or a tall, skinny Yoda with a greying goatee. 
   When I was young, younger than I can even remember, my parents taught me to say “Please” and “Thank You” and to say them in a pleasant tone of voice when the time was appropriate.
   And oh boy, watch out if you didn’t say them or otherwise forgot your manners in any way!
   I don’t want a return to those more restrictive times when children were seen and not heard. I delight in children and welcome their presence. I was one myself, once. And I don’t mean to imply that I’m perfect. 
   Just that I try, as I was taught, to remember my manners.
   Especially in public, when social niceties are appreciated the most.
   I suppose that please and thank you are among the first words one ever learns. In whatever country you reside and whatever language you speak, these words are the currency of good manners. 
   My mother called them the Magic Words. Because like magic they make things happen, and like magic they are everywhere all around us all the time, if we just remember to look for it.
   Just like The Force.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Goodbye Again

Part 3

   (It may help to remember that I was an eighteen-year-old married man working for the Ministry of Works (M.O.W.) at road construction in New Zealand when this story takes place. 
   It is 1970. A gray wintery day at the depot where we'd gathered for morning smoko.
   I’d been called to the phone and made a joke about it with my workmates.
   It was no joke, though. It was my sister on the telephone.
   That morning, Mom had collapsed and been rushed to hospital, could I please come right away.)

   My mother had had a stroke. 
   It was a few days before they let me see her and when I did, it was a shock. Her hair had turned white. Her unseeing eyes stared straight ahead. She chewed her tongue constantly and didnt speak or smile, didnt change her expression. 
   She didnt even know I was there. 
   It was a bad stroke they said, triggering an aneurism that destroyed most of her brain. We think, were not sure because theres no response but we know shes blind as well as paralyzed blah blah blah because I couldnt hear what they were saying to me by then, nor barely see through my tears, all I knew was that my mother wasnt there anymore.
  (She survived for six months in this condition, driving my father nearly insane from grief and lack of sleep, until she departed this world peacefully one night while Dad held her hand and cried. She was thirty-six-years-old.)
   Her illness meant the end of my time at the M.O.W., for within a month of Mom going into hospital, Dad asked me to come help him at his little animation studio so that he could have more time to attend to Mom. He went to the hospital every day and back again every night.
   There was another reason that he asked me to work for him. 
   Mom had made him promise.
   "She wanted to get you out of the ditches," Dad said to me. She wanted you to be an artist. Unknown to me, theyd spoken of it only a few months before she had her stroke. (A mothers intuition? Did she know she wasnt long for this world?) My mother was worried about me becoming too rough and tumble working where I did, where the men were men with plenty of cursing and smoking and drinking and such, and she made Dad promise that if I showed ability and desire, he should help me get started as an artist.
   “With her being sick, I thought she’d like to know that we’ve begun,” said my father. Dad referred to mom as being sick, as if she merely had a cold or the flu, and wasn’t laying in a hospital bed paralyzed with half her brain destroyed. It was his way of dealing with it. He reached up (I was taller than he, had been since I was fourteen), and placed the palm of his hand against my cheek, studying my face with his soft, Texas sagebrush eyes. His eyes weren’t blue as they used to be, they were red as they’d become lately, for it’s impossible to look after two teenage children at home (my younger sister and brother) and animate films singlehandedly while visiting your dying wife twice a day, without getting a little red-eyed. 
   He said softly, She was thinking of you, son. She loved you dearly.” 
   I think when my father said that something fundamentally changed between us. Like it was okay for him to love me, and me to love him, with the dying woman we both loved showing us the way. It wasnt easy, for my dad and I had somehow got off on the wrong track since coming to New Zealand. We were always at loggerheads. We never seemed to agree about anything.
   Now we stood together pondering a dying wife’s last request, a mother’s hope for her son. 
   And with this pondering came understanding. 
   Of course, every father and son that ever was or ever will be, if theyre lucky enough reach such a moment together and come to terms with who they are, but I believe with all my heart that my mother reached out with love from beyond her deathly illness to help cure the illness between my father and myself, and, incidentally, set me upon my course as an animator.
   Love is that powerful.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Goodbye Again

