An Auckland Minute

Look, to be honest, we don’t know how he got here, either. We asked but he couldn’t explain. He’s not sure where he came from, where he’s heading to or what might happen along the way. Just that he’s a Jafa.Tell you the rest in a minute.

Old friends a treasure trove of memories

05:00am 28 Feb 2013


Hadn't seen Russell for twenty years, I reckon. We were mates from way back; were even born in the same Dunedin maternity hospital at the same time, although we weren't on a first name basis then. Our late mothers might well have been, though. They certainly were later. Russell was my first XV captain, my best friend; my best man. He was the first flatmate I didn't marry. And there he was - sitting on a stool at Muriwai beach.

You know how it is. We hugged like girlfriends, am ashamed to say. Serendipity can do that. Catches you unawares. One minute you're going about your daily business; the next, half your life is flashing before your eyes. I mean, just his face was enough to set off a film reel of memories, long since archived away. He hadn't lost his hair, either - which is what I'd always teased him would happen. One coffee turned into two, three etc.

Had completely forgotten the many undesirable nicknames my old mate had bestowed on me. "Mute": something about a habit of talking too much. "Mushroom Head": a pretty direct reference to untameable hair. This spawned another one, come to think of it, based on the fact our first XV was predominantly (ok, almost totally) white. Suddenly I became Seviafi: the token Samoan. This was irony as well; I was about as elusive as a neighbourhood letterbox.

Funny thing about meeting old friends; it's as if you've hardly been apart. Russell wasn't quite the same harrier of our youth [ed: pfft, you can talk] but everything was essentially the same. The same upside down smile; the same laughing eyes, somehow both sympathetic and mocking at the same time. The same sense of humour. The same triggers that would spark hysterics - it seemed like there was a wave-length reserved especially for us. 

It was as we prattled on, reminiscing about those old Kodachrome days that we realised what had been the major sea-change in our lives. The generation in which we'd grown up (as early teens in the early seventies) was probably the last genuine age of innocence in New Zealand. Wasn't much later that parents started driving their kids to school and using terms like "stranger danger". Instead of teaching children to embrace their environment, we started teaching them to fear it.

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Child abuse is nothing new

05:00am 26 Feb 2013


Remember the old public service announcement catch-line: "Break the Cycle"? Hardly suggested domestic violence and child abuse was a new phenomenon, did it? Rather, it was a warning in two parts; the first bit about a present-day problem, the second about how it tends to perpetuate from one generation to another - as our behavioural habits often do. "Like father, like son" doesn't only apply to facial resemblances, after all.

Was struck this week by just how many people are still in denial about this - willing to argue that child abuse and (for want of a better term) domestic violence are some type of modern affliction; something utterly foreign to generations of the more distant past. Whether it's Garth McVicar or the equally rancid Family First, you could be forgiven for thinking that compared to now, previous generations of women and children had things much better.

Certainly, the scaremongers haven't lacked for case studies. Barely a week passes in which we're not shocked by stories of ugly, reprehensible abuse committed against minors and women. What some of us refuse to admit, though, is that it's nothing new; that the further back you go, the more it was the norm rather than the exception. Only difference now? We've finally reached a stage where (some) women and children feel safe enough to report it.

How can you prove the non-reporting? You can't, of course. But you can still read the signs; the anecdotal evidence is compelling enough. The proliferation of historic cases brought against today's grandfathers and great uncles et al speaks volumes of not only their values, but the values of their generation. Over in the United Kingdom, the child abuse scandal involving the late BBC personality Jimmy Savile continues to send the same message.

And even then, it seems we're eager to miss the point. People have been talking about Savile's nauseating behaviour as if it was something to do with the particular generation of his time. Seems someone else; something else had to be blamed so Savile's offending was quickly put down to the newly permissive and liberal culture of the 1970s and 80s. See, it's the era's fault. Guess it's much easier to accept that than the reality.

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Pistorius reaction not about handicap

05:00am 21 Feb 2013


Alright, stop it - it's getting too weird, this Oscar Pistorius story. A double-amputee sprinter, the first Paralympian to compete at the Olympics; a man now charged with the premeditated shooting and killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. And what are we discussing? Whether Pistorius is just another example of how we over-inflate the virtues of our sports stars. Effectively, whether we should be as shocked as we are.

Good grief. It was bad enough to hear folk plying this line a few days ago. But the latest round of amateur psychology is even more contrived: that our horrified reaction is actually discriminating against people with disabilities; that we're more shocked because the alleged perpetrator is a double amputee. Apparently, because we're conditioned to think the best of people with disabilities, our sense of dismay is disproportionately greater when they err.

