29 August 2005

Talking about talking

In the pre-dawn light outside my room, a lost lamb bleats for its mother. Just once, but it's enough to wake me. I realise the headache is back—that little guy tugging at a fistful of nerves above and behind my right eye is at it again. Bugger. I turn over, looking for respite. A starling scrabbles on the guttering and begins to click and gurgle; something's clambering about in the woodshed, knocking over blocks. Probably one of the cats looking for a late rat or heading next door, hoping for breakfast. The homunculus in my head hasn't given up; instead, he's swinging from that bunch of nerves, so I decide to try poisoning him with nurofen. I struggle upright and swallow two; switch the radio on and listen to Morning Report. It's the same stuff: the results of the latest political poll; a report that New Orleans is being evacuated; unsurprising revelations about the role of the Business Round Table in Don Brash's career as National Party leader; and confrontational interviews.

It's the interviews that get me thinking. As I half-listen to Sean Plunkett question Roger Douglas, I recall the Guardian article Ann drew my attention to: Martin Kettle writing about talking, and the art of it. Kettle's article was prompted by the death of British politician Robin Cook—someone I knew nothing about—and is a call for a more mature and considered approach to conversation. Implicit in his essay is the argument that you can't have a good, constructive conversation without a degree of humility. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, considered by Kettle as a paragon of conversation,

we must be prepared to "lay ourselves open", to be prepared to listen as well as to speak, to acknowledge that we do not know the answers before we pose the questions.”

This is about as far from most political debate as Bush is from Einstein. Here's Kettle again:

Politicians, indeed, are now trained specifically not to answer interviewers' questions. Instead they are told to remain focused on making the predetermined points in the party "line to take". Their interrogators are no better, seeking little more than to hector, embarrass and oversimplify. The consensual creativity and freedom of true talkers, trusting and trusted, is wholly absent, almost wholly subordinated to egotism, adversarialism and melodrama.”

The words are from a UK context, but they're as apt for Aotearoa as anything I've heard. How often have you heard a politician answer a question with the words, “First, let me just say...”? Listen for it—you won't have to wait long.

I wish it weren't true. We're missing out on so much. Imagine what it would be like if MPs listened to each other with the intention, not of looking for ways to attack the opposing argument, but of learning and of seeking improved solutions. Or even if they just listened.

One of the great joys of my life (and there are many) is talking with friends: in particular, talking about interesting and significant topics. You could—perhaps disparagingly—call it pub philosophy and I'd have to admit an element of truth in that—but only because it often happens in the Celtic. But it's just as likely to happen over a kitchen table; in someone's lounge; on a long car journey or in a cafe. It's pub philosophy only in the sense that we often don't know what we're talking about—and that's what so often makes it so worthwhile. When you don't know much about something, you wonder more about it. You're more likely to explore possibilities rather than attacking or defending a position; you learn things.

Sometimes, of course, one of the others does know something about the topic. Sometimes a great deal about it. I'm lucky enough to have friends whose general (and specialised) knowledge is nearly encyclopaedic—the only problem is that sometimes the owner has lost the index. You learn a huge amount from conversations with people like that: but only if you're prepared to listen and think.

So it's only pub philosophy in a partial sense. I'm not talking about arguments over the cricket or the rugby, although there's a place for that. I'm talking about conversations where you leave with the knowledge that you've just engaged in “harmonious speech”; the sort of activity that “completes our education ... [and] founds and fosters our friendships”.

I switch the radio off. The bright note has been confirmation that we weren't alone in responding so positively to the new All Blacks' haka—apparently the acclaim has been ubiquitous. Kapa o pango was written by Derek Lardelli (Ngati Porou) and the AB's have been working on it for the last year. It's many things—spine-tingling and fiery are words that immediately spring to mind—but one of the most significant is that it recognises and revels in the cultural diversity that adds so much to New Zealand society. I'm looking forward to getting back among that diversity; I'm anticipating the joy of sitting down with friends from all over the world and enjoying the art of talking.

[The top photo is from my time at French Pass in the Marlborough Sounds a few months ago. Looking towards Clayface Point and out into Admiralty Bay. The lower photo is Te Awaoteatua Stream, which flows out from the southern Ruahine Range and passes close by my place; I took the photo yesterday evening.]

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

25 August 2005

Tax cuts: stuff and nonsense

Iona, the author of You are a china shop, I am a bull sums up the electioneering frenzy over tax cuts. “Couldn't we vote based on who has the best policies, rather than who will give each of us the most money? Pleeeeease?” she says.

