Friday, June 14, 2013

Money For Jam

   Russell had a secret. Nothing very sinister, just something personal that he wanted no one to know about. When he commissioned the design of his new spacious office in the main street, he made sure that there was a secure compartment for it near his desk. Once inside, it was safely protected by the latest high tech lock that could only be opened by recognizing his thumbprint.

   Even Max, his business partner, had no idea what Russell had stashed away. They had set up their resource management company together in the nineteen nineties and financially, it had far outstripped their expectations. After they sold it recently to an Australasian corporation, Russell now looked forward to a well earned retirement in his three storied beach house at Lang Cove, when his stint as manager was finished in five years.

   As a humble Council employee, way back in the nineteen eighties, he had quite a different expectation of his future. All he had was a B.A. in Geography and wonderful memories of his great O.E. in Europe, where he met his English wife Julie while hitch hiking in France.

   In those days, he worked in a small, Rimu lined, council planning office that over looked the car park - where he could see his well used Holden station wagon. He remembered so many good times camping and going to the beach with Julie and the kids in that car. There was even room in the back for their over fed dog, “Piggy Muldoon”.

  For a quite number of years, life was fairly cruisey for Russell. Even though they had to wait awhile to save and get the mod cons they desired. In the nineteen nineties however, the Council restructured its operations by contracting services and Russell found himself cast out into the wilderness of the unemployed. Julie pulled them through by going back into teaching and Russell went back to varsity to add a degree in Resource and Environmental Planning to his CV.

   While he was there he met Max who was finishing his Business Management degree and they set up their own consulting firm called “Rumax”. The monetarist reforms and the Resource Management Act were goldmines for consultants and Rumax became a major player in the region. The business thrived and soon they had dozens of employees doing the donkeywork.

   Max became a master at establishing good relationships with most of the Council CEOs and councilors. The contracts headed into the millions of dollars as they rolled over year after year. Russell could see that the Councils had a poor grasp of the planning complexities of District Plans and he made sure that outcomes were equally complex.

   Recently, there had been dangerous talk in the community of amalgamating local bodies into larger districts and returning to the days of in house planners overseeing adjustments to District Plans rather than costly major overhauls handled by consultants. Russell was worried enough to have a chat to Julie about this and as usual she reassured him that they would cope.

  By this time, Julie had her own company of employment management consultants and she had successfully landed some very influential contracts monitoring “The Culture and Performance” of Council staff. She smiled and warmly hinted that Russell might like to again think about the early retirement plans he had years ago.

  It was time to check his secret, so Russell swiveled his plush leather chair around and opened his secure compartment with his left thumb. Inside on a coat hanger was the old, comfy cardigan, which was hand knitted by his mother.  He wore it years ago when he worked at the Council and it was a pity that it was no longer possible to be part of his corporate attire. He held it up and softly spoke to his favourite cardy, “Well Mum, it’s back to square one and time to go fishing.” 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Because Its There

   Two very different people found their way into the public spotlight recently when the question arose (once again) - who really got to the top of Mount Everest first?

   The late Sir Edmund Hillary is still the top contender for most people. However, in England, there is a determined bunch of Poms who want to contest this and the latest leader of the pack is the notorious author/politician, Jeffrey Archer.

   It appears to me that these celebrities fall into two camps. One has almost stumbled into public acclaim by pursuing his dreams and the other has sought the limelight by raking up a controversy.

   Sir Edmund is arguably the most esteemed public figure in New Zealand’s history. He was an incredibly courageous achiever and a devoted family man who tragically lost his wife and daughter while helping the Sherpa people build schools and health clinics in the Himalayas. In New Zealand, we admired his modest and quietly determined character – a quality we Kiwis are often noted for.

    Jeffrey Archer, on the other hand, has the reputation of being a discredited British Conservative politician who was jailed for two years on charges of perjury and obstructing the course of justice. When I saw his picture in the paper, unpleasant memories of the Thatcher era re-emerged and I was reminded of a very ruinous period in Britain’s social and industrial history. They are still paying the price and it is adding to cost of the current recession.

