Thursday, October 23, 2008

The War in Retrospect

Last night while preparing dinner I got a call from my Nan, not a wholly unprecedented event but still rather rare. She had seen a promo on television for a news segment investigating an unconventional schooling program called Tihoi. For those who don’t know, Tihoi is a dank little burg in the middle of the North Island. An unremarkable place until you stumble upon a complex that could easily be mistaken for a small cult. This is the Tihoi Venture School; a place where the 4th formers attending expensive St. Pauls Collegiate in Hamilton get sent for a half-year program in ‘becoming a man’.

The reason my Nan thought that this was worth bringing to my attention is because when I was 14 I attended Tihoi; although in the circles I now run it is inappropriately known as Nazi Death-Camp. I did not enjoy my odyssey of self-discovery and made no secret of the fact. While TV One’s coverage of the place was little more than a glorified ad for the school rather than actual reporting, the sights and faces did bring back a lot of memories.

Predictably, the TV spot focused on a bunch of grinning boys pontificating on just how valuable they already feel their Tihoi experience had been, how lucky they are to have had the opportunity, and (in vintage St. Pauls fashion) just how much better than everyone else the venture has made them. These are not uncommon sentiments for the leavers of Tihoi to espouse, in my intake I was one of a very few who were not toeing that company line by the end. If you talked to these kids a little earlier, however, the story would have been very different (though perhaps pointing a camera at them would still obscure it.)

I’ve related my Tihoi experiences on numerous occasions to anyone who was curious, sparing none of the grizzly details. The television segment showed very little beyond a bunch of wholesome teens mucking in, running about the place, basking in each other’s comradery, and just letting their manliness swing about all over the show. Even with the smiley, sweaty public face stamped over the footage there was stuff in there that made the uninitiated think twice. Upon seeing a kid tossed into a freezing river at some ungodly time in the morning Mama, who has heard all my war stories numerous times, turned to me and said “wait, they actually throw you in the river?”

Yeah they do. They do a lot worse than that too. I guess she, and probably anyone else listening, had assumed I’d painted the picture with my usual penchant for hyperbole. After all, why would any sane person put up with all the stuff I had bitched about? Well, the truth is - despite what the mud-stained talking heads might have you believe - they didn’t put up with it. Most of them didn’t, anyway. At least not initially. Kids broke down, tried to run away, injured themselves, pleaded to come home, or just suffered in silence. A good time was not had by most. Those that did enjoy it, well, they were pretty easy to pick out; they usually stood a few feet above the rest of us.

I wasn’t a very physical kid back then, didn’t much care for nature or health, and can’t say there was much in the Tihoi curriculum that had instant appeal to me. You might think that looking back now, with my vegetarian diet, environmental outlook, activist tendencies, and general predisposition towards self-reliance and communal co-operation that I might see the Tihoi experience as one of the roots of who I am now. I don’t. Because the fact is despite their ‘great outdoors’ and ‘social development’ rhetoric that was never what Tihoi was about. Sure, the setup would have been the perfect opportunity to instill in kids an appreciation for our limited resources, an awareness of the ecological damage we inflict, a drive to live a less corporate-reliant life, and an experience in mutual aid over competition. But that’s not what the camp was there to do.

The Tihoi Venture School was there to make you a man. Because a man is something you need to be made into. You might think there are infinite different examples of what a man might be, you might think that every way of experiencing life has value regardless of how different it is to your own. Hell, you might not even think that being a man is really that important as to how you define yourself. But according to Tihoi Venture School you would be wrong. There is a singular vision of how a young man should develop and if you diverge from it you will be punished until you get it right.

The reason so many people hated Tihoi when they first started is because they came from a life where, most likely, they were exposed to a wide variety of different people living life on their own terms. Even in a rather insulated community like St. Pauls it was impossible to be completely removed from people of other cultures, classes, races, orientations, genders, affiliations. When you cut all that away, restrict experience to such an incestuous sample group – 14 year-old, usually wealthy, usually white, males – it can be a uniquely disorienting and troubling experience. Those that don’t find it so have the benefit of already fitting more closely the mold that the school promoted; they were already big, capable of and willing to physically intimidate those that don’t fit until they do.

