We haven’t talked about words for a while. But that doesn’t mean that the language is in any better shape than the last time we looked. Partly because awesome continues to be the word of choice to describe anything and everything.
Anyway, language has been in the news recently because the Oxford English Dictionary has taken to announcing its new additions to the dictionary each quarter. I finally got around to having a look at the most recent additions and I found a lot of interesting items.
Sociologists tell us that narrative is important because how we say things reflects our underlying thinking. That’s why we have political correctness.
And speaking of narrative, did you know that “narrative” has taken on a new meaning? It used to only mean a story or account of events. But now it is used to describe the events themselves. “Aesthetic” is another word that has been co-opted. Instead of just meaning appreciation of beauty or describing an artistic style, it too, now means moods, feelings or things. As in “Chloe and Tyler got into a big fight at the restaurant because she didn’t like the aesthetic. I didn’t want to be part of that narrative so I left.”
But that’s not the important narrative woven into the list of new words. A good example of new words reflecting who we are is the large number of words on the list that are from foreign languages. Globalization means we are more widely exposed to other cultures and words that work well get readily adopted.
But if the words we use are an expression of who we are, we might be concerned that of the almost 200 words on the list, over 10% refer to food or cooking. And a lot refer to shopping or consuming. More on that later.
There are some interesting surprises as well. For one thing, there aren’t as many technology neologisms as there have been on past lists. And there are some totally legitimate made up words such as Flerovium and Livermorium. They are new elements that have been discovered. Now you know.
Another interesting thing is the words on the list that I thought would already be in the dictionary—like fine tuned and shoplifting. And what took jagoff so long to make the list?
There are some words that I don’t think are going to last into future editions of the dictionary. One example is Yoda, which means a smart person, expert or guru. Another is fuhgeddaboudit, which most people think was Tony Soprano’s go to word, but it was actually properly explained by Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco which predates The Sopranos. Check it out here!
I’ve selected a few of the words on the list to share with you and to explore the narrative and aesthetic around them. So you too can get a feel of the state of English.
Biatch–n. This is supposedly used by people too polite to say “bitch.” I don’t understand the distinction, especially because the origin is rap music. For those of you who want to use it and its nuances, the Urban Dictionary informs us that the state of being a biatch is biatchitude. And exemplary biatchitude is known as biatchitudestein.
Balut–n. You don’t want to know. This word is both from a foreign language (Tagalog) and technically about food, although you might not agree. It’s a duck egg that is just about to hatch that is cooked and, er, eaten. Basically, its part egg, part duck. Use your imagination. It made the list because it’s a popular gross out food on reality TV shows like Fear Factor.
Bodoh–adj. Another foreign word (Malay) and one you will definitely want to use. It means stupid. Sian bodoh is a wonderful multilingual insult which has the huge advantage of probably not being understood by the person it’s directed at. Sian means boring in Hokkien so combined with bodoh it packs a nice one two punch. It also has a nice ring to it. Use it wisely.
Chefdom–n. A truly frightening cooking word. Or maybe it’s just bodoh. It means being a chef. If, like me, you think there are too many chefs and chef programs on TV, you are probably worried about all of chefdom banding together. Remember, they have knives. Lots of them.
Kindsa–? You know how you cringe when someone writes “I could of . . .” instead of “I could have?” Kindsa represents the elevation of that sort of thing as a word in the OED. If you haven’t figured it out yet, it means “kinds of” as in “Like, I’m so into all kindsa words.”
Non-apology–n. If the words we use reflect the way we think, be afraid, be very afraid. Meaningless apologies are now so de rigueur, that we need a word for them.
Shopaholism–n. See non-apology.
Shoppertainment–n. Times were, shopping was something you just did in order to acquire things. Now our attention spans are so short and we’re so bored that retailers have come to believe that we need “an entertaining in-store shopping experience” and there are consultants who specialize in helping stores with “experiential retailing.” I wonder if Black Friday shootings in the US qualify.
Skronk–adj. A term to describe music that is dissonant, grating or irritating. Why has it taken this word so long to find respectability in the dictionary considering how often it can and should be used? Also applies to some news reporters and radio announcers.