   Archer’s other claim to fame is the ability to write a good yarn. Titles I can recall being very popular are, ‘Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less’, ‘First Among Equals’ and ‘Cat O’Nine Tails’ (Illustrated by Ronald Searl). He used the proceeds to avoid bankruptcy and writing has pulled him out trouble ever since.  

   Even when he was in prison he continued to write best sellers (Three volumes of ‘A Prison Diary’) and carried out research for his latest novel, ‘Paths Of Glory’. This book was published in March this year and makes the case for the Englishman George Mallory successfully climbing Everest in 1924.
   The reaction in New Zealand was almost universally acidic. Mountaineer Graeme Dingle responded with, "He's dreaming. There's essentially no chance Mallory got to the top. All the evidence points to them not making it."

   In 1999 Mallory’s body was found only 200 meters from the his goal, but his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, has yet to be found. Mallory made a promise to place his wife’s photo at the summit and it was not found on his clothing. This has led to speculation that he might in fact have succeeded and was making his way down.

   A crucial part of the evidence could be in Irvine’s clothing or pack, because he was the one who carried the Kodak camera. Despite the time factor, it is thought that the film would survive. The search is continuing.

   A film clip I saw of Mallory in his climbing gear astounded me. Compared to Hillary and Tenzing, he was very lightly equipped – even for that time. Like Scott’s tragic Antarctic expedition he obviously belonged to the stoic British tradition of toughing it out – Man against Nature. It is very possible that he chose martyrdom ahead of safety and decided to soldier on to the summit despite the cost.

   I guess we will possibly never find out the truth, but nothing can ever take away Sherpa Tenzing’s and Sir Ed’s amazing achievement and returning to tell the tale for many, many years afterwards.

   I would not be at all surprised if the Poms tell us next that Hillary found more at the top than just snow and ask… “What did he mean when he said, ‘We Knocked the bastard off!’ Was it just one of those uniquely raw colonial expressions of achievement, or was it perhaps a Freudian slip?”

Eat Your Crusts

   Did your parents make you eat your crusts? Mine did and often reminded me that there were millions of starving people in world that would be grateful to have such food. I suggested once that we post mine to them, but that went down like a lead balloon and my father said something like, “Come on Dai, eat them up, they’ll put hairs on your chest.”

   Now that was a more compelling incentive for a young boy, but I did notice that my crust eating older sister did not have hairs sprouting out of her cleavage. For quite a few years I suspected that she secretly shaved them off like she did with the hairs on her legs.

   When it came to raising my own children, I encountered the same resistance to crust eating and it did not worry me. For all I cared, the chooks could have any leftovers. My wife however, had a few sharp words to say about this, because she thought that it was wasteful and impolite to leave crusts on your plate. My attitude was coloured by reading books on nutrition that said; when children are given the opportunity, they will usually chose what is naturally good for them.

   I knew that the radiated crust of a loaf was not as nutritious as the rest and so I was not surprised to learn, in a 2002 news item, that a research project on crusts had revealed that they had high levels of acrylamide. This is a chemical that is thought to be carcinogenic and is found in dangerously high levels in foods that are roasted, fried and baked. It can also be found in products such as coffee, some plastics and cigarette smoke.

   This might well explain how cancer can strike individuals who seem to lead a healthy lifestyle. Radiation and frying changes organic molecules in a very unnatural way and most of us know that bread jammed in the toaster eventually turns to carbon, which is indigestible.

   Our ancestors have of course eaten roasted and fried food for thousands of years and survived better than the raw food enthusiasts, who were probably exposed to more pathogenic bacteria and parasites. These dangers can be dealt with now by other means and in the U.S.A., the conservative FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has issued warnings about eating acrylamide rich foods such as chips, biscuits, roasts and fries etc.

   The Processed Food industries quickly resisted these findings and raised a political storm that forced the FDA to do further research before coming to conclusions that would affect their revenues. That research is ongoing and its findings have received very little publicity. You can google the site and watch the progress. Results so far have indeed confirmed the presence and dangers of acylamide in our Western diet.

In the future, does this mean that we will no longer smell the seductive aroma of coffee and toast in the morning if we want to stay healthy? Will visits to a bakery be a fond and distant memory like lighting up a cigar or puffing away on a favourite pipe?

