Tuesday, February 23, 2010

reading newspapers

God has been speaking to me recently about my capacity to think critically. It tends to gush a bit too much. It overflows into areas of life and relationships where it need not be - and really should not be. Come, Holy Spirit, and help me be more careful...and please be patient with me while I grow.

However in one area of life this critical mind will continue to flow full and free: my engagement with the media. Reading the newspaper on these two most recent Saturdays alerted me to this again.

On one Saturday I am in a country in Asia. I open my newspaper and it reads like a memorandum from the marketing department of the newly elected president. He has just won what most people believe was a rigged election. He has the opportunity to be a Mandela-like conciliator in a deeply divided country. What does he do? On the night before I arrive he arrests the opposition leader for a whole series of trumped-up charges ... and then spends the rest of the week trying to sell the idea to the public through the newspaper.

Speaking of selling, on the following Saturday I am back home in New Zealand and open the Weekend Herald, trumpeting itself as the "Newspaper of the Year". I am confronted with page after page of advertising, dwarfing little pockets of news. It isn't so much the space stolen from news stories by commerical interests that bothers me. It is what this kind of newspaper does to unthinking readers. A column on a tragedy in Haiti ... and then a full page on the latest winter package deal to Fiji or the Gold Coast? A paragraph on a food crisis in Tanzania ... and then a full page on the latest massive sales at the Warehouse? Who can withstand this bombardment?

Our compassion becomes lost in our greed. Our sense of justice is reduced to clear our hearts of any burden. Our noble commitments last as long as the latest sale.

I know which newspaper's readers makes me feel more sad - oh, yes I do. But I am not so sure which newspaper's readers are more seduced...

nice chatting


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

ecclesiastes without chapter twelve

Yes, it IS as good as they say it is.

I liked Andre Agassi's Open: an autobiography (Harper Collins, 2009)for all sorts of reasons.

1. The story moves from his hatred for his father to his love for Steffi in a journey of self-discovery. It is the old cliche about "you don't know who you are until you know whose you are" and with his early family life being such a disaster, Andrei gradually 'finds himself' within the tight community which is his team, or "the entourage" which travels with him. He spends copious words on how it came together and how it stayed together (which is possibly the greatest tribute to Agassi in the book). This was his family. He was lost until he was found, one-by-one, by them with Seffi Graf being the final and fullest find-er.

On the reality of not knowing much detail about his parents' lives? "... permanently missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle which is me" (47).
On becoming an icon in popular culture? "I can't imagine all these people trying to be like Andre Agassi, since I don't want to be Andre Agassi" (115).
On going bald? "Every morning I find a little more of my identity on my pillow, in my sink, in my drain" (117).
I loved the story because it gave me insight on the discovery of community in a life plagued by dysfunctionality.
2. It is beautifully written. I loved the lack of inverted commas. They can be so intrusive. I loved the way he relates a little incident highlighted by a memorable phrase and then a little later the phrase reappears and the story is being sown together and given some horizontal gravity. For example, when he damages his wrist digging his Hummer out of the Nevada desert, he writes of the "tiny rips in the wrist that refuse to heal" (170) and then the phrase reappears a few times to describe his broken-heartedness.

But most of all I love the metaphors that adorn almost every page:
On being sent to the punishing Bollettieri Tennis Academy at a tender age? "...Lord of the Flies with forehands" (74).
On his anger associated with the Image is Everything marketing debacle? "It feels like a spoonful of acid in the pit of my stomach" (144).
On taking crystal meth? "I ease back on the couch and consider the Rubicon I've just crossed. There is a moment of regret, followed by vast sadness" (243).
On seeing a lion asleep on the road on safari in Africa? "His head is enormous. His eyes are the colour of lemon-lime Gatorade. The smell of him is a musk so primal that it makes us lightheaded. He has hair like I used to have" (263).
On a ball from James Blake in the midst of an epic match? "It hangs just where I thought it would hang, like a soap bubble" (367).
I love it. I love it. I love it. Don't ever give me this nonsense about the era of crafting-words being over. This book is selling so well because it uses words so well. But there is another reason...