Squee–n, v. Essentially a squeal, usually of delight. I don’t know if this word came about as a result of text language because it’s easier to type than squeal or what.
Upcharge–n. A euphemism for paying more for something. Also known as “accessorial charges.” It’s a fancy way of saying you pay more for extra cheese on your pizza.
Vom–n, v. Like bodoh, I’m going to be using this one! Take a guess. It is short for vomit and is a wonderfully versatile word. As in, “there was vom on the floor after the party.” Or “I vommed when I saw that guy eating balut.” I like it because there was no need for yet another word for vom, but it’s always nice to have one.
This is but a small sampling of the new words in the dictionary. Have them ready when you do your Christmas shopping and buy all kindsa stuff. Watch out for the shopaholics who might be squeeing over the shoppertainment and don’t get upset by the skronking PA system or the biatch behind the counter who gives you a non-apology when you question the latest upcharge. Don’t buy any bodoh gifts and whatever you do, don’t vom if a chefdom tries to get you to sample some balut.
I have a lot to say, but don’t know where to start.
Yesterday I went to a friend’s funeral and I don’t feel like I’ve been to a funeral. For one thing, we had some time to get ready for it. Just before Christmas last year, Peter had been told that he only had a few months to live. So we knew we’d be going to his funeral, we just didn’t know when.
And he wasn’t shy about reminding people that it was up and coming. Lately he would introduce himself by saying, “I’m Peter and I’m dying.”
That by itself was a new experience for me. Usually when people are terminally ill, it’s the elephant in the room. But Peter made it a totally acceptable topic of conversation. More than that, he inspired everyone with his courage, humanity and determination to get the most out of whatever time he had left.
I first met Peter in 2011 when he was on the faculty of a horticulture school that would bring its students out to CUE Haven to plant trees and help us with maintenance work.
Peter was one of three faculty members and I mostly remember him as the one who would insist that the students take extra time and make everything just right and to his credit, the culvert drainage boxes he helped build on the walking track have stood the test of time.
Unfortunately due to funding problems, the school’s priorities changed and they haven’t been back to the farm since 2013 and we lost touch with Peter and his colleagues.
In June this year, Joan, one of the other teachers, contacted us to tell us that Peter had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he wanted to bring his wife out to CUE Haven to show her the work he and the students had done.
We arranged a time to meet up. We didn’t know what to expect and were shocked. Peter was on crutches and unable to eat most solid foods. Because the cancer was in his bones, he was at constant risk of fractures. Nevertheless he took off and insisted on walking the entire track from the top of the property back to the house. We also planted celebration trees and he insisted that we pick out a special tree to plant as a memorial tree for later.
We happened to show him an area where we are planning to put some benches and artwork. That’s when Peter’s wife told us that he had won numerous awards for his garden designs in the UK and Peter said that he would like to design the area for us as his gift to CUE Haven. A few weeks later he came back a couple of times and mapped the area and drew up a professional plan for us to use. He even set up an office in the field!
In his last few months, Peter decided that he was too busy to give up. He had been a karate teacher for the past few years and one of the things on his bucket list was to get his black belt. He was awarded the belt on September 1. He also did a tandem sky dive to raise money for the West Auckland Hospice where he spent his last days. He generally refused to go to the hospital, in spite of serious medical complications, on the grounds that time in the hospital prevented him from living life.
Yesterday at the celebration of Peter’s life we saw pictures of his life and listened to some of his favourite music. Yes, Led Zeppelin’s In My Time of Dying and Stairway To Heaven made the list—and the ceremony ended with Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. There was also a guest video appearance by Peter himself—and he was there physically, too, in the wooden coffin he’d designed and built himself in the past few months.
The funeral home was filled to capacity and there was a stream of people describing how Peter had positively impacted their lives.
The ceremony was called “A Celebration of Life,” and I know that is the new euphemism for “funeral.” But this really was a celebration of a life well lived. And a life that will continue to positively influence a lot of people.