    Fear not crust addicts! There has been a counter attack using so called new research to confuse us. A study, presented in the European Journal of Cancer Research, suggests that there is an anti-cancer chemical (pronyl-lysine) in bread crusts that might reduce the high levels of colon cancer. Genetically engineered fungus is also getting into the act and its creators claim that it will block the action of acrylamides in fried and roasted foods. However, it is possible that such research is possibly assisted by multi-national food corporations and therefore should be perhaps taken with a grain of salt.

   So, do I eat my crusts? Not on your Nelly. I will stick with the FDA findings and other cancer avoiding diet guidelines. Somehow I intuitively knew about the dangers long ago when I picked up warm fresh bread from our local dairy in the morning. On my way home, I would break the seam in the middle of the loaf and pluck out the bread from one of the two parts  - leaving a hollow, unwanted crust behind. 

Food For Thought

  The only enjoyable thing about my regular visits to the dentist is the chance I get to read magazines I cannot afford to buy. He usually has well thumbed copies of National Geographic, Time, North & South, Surfing magazines and of course The Woman’s Weekly which I furtively flick thru’ to catch up with celebrity gossip.

   On one of my visits, I read an article on health there and along side of it was a photo showing vegetables grouped together in the shape of a human face. It was titled “You Are What You Eat”.

   This picture took me took me back to my childhood when I remember looking at a very similar poster in “The Murder House” at my primary school. It looked very sinister at the time and I was (alas) not very impressed with the health message. After all, who in their right mind, would cut back on eating enjoyable junk food just to have legs like parsnips, a pumpkin face and Afro-style broccoli hair. I thought a far nicer composition would be made of pies, chippies, sweets, chocolate and fizzy drinks.

  In those days, the dental health poster was a piece of imaginary promotion. However, recent advances in genetic in engineering (GE) are bringing us closer and closer to actually making it possible to change the appearance of every living thing (including ourselves). We are now able to tamper with the building blocks of life and a fierce debate is raging about how far we should go.

   So far, New Zealand has resisted the temptation to use genetically modified seeds commercially, despite the fact that this practice has spread to most countries across the world. There are field trials being carried out here, but the decision to release the modified seeds has yet to made.

  We should be safe then, from eating food that is contaminated with genetic combinations that are totally new to nature. Not so, because if you look a bit more closely at many familiar New Zealand brand named goods on the supermarket shelves, you will see in small print that they are no longer made here.

   More and more of our food is being imported from countries like China where there are few controls over quality. Growers in New Zealand, on the other hand, have to contend with many more regulations and quality controls. These can make the goods pricey and so make the imported competition appear more attractive.

   The Greens want to see packaged and fresh produce clearly labeled on all food produced by New Zealand companies or imported here direct. The Government has said no to this and to my mind, it shows how powerful the commercial sector lobby is. It is ok apparently, to be GE Free in principle but in practical terms we have all probably eaten GE food by now and our intake is likely to increase if international corporations continue to have their way. They know full well that GE content on labels would be a financial disaster for many food processors.

  Obviously, I am no fan of GE and I am pleased to live in an area where the Mayor feels the same and intends to discourage any commercial GE activity in our local agriculture.

  If GE crops do eventually creep in, what will be the consequences when this new technology is all around us? I foresee an initial boost in productivity and then a very complicated ecological reaction that will cost a great deal of money to sort out when it goes wrong.

   DNA testing for the police is already becoming a routine activity and I wonder how they are going to cope when forensic analysis suggests that they look for a suspect with – ‘’fishy eyes, toad like posture, and a tomato complexion”. Mind you, I can think of some locals who already fit that description. I wonder what they eat?  

A Family Christmas

   All around the globe people will be celebrating Christmas soon and I find myself thinking about our soldiers overseas and also those no longer with us.

   One memorable Christmas for me was the time my Aunties from Dunedin came to join in our family celebration when I was aged about 9. To get the four Benson sisters together in one place was a rare event and my parents pulled out all the stops by preparing a meal with an unusual amount of exotic treats, the like I had never seen before. The table was lit up with candles and set with highly polished silver, glittering crystal and English china on my mother’s best lace edged tablecloth.