3. Like it's title, the book is so "open". Agassi comes across as so human and so honest. He longs to live a life of integrity. Near the end he wrestles with the way "the lie threatens to become my legacy" (360). He writes the book largely because he wants to turn that legacy more towards the truth. Then he is so well-connected with his emotions. There is a generosity and a compassion lurking around in there as well. His mother thought he'd be a preacher (33). I can see plenty of evidence for that reasoning.
And yet I am not getting carried away! Like so many today, Agassi has a deeply narcissistic core to his being. Not only is this seen in his obsession about going bald, it also emerges in his critique of those not within his inner circle (a common narcissistic trait). He is far too hard on Brooke Shields and lingers far too long on the unraveling of that relationship. He is blistering in his views of Connors and Becker and Courier (early on). While it is a line-call(!), I reckon his descriptions of Pete Sampras are 'just out'.
But then he is committed to being "open" and that is what makes the book so compelling.
4. Not only does Agassi use words well - he has some great insight into being human:
After winning the US Open? "You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moments of your greatest triumph" (196).
On battling depression? "I feel listless, hopeless, trapped in a life I didn't choose, hounded by people I can't see" (231).
On relating to those who suffer? "I love and revere those who suffer, who have suffered. I am now more nearly a grown member of the human race. God wants us to grow up" (266).
On integrity? "I've been cheered by thousands, booed by thousands, but nothing feels as bad as the booing inside your own head during those ten minutes before you fall asleep" (272).
On his mother dying after an unhappy life with his dad? "... she's untroubled, absorbed in her books and jigsaw puzzles, putting the rest of us to shame with her unshakable calm. I see that I've underestimated her through the years. I've mistaken her silence for weakness, acquiescence. I see that she is what my father made her, as we all are, and yet, beneath the surface, she's so much more" (330).
On his supposed transformation? ""Transformation is change from one thing to another, but I started as nothing. I didn't transform, I formed. When I broke into tennis, I was like most kids: I didn't know who I was and I rebelled at being told by older people. I think older people make this mistake all the time with younger people, treating them as finished products when in fact they're in process. It's like judging a match before it's over, and I've come from behind too often, and had too many opponents come roaring back against me, to think that's a good idea" (372).

5. God tends to pop up in two ways in the story. Firstly, in Agassi's great love for the movie Shadowlands and the CS Lewis life story. Secondy, in Agassi's great disdain for the very public Christian testimony of Michael Chang. That's about it. The story of Agassi is like Ecclesiastes without the chapter 12. The pursuits, the contradictions, the emptiness, the generosity ... it is ALL there! Except chapter 12. He hasn't remembered his Creator before his body began to seize up and he hasn't yet discovered the secret of life to be found in fearing and obeying God. And so despite all the things I loved about it, the story leaves me with an unavoidable sadness.

nice chatting


Saturday, February 13, 2010

camel, elephant, buffalo

I am in South Asia at the moment. Lahore in Pakistan and now Colombo in Sri Lanka.

While living in this region can have its frustrations, God gave the clues on how to survive when he placed certain animals here.

Camel. Elephant. Buffalo.

There is something about the slowish pace, the undistracted persistence, and the rhythmic patience in the gait of these indestructibly solid animals which suggests how to survive in South Asia.

As soon as my airplane touches down in this part of the world I go through my little mantra - "camel, elephant, buffalo" - as I look to change the gait by which I live.

nice chatting


Saturday, February 06, 2010

confessions of a frustrated movie-watcher

I have recently seen the new Bollywood hit movie, The Three Idiots. Plot, characters, humour, scenery - as well as a window into what 'doing life' in India involves. It is the total package. I loved it (despite a dubious bit here and there!).

But the director does two things which every movie director seems to do. Enough is enough. I have been sitting on these observations for years. Yes, they do frustrate me! If I sit on them any longer I will find myself sitting on a couch receiving professional help.

Are you ready? Here goes...

Whenever there are suitcases being carried in a movie, why are they always empty? Unless they are the focus of attention - like in the movie from my childhood, If Its Tuesday It Must Be Belgium, when tourists pack their suitcases with stuff stolen from the hotels in which they've stayed in Europe and then the suitcases burst all over some steps in the film's denouement scene - suitcases are always empty. You can tell by the lack of strain in the hand which carries them. This piece of inauthenticity always helps me remember that movies are fake.