Peter’s attitude was an inspiration—in a world where we seem to be afraid to discuss issues like death and dying, he confronted it head on. Usually we don’t have candid conversations about these topics. But Peter made it comfortable. When he could no longer eat solid food and had to feed himself through a device installed in his stomach he thought nothing of pulling up his shirt and showing you how it worked. He treated his illness as something that was happening to him and that was part of his life and not something to fight but to live in spite of. He had been a missionary in Uganda years ago but was constantly questioning our place in the universe and had come to view death as just a step in a larger spiritual journey.
Being around Peter helped put things in perspective. When explaining his desire to get the black belt, he said that he wanted people to say, “If he can do it, what’s stopping me?”
Peter, we look forward to telling your story to future visitors to the platform you have designed. You will always be remembered at CUE Haven and by all the others you have touched.
He who binds himself to a joy
Does that winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
American novelist Erma Bombeck wrote a hilarious book titled When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home. The big news in NZ is all about a French tourist who has been hitchhiking around the country, and although he doesn’t seem to know it, is looking suspiciously like his passport photo.
One of the more popular ways to travel in NZ is backpacking and even in the big cities there are all sorts of backpacker hostels. Seeing people of all nationalities trekking alongside the roads with big packs is a normal year round sight.
Although there are many options, a popular way for backpackers to see the country is by hitchhiking and when my wife and I are travelling around New Zealand we routinely pick up hitchhikers. So hitching a ride from just about anywhere in the country is usually not a problem as long as you look half way human.
Enter this French guy who has been in NZ for an unspecified period of time but who supposedly has been making a career out of backpacking around the world and has so far visited 70 countries.
To me, that would make him a fairly savvy traveller, considering that he’s survived 69 other countries where hitchhiking is probably not as easy or safe or accepted as it is here.
So what we can’t understand is why he has ended up as national headline news this week and with a bill of $3,000 for damage to road signs that he inflicted in a tantrum as a result of not being picked up for four solid days. In court, he claimed that no one “even offered water.”
To clear up some of your obvious questions, no he is not weird looking and no he was not hitching in some godforsaken corner of the country. He was in one of the most popular tourist sites in the South Island.
He claims quite simply that he was ignored for four straight days and admits that in frustration he did damage some signs but not to the tune of $3,000.
Worst of all, he now claims that New Zealand is the worst country he has ever been in and should be renamed “Nazi Zealand” and that the worst aspects of the US were better than NZ.
As is usual with unusual media stories, this one is crying out for some back story.
Locals who were interviewed said they had in fact seen him wandering around but didn’t think he was hitchhiking because he didn’t have his thumb out.
Other locals claim that he was seen with a finger, which was not his thumb, being displayed at passing motorists and someone called the cops when they saw him lying in the road. Apparently he mouthed off to a Department of Conservation officer and was seen acting “strangely” at other times during the four days.
I can’t help feeling that if one has hitchhiked through 70 countries one would probably have developed a fairly broad understanding of human nature and would have developed an ability to cope with the unexpected and also get along with a variety of people. And also have the ability to get a ride in a popular tourist spot in less than four days. You kind of have to wonder what went wrong.
What is also interesting is his suggestion that NZ be called “Nazi Zealand” because of his treatment at the hands of the justice system. I have to believe that in his travels he would have picked up some sense of the way people view and interact with law enforcement in other countries.
And he should have realized that to get a $3,000 fine in NZ he had to do something pretty bad. Or at least make a lot of people very mad.
After all, NZ is the country where earlier this year a woman protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, threw a rubber sex toy (aka dildo) at the Minister of Economic Development. As she tosses the dildo she yells “This is for raping our sovereignty.” It was a perfect shot to the nose, and as American comedian John Oliver said, if you did that in the US, you’d be dead before the dildo hit the ground. She wasn’t charged with anything and you can see the footage here. As the security men escort her away she’s actually looking around for someone to get arrested by and the minister seems to be having a chuckle over it.
If you want to see a slightly more artistic version, have a look at this:
So as I was saying, there is some backstory to this French hitchhiker story that we’re not getting and I’d love to know what he did to make everyone so mad.
