Monthly Archives: June 2012

Field Research on Male Menopause and Red Trucks

A few months ago, I had a slight increase in my quality of life. 

We bought a pickup truck for the farm.  A bright red pickup truck. 

It’s not new.  In fact it’s twenty years old.  But I’ve never owned a truck before and because of its age, it’s a real truck with none of this fancy push button computer stuff.  It’s got a manual transmission and a second gear shift for moving from two wheel to four wheel drive.  And there are two kinds of four wheel drive.  (I’m not sure exactly what the difference is, but I know it’s Good to have them.)

All of the neighboring farmers are impressed.  Now I know how a kid feels when he takes a new iPad to school.  They have all inspected it approvingly and said, “You can go anywhere in this thing.” 

Well.  Over the past few months I’ve been going everywhere.  Picking things up, throwing tools in the back, shifting gears, refueling in the field from a jerrycan, climbing hills and generally not acting my age. 

By itself, having the truck wouldn’t have been a problem, but then last week I reached a new height in innovative self-sufficiency which made me start to feel a little indestructible.  I fixed a year old electric fence problem that had been eluding the experts.  After extensive research and with a few well-placed hammer taps, plier twists and precision engineered jiggles, I transformed the fence into a five thousand volt cow’s worst nightmare.

Here I am, cantilevered into the cow zone to clear a minor fault while being admonished by my wife for being too lazy to turn off the juice.  But, let’s face it.  I’m an expert at these things!  I think the cows had gathered in the hope of seeing me getting a whack from the hot wire.

So I was feeling pretty good and was driving around the perimeter gratuitously testing the voltage to make sure there were no weak spots and, figuratively speaking, getting a charge out of my new found talents.

But then, and I’m not saying that testosterone was involved, everything caught up with me.

About a year ago when we were putting in the road, we had the guy make a side access road to the perimeter fence for maintenance purposes.  Because it would hardly ever be used we told him to leave it bare and not put gravel on it.  So it’s basically a dirt road.  I got up to that part of the fence and one part of my brain told me to park on the gravelled road and walk down to the fence to do my checking.

But then I remembered that I can go anywhere.  In a compromise between my pre-frontal and basal brains, I did back down the dirt road in order to make it easier to barrel out.

I knew I had done something monumentally foolish when I stepped out of the truck and did a ski-less slalom down a dirt road that the rain had turned into a sheet of greasy mud.

I don’t know about you, but when these things happen to me, my rational thought processes pretty much shut down.  I drew some comfort from the fact that the fence was buzzing away nicely.  But my main concern was getting the truck back up the hill.

I got in and did a few pre-flight checks and cleared myself for takeoff.  I almost made it.  I got to within five feet of the gravelled road before my forward momentum stopped and gravity and a few other of Newton’s laws started to take over.

By this time I was not driving a truck.  I was sitting on a hockey puck with a mind of its own.  And speaking of minds, mine, having shut down long ago, suddenly activated and told me that I wasn’t getting traction because I was on the mud and if I were to get on the grass I would be just fine.

There should be a word to describe your feeling when a plan that was supposed to save the day suddenly proves to make things infinitely worse.  My loss of control suddenly became three dimensional.  Because instead of just rolling back down the hill, I was sliding backwards and sideways down the side of a hill that was very large and at the bottom of which was the headwater of the main stream on the property.  I was pretty sure that sort of terrain was not included in the scope of “anywhere” when my neighbors told me I could go there.

Fortunately, as if purpose built for this eventuality, there was an old internal fence, probably put up years ago to prevent cows from going over the precipice.  I came to rest, a term which somehow doesn’t seem to capture the moment, against it and pondered my next move.

We had a group of volunteers doing some planting and I figured that they would be able to push me out. 

It didn’t work.

This picture completely fails to show what the conditions were like because you might think that the brown grass is dry.  But it’s not.  It’s dead grass covering ankle deep mud.  You can see a fence post to the left of the truck and get an idea of the terrain.

The next issue was the complete absence of Plan B.  Aside from the fact that we’re an hour from town, we’re also a long way from the real road.  I didn’t think the Automobile Association would give me a gratis tow.  And leaving the truck up there until things dry out in the summer didn’t seem like a good idea either.

The only logical solution was to find someone with an even more macho piece of equipment.  The question was who.

That evening I called one of the neighbors who we share the fence with to tell him that the fence was now electrified.  I didn’t expect him to be able to help, but when I told him about the truck issue he told me he’d bring up his tractor and, Bob would be my uncle!

The next day, we heard an ominous rumbling coming up the driveway and Andre appeared with his tractor.  It’s even more vintage than my truck.  I hopped on the back and away we went.

