16 August, 2011

Fill in the blank: All for one and one for ___

So here's the thing.

As I commented in an earlier post, I was recently in Australia, pursuing a higher educational opportunity. And I had a great time - the course was great, challenging, enjoyable. And the other participants on the course were great, even if they were all Australian.

So one night, there was a dinner scheduled for all the participants. The food was great, the company even better, and as we left the dinner venue at 9.30pm, it seemed too soon for the night to end. But it was Monday night, and the town was dead. Nowhere was open, except for this one Irish bar just down the street a little bit. The place was more or less empty - you could count the number of patrons on your fingers - but they served drinks, they had a table that could accommodate all of us, and they had a messy-haired red-headed guy in denim overalls playing "Proud Mary" and "Mrs Robinson" on the guitar. The nine of us pulled a couple of tables together, and started enjoying the evening. Drinks were drunk, songs were sung along with, we all even got up at one point and danced. And it was fun; it seemed like nothing could harm the joyful mood of that night. We were so young, so innocent, so naive. So wrong.

By this point, the night was getting on. The music had finished, the place had even fewer people around than before. And then this guy walks up to the table and starts talking to me in an American accent. "I'd like to buy you a drink because it's the 4th of July." I look at the middle-aged guy, who is wearing what looks like a naval military uniform. And he's unbelievably sweaty; you almost felt sick looking at the guy. "No thanks," I said. I was happy with my orange juice, and was certainly not interested in any drinks bought by this strange man. He then addresses the entire table. "I'd like to buy you all a drink to celebrate the 4th of July, my country's Independence Day, and it's also my independence day because after 25 years I am retiring from the navy." People looked at him, said "No thanks," and hoped he'd leave, because he seemed weird. But he didn't leave; instead, he stayed, repeated the offer, at one point even commenting "I don't know what's so difficult to understand about this. I want to buy you all a round of drinks." Eventually a few people agreed, mostly I suspect because the guy clearly wasn't going to accept any kind of "No" answer. We did send someone down to help him with the drinks/make-sure-he-doesn't-do-anything-to-them, just to be safe. So the guy comes back with a round of tequila shots for us all. I tried to insist, "No thank you, I said I'm happy with my orange juice, I said I didn't want you to buy me a drink, so I think I'll..."

And as I was speaking, I happened to glance at the guy and realised something with a shock. The guy had a sword. A real, solid, metal sword. Was it sharp? Who knows. I certainly wasn't inspecting the blade terribly closely to determine. All I knew was that this strange man had decided to come to a bar carrying a sword. This is unusual behaviour, and who knows what else a person who does that might do. It was at this point that I also developed a new rule: Never decline a tequila shot from a guy with a sword. I took it, downed it with everyone - ohmyGOSHitwasawful - thanked the guy very much, and hoped he would leave.

But he did not. He stayed around, talking to us for a few more minutes, asked us about the course that we were on, and demonstrated that he was surprisingly knowledgeable on the core subject matter. Whatever the guy's story was, he was certainly well-informed to a degree that few people would be. And he talked about his career in the navy - although we're not sure how true any of it was, because at one point he claimed to be an admiral, while another point he said he was a former spy (because if there's one thing spies are known for, it's revealing that they're spies).

But eventually he decided to leave. He saluted us, one of us saluted him back, and he left. According to one of the bar staff, he was heard to say, as he left, "I'm sick of having to entertain these communist fuckwits." Which seemed like an unusual response - I don't think anyone said anything indicating any communist tendencies (if anything he was the one taking his wealth and redistributing it to the masses, if only in the form of tequila shots), and I certainly would regard myself as being some distance from the communist end of the political sphere. So frankly, that comment offended me. Plus there was the whole calling-us-fuckwits thing, which probably wasn't a positive comment either. Still, he was gone now, and we could get back to enjoying our evening. After all, it's not like he's going to come back or anything.