We haven’t done much exploring outside of New Zealand lately so we decided to take advantage of some cheap flights and flew to Cairns in northeast Australia to explore the Daintree Rainforest and Atherton Tablelands, all within easy reach of Cairns.
This is the area we explored.
I didn’t know what to expect. My earliest images of Australia were based on The Road Warrior and Crocodile Dundee and I imagined lots of desert and open spaces. Since then I’ve been to the big east coast cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and was always surprised how green everything is.
But nothing prepared me for the rainforests we visited. They call the area the “Wet Tropics.” They are well named. It was the “dry season” but it rained every day we were there. And yes, there are poisonous snakes and spiders. And leeches.
But don’t get me wrong. It was beautiful and amazing and fortunately we didn’t get a single mosquito bite.
We picked up the car in Cairns and headed north. Cairns is on the coast of the Coral Sea and is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. The road up north mostly follows the coast.
After a couple of hours you come to the Daintree River.
There is no bridge, only a ferry which will take 27 cars at once.
As soon as you get off the ferry you know you are in the rainforest.
Our first couple of days we stayed in a place called Cow Bay. It is right on the water but you don’t know it because the rainforest goes right down to the shore. The place we stayed was called Crocodylus, which wasn’t very reassuring. That is the Latin name for the saltwater crocodile which lives in the estuaries. As recently as May someone was eaten by a crocodile at Cow Bay and it’s a good idea not to ignore the warnings.
We did see a crocodile on a boat ride and from the way the skipper behaved I could tell he had a lot of respect for it. This one is 4 metres or about 12 feet long.
The Daintree area is sparsely populated and we really enjoyed meeting some of the locals, who were all interesting characters. The farthest north we got was Cape Tribulation. It got its name because Captain Cook ran into trouble there. Captain Cook named a lot of places in Australia and NZ and he was very imaginative. In NZ we have Poverty Bay, Doubtless Bay and Cape Foulwind.
The local cafe at Cape Tribulation, which serves crocodile, kangaroo and emu burgers, is a nice laid back place and had some interesting signs.
And here is the helpful weather report provided by the front desk at Crocolylus.
Speaking of which, this was our accommodation at Crocodylus. We wanted to be in the rainforest and got our wish.
We also stayed at places on the Daintree River and in the Atherton Tablelands that were very close to nature.
The main attraction at all these places was the rainforests and the animals.
First of all, though, let me clarify a few things. Rainforests are essentially forests that exist in areas of high rainfall. Because of the conditions they usually have a variety of plant and animal life. A lot of the rainforest in the areas we visited is recovering after being cleared but there are areas of untouched forest and the entire area is a World Heritage Site.
Rainforests are not for the faint hearted. They are never quiet, but at dawn when the birds start their day they are positively noisy! And the variety of birdcalls is amazing. There are also, at least in these rainforests, a lot of things that you don’t want to encounter like poisonous snakes, spider and centipedes. One of the biggest dangers, however, is wild pigs.
We did a lot of exploring – walking on all sorts of paths from the luxurious —
To the scary–
We saw lots of interesting plants.
This is called a fan palm.
Where the rainforest meets the ocean there are mangrove swamps in the estuaries and the mangrove trees and roots sometimes look like something from outer space.
One of the most amazing trees we found is the strangler fig. It originates from the seed of a normal fig tree but when a certain wasp lays its eggs in the seed and carries it to the top of an existing tree it can germinate and send airborne roots down to the ground. The roots harden around the host tree and eventually kill it. When the host tree dies, the strangler fig appears hollow.
When the seed lands at the top of a huge old tree and the fig has been growing for a long time, the results can be amazing. This one is called the Curtain Fig. At some point in the process the host tree fell against another tree and the strangler fig roots have created a “curtain.”
This one is called the Cathedral Fig. The canopy is 1,250 square metres and it is estimated to be over 500 years old.
Care for another fun fact?
We didn’t know this, but in this part of Australia there are no native bees to help plants pollinate. And because birds, who are also pollinators, don’t like flying from flower to flower in dense foliage where they can’t spread their wings, Australian trees have developed flowers on their trunks instead of in the branches. This way insects and other creatures walking on the trunk will pollinate the flowers. The characteristic is called “cauliflory” and you can see the flowers on the trunk of this tree.