Whenever the plot reaches its nadir, that low point where tension and emotion are most evident, why does it always seem to rain? Yes, I know that this has been a deliberate strategy of the movie director over the years. They have even been trained to do this. But this viewer would like to put his hand up and say that rainy nadirs no longer cut it. They've gone a bit stale on me and tend to snap me out of the tension and emotion that the director is trying to build in me.

Ahh - I feel so much better now. And you can be sure that if ever I direct a movie the suitcases will be heavier and the nadirs will be drier.

nice chatting


Monday, February 01, 2010

if i was bill bryson (part two)

Now ... where was I?

Ah yes, we had invited Bill Bryson to New Zealand and I had said to him, "Here is the route, Bill - now you find and write the story". The North Island has been covered and now we turn our attention to the supreme challenge: the South Island. Why such a challenge, you ask?

It is because I have given myself three parameters:
(a) No more than 20 days on each main Island
(b) No more than 300 kms traveling on State Highway 1 (SH1). I have 114kms left to use.
(c) No more than 150 kms of traveling twice on the same road. I still have all 150kms to use.

Fasten your seatbelt once again.
[Click on the map to enlarge it. Numbers in brackets add up to 20 days].

An early morning flight from Auckland to Nelson gets us started. Straight into our rental car and off we head south and then west on SH60 to Motueka and Marahau, departure point for the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. A lot of driving ahead of us and so it is into a water taxi to Bark Bay and the leisurely walk back to Anchorage. Another water taxi has us back to our car, to Motueka and on the back-road to Richmond (so that we can stop and pick some berries on the way). It is summer time, the days are long and so we keep driving on SH6 and stop in Murchison for the night (1).

If the sandflies have not eaten all our flesh overnight we follow the Buller River (SH6) to Westport. Cape Foulwind is a must. I am sure mine is not the only family with pictures of children standing by the sign with their buts pointed towards the camera and their fingers grasping their noses? (oops - maybe we are...) Then it is down the West Coast, pausing at Punakaiki and the 'pancake rocks' and a lunch of pancakes too. Just south of Greymouth we head inland on SH73 and up and over the Arthur's Pass and turn south on SH72, enjoy a walk and a wander at the Rakaia River before settling down for the night in nearby Methven (2).

From our Methven base we travel into Christchurch for the day, easily avoiding SH1 there and back. Sumner, the Avon River, and a trip over to Lyttelton Harbour content us for the day before returning to Methven (3).

We find our way onto SH72 and the drive to Geraldine, at which point my children are trained to say in unison, "Now here is a town that takes pride in itself". I love it and not just because it is home to Barker's berry toppings and jams. But now that you mention it, Barker's isn't such a bad place to stop for a coffee and a brunch because one of the simple delights of the South Island awaits us. The drive from Geraldine to Fairlie (SH79) ... and then on we go to Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki and the colour blue like only God could do. Worshipping God in the Church of the Good Shepherd at Tekapo is difficult with tourists everywhere but it must be done - as must the drive up to the Cookie Monster (ie Mt Cook) alongside Lake Pukaki. There is time for one of the short walks at The Hermitage, that iconic NZ Hotel. Then we use up almost half our quota of kms for traveling twice on the same road with the 55kms back alongside Pukaki to Twizel. We stay south on SH8 and I am tempted to use the rest of that quota going back and forth over the Lindis Pass half a dozen times - but that would be to gorge myself on the gorgeous. We content ourselves with the drive to Alexandra, passing ever so slowly over the Lindis Pass, and then alongside Lake Dunstan, the Cromwell Gorge and a night of rest (4).

We take a day away from driving for some cycling along the Central Otago Rail Trail (Omakau to Wedderburn would be my choice, maintaining a little altitude above the Ida Valley - 5). The next morning we head north from Alexandra on SH85, with our first stop being St Bathans. It is one of the great mysteries of life that so many Aucklanders will travel multiple times to the Gold Coast and Fiji before they make a pilgrimage to St Bathans (and Queenstown, Milford and the Cookie Monster, to be fair). But just look at it:
In fact with apologies to Moto Moto in Madagascar 2, "it is so nice you need to see it twice": [photos courtesy of my friend Damian Velluppillai]

