Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Death in Aotearoa


Death in Aotearoa


I hope I die in New Zealand.

That would really be 
A stroke of good luck!

You see, among 
The many theories
About what happens to us
After we die,

The indigenous people 
Of New Zealand,
Called Maori,
Have one of the best.

New Zealand, in case 
You were wondering,
Is an island nation 
In the South Pacific Ocean.

To find it, locate Hawaii on your map,
Then go south, past Samoa and Fiji and Tonga,
Until you see what looks like 
An upside down boot.

That’s it, way down there.
New Zealand. 
It’s where I grew up.
That’s how I know where it is.

Its name in Maori 
Is Aotearoa,
Which means, 
“Land of the Long White Cloud.”

Anyway, 
About my hoping 
To be lucky enough
To die in New Zealand…

According to Maori legend,
Upon dying, 
The dead travel north, 
As ghostly spirits… 

To the northernmost tip of Aotearoa,
And from there leave the land,
And enter an ocean doorway…

That leads to the Hereafter.

Without exception,
From wherever they happened to have died,
Northward go 
The ghosts of Aotearoa.

As they journey over Aotearoa, 
Here and there these spirits
Pause and gaze back 
Over the way they have come. 

They see the beauty of the land and 
Think of their homes in this world.
They remember dear ones they must leave behind,
And quietly take up the death lament;

“Haere ra, e Hine!
I te pouriuri,
Te mate o te tangata,
Ko te tohu o te mate…
Haere ra!”

(“Farewell, beloved!”
The door of death has closed upon me.
I join the tribes who must 
Go forth to that dread borderland…
Never to return.
Farewell!”)

Then the spirits continue north, 
Over mountain and river…
Through forest and field…
In the shadow of ancient volcanoes…

Until the ultimate cape is reached. 
Cape Reinga! 
(The Leaping-Place.)
Sacred to the army of the dead.

Here, at land’s end, 
Upon a jagged cliff 
Grows a venerable
Pohutukawa tree.

Its blood-red blossoms are called 
Te Pua o te Reinga,
Which means, 
“The Flowers of Spirits’ Leap.” 

The giant branches of this ancient tree 
Stretch out over the restless ocean, 
While the exposed roots 
Search the cliff-face for a foothold.

By these boughs and roots 
The arrived spirits descend.
Then, one after another they drop
Into the restless waters below…

… where seaweed swirls 
Like ocean-monster’s hair…

And vanish into the depths!

Here they are met
By the mihi-tangata,
The wailing of the dead
Who greet the spirits’ arrival 
At Tatau-o-te-Po…

Gateway to the Hereafter.

Passing through this gateway
The spirits embark on one last journey…
Following the setting sun 
Northwest  to mythical Hawaiki,

Home of the ancestors.
Dwelling place of the gods!

Thus, goes the legend, 
Our souls depart Aotearoa,
Land of the Long White Cloud.

****

Standing at Cape Reinga today, 
You can hear the echo of the Mihi-tangata 
In the ocean’s ceaseless murmur… 
In the wail of the wind 
Across the nearby ridges and dunes… 
And in the mournful cry 
Of the seabirds overhead.

From the lighthouse,
Look to the west, 
Where massive sand dunes
Stand wrapped in mist and fog.

There! Can you see?
Vague shadows floating in the misty air?
An army of the dead,
Moving northward through the dunes.

Quietly chanting the death lament;

“Haere ra, e Hine!
I te pouriuri,
Te mate o te tangata,
Ko te tohu o te mate…
Haere ra!”



Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Stubborn Artist


Stubborn Artist 

New York City. Winter, 1987. 
What I’ve come to call, with a laugh at fate, my starving artist period. 
Don’t worry, we weren’t actually starving, just pretty hungry for a few days now and then. We managed to survive on the staples of a New York artist’s diet; pizza, street food, and beer. 
So, with our bellies as full as they were going to get, there was time to pause and consider the finer things in life. Manhattan offered ample opportunities for cost effective options, as it has done for generations of out-of-work artists before and since. Exploring the city was a fun occupation in itself and not everything one does need cost money, especially the museums and parks. 
The parks allowed you the chance to remember what green was and to feel something softer than concrete beneath your feet. If it were the weekend and the weather was fair, the parks had a wonderful atmosphere as people rushed to enjoy themselves before the weather changed. 
Often I would take my sketchbook to the park. I'd draw dogs and children off the leash, both of which are good subjects, perhaps because they act so naturally. I also enjoyed drawing squirrels and chipmunks (critters which do not exist in New Zealand), and birds in trees or scratching for worms in the grass. The mounted police, with their beautiful, shiny horses, also made for the chance of a good drawing.
An artist must keep himself in continual practice. Look for stories and draw those! Observe everything! And remember to draw with love in your heart.
Because if you think it's shit... it is shit.
Anyway. We really were hungry and out of work, but it wasn’t so bad, if you kept the fears at bay. It helped to have a partner like Suzie, who could take it and not complain, sharing the bad times and the good, who even brought some sunshine and gaiety into our uncertain lives. Anything you did with Suzie was fun, for she had a way of laughing at the world that got you laughing, too.
So we kept pretty busy, in spite of our meager resources. 
If the weather permitted we bundled up (if Andrew weren’t going out, I could borrow his overcoat and gloves… Suzie had winter clothes of her own, not taken with the stolen suitcase) and headed out. To save money we’d walk downtown instead of using the subway, then catch the Staten Island Ferry. It was just twenty-five cents for the ferry trip and what a view of the bay, my god how do you describe it it's so breathtaking? The Statue of Liberty looked smaller than I expected she would, standing lonely and proud as dozens of boats circled and pestered her, tourists snapping photographs by the thousands. Being on a boat was like being in the park. It gave one a chance to escape the dark valleys of Manhattan’s skyscrapers for a while and enjoy the sun on your face. 
Some of the best museums and galleries on earth were all within walking distance of the apartment. Sometimes we bought a dime bag from one of the dealers in Washington Square, careful not to inadvertently purchase oregano like we once did, and enjoyed a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Standing on Fifth Avenue, Suzie would take a last toke and we would run up the wide, imposing steps to the entrance, laughing and breathless. 
Only a small donation was suggested, so we could easily afford it. We ambled along the spacious galleries, stoned, soaking up the cultural artifacts, paintings and masterpieces. I loved the African section with its collection of fetish sculptures and masks. It reminded me of when we’d lived in Africa. Suzie went quiet while we were there, and I figured she was thinking of her family, so far away. The quiet and dignified museum interior was a world away from the city outside, a great escape from the noise and bustle of Manhattan.
There was also the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. We loved it and returned there many times. I used to stand across Fifth Avenue against the wall under the leafless, winter trees that lined the park, stamping my feet to keep warm while Suzie bought a hot dog from the corner vender. 
"Over the top, please!" she'd order in her sing-song voice. 
Meaning with everything, or "All the Way" as New Yorkers called it, and we'd laugh. 
She always got it wrong.
I’d light a Marlborough and look across the street to admire the sweep and simplicity of the graceful Guggenheim building. I thought it extremely beautiful in the silver winter light. I enjoyed the elementary mathematical precision touched with whimsey of the design. Suzie would join me and finish my cigarette while I finished her hot dog and we’d cross the street to see what treasures waited within. 
Then there was the Museum of Modern Art.  
I love modern art. It speaks to me more directly than any of the other visual arts. And now to see them in person! Not just pictures in books. I could stand and admire Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows, and turn to view a sublime Joan MirĂ³ Constellation painting without moving from the spot! Dali, Klee, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Matisse and on and on and of course the greatest ever, Picasso. 
I couldn’t stay long in the midst of such greatness, it was overwhelming as a viewer and belittling as an artist.
Why should I even try to be an artist, I thought, when I’d never be as good as they?  
Luckily, I was too stubborn to listen to myself when I talked like that.
What if everybody thought that way? Nothing would be achieved and there would be no cultural progress for our civilization. 
Which is not to say that as an artist I achieved much or advanced civilization even by an inch. 
It is only to say that I can be quite stubborn, sometimes.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hungry Artist