  My eccentric Aunties could have jumped out of a Charles Dickens novel. Aunty Gladys arrived stooping under her fox fur coat and she reminded me of a tortoise with her large hooked nose, moist eyes and wrinkly face. She told me that several of her fingers were missing because she put them too close to the fire and they just melted away. “So let that be a lesson to you!” she said as she waved the stumps at me.

   Aunty Enid was bulging at the seams with good humour and eating more of her delicious sponges and puddings than was prudent. Her face was coated with powder, her mouth smeared with bright red lipstick and she was fond of talking loudly with a hand rolled cigarette bobbing up and down on her bottom lip. She had twinkly blue eyes that never missed a thing and they bulged so much at times I thought they might fall out when she coughed.  She would shake like a jelly and the ash from her cigarette would fall onto her ample bust and accumulate there like snow on a Christmas tree.

   The eldest of my mother’s sisters was Aunty Vi; but you would not have guessed so, if all you had to go on was her appearance. She had finely cut features and amazingly white skin. It was as translucent as the porcelain figurines that my mother kept out of reach, high up the mantelpiece. Another feature I remember well, was Aunty Vi’s dark hair that was pulled back to a bun at the back of her head and seemed to push her face out with a kind of obsessive energy. She had, as my mother put it, “A bit of a nervous disposition Dear. Not surprising really, since she looked after Grandma all those years and never married.”

   The Christmas meal with my Aunties was the best meal ever! My father presided over the occasion with theatrical dignity and cracked jokes that I did not get, but nevertheless, had most of us rolling laughter. Aunty Vi, her face now a rosey pink, said something like “Oh George you are so wicked,” and popped another piece of crystalized ginger into her mouth. I remember looking at her and wondering how long her hair really was, when she suddenly sat bolt upright and left the table. I could see her looking at herself in the hallway mirror and then she started screaming.

   What happened next is a bit hazy because it happened so fast. However, I do recall her yelling as she was taken to the car that took her to the hospital “I’ve been poisoned… poisoned! You’ll never get the house do you hear! Never!”

   Aunty Vi returned that night and nothing was said about her antics – or about her being allergic to ginger. Before she left she gave me a pound note and said, “You won’t tell people about your poor old aunty will you.” I am sure she would forgive me for breaking my silence after all these years and be very pleased when I recommend you to go easy on the ginger this Christmas.

Hormonal Horrors

   I can remember my mother often saying to me, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing David.” Which is probably why she played it safe and seemed to blissfully know very little at all about the world. Her main concerns appeared to me to be; a spik-and-span house, enough food on the table and plenty of home baked cakes and biscuits stored in tins.

   In a way, even tho’ I miss her, I am glad she is not alive to see the arrival of home computers and the tidal wave of information that is sweeping the World. I am sure my mother thought all kinds of food could be eaten as long as you liked them and they were not too spicy. However, we know these days, that many of these really delicious foods are unfortunately tainted by what scientists know about them.

   A good example is the controversy surrounding the consumption of soya bean products. I have been talking to Dick James recently and he has really put the wind up me. Dick breeds caged birds and lives out at Mcleods Bay (Whangarei Heads).  He got involved in the campaign to ban soy milk for infants and children after he noticed his prize winning parrots karked it after eating bird seed “contaminated” with soya beans.

   According to him, the soya bean in any form can be dangerous due its high levels of estrogen and he referred me to a very interesting websbite – ( His concern is that soya products are so common now in processed food that it almost impossible to avoid eating them.
   So what is so dangerous about estrogen? Apparently, it is a powerful hormone that can lead to deformities and cancer if women eat too much of it. In men, estrogen affects masculinity by lowering testosterone levels and interfering with the process of boys growing naturally into  ‘normal’ men.

   Food is not the only source of hormone affecting chemicals. Many newly manufactured plastics also give off toxic fumes and friends of mine refuse to store food in plastic wrap and avoid using plastic crockery. As a potter, I heartily agree with this idea. In my humble and totally biased opinion, there is nothing that can match drinking coffee or tea from a well made, hand thrown pottery mug! 