So don’t mistake those ginning idiot faces trotting so gaily across your television for healthy, adjusted young men that faced adversity and overcame. They didn’t learn to coexist with others, they didn’t learn hidden special truths about themselves, and they didn’t rise above. They were beaten until they broke, until the only way to continue was to convince yourself that you were finally becoming a Tihoi Man, and that it was what you wanted all along.

Want proof? Go and track down almost anyone who has been out of Tihoi for a few years. They will have completely shed any and every positive attribute that TV One’s ridiculous little program ascribed to the school’s influence, because they went back into the world and had to re-learn that there isn’t just one singular way of being, and that excelling at your chosen (or coerced path) doesn’t make you better than anyone else. The more thoroughly they have learned this lesson - the more thoroughly they have un-learned Tihoi - then the happier, healthier, and more loving person they tend to be (in my experience.)

Or, y’know, maybe they just became bitter angry husks of a person like me. Ha ha ha. I’ve been thinking about education a lot lately with little Hunter in mind, and I think I did take away a very valuable lesson from Tihoi; that it represents the absolutely worst, most unnatural way to do things, no matter how many trees you surround it with. So thanks for the heads-up Nan, it was good to get that fresh in my head, for Hunter’s sake.

Ok, naval-gazing over, you may return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Weekendstravaganza

Would you look at that, another post with less than a week since the last. Truly these must be the End times.

Hunter had himself a very busy weekend, with lots of comings and goings, meeting new people, and falling asleep in exotic locales.

On saturday Mama, Paulie, Bean and I headed to Parnell to help raise money for Plunket. Mama had arranged a bouncy castle to rope in unsuspecting kids as they passed by, naturally their parents followed swiftly behind, never suspecting for a second that we were abut to mug them for charity. Actually, with some of the looks Paul and I got I think a few of them did suspect we were going to mug them, but I'm sure the charity bit came as a complete surprise. Parnell is so provincial.

Pedestrians weren't the only ones somewhat wary of these weird looking strangers in their midst. Deciding I had earned a break I snatched up Hunter and took him for a quick bounce on the inflatable castle. While he has rocking ear-to-ear smiles, the other children cleared off the attraction right quick. I tried a little diplomacy by appealing to their leader, a fiery redhead with an attitude problem. This met with abject failure as, rather than being delighted to meet Hunter, she decided that I had actually kidnapped her younger brother, dressed him up in my own silly clothes, and was now trying to pass him off as my own. She wasn't having a bar of that carry on.

Personal clashes and mistaken abductions aside, the morning went rather well and everyone involved seemed quite happy with the amount of money that was raised. Plus, there was an Irish pub right next door, so how poorly could that possibly go?

Being surrounded by hyper-efficient parents and the cast of 'Lord of the Flies' didn't seem to faze Bean at all, he was more than happy with all the hustle and bustle. Which is fortunate, as the evening would provide him with even more; a crew of our nearest and dearest descended upon the apartment to help me celebrate my Birthday in the usual, messy fashion. Hunter didn't quite make it through till 6 AM like some of us, but he put in a good effort nonetheless. Thanks to everyone who turned up or sent their well wishes remotely, I love you all.

Sunday didn't provide quite the amount of recovery time I had hoped, but the choice between a little more sleep or a free birthday breakfast on my Ma wasn't a very hard one.

Sunday night was the conclusion of the Diwali festival of Lights that was being publicly celebrate down at Auckland's viaduct harbour. We bundled Bean up in his pram and Mama, Nick and I headed down to partake of the revelry. Naturally we forgot to bring our camera, but the place was absolutely packed, you had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere near the various stalls of delicious Indian food. There was dancing, intricate costumes, lovely decorations, and a very very good turnout for the bash. I really love these old religious festivals that get hijacked into a general celebration of culture for everyone to attend. Moan as I do about Auckland, its early closing, and its myopic inhabitants, it's not too hard to see why I stick around on nights like that.

After such a busy weekend you might expect the little guy to be pretty subdued today, but such an assumption would only reveal your ignorance of the inhuman energy reserves of babies. He's still raring to go, so I'm sure I'll have more tales of adventure and debauchery in no time. Until then, take care!

P.S. My peeps still in Aotearoa, it seems there is an election happening soon. Go and enroll to vote right now if you haven't already, there's less than a month to go!!! (There's a quiz you can take that tests how well you know the MMP system. The questions are all ridiculously easy but 88% of the people that took the quiz couldn't answer them all. That's just scary. Smart people, please remember to vote!)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Catch Up

OK so, yeah, there's been a period of sustained radio silence around these parts. Again. But give me a break, I'm really lazy, you all know this.