We got up to the site and Andre assessed the situation.  He said he thought we might be able to do it.

He followed in my earlier tracks and backed the tractor down to the truck.  We connected the vehicles with a long strap and took our positions.  I felt a few jolts as the strap tightened and then watched in amazement as the tractor’s wheels spun in the mud.  Well, at least the truck would have company all winter.

Andre, however, had a Plan B and we tried it again.  This time we got about halfway up and the strap broke.  It kicked up a stone that with astonishing accuracy took out one of the headlights on the truck.  Things were getting more interesting by the minute.

Fortunately, by that time Andre had gotten the front wheels of the tractor onto the gravel road and once we reconnected the strap, after only a few more heart stopping twists, turns, bumps and jolts, I was out on a firm surface.

Later that day we had another group of youthful volunteers up and one of them was helping me deliver some plants to the planting site.  I was squinting at the gravel road, focussed on keeping the truck exactly in the center.  With all the tact of a Millenial, the kid sitting next to me said, “You drive this thing like an old man.”

I looked at him and said, “You bet I do.”

Art For Art’s Sake?

A few years ago, the University of Auckland changed the name of its Department of Fine Arts to The National Institute for the Creative Arts and Industries.  The Institute includes things like music, art, dance and architecture.

I remember talking to some people at the time and being the only person who didn’t think that this was a Good Idea.  I was politely vilified for being old-fashioned, reactionary and out of step with reality.

My theory, then and now, is that although artists and creative types need to have some sort of financial support, they should not be organized around a profit motive, and the term “creative industries” sounds a little too entrepreneurial to me.

I welcome discussion on the topic, but I remain firmly convinced that “fine arts” are things like chamber music and Syd Barrett, while reality TV and Lady Gaga are Creative Industries.  Or maybe just industries in themselves.

But it turns out that there is an even darker side to the welding of fine art and industry, and that is the blurring of the line between industrial waste and art.

Consider two recent offerings from artists down under.

Back in May, a group of artists who call themselves “Greatest Hits” put together an exhibition called “De Facto Standard.” It was displayed at a Melbourne gallery whose “programming foregrounds engaged artistic practice which is challenging, experimental, exploratory, and diverse.”

It turns out that the exhibit is the air.  Well, actually, the scent in the air which will be “the uniquely appealing scent of a freshly unwrapped MacBook, iPad or Apple TV.”

Yes. You go into an art gallery and instead of looking at a painting or sculpture you smell the air. And you are transported because the smell reminds you of the time you took your last Apple product out of the box.

Yes, but is it art?

According to the article I read, the artists engaged the services of a company called Air Aroma “to scientifically recreate the smell of an Apple unboxing.” Unboxing!

It was a big challenge and French perfume chemists were enlisted to create “the smell of the plastic wrap covering the box, printed ink on the cardboard, the smell of paper and plastic components within the box and of course the aluminum laptop which has come straight from the factory where it was assembled in China.”

The way they did it was the artists shipped a previously unopened Apple Macbook Pro computer to the “fragrance lab.”  There it was “unboxed,” and the odor that emanated from the box was sniffed by the “professional perfume makers” and they drew on their experience to pull together the component scents and voila, Eau de Unboxed Apple was created.  The perfume makers didn’t get to keep the computer and the artists brag that it travelled 55,000 kilometers around the world as part of the project.

If, like me, you are a philistine and think that art is painting a picture or making a sculpture or writing a poem, you will be disinclined to include in the art category the act of sending a piece of equipment to a perfumer and having them replicate the smell.  It all just seems a little too, well, industrial.

According to my dictionary, “art” is defined as “the conscious use of skills and creative imagination in the production of aesthetic objects.”  And this seems to fail on every point.

But I have an even bigger objection.

Think about it.  Human effort (and fossil fuels to fly the thing 55,000 kilometers) are being expended to blow into the air the concatenated smell of a bunch of arguably carcinogenic chemical smells.  And why?  Because it is a smell that some people find particularly appealing.

And that is the key issue.  Who are “some people?” It’s impossible to tell for sure, but based on the number of Macbooks sold, less than 1% of the population of the world have one.  So this smell isn’t exactly as known and loved as something like freshly baked bread.

Not only that, doesn’t the whole idea of capturing the smell of a trophy purchase when you open the box seem a little bit materialistic?  I mean, why did you buy the computer?  Presumably to do something, ideally, productive.  Maybe even artistic.

But I must be wrong, because in the world of Creative Industries, Apple products appear to be as inspiring as the Last Supper was to Leonardo.

Not to be outdone, a NZ artist has, according to the article I read “stunned the New York art world with his series of photographs depicting ‘Deep Fried Gadgets’.”