Part 2
   Suzie and I stood in Auckland Airport’s Departures lounge, embracing our friends before we left town. We were about to fly to New York City, where we had a Kiwi friend upon whose couch we could crash, to arise and begin a new life in America. 
   It is February, 1987. 
  “Keep in touch, Suzie,” said her old friend Nick, who’d come to see us off. “The place won’t be the same without you.” 
   I could easily believe that. Suzie brought lightness and gaiety wherever she went. I watched her embrace Nick, a smile lighting her face. It was a big smile, beaming out friendliness and confidence and a love of life. Which sort of sums Suzie up in many ways, if I may be so glib. As usual she was dressed impeccably for the occasion, today in hippie style jeans and knitted V-neck top under a ragged little denim jacket all strung together with a long, colorful scarf.
   We’d known each other for many years, Suzie and I, had lived together in many places. Africa, Australia, New Zealand.
   Now, we wanted to try America.
   “What’ve we got to lose?” we said. This was in a way idle boasting, because as artists whose entire possessions fitted into just three suitcases, we really didn’t have much to lose. 
   I was a film animator. Over the years I’d learned all I could in New Zealand about making animated films from my father, himself a former Disney animator, and from the other two New Zealand animators then working, and of course from the mistakes and experiences of the dozens and dozens of short films, mostly TV commercials, that I’d made. So I knew a lot about making animated movies, but I’d gone about as far as I could go in New Zealand.
   It was time to pack up my pencils and my dreams and head to America.
   America! Where the movies were big and anything could happen! 
   My father was proof of that. In the 1950s he had dared to dream and take his chances in life as an artist, and he had accomplished what I now set out to do. He had worked as an animator on feature films for Walt Disney. Then as now, no small achievement. Especially for a poor boy from Texas who’d done two hitches in the US Navy and started a family even before attending art school. From there he was selected to work for Walt Disney. After seven years at Disney, my father (and my mother too, for she and he were partners in many ways) decided to leave California and emigrate with the family to New Zealand.
   My father left America in search of artistic growth in New Zealand.
   (That, and a better life for his family.)
   Now, twenty years later, I was leaving New Zealand in search of artistic growth in America.
   Ha! Ha! How the gods love a laugh! 
   Here I was thinking that I was a true antiauthority bohemian artist, when all the time I was merely following in my father’s footsteps.
   In exactly the opposite direction!


   I was started along in my father’s footsteps as an animator, it may interest you to learn, not by my father or by another person or event, but by a ghost.
   A very real ghost.
   It was 1970, two and a half years after we’d arrived in New Zealand and a year since I’d left school and gotten married. I was married to Ethne, my first great love. Our baby was born in November the year before. He was healthy and fat! And smart too just like his father. Ethne and I and the baby were living in Mairangi Bay and life was good. We even had a car. Sometimes the car worked and sometimes it didn’t. I was still working at Northcote depot for the Ministry of Works, helping to build Auckland’s Northern Motorway. It was a rough and tumble world of working men and earthmoving machines, but I’d made friends and was growing up. I’d been promoted out of the ditches and in with the surveyors over a year before. 
  It was a dreary winter’s day, with squally gusts of rain blowing through. A lot of the men had come back to the depot for smoko; it being payday, they could collect their wages. We’d gathered in the tearoom to play cards and share a few laughs. The weather was miserable and nobody wanted to be outdoors. It being winter, the earthworks machines weren’t running, so the pace around the depot was more relaxed, and smoko breaks were sometimes extended affairs. Just keep a low profile and don’t let Pat, the foreman, catch you goofing off. The card game was breaking up. I was about to leave the tearoom to collect the Thames wagon and be off to Sunset Road with Peter, the chief surveyor, when:
   “Rusty! Hey! You’re wanted on the blower!”
   It was Roy, the office manager, calling down from the landing at the top of the stairs that led to the offices. Apparently, I was wanted on the telephone.
   “What?I called. Me? Are you sure? 
   “Its probably another cock-up,muttered Buck seated at the card table, and the gathered workers laughed. Nobody ever got calls, except Pat and the big bosses. Maybe this was another joke? How the men loved a joke, at anybody’s expense! You couldnt leave your leg unattended for even a second at our depot, someone was always there, ready to pull it for you. I looked around at Pat and Buck and the other workmen in the tearoom, some of whom I knew quite well, but they all appeared innocent enough. You couldnt tell by appearances, though, for I was still young and a very poor judge of what was in the hearts of men by the looks on their faces.
  “Yeah, you! You’re wanted on the blower!” repeated Roy, who then turned and retired to his office, where the telephone was.
   “Blast it all!I now said, mimicking Pats usual grumble as I trotted up the stairs. Pat was the foreman of the depot, well liked by the men, whom he ruled like a benevolent king. He always grumbled loudly and mightily, as he trotted up the stairs that led to the office to take his telephone calls, about the ineptitude of the big bosses and how they couldnt get along without him. In this way he reminded us how important he was and how lucky we were to have a foreman as good as he.
   Which is true, he was a good foreman. 
   Cant they even wipe their own blasted backsides up there,I grumbled, mimicking Pat, without it blasted raining blasted showers of crap on us down here …”
   The men, Pat included, found my joke funny and I enjoyed the sound of their laughter in my ears. Good one, kid,they laughed. Ahaw haw haw!
   It was no joke, though. It was my sister on the telephone.
   That morning, Mom had collapsed and been rushed to hospital, could I please come right away.