The exciting adventures of our Whānau have been fairly few and far between, but let's see what my rapidly decaying memory can recall.

Hunter went toe-to-toe with the dread vaccinations once again, with much the same results as last time. While he seemed angrier about the imposition than last time, he also recovered a lot quicker this time. So his penchant for remembering the horrible things his parents do to him is increasing (oh no) but his ability to tough it out through said indignities is also on the rise (yay.) I'm still not crazy about the whole vaccination idea, but also not un-crazy enough about it to actually object. And yes, it does chafe a little to straddle the fence like that.
Beanie's developing at the rate of a replicant, I swear he's about three times the size he was just months ago. His fine motor skills now compel him to reach out wildly in order to jam things into his mouth, rather than just waiting for them to foolishly drift into his grasp as was the previous strategy.

He is also eager as all hell to stand, if you grab both of his hands he will instantly start kicking himself into an upright position using your grip for balance. For a while there he seemed to have gotten things all out of order; he lost interest in trying to roll, skipped right over crawling, and wanted only to stand up like a real human. Recently, however, he has rediscovered the indulgent joys of rolling, and is well on his way to a full back-to-stomach manoeuvre.

The little man's vocal skills have also improved exponentially. He's now laying down phat gurgles with an 80% success rate, and I believe that qualifies as 'ill', at least from a technical standpoint. He strings his weird little exclamations together in repetitive sentences of stressed consonants, and throwing out that many attempts must improve your chances of getting at least one word right pretty soon. And considering the kinds of things he overhears at our place, that first word should be a doozy.

Aside from Hunter's internal journey into full-fledged being, there hasn't been a lot of moving and shaking going on. It was lovely to have my cousin from Australia drop in on her tour of the most boring towns Aotearoa has to offer, though I hear she got quite the earful upon getting home having failed to take any pictures of Hunter. Sorry, hon.

We are currently in the birthday glut of the calendar, the bizarre phenomenon wherein most of our friends and acquaintances seem to have been born in the same couple of months. While its not easy on the old bank account it does make for a handful of reasons to have a good time. Earlier this month Nick and I managed to get enough cash together to buy Lucy a ticket to see Michael Franti and Spearhead for her birthday, which was really just a thinly disguised way of making sure that we got to go too. It was a truly fantastic night, easily in my top 5 shows of all time, despite having to protect an inhumanly drunk Nick from predatory older reggae housewives. Lucy got a big sweaty hug from Mr. Franti at the end of the show, that's going to be a hard present to top next year.

Bean's Grandmother Andrea is going in for some rather unpleasant hospital business today, so our thoughts are with her for the inevitable speedy recovery.

And finally, if any one is in the neighbourhood this Saturday come on down to the park whose name I have completely forgotten and will edit in later, because Mama, Paulie and I will be manning a bouncy castle and dabbling in a little face painting for the little Plunket droogies. So come on down, bring young ones, or just your lovely self; it may very well be the last time Plunket asks Mama to do anything once they see the scumbags she's enlisted to help.

Well, keep watching the skies and I'll be in touch with you all soon. Especial digital love transmissions to our friends and families abroad, I hope we see you again in the not too distant future and take care of yourselves out in this crazy world.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bookshelf du Bean

Finding good books is never easy; the gems are always awash in a sea of drivel. It takes time, patience, and, when all else fails, the ability judge a book by its cover. I've devoted larger chunks of my life to the endeavour than I'm comfortable admitting. But finding good children’s books takes the whole frustrating game to a new level - I had always been vaguely aware that stuff targeted at kids was generally patronizing, insulting, and often outright offensive, but you can't really imagine the magnitude of the problem until you start rummaging through the shelves.

Hunter's parents will not be satisfied until his bookcase is overflowing with bountiful literature, uber nerds that we are, but finding quality kid's yarns has taken longer than we expected. Still, we've gathered a respectable pool of titles, and I shall share those with you now:

There was never a doubt in my mind what Hunter's first book would be, and as luck would have it I didn't have to go far to procure it. Knowing my affinity for the great Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, a dear friend had gifted me a copy of the book a few year's back. And so the volume became a legacy piece, from her to me to Bean as the cornerstone of his library.