Fifteen minutes pass, and all of a sudden he's by our table again. And he still has his sword. Now, can I just point out, this means the bouncers let a guy carrying sword into a bar, not once, but TWICE. That does not seem like an appropriate approach to security in a place where there is a reasonable risk that the patrons may become intoxicated. In any case, he's standing by me, still sweaty and creepy, addressing the whole group, proposing that we play a game of Twenty Questions. A couple of people agreed (I'm not sure why - curious where this was going, perhaps?), and the game started. It quickly became clear that this was not the game of Twenty Questions as you know it. This was, in fact, merely some bizarre pub quiz, where the guy would just throw out question after question. "What are the colours on the Torres Strait Island flag?" "What year was the American constitution signed?" "What is the full name of the ANZUS pact? (And a supplementary question: would America really come to Australia's aid if it were attacked? Of course they would! Why do you think I'm here?)" There were some people in the group (mostly the people on the other side of the table) that were playing along with the game. There were some people (mostly those down the far end of the table) that decided to just ignore this and carry on their own conversations. And then there was me, sitting right by the guy with the sword, desperately wanting him to please just go away. I took to having my recently-refilled glass of orange juice up to my lips the whole time but sipping it very slowly, just so that my arm would be raised to protect my throat should he swing the sword at me. Then the guy turns to me, asks me a question about Australian history. "I don't know," I say defensively. "I'm from New Zealand." "Oh," he says. "Then I've got a question for you." He then fires a question about the Treaty of Waitangi at me. I cannot remember what the question was now, but at the time my mind managed to dredge up an answer that satisfied the guy, because he announced to everyone "This guy is good, he knows his stuff, and you should all have him as a role-model." I was just relieved, since hopefully his approval meant that he wouldn't be tempted to swing his sword at me. Still, there's no way I'm lowering my drink.

But as the game carried, the guy started to get more and more aggravated. There were the people who were playing the game, but who challenged his questions. They felt the questions were unclear or imprecise, capable of several answers, but when they'd try to clarify a point, the guy would tense up. "The question was perfectly clear; it doesn't need clarification; what's your answer?" he would bark. Whenever someone challenged him, you could see how tense he was getting, if only because he started banging the sword into the ground - which was horrible, because the sword was uncomfortably close to my foot. Of even more concern to the guy was the group of people at the other end of the table - the people who were ignoring him and trying to carry on their own conversations. "I'm really sorry, I'd love to hear your answers to the question, but I can't hear you because SOME people at the table are being RUDE and are TALKING loudly." This prompted one person to confront the guy. "Who do you think you are? We didn't ask you to come and talk to us, but here you are, making demands, controlling how we enjoy our evening." By the end of her speech she was standing up and yelling at the guy, and all the while I'm sitting thinking "Please, can we not antagonise the guy with the sword?"

But it seemed to work. He clearly decided he'd had enough and left us, wandering over to talk to the woman at the bar, who at this point was pretty much the only other person in the place. There was understandably some concern about her safety - someone even went up to her and checked she knew what she was doing; she said she was fine - but when we last saw the two of them, they were walking up the street together, and she had the sword. (And there were no stories in the news the next day about anyone being slashed to death with a sword, so I assume she was fine.)

Meanwhile it was midnight at this point, so I excused myself, and returned to my hotel room - it was late, I was tired, and I needed to send a few work emails before going to bed. Another guy left - he'd apparently met a girl who invited him to a party. The rest of the group didn't want the night to end, so they all walked off to the nearby casino. I am told, however, that they never made it inside the casino, because they discovered that one of the group had had her wallet stolen while at the bar. It wasn't until the next day's class that we met up with the guy who had left for the other party, and heard that (a) there was no party, and all the bars they went to were closed, (b) the girl was insane, and (c) she kept going on about identity theft for some reason. So now we were pretty certain she is the wallet thief - unfortunately, we had no idea who she was, so I don't think it was possible to follow that up.

Arriving at class the next day, I told the story to the lecturer, who initially asked if this was some kind of joke, and who I think only believed it actually happened when the third group of people came in talking about the guy with the sword. When he heard that this all happened at this particular bar, his response was simply "That sounds right. If I'd known you were going there, I'd have advised against it. It's a bad place."

We know.

20 July, 2011

Better late than never

So here's the thing.

This is actually a post I wrote over a year ago, back in May 2010, but for some reason never actually finished. I came across it recently, and was surprised to find it was almost completed - it literally just required the final paragraph to be added - so I'm not sure why I never got around to adding that final touch. So I've added a final paragraph, and have made a couple of minor editorial changes, but otherwise this is the post as I wrote it at the time, while the incident was still fresh in my mind. Enjoy.


So here's the thing.