Well said, Iona, although you need to consider the likelihood the policy promises will be kept. I also suspect the hullabaloo is based on the assumption that what we value most is money and having more of it. Money, of course is just (or should be) a proxy for what we truly value: a mechanism for procuring what we really want, but even viewed from that perspective, the fight about whose tax package is best is on shaky ground.

First, tax cuts are clearly directed at individual benefit—for example, National's proposal1 would allow you an extra pizza ($13) a week2 if you're on $35,000 p.a. or an extra weekly bottle of Pauillac 4th growth Bordeaux3 ($91) if you're on $100,000 p.a.4 But what if, as Iona points out, you need emergency treatment at A&E? How much of your tax cut would you voluntarily pay to your local hospital to ensure you're looked after if you contract rabies when bitten by a politician? Or, in general, to help the people at the bottom of the heap?

Second ... well, the assumption is simply wrong. At least, I hope it is. Certainly, it's wrong in my case. Ask your partner what she or he values most; ask your friends what they consider most important: I bet you won't often hear, “money, and having lots of it”. Sure you might hear mention of material things like a comfortable home, but you'll hear more about things like being happy; about your kids; about looking after and enjoying the environment. Stuff like that. Non-material things. Sometimes money can make those things easier to achieve; sometimes it doesn't; and sometimes, I suspect, it makes it harder. I know it's low on my list of values—if it's there at all.

Consequently, I trust my vote won't be influenced by having my personal greed pandered to. Instead, and after a reasonable amount of thought, I decided on a process for choosing a party to vote for (my electorate vote is useless here). First, I identified the broad issues most important to me; then I considered how closely the various parties aligned with my views on those issues. It sounds basic, but I wonder how many people are using this sort of process instead of, or as well as, relying on ad hoc responses to political statements.

The issues I consider most important might be grouped under the broad heading, “Human rights, justice, peace, social fairness, etc.” Given the recent treatment of Maori by National and to a lesser extent Labour, and Winston Peters' appalling and selective xenophobia, I thought about identifying “Race relations” as an additional, similarly important issue. However, the distinction doesn't matter when assessing the parties' attitudes to these issues—in my view, the ranking remains the same. Next in importance is concern for the world we're part of (a.k.a. “the environment”), and I suppose I'd have to admit that a bungled economy won't do much to improve the top two categories, so I'd better say “economic management” as number three. But that one serves the first two, not the other way round.

Those are the big things, but feel free to suggest things I might have forgotten. If you're wondering about the usual election issues—health, education, social welfare, law and order, transport, tax cuts, the private lives of political opponents and so on—well, those are mostly specific cases of my top categories or are less important from my perspective.

So how do the parties rank? This is where it gets easy for me, but I'll leave you to make your own assessments, using your own categories of values/importance. Use mine if you wish, but the value of the exercise is that it encourages you to think; to reflect on what's important; to view the election not as about one or two issues like greed tax cuts or hospital waiting lists but from a wider perspective. This world is the only one we have, and we share it with a lot of other people. I'll be voting for whichever party I think will best look after it, and us. All of us.

1 Have a closer look at what National's proposal means, here. Note that as a percentage of income, those who would benefit most are people on $100,000 p.a. Someone on the minimum wage ($380 per week) would get about a 3% increase; the person on $100,000 p.a. ($1923 per week) would get about a 4.8% increase.

3 The example is a 2001 Chateau Duhart-Milon. (A wine I've never tried, and probably never will. Especially on my income. Even after a tax cut. Probably wouldn't be able to afford an extra grating of cheese on my pizza).

4 If I seem to pick on National, it's because I'm irritated by an apparent double standard. It seems ironic that National, the party that has hammered the line that support should be based on need is offering the largest tax cuts to those who need it least—the rich—while remonstrating with Labour about tax relief targetted at families. (See footnote 1).

Photo and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

15 August 2005

Links to old (xanga) posts

Every now and then I want to find something I wrote ages ago, or—as has just been the case—someone asks me about one of the old xanga articles. So, here's a partly-annotated collection of links. It's not comprehensive; just a selection of some of the more interesting or contentious articles.

I took the photo yesterday, at the Manawatu Striders' half marathon event. Lance climbed with Terry and me in Arthur's Pass National Park in January this year; fortunately, he was content to plod along with us rather than set this sort of pace. I still consider that trip one of the best I've had in the mountains. However, the weather for the later stages of the race wasn't much better than when we walked down the Waimakariri on the last day, and I note that the official photos from last year's event show similar, wet conditions . Maybe this should be renamed the Drowned Rat Race?