The dreamy, run-on sentences of this monster mash tale perfectly compliment the surreal, beautiful illustrations. Sendak's crazy, hodge-podge beasties strike that perfect balance between scary and ridiculous. Such a lovely book, and the most fun you can have with your wolf suit on. I'm very much looking forward (in a cautious way) to seeing what Spike Jonze does with the upcoming movie adaptation.

The second addition to the shelf was also a no-brainer, though in truth it's only half ticked off the list. Robert Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess is a fantastic slap in the face of all those stodgy old princess tales, or at least it's supposed to be. My copy, ordered from Amazon.com, arrived with all its pages inexplicably out of order, with some omitted entirely. So in my version Princess Elizabeth's tale takes on a jarring, non-linear character, sort of the ultimate post-modern fairy tale I guess. Though not really what I was after.

I will have to get a better copy, because the story of a badass Princess who marches about naked, bests a dragon with her trickery, rescues her not-so-charming prince, and then kicks him to the curb for being an ass is essential reading for any kid. Strong female characters are hard to come by, in children's literature doubly so; but it's important to me that Bean identifies with both genders and doesn't marginalize the female experience just because he's a male.

The third book I picked up for Hunter was renowned Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara's first children's book, The Lonesome Puppy. Nara-san's pop art usually features very cute children brandishing small weapons or placed in some other decidedly non-cute context, which I think is a sort of comment on innocence in an aggressive, ugly world (but, y'know, I just made that up.) At any rate, his work is really gorgeous so I jumped at the chance to pick up his kiddies book, sight unseen.

The gamble paid off, the story is lovely and the art is just magnificent. The tale is about a dog that is so big, towering above the globe, that nobody can see him. The puppy is sad at being so singularly huge that the little people go about their lives without even considering his existence. That changes one day when I small girl happens upon his foot and determines to climb high enough to meet the dog. The concepts are delightful abstract, fuelling the imagination and suggesting boundary-defying ideas of empowerment. Plus it's really pretty.

Next came The Wolves in the Wall. Being a big sci-fi and fantasy nerd, Neil Gaiman is one of my absolute favourite living authors. His wonderful comic books and novels knitting ancient mythology innovatively into the modern fabric are completely enchanting. Some of his young adult projects have been made into neat films (Mirror Mask, Stardust) but his children's storybooks are something else.
The Wolves in the Wall is the tale of young Lucy who, fittingly, believes there to be a cadre of wolves living the walls of her house. An unobservant family dismisses her worries until the wolves escape their wallpapered prison and take over the house. Homeless and hapless, the family give in to despair, except for the young girl who decides to take back her abode from the mischievous wolves. I read a bunch of reviews from uppity Christians complaining that the wonderfully impressionistic art by Dave McKean was too scary and had traumatised their poor little Jesus freaks for life. Naturally, I had to have it.

I was so impressed by Wolves in the Wall (it also received rave reviews from child literature expert Nick,) that I rushed out to get Gaiman and McKean's other kiddie opus, The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish. It's a little lighter than Wolves but no less endearing. As the title suggests, fathers are swapped for fish and, at the behest of an unimpressed mother, un-swapped with great difficulty. The stories are lively and imaginative, but it's McKean's stunning art that truly makes these books unique.

There's an ever-expanding list of interesting titles yet to be picked up, but that's all I've managed so far. A super big thank you to the Hylton clan for their generous voucher gift that made a chunk of this possible, love you guys. Mama has purchased and procured a few titles of her own, but I'll let her tell you about those if she so chooses. He's also very generously been given some wonderful books, both old and new, from his Grandparents so humble as it may be, Hunter's collection is nothing to be sneezed at.

Hopefully coming soon: Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People, a cool looking bio about the folk singer; Shake, Rattle & Roll: The Founding Father's of Rock & Roll, essential rockabilly education; D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, because you can never have too much mythology; Oscar Wilde's Stories for Children, kiddie corruption by the master; Lives of Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and what their Neighbours Though), there doesn't seem to be many kids books about writers an the Lives of... series is supposedly very good; As much Dr. Seus as I can carry; Hey Kidz! Buy this Book, an interesting text to help children deal with overwhelming corporate advertising; The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free, a cheeky anarchist retelling of the classic Tintin adventures.