I think a lot of us go through life with these self-illusions, or perhaps delusions is the proper word, about how we would respond to particular situations. We imagine ourselves responding to urgent situations with a blinding deftness and a quickness to resolve whatever problems arise. We really are the heroes of our imaginations. So, for instance, every now and then (being the paranoid person that I am) I find myself wandering through the house at 1am, checking all the doors and the windows in the house because for some reason I have a horrible feeling that tonight someone will break in. And on those occasions, I start to wonder what I would do if some intruder did break into my house, and in my mind, the answer is always the same. I have a cricket bat that a former flatmate gave me as a Christmas present, and it happens to sit by my bedroom door. (It's not there because of this whole imagined situation; that's just the most convenient place to keep it.) So, if someone were to break in, I would have a weapon easily to hand. I would sneak out, surprise the intruder, a couple of quick blows to the head, knock the guy to the ground, then if he happens to have a gun I would take that gun and shoot him in the kneecap (just to incapacitate him), and there we are. Problem solved. The problem is, that's a scenario that comes from watching too many action films, one where I'm basically imagining myself as a marginally more humane John McClane, and I'm not sure I look that good in a singlet.

So it's Sunday morning, and I'm going to church, because that's what I do on Sunday morning. Now, as I've said before, I'm not usually that good at being on time to anything really, but this week I was doing pretty well, in that I was only twenty minutes late for the service. (As a general rule, I feel I'm doing well if I'm less than half-an-hour late for most things.) So I walk into the church, which was pretty much full, very few empty seats, and those few that were empty were generally in the middle of a row. But there was this one empty seat at the end of a row, sitting next to this girl. I walk up, quick "Hello is this seat saved no may I thanks," and now I have a seat.

So the sermon starts, and this week it's all about Deborah and Jael, which is a pretty interesting story. (If you're not familiar with it, you can read it here.) Basically, the story reaches its culmination with one of the characters, a woman called Jael, offering to hide the bad guy, Sisera, in her tent while she stands guard outside. Then, while Sisera sleeps, Jael takes a big heavy wooden tent peg and a hammer, holds the tent peg above his head, and then hammers the peg through his brains. (Incidentally, there are some really interesting stories in the Bible. Also, when I read the Bible these days I'm really shocked at how young I was when I got my first proper non-kids Bible.)

So the sermon is going on, and the person preaching was reading the passage about this death, when I saw some commotion about five rows in front of me. Basically, this guy collapsed in his seat, and the people around rushed to help him. Now, I'm not proud of the fact that my first response to this event was mild amusement at the thought of this person having fainted at the graphic description of the death of Sisera. But my amusement was very quickly tempered by the realisation that this was serious. There was a circle of people surrounding the guy, shielding him from view, which is appropriate - there's something unpleasant about the idea of people sitting and watching like spectators while someone is in serious medical trouble. But despite the circle of people, I could see the guy's hand, which was as close to white as I have ever seen a person's skin. Seeing that really made me anxious for this person, and I pretty much spent the next ten minutes just sitting in my chair, more or less ignoring the rest of the sermon and just quietly praying for him, because what else am I going to do. I figured the guy is probably more or less okay, since the person preaching noted the commotion, and was given a "carry on preaching" signal. (I don't know what they would do if he had died, but it certainly wouldn't be to continue with the sermon.) After about ten minutes, the guy sat up, was helped to his feet, and then walked supported out of the auditorium. So that was a relief. I don't know what happened to him after he left, but when he left he seemed weakened but okay. In any case, the excitement of the service seemed over.

So a little time passes - it's maybe five or ten minutes later, everything seemed normal, when the girl in the seat next to me collapses onto my shoulder. Surprised, I turn to look at her. Her head was rolled back, her eyes vacantly staring, her mouth open. She was shaking, but I don't know whether I remember noticing that or whether it's something that I only think I remember because her friend mentioned it later. All I knew was that she was having a seizure ........... help. What the hell do you do with a seizure? I remember learning what to do back when I did a first aid thing at intermediate school, but that was twenty years ago. I can't remember what time my church starts, how am I supposed to remember something I learned one time when I was 12 years old? And for some reason, it never occurs to me to try and put the girl on the ground, even though that's what I watched everyone do not twenty minutes ago. Instead, for no readily apparent reason I tried to push her back into a sitting position. Meanwhile I turned and waved frantically at a nearby usher, "Get someone!" It's at this moment that events start to blur, and I have no memory of anything that happened. All I can remember is how completely pathetic and ineffectual my response was under pressure. I think I just sat there, holding her upright, thinking "What the hell do I do now?" I remember her friend calling the girl's name at her, trying to get a reaction, but even though I heard her name a good ten or twelve times, two minutes later I had no idea what her name was, and I still don't remember. At some point, I got out of my seat, but I don't know why, and I certainly cannot work out why I thought it was a good idea for me to kneel on the ground beside my seat. (Seriously, the girl is sitting in her seat; what good is kneeling on the floor going to be?) Fortunately within a minute, the paramedic arrived - he was still outside responding to the previous guy who collapsed. And by this time, the girl was starting to recover, which was a relief.