Here is a rainforest flower related to the gardenia.
And here is something called a basket fern which grows high up in trees and is a ready made home for birds, snakes, frogs, insects and even other plants.
And some pretty glow in the dark fungi.
These are flowers of the jade vine.
And here are two of the few unlogged Australian Kauri which are cousins of New Zealand’s largest tree.
In addition to the new and interesting plants, we also enjoyed the unusual birds and animals. The big draw in the area is the cassowary which looks like a cross between an ostrich and a dinosaur. This is how big the females can get and although we didn’t spot any real ones the advice is to give them a wide berth because they have a bad temper and sharp beaks and claws.
We did however see some paddy melon wallabies and kangaroos.
This is a platypus in search of food.
We went for an interesting night walk in the forest and saw a lot more than we could photograph. There were centipedes and spiders and cane toads which are poisonous. It was especially worrisome when a huge centipede jumped across the path in front of us and our guide said, “I didn’t know they could do that.”
If things didn’t move too fast we were able to get pictures. Can you spot the interesting cricket with the long antennae trying to camouflage itself on a stick?
Here is a Boyd’s Forest Dragon.
The rain forests here are also renowned for the variety of birdlife. We heard and saw lots birds and almost all of them were new to us like the Victoria’s Riflebird and Golden Bowerbird below.
While on a dawn birdwatching tour on the Daintree River we saw some more very interesting and colourful birds
. . . and giant bats known as flying foxes — their wingspan is a metre wide.
At the Hasties Swamp National Park in the Tablelands, we couldn’t believe the number and variety of ducks as well as swans and pelicans.
The last place we stayed was by Lake Eacham in the Atherton Tablelands, and our lodging was also set in the midst of a rainforest. The owners here encourage the guests to interact with the animals by leaving fruit for the birds on the cottage porch. Each morning we put orange and tomato pieces out on the railing and got lots of visitors. The big bird is the bush turkey and the little one is Lewins Honey Eater.
This place also had a lighted viewing platform where at night they put honey on a couple of trees to attract animals. The animals are too busy eating to pay attention to the people taking their pictures.
This is a striped tail possum:
Here’s a sugar glider:
And a long nosed bandicoot:
The Tablelands area is quite volcanic and has many beautiful waterfalls. We spent a morning exploring the Millaa Millaa Falls circuit which is circular road that takes you to several waterfalls in the area.
This is Millaa Millaa Falls, looking just like a waterfall should!
This is Zillie Falls.
And here is Ellinjaa Falls.
There were never ending interesting things along the way. I wasn’t sure to laugh or cry about this sign at the base of a tall tower that you could climb up for a panoramic view of the rainforest canopy at the Daintree Discovery Centre.
Be glad that I’m sparing you a selfie from the top of the tower!
We’d heard about the problems with jellyfish on Australian beaches and it’s no joke:
They actually have a bottle of vinegar in that little tube which you are supposed to spill on stings.
It wasn’t all wilderness. We visited a number of little towns. One of our favourites was Yungaburra. It has a population of 1,100 and several heritage buildings, including this one that looks iconically Australian to me.
There were a number of whimsical shops. At the Mad Hatter Café everything is Alice in Wonderland themed.
And they have an interesting community arts centre.
We also did a bit of non-tourist stuff. The School for Field Studies Centre for Rainforest Studies is located in the Atherton Tablelands and each year for the past three years, Dr. Amanda Freeman, centre director, and several students and faculty have visited New Zealand and stayed at CUE Haven and helped us with our restoration planting.
We didn’t exactly return the favour because we didn’t do any work, but we spent a nice day meeting up with old friends and seeing their facilities.
We met them at a community nursery operated by TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands). The SFS team was helping out in the morning with a community working bee. Volunteers from the area grow and nurture the trees until they are ready to be planted and then participate in community planting days to restore and extend the rainforests. It was very interesting talking to the volunteers and learning of their efforts to restore their rainforest.