Have read some ludicrous reasoning in my time. But this? This is right up there. The Dominion Post ran a column earlier in the week from a bloke who was evidently serious about it. "The world was stunned, wrote William Saletan, as if it shouldn't have been. "Other athletes have committed violent crimes but Pistorius was supposed to be different." Went on to suggest that, if he wasn't disabled, we wouldn't have placed him above such a despicable act.

And if that doesn't sound bat-shit crazy enough for you, try this, from Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg: "Were we shocked because he (Pistorius) was a double-amputee? I think so." Really Michael? Really? And let's not stop there; Pistorius would apparently have caused less shock in Rosenberg's lunchbox if he'd been an NFL player who allegedly murdered his partner. Can't remember anyone thinking that about OJ Simpson.

Talk about a twisted point of view. Michael, we're not shocked because Pistorius is a double amputee charged with murder. We're shocked because a woman was allegedly shot to death by someone whose name we're familiar with. The best double-amputee sprinter on the planet, no less. Rather than debating our surprise over his identity, can we simply be allowed to be shocked on behalf of Reeva Steenkamp? She was killed, after all.

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High-vis not the solution for bikers

05:00am 19 Feb 2013


Wellington coroner Ian Smith is calling for high-visibility clothing to follow helmets and become mandatory for cyclists. Reckons it's a no-brainer if we're serious about reducing cycling accidents. Unfortunate choice of words, really, given most credible studies utterly contradict his mantra. In fact, according to the New Zealand Medical Journal, compulsory helmet wearing has reduced, not improved cycling safety since its introduction in 1994.

And yes, you read that correctly. Far from making cycling less dangerous, the NZMJ last year published results from studies showing our smugness about the effectiveness of the helmet law is wildly misplaced. Average cycling hours have plummeted (halved) yet risk of injury remains the same. Overall, the law making helmets compulsory has resulted in 53 more premature deaths per year. Helmet wearing legislation has reduced public health.

No brainer? The only no-brainer is that, based on some of the most rigorous scientific studies, forcing cyclists to wear special clothes and funny helmets doesn't work. As pointed out in the NZMJ, making cycling less convenient, less accessible, and increasing the potential for parents to have to pay fines for non-compliant dependents, is actually counter-productive. The fewer cyclists on the road, the greater the danger for them.

Put it this way. According to the survey data, there were better outcomes when we had more cyclists and less protection. Scoff if you like but the numbers are fairly unambiguous. More cyclists meant safety in numbers; that is, road users were more used to sharing with bikes when it was the norm. Fewer cyclists, however, meant motorists were less familiar with their presence and behaviour. And with that unfamiliarity comes increased dangers and risks. 

What might seem to be a healthier, safer landscape is more like a fool's paradise. At a time when so many of us are wringing our hands over the country's obesity problem and all its associated conditions and costs, we're also actively discouraging people from enjoying one of life's great therapies. And all for a flawed concept. Researchers estimated the life years gained by cycling outweigh the life years lost in accidents by a factor of twenty to one.

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Pope was an ineffectual leader

05:00am 14 Feb 2013


And then, in one bound, he was gone. Yes, Pope Benedict may have achieved in retirement what no other pope has managed in 600 years but in all other areas? He's achieved very little. Certainly, in terms of reversing the Catholic church's plummeting reputation, or helping it become more relevant in a changing world, his past eight years have been an abject failure. Under Benedict's watch, any integrity remaining in the Vatican has vanished.

People can talk all they want about the lack of a schism among the papal elite; about the goodwill amongst those hoping to succeed Benedict. They're missing the point, really. The greatest threat to the church these days isn't in-fighting, it's the disconnect between those who think they run the place and everyday parishioners. Never before has the Vatican or a pope seemed quite so at odds with mainstream convention. Irrelevance beckons.

If anyone doubts this, they only need to consider the catholic church's dwindling influence. Hardly any wonder, either, when its chief honcho continues to condemn such basic freedoms as contraception and women's rights, and is on public record describing homosexuality as evil and immoral. Most Catholics I know disagree completely with this nonsense; the ones who concur are in a tiny minority. The Vatican is losing touch.

Benedict hasn't helped. From dragging his feet over the church's child abuse scandal to warnings about same-sex marriage presenting a "threat to humanity itself", he's come across as an apologist for the narrow-minded. He's repatriated a holocaust denier, denigrated the prophet Mohammad and spurned multi-culturalism. He's described rock music as anti-religion; Buddhism as auto-erotic spirituality and Harry Potter as a corrupting influence.

There's an irony in all of this, too. Irony, because the more Benedict has tried to reassert the church's bottom line, the more transparent his institution's impotence has became. When you lack the moral authority to instruct a household cat, guess that can happen.  With respect at an all-time low, the Vatican's decrees seem as worthless as they are inconsequential. That will be Benedict's legacy: a time even Catholics stopped caring about what a pope said.

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