So they went outside, I stayed inside the church, because I'm not going to follow them, because she doesn't want some stranger hanging around. Anyway, she seemed fine now, which I was relieved about, and she had someone there who actually knew what they were doing, as opposed to my ineffectual waffling about. But then the paramedic wanted to talk to me, wanted some more information about what had happened, which really made me feel awkward because I couldn't answer his questions because I had no idea what happened. I remembered the initial shock I had on seeing her, and that was literally all I could recall. And then, having been completely useless at answering any questions, I was unsure what to do. I couldn't go back into the service, since it was just finishing, but it seemed callous and uncaring to just leave. So she was sitting there, talking to her friend, slowly recovering. Meanwhile I stood a distance away, just mulling around in the post-service crowd, anxiously watching her but trying not to be creepy about it (I mean I'm legitimately involved, but still), I'm worried about her, is she going to be okay, I think so, she looks fine now, all at the same time feeling incredibly guilty over my completely ineffectual response. After a couple of minutes she gets up and leaves in the ambulance, along (I assume) with the first guy that collapsed. In any case, I was glad when she left, since I no longer needed to worry about how one behaves around someone who collapsed onto you and who you were utterly useless in helping.

In any case, I now know what to do when someone has a seizure. You roll them onto their side, cushion their head, and keep their airway open. So now the action man that I am is prepared for two eventualities: house burglars or people having seizures. Now I just need to try to keep the two procedures clear in my mind. (Key thing to remember: if someone is having a seizure, do not hit them on the head with a cricket bat.)

14 July, 2011

Attack of Suspense, Laughter, Violence, Hope, Heart, Nudity, Sex, Happy Endings... Mainly Happy Endings

So here's the thing.

If you had driven past the Michael Fowler Centre carpark at 6 in the morning on 6 July 2011, you would have seen ... well, I do not know what you would have seen, because for the first time in five years I did not queue for film festival tickets. At the time, tickets went on sale, I was in Australia on an educational course. So I had to make my ticket purchases by fax (did you realise that faxing was still a thing?). As a result, by the time they managed to process my fax, some six hours after tickets went on sale, my seats were nowhere near as as good as those I would have had had I been able to queue. (Sigh.) Plus I have different seats for every film - I much prefer it when I have the one seat that I can occupy throughout the festival. (Sigh.) (I have a hard life.)

In any case, the fax went through, and I managed to secure tickets to the following films:

* The Tree of Life
* Cave of Forgotten Dreams
* Page One: Inside the New York Times
* The Man from Nowhere
* Arrietty
* 13 Assassins
* Tabloid
* Meek's Cutoff
* Let the Bullets Fly
* Taxi Driver
* Footnote
* Submarine
* Fire in Babylon
* Martha Marcy May Marlene
* Project Nim
* Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
* Metropolis
* Le quattro volte
* The Yellow Sea
* Nothing to Declare
* Senna
* Another Earth
* The Forgiveness of Blood
* Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
* Goodbye
* The Guard
* Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure
* Point Blank
* Pina
* Drive

I'm also planning to try to take a half-day off work to catch a daytime screening of A Separation, since all the night screenings clashed with other films I'm seeing.

Yes, that is 31 films. That is far and away the most films I've ever seen at the festival. And there are still more films I'm still debating adding to the list. (Part of me actually wants to hit 34 films since, with a 17 day festival, that's an average of two films a day.) [EDIT: Indeed, I did add another three films - Hot Coffee, Anton Chekhov's The Duel, and Sleeping Beauty - to bring my total to 34.] But it's a really good festival this year - I had almost 20 films that I recognised and wanted to see even before I started reading the film write-ups, and my initial long list of films was over 50.

Last year, one of my disappointments was that they weren't showing the restored and nearly complete silent-classic Metropolis. But this year, they are. Yay! Sure, I've seen it by now, and even own it on Blu-Ray, but I cannot wait to see it on the big screen with an audience. It will also obviously be exciting to have a chance to see the restored Taxi Driver - arguably Scorsese's greatest film, with Bernard Herrmann's beautiful final score - on the big screen. (They're also showing La Dolce Vita, which I saw once and didn't like. I was going to give it a second shot (since it's La Dolce Vita), but the only screening clashed with something I really did want to see, so I abandoned that idea.)