We then went over to the SFS centre for a tour and to meet the rest of the staff and students. Amanda showed us some of the research and experiments they are working on to see how to improve the effectiveness of rainforest restoration.
The next day we headed back to Auckland. It was a short but very interesting and enjoyable trip. We learned a lot and met some great people and we look forward to exploring more of Australia.
Over the years I’ve told you stories about the farm project, most of which involve me ending up somewhere out of my comfort zone as a result of interaction with large and small creatures and machines.
Please be assured that silence doesn’t indicate the absence of thrilling (at least at the time) stories. Like the autumn mouse invasion or the three day effort to get the neighbor’s cow off our property after it snuck through a gate.
But in the past couple of weeks we’ve had a new adventure that no one saw coming. After a rainstorm of Biblical proportions, a section of the neighbor’s hill let go taking the boundary fence and a couple of thousand trees that we’d planted in 2015. The laws of physics were working overtime and the landslide kept going across a service road and out onto flat ground in the wetlands.
And here is the “road.”
Fortunately no one was around (although it might have been cool to watch it from a safe distance if only to find out what kind of noise it made).
Our amazing volunteers have already offered to come out to replant the area, and we will do that next year once the area has dried out. The more urgent problem was the blocked road. The mud was waist deep and that’s about how far you would sink if you tried to walk across. So what was a short walk/drive before, was now a big detour by another road.
Getting the road fixed was a priority so we called Peter, the guy who does our roadworks to see what it would take to fix.
One of the things we’ve really enjoyed about this project is the fascinating people we have met and Peter is one of the most interesting. His resume is a bunch of cool jobs that I didn’t even know existed but which have involved interaction with hammerhead and great white sharks and all sorts of other menacing four and two legged creatures. He’s now got this earthmoving business and in addition to the roadwork at our place he’s always been happy to help out with advice on maintenance problems since he also has a lot of experience as a mechanic.
It should come as no surprise that Peter is a veritable font of hilarious stories about everything. And he has the most colorful way of expressing himself both with rich vocabulary and amazing phrases filled with impossible grammatical constructions to describe impossible anatomical rearrangements or juxtapositions to which he would like to subject government officials, politicians, neighbors or anyone else who disrupts the logical flow of life.
We called Peter and he agreed to come out the next day to have a look at the situation. He decided that it was still too dangerous to go into the slip area but he would be able to clear the road and also improve the drainage (an impromptu lake had formed) in a few days.
We met Peter early morning one day last week and he went to work to clear the mud blocking the road. At midday he joined us for lunch at the cottage and it was a nice winter day so we were sitting at the tables outside. He regaled us with stories about land slips and some of his adventures. I didn’t think it was possible for a tracked vehicle like a digger to lose traction but he described slaloming down the side of a hill for about 100 feet one time.
Needless to say, it was a fascinating and hilarious story with gravity, physics, the digger, Isaac Newton, the digger manufacturer, and the landowner and a few other people and organizations all being subjected to a tirade of amazing length and lots of subordinate clauses as he described his thought process about how long it would take to stop and what condition he would be in when he did come to rest.
He interrupted the story for a minute (not to take a breath–he usually doesn’t do that when he’s on a roll) but because a car was roaring down the public road with a highly modified exhaust system that made it sound like the startup of the Indianapolis 500.
Once the roar had subsided, Peter didn’t continue his narrative. Instead shook his head and said with a tone of professional authority, “There’s a man with SPS.”
Now, because Peter worked as a mechanic, I assumed that an SPS was some sort of esoteric vehicle or vehicle modification that enabled his car to sound like an A360 taking off.
So I said, “SPS? How does it work?” He laughed and said, “No. SPS is ‘small penis syndrome.’ You show me a guy with wheels like that and I’ll show you a guy worried about the size of his willy.”
I’d never thought of it before but it made perfect sense. And even though we were paying Peter by the hour, we had an extended lunch in which we talked about the applicability of the SPS theory to other walks of life besides cars. And believe me, there are a lot of examples!