   To be continued…

Friday, June 5, 2015

Goodbye Again

Auckland, New Zealand

   “Goodbye,” I said. “See you in a few years.” 
   That’s what I believed, that I’d return to New Zealand after a few years away. We’d done it previously a couple of times, Suzie and I, left New Zealand and gone off to live in Africa (1976-77) and Australia (1981-82) for a few years, then come back. Most young Kiwis* in those days went out to see the world, they probably still do. New Zealand being a country made up of islands surrounded by the South Pacific ocean, you have to go overseas to go anywhere. 
   As usual, Kiwis had a phrase for it, “Getting your O.E.” for Overseas Experience. 
   Now we stood in the Departures Lounge of Auckland International Airport, embracing friends before we boarded our plane to go and do it again. America this time. New York City, where we had friends upon whose couch we could crash. 
   I’d known and loved Suzie for a dozen years by then. I met her when she was eighteen, barely more than a kid. Now she was a fashion model, clothes designer and travel agent. 
   I was a film animator. I made TV commercials selling toilet bowl cleaners and stuff like that.  
   Everything we owned was at our feet, packed into three suitcases. 
   Proving, I suppose, that for most of us artists, it really is art for art’s sake in this material world. 
   “Good luck, mate,” Nick said somberly as he gripped my hand. He wore a serious expression, which gave his face an unnatural look. He wasn’t usually so grave. Looking at him, I was more than ever convinced he believed Suzie and I had made a horrible mistake and were doomed to failure in America, where we’d end up like every artist that ever was or ever will be ends up, starving to death in our freezing rat infested hovel with bill collectors banging at the door! To lie on a filthy mattress, too weak from hunger to rise, and stare sepulchrally with feverish eyes and bitter irony at the unsold masterpieces (painted in my own blood) hanging on the damp, decaying walls— and with my last painful breath receive the cruel enlightenment to look back on my life and wonder; 
   “Where did I go wrong?”
   What our friends didn’t understand was that Suzie and I felt we had nothing to lose. 
   After all, everything we owned fitted into three suitcases.
   Suzie’s eyes sparkled with excitement at the idea of America. She liked to travel. Even before I'd met her, she'd been around the world a bit. She had tremendous curiosity and was remarkably free of emotional tethers to places and things. What Suzie loved was people. 
   She was unresisting to change, too. In fact, she liked change. 
  “We’re not waiting for our ship to come in, Nicky,” she’d said a few weeks before, when we told Nick and his wife of our decision to leave New Zealand. “We’re going to swim out to it!” We talked it over over dinner. That’s when I first saw the look from our friends. The look that said you’re crazy to go and try animation in America! Making cartoons? You’re barely eking out a living now, here in Godzone,** how will you survive the mean streets of New York City? 
   In his youth Nick had done some O.E. in the States, so he understood its allure. He and Suzie had worked together for years too, so he understood her pretty well. He even understood me pretty well. Nick was good with people. It was animation that he couldn’t understand. He’d watched me work at it obsessively over the years and never seem to get ahead. Which was true, we weren’t very far ahead, as far as money and things of that nature. But I found making animated films absolutely fascinating and couldn't dream of doing anything else. 
   Besides, we’d seen the world a bit and done a few things, Suzie and I, so I wasn't concerned about how far ahead or behind we were. 
   Nick turned from me and embraced Suzie. They were special friends, he and her, she having worked for him from before the beginning and helped to grow his travel agency in downtown Onehunga.*** After his somber best wishes to me, Nick looked close to tears as he parted from Suzie.
   “Keep the home fires burning, dahling!” laughed Suzie in her sweet, musical voice. She kissed Nick’s cheek, leaving a smear of red lipstick, before adding, “I just want to have a look around America and take in the sights. It ought to be fun!” Suzie had a beautiful accent, a singsong lilt that sounded more French than South African. 
   “Keep in touch, Suzie,” he answered. “The place won’t be the same without you.” 

   To be continued…

* A Kiwi is a flightless bird, New Zealand's national symbol and what a New Zealander is called.
** Kiwi slang for New Zealand.
*** Pronounced, for your amusement, "Oh-knee-hung-ah." A suburb of Auckland.