In past years, the cinemas used for the festival haven't been equipped for 3D films, and so we've frustratingly missed out on the 3D films that screened in Auckland. I'm particularly glad this situation has been rectified this year, since Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina are two documentaries ideal for 3D. Cave presents the earliest known cave paintings, using the 3D to capture the contours that the cave artists made use of, while the idea of using 3D to capture dance choreography in Pina is also promising.

Like most people my age, I grew up watching the Muppets, and they hold a very real place of affection for me (I've been known to cry watching this video from Jim Henson's memorial). As someone who grew up in a pre-Elmo era, I do not like the little red monster - I feel the character is just too childish, and he occupies too similar a space to Grover, who was always one of my favourites. But I like what I've seen of Kevin Clash, Elmo's Muppeteer, and I like that he seems to really use his high-profile position as Elmo to publicly promote his artform. So I am looking forward to seeing the Being Elmo documentary, if only because there is sure to be behind-the-scenes footage of people working with the Muppets. And that will be cool.

One of the very first episodes of This American Life covered a story about a couple of guys who, back in the 80s, recorded the audio of his neighbours loudly and abusively arguing, and how these recordings became a viral sensation long before YouTube. I've listened to hundreds of episodes of TAL since then, but apparently that story stayed with me, because as soon as I saw a film listed called Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, I recognised the titular phrase, remembered the story, and knew I had to see the film.

There are some really exciting documentaries in the festival - films like Page One, following a year in the life of the New York Times, or the new Errol Morris film Tabloid, or the film about the rise of the West Indies as a cricketing nation (Fire in Babylon). And while I'm really not a car racing person, I've heard a lot of self-proclaimed not-car-racing-people give really positive reviews for the Senna documentary, so I think that should be good.

There's no way I would ever have been interested in Le Quattro Volte (which, as primarily a meditation on life involving goat farming, sounds almost like a parody of the worst type of art film) were it not for the memorably passionate review that Mark Kermode gave the film, where he almost seemed moved to tears just by recalling the beauty of some of the scenes in the film. On the other hand, I definitely would have seen Terrance Malick's new meditation, entitled The Tree of Life - it is after all the new Terrance Malick film - but the mixed reviews that came out of Cannes and its general release have me concerned, because I want it to be really good. Still, I'll see it and hope for the best.

Then there's the films I'm seeing solely because of the filmmaker. Meek's Cutoff wouldn't ordinarily appeal - a wagon trail western told from the point of view of the women - but I loved Kelly Reichardt's previous film, Wendy and Lucy (a heartbreaking film about a young woman trying to find her dog - absolutely devastating). Similarly, I'd never even heard of The Yellow Sea, but knowing it's from the same guy who made the cop-turned-pimp-hunts-slacker-serial-killer film The Chaser that I really enjoyed made it a must-see. And Project Nim - a documentary about a chimpanzee being taught to communicate - would probably be interesting anyway, but the fact that it was from the director of Man on Wire pushed me over the edge.

And then there are all the films I've heard about, either during Cannes or Sundance, or just during their general release overseas. I'm looking forward to finally seeing Submarine (a very well reviewed coming-of-age comedy), Martha Marcy May Marlene (about a girl who escapes a cult), Another Earth (in which a second planet Earth appears in the sky), and 13 Assassins (apparently a very good samurai film, and the first Takashi Miike film I've ever wanted to see).

And then there's just the films I've not heard of, but think sound interesting. The Forgiveness of Blood, about a modern-day youth trapped inside his house due to 15-century honour codes and blood feuds? Sounds good. Footnote, an Israeli comedy about duelling father-son Talmudic professors? I've never seen that before. Nothing to Declare, a comedy about French/Belgian tensions between two border guards? Could be fun. And I'm definitely interested in a French fast-paced pulp action thriller like Point Blank, or a 1920s-era Hong Kong action film like Let the Bullets Fly.

My main disappointment this year: I was really hoping they would be screening We Need To Talk About Kevin. I recently read the source novel, about a woman trying to work through the events that led her son to commit a Columbine-style massacre and considering her own responsibility in creating this monster, and while I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, I thought it was very good and was glad I read it. The film version was one of the best-reviewed films at Cannes, and so much of the novel depended on the nature of the way the story was being told that I'm really curious to see how they could make it work as a successful movie. But I guess I'll just have to wait and hope for a general release.