There is a tiny town in New Zealand called Blackball, population 300. It used to be a prosperous mining town at the beginning of the 20th century, but mining has disappeared from the region and now it is a very pleasant place with friendly and fascinating natives, a growing tourism business and arts and craft shops and some great scenery.
You have to like Blackball and its people. There was a hotel in town known as “The Blackball Hilton.” If you saw it you would appreciate the irony.
Well, it turns out that Hilton Hotels worldwide got wind of the fact that someone else was doing business using their name! Hilton was convinced that (a) it would hurt their brand, and (b) give the Blackball Hilton an unfair competitive advantage.
Attorneys got involved.
I don’t know how much was spent by both sides, but the Blackball Hilton was legally required to stop calling itself the Hilton.
I love it that the hotel is now called “Formerly the Blackball Hilton.” Apparently that satisfied the attorneys.
Anyway, I tell you that story because it is an interesting example of the way neo-liberal steroidal capitalism operates and it leads nicely to the story of why the town is famous.
Blackball has a reputation for being a hotbed of labour unrest in New Zealand. Workers at the Blackball mines instigated some of the longest strikes in NZ history and the New Zealand Labour party was founded there. It was also the headquarters of the NZ Communist Party for a while.
Today other than some mining memorabilia, the main indication of the town’s colourful past is The Blackball Museum of Working Class History which documents the history of the mining industry and organised labour both in the town and throughout the country and wider world.
In 1908 Blackball had a population of 500 and 170 of the men in town worked in the mine. Working conditions weren’t too flash. Workers regularly passed out because of bad ventilation and there were no facilities for washing up—that was something you did at home on your own time.
Management was apparently unsympathetic to suggestions for improvements. For example, the standard lunch break in NZ coal mines at the time was half an hour but lunch breaks in the Blackball mines were limited to 15 minutes.
Two Australians and a New Zealander who had worked in other mines told the Blackball workers about the disparity and decided to make an issue of it. Dubbed “The Wildmen” by management, they decided that given that they were working underground in dangerous conditions, a half an hour for lunch might be more reasonable.
The Wildmen started taking half hour lunches (they couldn’t go anywhere, they just ate more slowly down in the mine) and were promptly sacked by a vengeful management. The remaining miners went on strike as a sign of solidarity (yes, they used that word) and both sides settled down for a fight.
I know that how you view these sorts of things depends on your way of looking at the world, but I think we can agree that giving coal miners an additional 15 minutes to relax and eat their lunch probably wouldn’t have driven the mining company out of business and that the strike was probably more damaging in the long run than if they had just agreed to the extra lunch period in the first place.
If you read the accounts, there was right and wrong on both sides, with power plays, ego, greed and selfishness clouding everyone’s judgement. Not to mention, the strikers adopted a red flag, wore red rosettes in their lapels and took to calling each other “comrade” which must have scared the holy hell out of the rest of the citizenry.
But what is interesting is to focus solely on the issue of the 15 minute lunch breaks. During the strike, an Arbitration Court was held to try to settle the dispute. According to the official report, “The judge, Justice Sims, growled that he thought fifteen minutes was ample for a lunch break. [He then] glanced at the clock, noticed the time was 12:30 and stated that the court stood adjourned for lunch until 2pm.”
Why, you may be asking, is this issue from 1908 relevant today?
Because for one thing, in spite of the strike and decades of hearing about how important it is to empower employees and have a healthy workplace, it wasn’t until 2008 that NZ actually made it mandatory for employers to provide breaks and a half hour lunch break for employees. But in 2014 those requirements were removed. Employers no longer are required to provide breaks but are supposed to provide “reasonable compensatory measures.”
I’m pretty sure that the decisions about how much break and lunch time employees get are made by people who don’t have anyone watching how long they take for lunch. Not unlike the judge in the Blackball court, it’s easy to think that 15 minutes is plenty of time when you can take an hour and a half.
We met a few other visitors as we wandered around Blackball Museum and it was surprising how much conversation—and emotion—was generated by the issue of the strike and the treatment of the employees. At one extreme you had people who feel that organized labour has caused all economic and social problems and at the other extreme is the view that selfish, profit before anything, businesses are ruining the world.