NYC 1987
Hungry Artist

Alas, it was art for art’s sake once again, and we were broke.
I couldn’t find any work. I don’t know why I should be surprised, me being a film animator. 
I’d been looking for a job for weeks.
And getting nowhere.
Meanwhile, Suzie had found part-time work at a travel agency uptown. Owing to her temporarily doubtful immigration status, she didn’t earn very much, but the money she made kept us in pizza and beer, the two inexpensive staples of the struggling artist’s life.
It became a game; where to find cheap, edible food? 
Breakfast specials, at ungodly ‘Early Bird’ hours, could be had at any diner up and down Manhattan. Coffee, one egg, potatoes and toast, all for $1.29 and made to order by the sleepy cook. A meal like that could last you all day, and sometimes did. But you had to get there early.
It paid, I soon learned, to avoid the 99c and the 89c an especially the 59c breakfast. No matter how early the bird… from these breakfasts that’s all you got… the bird.
Thank god for pizza! Plain pizza was under a dollar a slice anywhere in New York, and they were big slices too. Rich and tasty, served piping hot. We watched the locals and followed their example, folding the slice lengthwise and eating from the pointy end, careful not to scald our chins with dripping hot cheese. 
In New Zealand, as with almost everything else pizza was pizza, recognizable as such like a telephone is a telephone or a motorcar is a motorcar, yet different from the American version. 
A pizza in New Zealand might, say, have baked beans as a topping.
And be served for breakfast. 
Yes, a kiwi loves his breakfast! And he likes baked beans, too. You’d be surprised where and on what a kiwi might put baked beans and call it breakfast.
I know I was.
But that was decades ago. Eventually one acclimatizes oneself to the cultural differences all around. 
 That, or go hungry. Yes? 
Another cheap Manhattan lunch option was a hot dog from one of the ubiquitous Sabrett street carts. A hot dog was a good change from pizza, at about the same price. The trick was to ask for your dog “all the way,” that is with every available topping, to increase the food value. 
“Over the top, please,” ordered Suzie and we laughed. She always got it wrong. 
“Me too!” I’d add. “With extra relish.” It’s a wonder we avoided incontinence, with all the pickle and sauerkraut in our diets. 
“Finish your hot dog,” I said to Suzie. “And we’ll get a drink. I found a place…”
It was probably all the beer we drank, counteracting its effects.
The incontinence I mean.
Pretzels, also served from carts, did not appeal to me after trying my first salty, doughy, tasteless, glop of a thing. Inexplicably, it was served with yellow mustard, adding not one iota to the deliciousness of it, which stubbornly remained at nought.
A New York City pretzel is more suited as a salt lick and rutting plaything for a moldy old stag than as food for a human being, but that’s just my opinion. 
If we had a little cash and wanted to eat out, we might stroll down to the Village and eat at one of the Indian curry houses on St. Marks or the Polish place a few blocks over. It was there, by the way, that we discovered Suzie could speak a smattering of Polish, if she had drunk enough potato Vodka. Or maybe it just sounded like Polish, after I had drunk enough potato vodka. 
“Zdrowie wasze w gardia nasze!” said Suzie and we’d drink.
(To your health and down our throats!)
Suzie was dazzling during these difficult days. She never complained or grumbled about our lack of everything, or the fact that we were sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a friend’s apartment, or that I hadn’t been able to find work yet and we had no money. 
“We’ve got our health and we’ve got each other,” said Suzie. “That’s the main thing.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that in New York some days we went hungry, yet Suzie faced it all with a laugh and a joke.
I loved her more than ever.

“Na zdrowie!" said Suzie and we drank.
(Your health!)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