So hopefully this will be a good festival. It will be long and tiring, and I expect to be absolutely exhausted by the end of it, but regardless, I am very excited. We're just over two weeks away from opening night, and I'm counting down the days.

24 May, 2011

4 8 15 16 23 42

So here's the thing.

I'm in Sydney at the moment, on a trip with a group of people. My brother lives over here, so I stayed with him and his family for the weekend, then last night joined the rest of the party at our hotel.

Today was the first day of the trip proper, and it was really good. We had a very busy day, going from place to place. But the very last event of the day was cancelled, so we had a few hours to kill. At this point it was late afternoon, about 4.30pm, and since there was still about an hour to go before the shops closed, some in the party wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to go shopping. As we stopped to let those people off at some large shopping mall, I made a sudden and impulsive decision to jump out and also look around the shops, just to see if I could find anything interesting.

I wish I never had.

Here's the problem: I hadn't expected to go shopping, so I wasn't prepared for shopping. Sure, I had my wallet, but I didn't have the other thing just as important to the shopping experience as my wallet - my iPod. You see, I find shopping deathly dull, so I can only do it while listening to something that gives my mind something else to focus on. Without my iPod, I realised I'm not going to cope. Plus, I'm really only interested in a limited number of shops - ones that sell DVDs or books. And with the exchange rate being as it is, I doubted I could find anything that was actually a significantly cheaper than I could get in New Zealand. But I was lucky, and did find a DVD boxset for about $NZ25 less than back home. That said, I would gladly pay that $25 to avoid what happened next.

About 5pm, I decided I'd had enough of the tedium of shopping, and started walking toward the hotel. I walked some three blocks before I saw the Town Hall train station. Knowing that my hotel was close to the Circular Quay station, which is a couple of stops after the Town Hall station, and that it was supposed to only be a short walk from the shopping mall to the hotel, I started to wonder if I was going in the right direction. After all, it hadn't occurred to me to check what direction the hotel actually was. Figuring Circular Quay was a better-known landmark than my hotel, I asked at a newsagent, who said Circular Quay was indeed in the direction I'd just come from. I had been going the wrong way.

So I walked back for a while, when I started to think. Circular Quay was by the water, for obvious reasons, so where's the water? I look up the side-streets, but every street around me slopes rather sharply up, not down to water level. It was like I'm in a valley, not a place with a harbour two blocks away. So I try walking up one of the side streets to work out which side Circular Quay is on. I reach the top of the hill, and look down to a big sign saying "Darling Harbour." Then I start to worry. I don't really have a mental image of what the city of Sydney looks like, but I do know that Darling Harbour and Circular Quay are two entirely different places. So just how far away from where I want to be am I? Which means now I have NO idea where my hotel is.

So I did what any rational mature adult would do. I panicked. I had difficulty breathing, I felt faint, a wave of stress hit me, I started to imagine myself wandering aimlessly around Sydney for the rest of my life. Then I had a thought. I have family that live in this city. They'll know where I need to go. So I call my sister-in-law, but she didn't know where to go, and even if she did, I couldn't have heard her over the traffic noise. I was going to call my brother, who had apparently finished work, when I saw a couple of bus drivers standing around a bus. They'll know where it is, I thought, so I went up and asked "Which way to Circular Quay?" One of the drivers points me to the direction I'd originally started going. So I set off, now knowing that I'd been right all along.

It's at this point that my brother texts me asking "You lost or something?" I give him a call, but again cannot hear him because of the traffic noise. Still I manage to communicate to him where I am. Meanwhile, for some reason I'm starting to have my doubts again about exactly which direction I should be going in. So I decide to ask some people standing waiting to cross at the lights. This very nice girl said to me, "Circular Quay is too far to walk, but you can catch a bus. If you follow me, I'll show you where the bus stop is." We cross the road, walk for a couple of minutes, and then she points me to a long line of buses, telling me which bus to catch. I thank her, walk along to the front of the bus stop... and my heart sinks. Across the road is the shopping mall where I began this whole saga. Half an hour of walking, and I'm back where I started.