Of course the answer is somewhere in between and the solution, I think, is for enlightened leaders and managers to just do what they think is right. When we got home we went to a seafood restaurant, Ika, in Auckland which is one of the first organisations to adopt a “living wage” for its employees. The living wage is calculated from cost of living data and is the hourly rate required to provide the “basic necessities” for a family of two adults and two children, with one adult working 40 hours and one 20 hours a week. The living wage in NZ is currently $19.25 an hour. The minimum wage is $14.75.
The increased earnings have enabled employees to pay off debt, get medical and dental care they had been deferring and actually start to save. The owner of the restaurant says that she thinks restaurants should make money because of the quality of their food and service, not because they don’t pay their employees.
PS—The food at Ika was fantastic!
On a recent trip to the South Island, we picked up a hitchhiker. He was a young guy from Germany who was taking a year off between high school and college and spending six months in NZ. His budget was such that he had to rely on hitching for transport and he was actively seeking out the lowest cost accommodation wherever he stayed.
Nevertheless, he informed us, he had spent a sizeable amount of his budget on extreme sports such as sky diving and bungy jumping. His strategy confused me. Why spend big bucks for an experience you measure in seconds when you are on such a tight budget?
His response to the question—and I know this because I asked—is that he’d always wanted to come to NZ and he never knew when he’d be back so he had to “live for the moment.”
In fact several extreme sport activities were being marketed as “Live for the moment,” and that seemed to be the mantra for the tourists. So I had to stop and think when I saw a poster in a shop that had a quote attributed to Mother Teresa which said “Be Happy in the Moment. That’s Enough. Each Moment Is All We Need, Not More.”
That got me thinking – when we live for the moment do we necessarily live in the moment?
I started to think that the universe was trying to tell me something when a few days later I decided to live for the moment and do a (mildly) extreme sport. Like the hitchhiker, I didn’t know if or when I’d be back this way so why not indulge in the experience.
It’s always highly amusing when I do touristy things like that because extreme sport attractions are operated by, and marketed to, an entirely different demographic from mine. The twentysomething Alpha males who operate those attractions always size me up with a look and tone of voice that say they’re not sure if I’m crazy, confused, or just hopelessly uncool. Or maybe the Undercover Boss so they better be nice to me.
As I was being strapped into the (alarmingly well worn) harness that would prevent me from tumbling hundreds of feet as I “flew” over a raging river, I was definitely not “in the moment,” because I was wondering why all those straps were necessary and what might happen if one of them failed. But as soon as the ground man told me “launch when ready,” I was totally “in the moment.” I savoured the sensations and the sights. I didn’t think of anything but how good I felt and how amazing the view and the sounds and the feelings were.
Because it was a composite of sensory experiences, it was impossible to describe the ride to other people when I landed. I didn’t even try. To do the stunt I’d just paid more than the price of a nice dinner in a good restaurant. Was it worth it? Yes! It was a fantastically unique and amazing experience and I was totally immersed in it.
I had another interesting experience a couple of days later while on a harbor nature cruise in which it was possible to see dolphins and seals and penguins. I was definitely not “in the moment” on that trip. You sail around and the captain tells you where you will see dolphins and seals and penguins. That is a signal to try to take as many pictures as you can as quickly as possible because catching a dolphin jumping out of the water is really hard, even if it is right next to you.
The cruise was very enjoyable and interesting. And we saw lots of dolphins and other marine life. But instead of being immersed in the actual experience of seeing birds and animals in their natural environment, I was immersed in taking photographs of the experience.
Would I have enjoyed the cruise more if I hadn’t been focusing so much on trying to get good pictures—and as you can see, largely failing?
I believe true enjoyment lies in experiencing and being in the moment, but there is also much enjoyment derived in the remembering the moment later.
Which then raises the question—what if I had been stricken with amnesia after the two experiences I described.
While doing the ‘superman’ ride, I had no camera on me and with no documentary proof of my thrilling sensory experience, was it money well spent if I can no longer remember the experience?
But since I have pictures of the dolphins to “remind” me of the fun cruise, would I be happier about having spent the money?
What do you think?