It’s Always Better to be Lucky than Good

NYC 1987
It’s Always Better to be Lucky than Good

Yes, I was living the true artist’s life! 
Just as my friends back in New Zealand had predicted.
Day after day I was walking the friendless streets of the heartless City of New York in my worn down shoes, my artistic life’s work, my animation demo reel, clasped in my frozen hand, forcing myself onward, one more call, one more try, hoping to just get a chance to show what I could do!
Hungry and cold and looking for work. 
It was a testing time for me as an artist and as a person, looking back on it, but I was not going to give up on my dream of becoming an animator in America.
It helps tremendously in life sometimes to be young and naive. 
Haven’t you found it so?
Suzie had found employment for a few hours a week in a small travel agency uptown by the park, but owing to her dubious legal status she was paid under the table, and not very much. 
She hadn’t yet gotten her green card, which entitles a foreigner to work in the States. She had applied for it and being married to me, an American citizen, it was pretty much assured. 
I myself didn’t have a Social Security number when we landed in America, either, and had to apply for one. You should have seen the incredulous look on the clerk’s face when I handed over my application. 
“You’re almost thirty-four-years-old and you don’t have a Social Security number?” she accused. She was very suspicious and after the fashion of petty government officials the world over, but especially New York City government officials, extremely rude. 
“I haven’t lived in America since I was a kid,” I explained. “How would I have gotten one?”
“Every American requires a social security number,” she sniffed.
“Yes. I understand,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. To get a social security number.”
I pushed my papers over the counter and smiled my cheesiest, fuck you smile. I didn’t have a worry in the world. I was a natural born American citizen and had the papers to prove it. 
“We’ll see,” she threatened and after a last piercing stare put her head down checking my paperwork. She was a mean one. I’d watched her as I stood waiting in line. What joy washed over her bitter features when she could send some poor bugger to the back of the line for want of the correct scrap of paper!
Suzie and I spent days at the Office of Immigration downtown, waiting in line, crowded together with hundreds of foreign nationals of every conceivable persuasion. 
“We’re just floating in the vast American melting pot, dahling!” was how Suzie put it and we’d laugh. As I looked around I was surprised by the number of people wanting to live in America, and a little saddened by their aura of helplessness and big, pleading eyes of the children. 
I was somewhat embarrassed by the ease with which I was hoping to accomplish what for them was a monumental feat.
To live and work in America. 
All I’d ever done was to have been born there.
“Oh-kay,” sighed the clerk after a few minutes. “This seems to be in order.” 
She was disappointed, I could tell. 
“Better luck next time,” I answered, again with the up-yours smile.
Yes, I thought, it’s always better to be lucky than good.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

“If I Hear of Anything, I’ll Let You Know.”

NYC 1987
“If I Hear of Anything, I’ll Let You Know.” 

We’d flown in from New Zealand and were sleeping on the floor of Andrew’s apartment on Seventh Avenue.
From there to begin our new life in America! 
But our money was going fast.
Of course, being artists, we didn’t have much to begin with. 
It didn’t last long in the city. We spent it like fools, of course, seeing the sights and having fun. Andrew knew some interesting people so every night it was something new! 
After only twelve days, we had spent about half of what we could spare. Arithmetic was never my strong suit, being as I said an artist, but at this rate I figured we’d be broke by next Tuesday afternoon, any way you added it up. 
So, with reluctance because it had been a great holiday, I realized it was time for me to start looking for a job. 
In a bookstore on 64th Street that specialized in the theater I found a volume listing New York City theater arts producers, film and TV companies, advertising agencies, and the like. It was a massive tome, ridiculously expensive, exhaustive in its listings, covering every conceivable kind of show business enterprise. 
Even wig cleaners and piano tuners were listed.
I hadn’t realized how much talent it takes to light up old Broadway.
I started calling them, one by one. Not the piano cleaners or wig tuners, of course, not at first, but I called any company that sounded remotely as if they might be interested in animation or needing an animator. 
Each morning after breakfast at the apartment I would take a stack of quarters downstairs to the Greek diner, say hello to Nick, have a cup of strong coffee and start dialing at the pay phone in the corner, pencil poised over notebook to write down any leads I might be given. 
Of course, non were forthcoming. I exhausted the actual animation production companies on the first morning. Even in a city as large as New York, there were just a handful. 
Then it was on to theater companies, film studios, advertising agencies, etc.
Nobody was very interested. 
Most of them didn’t even want to see my demo reel. 
“Why can’t I get through?” I used to ask myself. 
It was frustrating. 
You’d think I was trying to make an appointment to come in and take a big, steaming crap in the middle of the conference room while their dear old mother was forced to watch, after I had first fornicated, very verbally and roughly, with the office copying machine, the way they were responding to me. 
It was always, “I’m sorry, we don’t do much animation. Where’d you say you were from? You’ve got a funny accent. Australia? Yeah. Sorry.”
“I’m from New Zealand,” I said. “But I’ll change to an Aussie if it’ll help me get a job! Do you know anybody that’s doing animation? Perhaps you have a name of someone I could call?”
“Nope. If I do hear of anything, I’ll let you know. Good luck.”
“But you don’t have my telephone num...” 
Click.
And that was one of my more successful calls.
At least I got to talk to somebody.