   The plastic interior of cars also can give off fumes especially when new and left outside to heat up in the sun. When my car was much newer I left the windows open, whenever possible, to vent any unwanted gases. These days I do the same but more often to cope with the unfortunate consequences of accidentally locking my semi neutered tomcat inside the car overnight.

   For many of us middle aged males, this advice about avoiding environmental estrogens might have come a bit too late in the day. Way back in the days when “The Sensitive New Age Man” was fashionable and politically correct, little did we know the sinister influence our food and lifestyle was having on us. There we were, thinking we were nobly suppressing our naturally aggressive instincts, when all along we might have been unconsciously been affected by chemicals mucking around with our hormones.

   Still, the news might not be all that bad. The Green Party’s co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, has claimed that the Waikato River is so polluted with estrogens (amongst a noxious group of other chemicals) that Aucklanders should think twice about using it as their water supply.

   I would expect that most men in that city would probably ignore this warning. With this in mind, I wonder if we might in time see more docile driving habits from beardless, breasty men stuck in daily traffic jams on the motorway and Auckland streets.

   Jokes about women drivers could well be replaced by new humorous comments on being a jaffa man.
    Jaffa….? “Just Another Feminine Fellow Aucklander!”

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Fools Pools

 Harry was no wimp. He prided himself on maintaining old school Kiwi values – hard work, hard play, and facing life’s challenges with stoical determination. Now that he was retired, his wife Mavis often said he should ease up a bit; but he knew that tempting prospect was not for him. 

   Sport had always had a prominent place in Harry’s life and altho’ Sky TV was very entertaining, he believed that there was nothing better than doing it yourself. Harry got a real buzz when Mavis said that he had the physique of a man half his age; but lately, he felt that the dreaded middle-aged spread was beginning to show. Even holding his breath in front of the mirror, could not hide the fact he was losing the ‘Battle of the Bulge’.

   Harry’s best mate Fred did not seem to have this problem and yet he downed as many beers as Harry did at the local. So he asked Fred how he managed this. Fred replied, “No worries, I just work it off in the new swimming pool at Selwyn Park”. Harry decided to take the plunge and join him there every week. The only drawback was that Mavis said “You must be kidding!” when he asked her to come along too in the winter.

  The new pool was ideal, fifty metres long and uncovered. Hardly anyone went there during the cooler months and very often they had the pool to themselves. It was refreshingly bracing and after the staff had carefully skimmed off the dead leaves, it was perfect.

   That was until Fred gravely announced at the pub one night that the Council was going to close the pool for half the year due to a lack of patronage. Fred put it down to some joker writing to the paper, labeling the new pool as the “Seldom Parked Pool”.

   “We can’t let them get away with that!” said Harry. “Too right mate” Fred replied. “We have formed an action group to somehow get some hard cash coming in to help the Council fend off the Bean Counters. It was a bit touch and go for awhile, but we think we’ve got it sorted.”

  Fred finished off the jug of beer and continued. “You see, all we had to do was a bit of lateral thinking. Dargaville needs more than just an Olympic sized pool to put it on the map and guess what, I hit on the solution while I was watching the news on telly. It just so happens that the Singapore Zoo is looking to find a home for its two polar bears, Sheba and Inuku. I know how stinking hot it can get there and they would be much happier in a cooler climate like ours. We reckon we can get them over here at no cost to the ratepayer and negotiate with the zoo to cover all the costs of travel and alterations to our new pool.”

   Harry looked like a stunned mullet and needed time to think. Recovering, he turned to Fred and then said in a voice that had heads turning all along the bar, “If you think I am  going to share the pool with bloody polar bears you must be raving mad!”

  Fred appeared not in the least concerned. “Calm down mate.” He said with a sly grin. “It’ll be ok, these bears are hand raised and wouldn’t hurt a flea… aah, as long as they’re well fed of course. Anyway, they won’t be using the pool much because they tell us the bears sleep most of the time. When they are awake, there will be extra spin offs for the Olympic training squads. Just imagine the performance improvements when the kids see a polar bear just behind them when they enter the last lap. Once the records start being broken, we’ll have them flocking here from all parts of the country to get a slice of the action. I tell you what mate, it’s a win, win solution.”