Anyway, I digress. Here are the links:

Japannotes, thoughts, impressions.
Remembering Abashiri & Sapporoa short post from China, when I was missing Hokkaido (I still am).
Chinanotes, thoughts, impressions.
Mongoliasketches, lists, impressions, thoughts.
Zavkhan trekking (Mongolia)check it out if you're thinking of going to Mongolia. Or even if you're not.
Russianotes, thoughts and impressions from the trans-Mongolian train from Ulaan Baatar to Moscow.
Leon Kinvig & whioone of the huts in the headwaters of the Pohangina River. Whio/blue ducks are one of my favourite birds .
mid-Pohangina hutmore time alone in the Ruahine Range.
Adventure”why I don't like the way the word is often used.
Dolphin research and other stuff—a fortnight around French Pass and Admiralty Bay in the Marlborough Sounds.
Arthurs Pass climbing (Barker hut)a week's mountaineering with Terry and Lance; ascents of Murchison and Wakeman and an exit down Greenlaw Creek.
Philosophy and ethics of photos
Is clarity always a virtue?
ANZAC Day 2005
(macro photos of flies and spider)
Possibility—thoughts from Farewell Spit.
The Foreshore and Seabed Bill (now an Act)—a guide for the perplexed.
The soul at dawn—not doing what I'd intended to do.
Home, and tacit knowledge
Fame and tragedy—if the world is ignorant of your achievements, are you still in bliss?
Democracy—Aristotle thought it to be one of three evil forms of government.
Paying attention to art—can too much damage it?
Arguing for a better way of discussing—the hegemony of dialectic arguing and an appeal for more exploratory discussions.
ANZAC Day 2004—part of a multiple post.
Eudaemonia—nonsuperficial happiness.
Photos from the 2004 Baring Head Rock Hop—round two of the National bouldering series, near Wellington.
The cosmos and scientific arrogance—or is that ignorance?
Home and place
Mountaineering on the West Coast—an attempt on Mt Whitcombe, with Terry, Andrew and Jonathan.

Photo and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

12 August 2005

God set to win in Tasmania

The featured article on Wikipedia this morning was about one of my favourite subjects. I called up the main article and read it until I finally came to this extraordinary statement:
In May 2005 a recommendation was made to include the devil on the Tasmanian Threatened Species list as a vulnerable species".
Apparently the devil is characterised by an "...extremely loud and disturbing screech, and viciousness when feeding"; moreover, "when agitated, the devil can produce a strong odour, its pungency rivalling even the skunk".

If you haven't already guessed, the devil in question is Sarcophilus laniarius (formerly S. harrisi)—the Tasmanian devil. On a more serious note, the article's fascinating; for example, I wasn't aware that devils can "can eat up to 40% of their body weight in 30 minutes". Actually, maybe I should suggest a correction to the article—it's someone else's bodyweight they're eating.

[Note: be warned—the article includes a sad and gruesome photo of a devil killed by devil facial tumour disease. Also, despite the tongue-in-cheek title of this post (no offence intended), I'm sure any god would be just as saddened by the extinction of these great little animals as by any other. Although, given George Bush's record on environmental issues and nuclear proliferation, the god he apparently talks to might not be concerned about extinctions—including our own.]

09 August 2005

The second city

A quiet rain from a concrete-coloured sky. A swallow, perched on a protruding wire above algal-grubby guttering, ruffles and preens in the falling drops; amorphous clouds, hardly distinguishable from the grey background, drift slowly across the skyline towards the obscured range. It's not cold, not wild; the day's subdued and gentle. Maybe it was like this in Nagasaki 60 years ago, until an unlucky break in the cloud revealed the city to the USAAF bomber Bockscar carrying Fat Man and a new cloud rose in the sky; the kind of cloud seen over a city only once before. Three days before, over Hiroshima.

Let's hope it's never seen again. Ever.

Photo and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

05 August 2005

Landscape as playground

Five a.m. on a winter's morning and the radio blares into life. The sacrifices we make for a day in the mountains.