Then I have a thought. It's 5.30pm, the shops are closing, if I'm lucky perhaps some of the other members of my party might have only just finished their own shopping. In which case, I can follow them back to the hotel. I start to call one of them when a text from my brother arrives on my phone. It's directions, based on where I had been when we talked. "Walk up two blocks until you find George St. Turn left, walk 1½km until you find your hotel." I look at nearby signs. Hey, I'm on George St. And I did turn left to get to the bus stop. Now that I know where to go, I set off, walking, and walking, and walking, until I find... a hotel I'm not staying at. But it's a hotel I know is near mine, because last night I accidentally briefly logged onto their wireless internet rather than my hotel's wireless. So that must be my hotel behind that other one. And indeed it was. So, some fifty minutes after setting off, I finally was able to collapse in my room. (And for the record, yes, I had initially been going in the wrong direction. If I hadn't noticed the Town Hall train station, I might very well still be walking right now.)

Moral of the story: never leave your room without your iPod. The whole experience would have been a lot more bearable if I only had something to listen to.

Alternative moral of this story, as suggested on Facebook by my friend Kim: "Don't go travelling with Matthew - he starts panicking when lost in an English-speaking urban area, complete with shopping malls, hotels, easily-accessible public transport, mobile coverage and local contacts..."

Well, sure, I guess that's one lesson you could take out of the story if you really wanted to.

05 March, 2011

Goodbye Aunty

So here's the thing.

When I was a kid, I wasn't exactly sociable. So, when I was about 14, my parents applied their parental pressure to force me to go to the church youth group. I didn't want to go - it was on Saturday nights, and I had things to do on Saturday nights (mostly TV watching). But they forced me to choose between a couple of choices, and the youth group seemed the best of my options. So, rather unwillingly, I started going. In hindsight, it was one of the best things that happened to me. I met a lot of great people; my best friends, people I will be close to for the rest of my life, come from that group. And over the next 3½ years, we grew to be such a strong group. And I met Daphne.

Daphne was the woman who ran the group, along with her husband. She would have been in her late-40s at the time, and she was wonderful. The family didn't have a lot, but what they had was always freely given. For all of us, she was less of a youth group leader, and more like a second mother. Many was the time when I would just go around to her place after school, unannounced, just because I felt like it, and I'd walk in to find a few other members of the group already there, having also decided to go around for a visit. And we'd just stay there for hours. If our parents were trying to find us, Daphne's was always the first place they would go to look. I'd even heard stories about how people would take the new person they're dating around to meet Daphne for her approval. Daphne was someone we all loved, so, so much, and she was one of the defining influences for all of us during our teenage years.

As I'm writing this, there's one moment that really comes to mind - something I haven't thought about in years. I was at church one night, and I had a thought come to mind; "Give Daphne some money." I won't say how much, but it was a specific amount of money, one that was very daunting as a high school student working just a few hours a week to have to give away. But I knew I needed to do it. So the next day I went to the cash machine and got the money out, then went to their place. Her husband was there, and said she wouldn't be available for quite a while. I said I'd wait. About 45 minutes later, Daphne emerged from her bedroom, looking grave, then surprised to see me. We went out, sat on the steps outside the house, and I handed her the envelope, saying that I felt I needed to give this to her. She looked in the envelope, was startled, and refused to take it. I pressed her, said that I was really certain that I had to give it. "Why?" she asked. "I don't know," I replied. Then she remembered a particular expense that had just come up, and the money was just enough to cover that. And then she started to talk in vague terms about another situation that she was going through. I don't know what the situation was - she never provided details and I didn't want them since it wasn't my business. But I know it was serious. She'd just spent the last hour in her bedroom praying for a resolution to that particular situation, and as she prayed she really felt that God was saying that He was in control and would provide a solution. And then she walked out of her bedroom, to find me with a gift that would help with a different problem. It didn't solve her big concern, but she told me how it restored her confidence that everything would be okay, whatever the situation. And her face at that moment, this mix of burden and relief, of discouragement and faith restored, was just wonderful. For all the encouragement, for all the support that she'd given me, it was a blessing to be able to encourage and support her when she needed it.

Long after she stopped actually working with the youth, she remained a central part of the church. Having a conversation with her after the service bordered on impossible. There were always people - her friends, people who were once part of her youth group, or as years passed even the children of those former youth group members - coming up for a hug or a talk. And she was inspirational - a number of the people who went to that group are now themselves involved in the youth ministry, either in after-hours work or in one case as his full-time occupation. And I know that they will all cite Daphne as a role model, and point to that group that we had as being the perfect example of what they want to see develop among their youth.

Sadly I lost a lot of that connection with Daphne when I left home. When I came home on holiday, I'd see her at church, and I'd say Hello, and she'd hug me, and I'd get embarrassed. I'd say "Certainly I'll come around to visit," and then often wouldn't, because I didn't get around to it, or I had other things on, or sometimes I'd just forget, or whatever excuse I had. But it didn't matter, because I knew that I'd be able to catch up with her next time. And that's how years would pass without my ever revisiting that house, years in which our relationship was made up solely of brief interrupted conversations after a church service.