Anyhow after we've had a swim at St Bathans we rejoin SH85 and head towards Ranfurly and some of the coldest places in New Zealand. Thankfully, it is summer time - remember? I am so tempted to take you on the Pig Route but that means many kms on SH1 which we just cannot afford. And so we head south on SH87 after Ranfurly for a leisurely drive all the way to Middlemarch and then on to Mosgiel(6). A drive into Dunedin is on the agenda for the next day, with my choice being to go up and around the Peninsula before returning to Mosgiel where we, rather sadly, rejoin SH1 for 72kms as we travel south to Balclutha. The church I pastored in Invercargill knew that I loved the farmland around Balclutha so much that they commissioned a painting as a gift when we left. We head on to Owaka near the coast for the night(7).

A day for a quiet drive through the Catlins area and the "Southern Scenic Route". It could well be wintry conditions in the middle of summer - but whatever you do, don't mention the weather to the locals. We enjoy Invercargill more than many who pass through simply because it is where we lived and loved. We stay coastal, finding our way to Riverton which in my day had a decaying sign on the Bowling Club, announcing Riverton to be the "riviera of the south". Then it is on SH99 and the back door into Manapouri and the Te Anau area. There has been a lot of driving so we stop for the night (8). The next day is the fabulous boat trip across the lake to Doubtful Sound and out towards the Tasman Sea(9).

Now we have a problem, a big problem. Milford Sound is spectacular but there is only one road in and one road out and I have only 95kms left in my 'travelling twice' quota. So, here is what we are going to do. We'll take a lingering scenic flight into Milford Sound absorbing as much of the Southern Alps as we can while we are in the air - before the boat trip out from Milford to the Tasman Sea. Then we'll hitch a ride on a bus back to Te Anau because the Milford Rd is a road that must be more travelled (10).
We make our way to Queenstown and the Wakitipu Basin, surely one of the most beautiful places on earth. There is scenery to savour just as there is thrill-seeking on which to risk our lives. Days 11-13 are easily spent here. The drives up Coronet Peak and the Remarkables ski field. Arrowtown and its delightful river out the back. Glenorchy and its Paradise out the back. On and on it goes - with maybe a ride on the Shotover Jet which these two young tourists seem to be endorsing.

Day 14 finds us driving through the Kawerau Gorge (SH6) to Cromwell and then on up to Wanaka (a favourite of Tom Cruise, as he mentions it in MI3). Staying on SH6 it is up and over the Haast Pass, without ever really knowing it! Stop at the Gates of Haast and then just luxuriate in the drive down alongside the Haast River to the West Coast. Yes, sometimes I really do believe that God wants me to be a courier driver serving the southern part of the South Island. Staying on SH6 as we head north we pause for the night at Fox Glacier (14). A very early morning trip to nearby Lake Matheson for the classic calendar picture of the mountains in the Mirror Lake is followed by a walk up to Fox Glacier itself - probably a bit closer then they suggest! The weather is so fickle in this region we add a rest day here (15). Then we hop in the car and do it all again, walking up to the Franz Josef glacier further up SH6. But also taking in one of the many walks in the area (16).

On the road again, we make our way north to Greymouth, adding another 18kms to our quota of traveling on a road twice, right at the end. This time we travel inland on SH7 and towards the Lewis Pass but we can't cross it as we do not have enough kms to travel back on the East Coast. So we take SH7 to SH65 and turn north to Murchison. Then we travel twice on SH6 for 47kms before turning off at SH63 and head towards St Arnaud, Lake Rotoiti and the Nelson Lakes region (17).

Then it is SH63 down into Blenheim and sadly, the 28kms on SH1 into Picton - but we aren't catching the ferry to the North Island this time. It is the long and winding road known as the Queen Charlotte Scenic Drive into Havelock that we want where we pause for the night(18) ... with one final day on the water in prospect - this time somewhere in the Malborough Sounds. Pelorous? Kenepuru? Take your pick (19).

... before the drive back to Nelson on SH6 and the flight back to Auckland (20).

That makes it 286km on SH1 and 120km traveling on a road twice :) And somewhere along the way Bill Bryson will find a story or two among the locals.

The Great Omissions?
Ah, Kaikoura must head the list - but there will be many more, I'm sure.

nice chatting