Yes.  iPods, iPhones and laptops that really look like they have been deep fried and placed on plates in order to look as if they are being served for dinner have been photographed and the photos are on display. Yum yum.

I’m not saying that we have the term “Creative Industries” to blame, and I don’t want to appear snobbish, but I sort of wish that artists drew their inspiration from more human experiences than the latest Apple product. It’s one thing if an artist makes something interesting out of old car parts or junk.  That’s creative. Buying something and opening the box is just industry.  What do you think?

Another Banner Year!

It’s my favorite time of year.  The Social Security administration in the US has released its annual list of baby names and we get a glimpse into the psyche of people who are filling the world with the future generations.  And this year things are crazier than ever!

You would think that people would be more careful because a lot of research has gone into the impact of a kid’s name on his or her future development. For example, a while ago a researcher at Northwestern University warned parents there were certain combinations of letters that shouldn’t be used in baby names.

Apparently, high school dropouts choose certain combinations of letters in baby names that more educated people do not normally use.  And those letter combinations make teachers and potential employers treat the kids like second class citizens for the rest of their lives. Who knew?

Before you start thinking that there is something esoteric about this research, you should consider the example that was given in the article I saw.  It said that the combination of the letters “kz” is “almost never seen in middle class families.”  It then went on to explain that when “kz” appeared in names such as “Alekzandra” the child is doomed.

I don’t know about you, but if I saw the name “Alekzandra,” I would think that either (1) the person was from another country where they spell “Alexandra” like that, or (2) the parents wanted to make their child unique by spelling their name uniquely, or (3) the parents wanted to name their kid “Alexandra” but spelled it wrong (which may support the Northwestern research) or (4) the parents are gangstas (which may also support the Northwestern research).

Nevertheless, the professor tells us that teachers will have it in for kids with “linguistically low status names.” 

Maybe I’m not blessed with an ear for these things because other than “Bubba,” I really can’t think of a name that conjures up any sort of status image.  Sure, ‘Elizabeth’ sounds more sophisticated than ‘Dakota,’ but if the name tells us anything, it speaks to the mindset of the parents rather than the kid’s abilities.

And speaking of the mindsets of contemporary parents, let’s have a squiz at this year’s names and pretend you are a teacher or prospective employer.

First of all, the most popular names for boys in 2011 were Jacob and Mason. Mason?

Girls? Sophia and Isabella.

By the way, this information varies around the world. In England the most popular boys name last year was Oliver and for girls it was Lily.  In Australia it’s Ava and Lucas and in New Zealand, there are lots of little girls named Ruby and boys named Liam.

Not only does the popularity of names vary by country, but looking at trends shows that parents are rather fickle.  For example, In NZ, ‘Jack’ was the number one boy’s name every year from 2005 to 2009. In 2010 Liam knocked it out of first and now it is languishing in tenth place.

I have no idea what makes people decide that they want to call their infant ‘Mason’ in sufficient numbers to make it the most popular boy baby name.  But I’m pretty sure that the more unusual names are purely and simply the result of ever increasing efforts of parents to make their children unique. Just like everyone else. And it looks like some parents are willing to push the envelope in order to guarantee uniqueness.

In no particular order, here are some of the names people gave their kids last year.

Six baby girls were named Dearria. Seven were named Eh. Six boys were named Corleone and seven boys and five girls were named Moo.

If there is any truth in the Northwestern research that suggests a nexus between a person’s name and their career, one wonders whether there is a future in the porn industry for the thirteen boys named either Bronco or Cougar. Imagine if one of them turns out to be bookish and becomes a professor of linguistics or an actuary. How does ‘Professor Bronco von Smithers’ grab you?

Apparently you can make your kid unique if you spell a traditional name in a non-traditional way.  Consider Benjerman and Aunisty. (I had to say that one a few times before I got it).  There are also a number of variations on ‘Promise,’ as in Promiss, Promize, Promyse and Promyss.

Sometimes you just really have to ask yourself what people are thinking. For example, five baby girls were named Princessa. Other entries in the blue blood wannabe crowd include Kingdom, Kingsolomon, Princemichael, Princewilliam, Royalty, Sircharles and Supreme.

And then there are the people who try for a name like the celebrities would use.  Imagine someone with one of these names running for president:  Beautiful, Rejoice, Brilliant, Comfort, Courage, Famous, Marvellous, Mystery and Treasure. Five little girls were named Prosperity, so maybe they would have the edge in a race for the Oval Office!

But maybe that’s not as bad as Abeer, Chardonnay and Tequila.

I don’t know how babies officially get their names but if parents have to fill out a form, there ought to be two questions on the form that ask, (1) How would you feel if your parents gave you this name, and (2) How do you think the kid is going to feel about this name when they are thirty years old?