About 18 months ago, I was back in my home town for a week, and was sitting next to Daphne during the Sunday morning service. During the sermon, Daphne just keeled forward and stayed there, her head resting on the back of the seat in front. She wasn't moving, just still. I was shocked, thinking "my gosh, is she dead?" But her husband didn't seem surprised or bothered by it - he just sat there, rubbed her back, and after a few minutes when she recovered, he got her a glass of water - so I figured whatever was happening, it must have happened before. But it was still significant enough that, during the following week, she went in for tests. When I saw her the following Sunday, she had the results: she had cancer, and it was serious.

There's nothing like the prospect of losing someone to realise just how much you actually care about them. Now, every time I went back home, I always made a point of visiting and spending time with Daphne. We'd catch up, she'd reflect on her life, tell me stories, and offer suggestions about how I should be living my life. It was wonderful to spend time with her, to see the way her face would light up with excitement whenever I'd appear and say Hello. But always there was that moment when I'd have to ask how things were going, and a cloud would come over. She'd talk about the treatments she was going through, and she'd ask that I remember her and her family in my prayers. She was always optimistic, never lost her faith, always believed that she would be healed. But she also knew that, even if she never recovered, she'd lived a good life, would be going to a better place, and her influence would live on after her in those of us that she worked with.

I was back home for a few weeks over Christmas, but just after I arrived, I became horribly sick. Even after I recovered enough to leave the house, I stayed away from Daphne. I was still sick, and figured it's not wise to go spreading bugs to someone who is already unwell. So, other than a quick "Hello, Sorry I Couldn't See You, Goodbye" at church on the day I left, I never saw her. And I was disappointed by that, but no matter. I'll see her at Easter.

And then I got a phone call this morning from a good friend of mine, someone who was also in the youth group. If the out-of-the-blue early morning phone call wasn't enough of a clue that something was wrong, you could hear the sadness in his voice as he greeted me. "My gosh," I thought, "what's happened?" And then he said it. "Aunty Daphne died earlier today."

Daphne - I love you. I miss you. I thank you so much for everything you ever did for me, for always being someone to talk to, for just being there. Thank you for your encouragement, for your constant joy. I hope you knew how much you really did mean to all of us. You've gone too soon, but I'll see you again, and I look forward to that day. Until then, I'll always remember you.
To her family - I know how hard things must be for you all. Just know that my prayers, and those of the many many people who knew and loved her, are with you right now.
And to all those who knew her - You'll agree with me that it has been the richest blessing to have her in our lives.

Goodbye Aunty.

28 February, 2011

8648 minutes

So here's the thing,

I first became aware of "the Facebook movie" when it was announced that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin had joined Facebook as part of research for the film. Most people reacted to this news with bemusement at the idea of a Facebook movie, but not me: Sorkin is a genuinely talented writer (at least when he's not using his writing to settle personal scores), and if he thought that the creation of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg was a story that's worth telling, there must be something there. I was more curious about the idea of Sorkin having a Facebook page - Sorkin rather famously went onto the internet and engaged with fans once before (it didn't end well), and even Sorkin's announcement about his Facebook account (which stated that Sorkin's long-dead grandmother has more internet savvy than he does) implies that the common suggestion that "Sorkin hates the internet" may not be that far from the truth. All this had me waiting for Sorkin's entry into the world of Facebook to explode.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) there were no notable disasters coming out of Sorkin's Facebook account, and when David Fincher became attached to the project as director, my interest really shot up. Fincher is one of the most vital filmmakers working today: Se7en and Fight Club are two of the highpoints for filmmaking in the 90s, and the phenomenal Zodiac marked a maturation in the director's style, as he became less focused on show-off stylisations and more focused on simple storytelling and characterisation. My excitement rose even further as we started to see glimpses of the film - especially the film's main trailer, which frankly moved from mere promotional material to standing as a compelling work of art in its own right. (There were a number of times when I would watch and rewatch that trailer five or six times in a row, in awe of how just perfectly constructed it is.)

And then I saw the film.

(Comments on The Social Network, along with this year's other nine Best Picture Oscar nominees - The King's Speech, Black Swan, True Grit, The Fighter, Inception, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, The Kids Are All Right, and Winter's Bone - follow after the jump.)