The early start was worth it, but we still had several hours' driving to reach the Turoa carpark by mid-morning. It was already half full, infested with SUVs and RVs and redolent with diesel fumes, overheated rubber, burnt oil and suncream. With a brilliant sun threatening to turn the climb slushy, we decided to take the chairlifts to the top of the skifield, so we walked up to a ticket counter and asked for lift passes.
That's $72 each”, she said, smiling brightly.
Um”, I said, not smiling, weakly. Fortunately, John quickly explained that we weren't skiing; just wanting the ride to the top.
It should be $16”, he said.
Ok, that's $18 each”, she said, smiling brightly.

At the top of the second lift we made our way among the the melĂ©e of skiers and snowboarders whizzing and pranging like bottled fleas. Most of them ignored us, as they did everyone else—embracing the true spirit of capitalism, they regarded other human beings as mere obstacles to be negotiated. But as we trudged up the slope towards the skifield boundary, we did receive a few cheery “hi”s and other comments and queries. Two people slid past, clinging to the tow.
Going to the top?” one asked.
Yep, all going well”.
And it was. Apprehensive about the limited amount of time I'd spent in the hills since early in the year (i.e. none), I'd been stressing to John that I was expecting to feel sluggish and slow. But instead, I felt comfortable and relaxed; the snow a good consistency for walking; the weather brilliant. I looked around at the busy field and felt my cynicism evaporating—instead of seeing spoiled rich kids and up-themselves materialists, I saw hundreds of people enjoying the day; just a heap of people having a good time. Like me.

We left the crowds behind, and crossed a short section of powder-covered ice into the Mangaehuehu neve. John, a little way ahead, stopped to put crampons on before crossing a large, shaded snowfield which would presumably be icy. Meanwhile, I swapped lenses and snapped photos and eventually decided against crampons when John called back that the snow was softer than expected and that I should be ok without them. He was right; in fact, the snow was soft enough for me to leave my crampons bundled up the whole day.

I sidle around to a small snow bench just below the summit to shelter from a wind that's not strong but bitterly cold. We sit there, perched in the sky, eating lunch, looking south, looking down the steep ridge. The architecture's complex: massive cauliflowers and chandeliers of ice hanging over a glimpse of red and brown rock; snowbanks curving soft and smooth or rising to clean lines parting the light—one side blue shadow, the other a brilliant, glaring white. Far below, sunlight skids over the Mangaehuehu Glacier, picking out texture, stretching shadows. Three people, small as ants, cross the glacier towards the foot of the ridge; they're so tiny their movement seems imperceptible. Someone else skins over towards our line of footprints; on the summit of Tahurangi two people are silhouetted. Landscape as playground...

I think of Barry Lopez's words; how he points out that in the wake of the "...loss of personal and local knowledge, the knowledge from which a real geography is derived, the knowledge on which a country must ultimately stand ... has come something hard to define but...sinister and unsettling—the packaging and marketing of land as a form of entertainment."[1] Is this what has happened to Ruapehu? Undoubtedly. No one looking around from up here and seeing the snowboard trails, the tiny figures scattered over the mountain, the lines of footprints and the distant pillars of chairlifts and tows, would deny it.

But I can guess that most of the people on the mountain that day—and that's a lot of people—returned feeling exhilarated and renewed. And that's a lot of happiness and renewal. I find it hard to condemn too roundly the activities that enable so many people to gain so much enjoyment. Sure, it's unattainable for many—if you can't afford $72 for a day pass, let alone the petrol to get there and back, you might resent the rich bastards who can afford it. But even rich bastards are human beings; even they are entitled to some happiness. Besides, you can console yourself by thinking that by the time they've paid for their day on the slopes, they'll have a tiny bit less money, and maybe, because they're happy, they'll be a little more compassionate and a tiny little bit less like bastards. (Well, there might be some truth in it).

But back to the point. We took advantage of the chairlift; we used the road that wouldn't have been built if the skifield wasn't there. In some respects, if there's a finger to be pointed at those who prop up “the packaging and marketing of land as a form of entertainment”, then that finger is pointed at me, too. But, for me, there are limits—indefinite expansion of commercial activities all over the mountain is not acceptable. More importantly, I'd like to think that a fair proportion of the skiers, snowboarders and others would have left the mountain feeling the way I did: grateful for what the mountain (rather than the skifield operators) had gifted, and with a deep sense of respect for the mountain as something deeply significant and important; as something far greater than rock, ice and snow.

1. from Lopez, B. 1998: The American Geographies. Ch. 8 in: About this life. New York, Vintage Books (1999) ISBN 0-679-75447-4. 273 p. The quote is on pp. 135–6.

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor