Friday, January 18, 2013 | |

I found a tiny doll head in a toilet once. Someone had tried to flush it down a number of times by stuffing the bowl with toilet paper but the head was too buoyant. I found it bobbing on top of the water, swathed in wet white paper, eyes peering out from under the transparent layers in frozen desperation. I pulled it from the depths and continued cleaning.

Sanitation officers are charged with the task of making public facilities sanitary. As I scrub the blood, shit and cum off the seats, bowls and walls of the local public restrooms, people will often follow me – choosing to use the stall I have just cleaned; they must figure the fresh-smelling bowl will provide a more pleasant experience than the one I’m about to embark on. Oftentimes I want to tell them, ‘If you saw them before, you wouldn’t use them after’, but they wouldn’t listen and they wouldn’t care. Sanitation officers are invisible – invisible in high-vis. 

Being invisible has its perks – I can watch people move around the parks and interact with each other. Last summer I saw a gargantuan father playing soccer with his pintsize son. What pintsize lacked in size he gained in agility, running rings around the muscle-bound ork who guarded the goal. After three unsuccessful attempts to block point-scoring kicks, Dad got desperate. The slide tackle wiped the boy out completely, leaving a tangled mess of wiry limbs on the ground, covered in grass stains and blood. “Get up,” Dad said. “And stop Hollywooding.”

The hot-chip eaters are the best people-watching fodder because they’re so easily classifiable. There’s one I call the impatient beaver – they’ll pick up a chip, blow on it to cool it down, and then move their front teeth like a jackhammer, cooling the chip as it disappears into their gob. There’s the obsessive stacker, who will find three chips of the same length, line them up and eat them in carefully even bites. Then there’s the cold chip magician, who talks and gesticulates with such fervour that no one in their group notices the remaining chips evaporate before their eyes. 

Sanitation officers make a game out of what they find on the grounds of parks and in the restrooms. There are points for dollar value – watches, sunglasses, iPods – and there are points for weirdness. I am well ahead on the weirdness leaderboard thanks to one set of women’s restrooms I look after. An ornamental deer, a basketball with boobs drawn on it, two light-sabres taped together and jammed into a cistern. I find a lot of toys. After finding the doll head, I found a clump of rainbow nylon and plastic – it was slapped against the back of the bowl like it had hit it with much force.

People do see me, but mostly they take one glance and go about their business – their business of running or walking or picnicking on the grass. They may not spend time looking at me, but I spend time looking at them, and I know what happens to their business once they’re done with it. There’s this volleyballer who comes to the park – he has a killer spike on him that’s the envy of all his opponents. This skill doesn’t translate to the bathroom, however – whenever I see his feet wriggling in his fluorescent toe-shoes from under a stall door, I know I’m going to be cleaning something up off the floor. 

As summer draws to a close and the crowds start to wane, my spot on the leaderboard drops. The kids and their toys go back to school, leaving nothing but wet receipts and stray sanitary pads to pick up. Sanitary. Last winter however, the steady stream of toilet-bound items continued throughout the colder months – Barbie shoes, fluff from inside a soft toy, scraps of coloured paper, buttons and coins; all stuffed into the same bowl. I kept all the pieces in a shoe box and hid them in the women’s cleaning cupboard, all the while wondering who was using one of the toilets as a trash can.

By spring, I had upsized the collection to a ten-litre bucket and had almost reconstructed the doll – both arms, both legs and the head were accounted for, as was a lot of the stuffing from inside it. I was lovingly looking after all these pieces – I thought to myself that maybe one day I’d reunite the destructive kid who was trying to flush away their youth with all the trinkets they had so easily discarded. Maybe they’d be happy to see all these memories again; maybe they’d sit and discuss each piece with me. I conjured up many an image of my future with the toy parts, until I found another piece.

At first I didn’t realise what I was looking at, and nearly flushed it on instinct. I thankfully hesitated and looked a little closer. What on first glance appeared to be another unflushed piece of shitty toilet paper was in fact a shit-stained piece of material – I could see a tiny fruit salad embroidered on the front that still held some of its colour. Plucking the material out of the water with two fingers, I squeezed out the remaining water and held it to the light – it was a doll’s dress. I quickly wrang the sopping mess out, gagging as brown water seeped out of it.

Clutching the dress, I ran to the bucket in the cupboard. I laid out the doll parts on the floor and held the material up to them; it was a perfect fit. Suddenly it dawned on me – I had been holding a vigil in a cleaning cupboard for a creep. A creep who didn’t have the common decency to live out their sick toy-eating rituals at home. Eating and shitting out children’s toys – how fucked up can you be. I scooped up the doll parts into the bucket and marched to the trash compactor in utter disgust. As I marched by, the auburn-haired, salad-eating woman from the park bench by the restrooms laid down her fork and swished by me, leaving her half-eaten meal behind. I glanced at the container of beetroot and feta and noticed something blue poking out amongst the chunks – the head of a plastic toy Smurf.

The next morning, as I scrubbed the beetroot-coloured murder scene off the bowl and added the Smurf head to my burgeoning collection, thoughts raced through my head. Should I confront her with the bucket of toys and tell her to fuck off home? Should I leave a note on the door that says “Please do not flush any children’s toys”? Questions filled my head for the remainder of the day. By the evening, I had my script ready and muttered it to myself over and over. I was practicing in the mirror when she walked past and entered her favourite stall; she had tears in her eyes. I walked out and cleaned the men's room instead.

Summer was just around the corner and the parks began to fill up again. The chip-eating brigades returned. The volleyballers and soccer players came back, sluggish and fatter than last summer. I claimed a new spot on the lost and found leaderboard after finding a laptop and a Cartier watch. My auburn-haired friend still came every day to eat her salad on the park bench. Throughout the spring I had grown fond of her – I would watch her from behind recycling bins, noting how she tucked her hair behind her ears slowly and carefully before tucking into her lentil-and-teddy-bear meals. She had a delicate nature when she walked to the restrooms – slow and fragile with a hint of desperate urgency. Each day I would take in a different part of her – the freckles on her arms, the mole on the back of her right knee; her sunburnt shoulders. All the parts of her began to resemble doll parts – each wonderful imperfection a part of one very broken adult doll, held together with the compulsion to consume other toys.

I began to take bigger chances to see her up close – popping up from behind bins, peering around trees and even sitting on the park bench that faced hers, watching her run her fingers through her hair. She never saw me watching her – sanitation officers are invisible. I would follow her into the toilets as she did her daily deed – the sound of her heels tapping along the concrete would send me over the edge. Toy ponies and Kinder Surprise treats were on her menu that spring, each piece carefully collected and displayed on my cleaning cupboard altar.

As summer really took hold, she traipsed in, sunburnt from head to toe, leaving one of the doll’s shoes behind. Then she disappeared. Every day I’d peer around trees or pop up from behind bins to find her – nothing. I would sit in the stall next to hers and wait for the sound of those heels, only to be met with the sounds of children’s feet slapping against the floor. Now I was both invisible and lonely. Each night I lay in bed, unable to sleep from the heat and the stress, picturing her running her spindly fingers through her hair and tucking it behind her ears. I brought my toy collection home and lay it across one side of my bed. I began to sleep better. My bed smelled like her.

The morning after my first night with the collection, I trudged to work, heavy with depression. Knowing I wouldn’t see her, I didn’t even look at her bench all day. I hardly cleaned anything. The boss received two complaints about the shit on the walls of the men’s. I didn’t care, I just sat in the stall next to hers with my head in my hands, wondering if she’d finally seen me and had been scared off coming to the park for good. Just as tears started streaming from my eyes, I heard the clip-clop of her heels enter the restroom. My heart started racing as she closed the door behind her. I peered under the stall to see two perfectly pointed feet sitting on the toilet. She was quicker than normal – in and out in just a couple of minutes. She didn’t flush. As I heard the clip-clop of her feet disappear outside the restroom door, I stumbled out of my stall and straight into hers. There in the bowl was the last I would see of her – the day's deed with a tiny doll shoe poking out of the side. I tugged at my gloves and threw them on the floor, dropping to my knees in front of the bowl. I grabbed at it with both hands and devoured it all.

48 Hour Magazine and the case of the big hustlin' mound

Sunday, May 9, 2010 | |

Last week I took part in an experiment called 48hrmag. It's a project similar to the 48hour Film Festival, but instead of the film model - in which a group of people submit a themed film - the 48hr Mag team announced a theme, gave contributors 24 hours to submit work, then spent the next 24 hours designing, editing and printing the magazine to ship.

So on Saturday 8 May at 7am (which was 12 noon PDT), I awoke to find an email from the 48hr Mag team detailing the first theme: hustle.

"Hustle is where the quick-witted trickster meets the Protestant work ethic. It's virtuous labour and the con artist's graceful swindle. It praises the ratty and rough morality of making money, and the glory of giving it all you've got.

Hustle is the aging athlete who replaces ability with sweat equity. The reporter who beats the world to break a story. The entrepreneur living on credit cards and couches. It was also a popular folk dance in America at the end of the 2nd millennium.

Most hustles straddle the border between the legal and illicit: the grey market, the game, The Kennedys. The people clawing their way up or clambering down.

Hustle is Janus-faced, holding together meanings that want to fly apart. It still echoes its original 18th century usage, when it referred to "the act of shaking together" (usually dice in a game of chance). And that's just what we're doing now.

48 Hour Magazine bounces collective ingenuity against wild improbability, hoping for a hot roll. And yes, we also chose the theme because we've got two days to make a magazine that's worth a damn and the only way that's going to happen is with raw, ruthless hustle.

We want you to get right to the marrow of the word. Let's do it."

Writers, photographers, artists and designers from all over the world submitted their work to the 48hr Mag office in San Francisco; I was among the first 400 submissions, most of which were prose. When I last checked the 48hr Mag twitter, something like 1283 submissions had been received; God knows how many were received all up.

Following is the piece I wrote; I hope you enjoy it. I didn't make it to print, but to be honest, I don't care. I'm just happy I got to contribute at all. A+++ idea, would trade again.

God it feels good to be writing again.


PS: My friend Amie over at amieweexxx sent Hustle an artwork. Check out her piece HERE.




Do these seem like random words to you? They are. But what do they mean to you? What other words spring to mind when I say them aloud?

For my brother Cameron, “mound” changed his life. Well, “mound”, and me.

Cameron is a very boring, very stuffy man who works as an advertising creative. I loathe advertising creatives – their overblown egos offer me precious little in terms of intellectual stimulation, and their topics of conversation leave a lot to be desired. On my regular lunch dates with Cameron, conversation tended to revolve around the next big project, pitch or swindle; I had taken to packing a magazine into a leather-bound file and reading it while he prattled on. This magazine proved fortuitous when I one day looked up from my file to find Cameron yelling at me.

“Are you even listening? Give me a hand here, Ethan. Give me a hand!”

Sensing he knew I hadn’t been listening, I had to think fast. I glanced back down at my magazine, spotting a word in the middle of the page. A devilish grin grew across my face, but I masked it before glancing back up at Cameron. I stared directly at him with an intensity that was almost comical, then leaned across the table. With wide eyes and a booming voice, I shouted,


Cameron returned by glare with an incredulous look. “Mound?”
“Yes, Cameron! Mound! What comes to mind when I say the word mound? Play with me here.”
“Mound? Okay, mound. So like, pitcher’s mound. Ground. Dirt. Soil.”
“Good,” I replied matter-of-factly. “Soil?”
“Soil. Growth. Plants. Trees.”
I couldn’t believe this was actually stimulating conversation with this hapless git.
“Trees?” I said. “What do you think when I say trees?”
“Trees. Life. Green. Breeze. Air. Breath!”

With these words buzzing around his head, Cameron went away and created the most successful advertising campaign his company has ever had. That campaign turned a small local car company into an international success, and Cameron into a millionaire. Spurred on by a word – just one tiny spark of inspiration – I helped Cameron and his company turn the recession into a success, almost overnight.

You’d think my work here would go unnoticed. You’d think that one innocuous conversation couldn’t change this everyman into a modern-day success. Well if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

These days, people hire me to make them think. I make the uncreative creative. I bring business to business. I make executives executive. Hell, I even advise the advisers. My words change lives. That’s not arrogance, that’s fact. I guarantee that after two hours with me, I’ll have you walking out of our meeting with a notepad full of ideas and a head so packed with inspiration that you’ll be left wondering why you’ve squandered your talents for all these years. I make your inspiration my business – it’s my job to wrangle it out of you.

Cameron was good to me. After that nauseating little tree-hugging ad campaign of his went global, he made sure his company knew where he got his inspiration. I began working with the creatives at his firm, shouting words at them and having them shout ten back. I’d pick any page in my magazine – grab any word that I saw fit – and bark it at them. I couldn’t believe what came over these people.

The word “take” fuelled one of the biggest tourism campaigns our country has ever seen.

The word “stretch” brought a small home wares company untold wealth.

I once threw the word “arch” at a female client and had her vibrating in her seat with excitement. She went on to lead not one, but six specialty campaigns involving beauty products.

You can’t even begin to imagine how “behind” has changed the shape of advertising.

For Cameron’s company, the pull of my words was carnal. These seemingly random magazine phrases seemed to awaken some sort of primal urge in their creatives; by the end of our sessions, they’d be banging on tables, climbing on furniture and screaming. Each word I proposed would induce a slightly different response.

“Square! Triangle! No, no! Round! Smooth! Soft!”
That campaign sold half a million dollars worth of furniture.

“Dark! Unknown! Uncertainty. Black! DAMP!”
Home ventilation systems.

“Thrilled! Amazed! Stimulated! Aroused!”
See? Now we’re getting somewhere.

I played these people like instruments.

I began to get more boisterous. I built up a portfolio of references from the people I helped, and began approaching other advertising agencies to consult them on matters of inspiration. I had no education or training in consultancy, no previous job experience that pertained to the world of advertising, and no overt rhyme or reason why I was so successful at what I did. I relied solely on my track record and gift of the gab to get in front of these people; to get in front of their board of directors and drum up a bit of excitement.


These seemingly innocent words produced the most salacious response. Normal people became ravenously excited – shaking their colleagues by the shoulders, punching the air like they’d just scored a touchdown; scrawling notes on whiteboards like they were writing for the first time. Words became my currency with these people, and this currency soon translated into real life remuneration.

Word spread around town; people started to take notice. I became known as the man who would turn your company around with just a few well-placed words. People called me the word hustler – the guy who would swan in, open his leather-bound file, pluck words from a random page and have you reeling with ideas in minutes. These people’s heads were full and pockets were empty before they even knew what hit them. I was a sensation.

I carried my file with me everywhere. I’d spend my days in the CBD meeting creatives for lunch and stopping well-known CEOs in the street. The work was easy, fun and rewarding – and best of all, it wasn’t even mine. The words on these pages? I didn’t write them, I would just bring them to life and watch men in suits turn into raving lunatics within minutes.


I’ve since branched out from business – I’m now hired by influential people world over to solve their inspiration blocks. I love helping the musicians struggling to write that difficult sophomore album. I work with charities to drum up interest for their next fundraising push. I aid senators with presidential dreams. I hold seminars for struggling writers that start out as speeches and end with fully-grown men hurling ideas at each other like teenagers throw food in a cafeteria – their ties loose around their necks, shirts untucked and eyes wide. They are my orchestra, and I, their conductor.

If only they could read the sheet music.

I’ve read the magazines, I’ve seen the newspapers, I’ve read the blogs. They call me the hustler, but they’re only half right. Sure, I muscle inspiration out of people like a swindler in a card game, but I’m not the hustler in this equation; not by a long shot. You only have to look to my leather-bound file to know that the real hustler here brought these companies the words needed to fuel their business. These words that provoked such carnal responses.


Thanks for everything, Larry Flynt.

I Like: Rosie the Riveter

Sunday, March 7, 2010 | |

Last weekend I had the pleasure and the joy of photographing Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. Have I mentioned how much I love my job? Probably. Let's move on.

My media pass got me into a pretty spectacular pre-parade area, where I could wander around and meet the various groups preparing to march in the parade. Whilst on the move I saw a couple of girls dressed like one of my favourite cultural icons, Rosie the Riveter.

I ventured further down the road, and found a whole stack of them!

"Look at you, ladies!" I gushed as I took their photo. "You're like a dream come true. Rosie's my hero." Embarrassing? Yes. A bunch of falsities? No. I decided that when I got home to Auckland I would find out more about these girls.

The girls were from a group called The Femme Guild of Sydney, who believe in the solidarity, celebration and visibility of those who identify as femme (essentially defined as a lesbian who exhibits "stereotypically female traits", but from the group's manifesto - and the photo below - they obviously believe in the solidarity, celebration and visibility of more than just "lipstick lesbians").

In the group's manifesto, they state:

"We actively recognise the generations of activism that have challenged traditional gender roles and struggled to explode the die-hard myth of the sex/gender binary. Femme Guild peacefully co-exists with other radical ways to play with gender, or to be a woman. There is no one way to be a woman, to be trans, to be queer, or to be a man."

If you've been following my blog - on in fact, me - for a while, you'll know that this facet of their manifesto speaks to me. I play a sport that was built on these same ideals of challenging traditional gender roles. Ask anyone who plays roller derby why they love it, and they will no doubt tell you how they love the dynamic the sport presents - you can be fast, agile, tactile, skilful, sexy, feminine, "butch"*, physical, brutal - all at the same time. These women will often repeat a popular derby mantra - "roller derby saved my soul". Not because it gave them something to do with their spare time, but because the confidence these women find on the track often translates into their everyday lives. A new derby skater often finds her voice, her own sense of style, her cause; anything. And whether they realise it or not, playing roller derby projects a powerful message of feminism - it may not necessarily be said aloud, but the message is heard loud and clear.

I'll be honest when I say that my feminist bent didn't precede roller derby by much, but looking back, all the signs were there. My long-standing obsession with Rosie the Riveter is no doubt one of them.

I recently found out that the iconic image touted as being Rosie the Riveter was not the now-classic "We Can Do It!" American war effort poster.

According to this article, the real Rosie was shown on a Norman Rockwell cover of a 1943 Saturday Evening Post.

The "Rosie" we've all come to love was actually used in Westinghouse factories when women made some 13 million Mycarta (a precursor to Formica, or "formerly Mycarta") helmet liners.

I don't think it matters overly that Rosie as a cultural icon has been replaced with a Westinghouse image - the want to portray female strength remains the same. That's why I've always like "the Rosies" of the American factories during World War II.

Credit: Office of War Information photos by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942.
Found on the gosh darn amazing Rosie the Riveter Wikipedia article.

They were real women, doing jobs they were more than capable of doing, in a time where mankind needed them most. They found their physical strength and challenged patriarchal values.

And that's why I like Rosie.


Postscript quote

"Rich cultures, patriarchal cultures, value thin women, like ours; poor ones value fat women. But all patriarchal cultures value weak women. So for women to become physically strong is very profound."
- Gloria Steinem [SOURCE]

(With thanks to Kate for this quote)


* Sorry to use quotes, but given the common, derogatory usage of the word butch, I hate using it.

I Like: Lists

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 | |

A few years ago, whilst on a trip to a suburban Auckland supermarket, I picked up a discarded shopping list. It was an innocuous enough act - I was curious to see what someone else would buy, and scanned through the list hoping to find something humourous, like KY Jelly or something. As it turns out, the list was far more glorious than I could ever imagine. Instead of being just a few things that a person would want to collect, the list I read showed me that what people choose to buy at the supermarket really does speak volumes about who they are and what they're doing. Let's take a look at that first list.


"This is a woman," was my first thought. "Purple pen and embossed paper? This has got to be a woman." My belief was further corroborated when I read through what could only be described as any woman's thought pattern.

1 x Humus. [sic]
1 x bag lettuce.

She's making a healthy salad. But wait, she's changed her mind.

2 x Humus.
2 x bag lettuce.

She's making more than enough for herself.

Reading on, she adds tomatoes, tuna, chick peas and "plastic coriander" (by which I can only assume she means one of those plastic sleeves of fresh coriander you get from the grocery section). Then, she adds, "bottle wine".

The next three terms are what made me the most happy however. Three words written in rushed handwriting, presumably as one is running out the door or standing somewhere in the supermarket.


Someone's been thinking about a sleepover. Here's hope the lucky person got to stay for breakfast.

After I picked up "first date", as I now refer to it, I started to pick up more interesting shopping lists. Few were as glorious as the first, but many contained interesting little ditties that showed me a little bit more about how people's brains work; how people use shopping lists less as direct orders and more as personal reminders.


"Maria lunch"




"Bird Grit"

And my favourite,


Sometimes the lists weren't as funny as they should be; sometimes they were a little sad.

They were the lists of the old and sick,

The busy and desperate for silence,

And the cautious.

"I have to have protein + veg for dinner to repair cartlidge [sic]"

They made me stop collecting them for a while. I realised that I had a (sometimes hypothetical, sometimes very literal) window into people's minds that I wasn't supposed to know about. I started worrying about what I wrote on my shopping lists, and was very careful not to leave them behind in shopping carts. I guess I gave up the ghost of shopping's past. Until November, when I was given the best list I've ever seen. My friend Anni found it at a party, which she says "was full of young goths who wear velvet and do tarot reading in their spare time". I chuckled as she handed the list over, turned it over and thought to myself,


"Man, I love humans so much."

My mother was an Olympic gymnast trainer

Sunday, February 14, 2010 | |

My father was a very famous, very wealthy hotellier - he owned a large chain of hotels around the world. My mother travelled the world, training gymnasts for Olympic games. They met in the lobby of his hotel in Prague. Together they served a very practical function in each other’s lives – they were each other’s travel partner and red carpet accompaniment and second lofty income; they were not, however, each other’s love. Not once in the nine years I knew my father did I see them touch, kiss, hug or laugh. It was as if this was a life of transactions, and they were content with living it.

I was one such transaction, and a poorly managed one at that.

In the face of such dry practicality, I acted out. Often asked to sit quietly and read at the dinner table as they organised their accounts and their meal simultaneously, I would draw pictures on the table using peas and gravy. I would wet my serviette in my glass of water and throw the sodden mess at the roof, where it would stay for months. I would finish my meal, then tear sections out of the novel I was reading and eat it, page by page. “Stop being such a child,” they would say.

Special occasions were much the same. Generally they would be jet-setting, with father opening new hotels and mother playing the happy wife beside him, or mother posing with a collection of lithe and limber Ukrainian gymnasts as father watched on in the background. On the odd occasion however, they would be around for my birthday or Christmas, I would receive small, practical gifts with small, practical cards.
To: Agnes
From: Mother and Father
Handkerchiefs were hardy perennials on present-giving days, as were new ribbons for my typewriter. By the time I was eight, I had enough handkerchiefs to cover one of father’s hotels when it rained, and was precocious enough to say this to him. He grew increasingly tired of my behaviour, and not ten minutes after present giving had occurred, retired to his study to drink whisky and smoke from a pipe. When father retired to his study, he was not to be disturbed. All we would hear was the occasional instruction yelled at my mother, who would ignore him, stare at me, and then retreat to her own haven – the exercise studio – leaving me in the living area alone.

On my tenth Christmas Day, I disturbed father in his study.

Storming in with all the grace and charm of a wildebeest, I startled father and made him spill his drink. “This handwriting is YOURS!” I screamed. “Yes, dear, I always write the cards,” he replied. “Why the devil are you acting this way? Calm down.” Thrusting two identical cards in his face, I shrieked, ‘THIS one is from you and mother, and THIS one is from Santa. It is YOUR handwriting, father! There is no Santa! I hate you. I HATE YOU!” Mother was standing in the doorway, dressed in her pink exercise clothes. Her lips were pursed in muted anger and her gaze was fixed on father. As I left the study, I dropped my voice to it’s lowest point; to the pair of them, spat, “As you have left me with no further childhood to enjoy, I will stop acting like a child. Thank you mother, and thank you father.” For the first time in my life, mother looked suitably upset.

The next day, father left.

As was the way of my family, neither my mother nor I shed a tear. We did not speak of my father again and removed all memory of him from the home; the study became a storage and sewing room. We would eat dinner solemnly and silently, with mother doing the accounts and me reading quietly at the table’s opposite end. Sometimes I would look up to find her staring at me with a sadness in her eyes that I had not seen before. I would smile awkwardly and return to my book.

On Christmas Eve that year, an airmail envelope addressed to me was delivered. In the envelope I found ten photos of Athens, a cheque for a sizeable amount of money, and a note typewritten on hotel letterhead:
To: Agnes
Merry Christmas, child
From: Santa
The years went by and the letters kept arriving – the locations grew more exotic, the photos more beautiful and the cheque’s sum more generous. The photos were so inspiring that I began charting them on a map, and hung each shot on my wall. When photos of paintings inside The Louvre arrived on my sixteenth Christmas, I spent the cheque on art supplies and began painting the scenes delivered each year. I kept each painting in mother’s storage room, hoping that one day my father would return from this jet setting and have a collection of his travels on canvas. I dreamed of the day he’d return, when he would see what I’d made of his generous presents – and myself. I knew he would be proud to reinstate his study and have my paintings in there with him.

On my 35th birthday, I signed a deal with a gallery to have my work exhibited. I arrived late for dinner at mother’s, and found her dead on the floor of the dining room. A lavish meal was steaming on the beautifully set table - no novels or accounts were to be seen.

Weeks later, I cleared out mother’s storage and sewing room. She had stowed away her sewing machine and set up my old typewriter. Next to it I found a box of old travel photographs, and a stack of various hotel letterheads.

I Like: Stefan Sagmeister

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | |

I recently stumbled across the work of Austria-born, New York-known and Indonesia-based "rock star" graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, notably his series of installations known as Things I Have Learnt In My Life So Far. I love how his work has developed from simple ideas to huge installations, but I'll let him explain how.

"The idea for this... originally came out of my own list in my diary, under the very same title: Things I have learned in my life so far. Astonishingly, I have only learned twenty or so things so far. Over the last five years I did manage to publish these maxims all over the world, in spaces normally occupied by advertisements and promotions: as billboards, projections, light-boxes, magazine spreads, annual report covers, fashion brochures, and, recently, as giant inflatable monkeys."
- Sagmeister, from the Things website.

If you head to the website you can samples of Sagmeister's work, along with another offshoot of the original list - contributions by site users. But here is the original list (and some of the installations of) what Sagmeister has learned. I loved it. Enjoy.


Helping other people helps me.
Having guts always works out for me.

Thinking that life will be better in the future is stupid. I have to live now.

Starting a charity is surprisingly easy.
Being not truthful works against me.
Everything I do always comes back to me.
Assuming is stifling.
Drugs feel great in the beginning and become a drag later on.
Over time I get used to everything and start taking for granted.
Money does not make me happy.
Travelling alone is helpful for a new perspective on life.
Keeping a diary supports personal development.

Trying to look good limits my life.

Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses.
Worrying solves nothing.
Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.
Actually doing the things I set out to do increases my overall level of satisfaction.
Everybody thinks they are right.
If I want to explore a new direction professionally, it is helpful to try it out for myself first.
Low expectations are a good strategy.
Everybody who is honest is interesting.

More on Things I Have Learnt here:

More on Stefan Sagmeister HERE.

I like: Colin Meloy [New Section!]

Friday, January 15, 2010 | |

Seeing as I seem to be quite sporadic with my writing posts, I've decided to do a new thing, hooray! I've decided that Autumnal Fuck could do with a dose of non-fiction writing; a section where I highlight people whose words interest and inspire me; writers who make words exciting for me. For my first I Like post, I'd like to highlight the work of lyricist Colin Meloy, whose work is fresh in my mind after seeing him in concert yesterday at Auckland's Big Day Out.

The work of Colin Meloy, lead singer and lyricist for Portland band The Decemberists, has a strangely regular place in my travels around my home country, New Zealand. I was first introduced to Meloy's work with The Decemberists whilst on a drive through New Zealand's Canterbury district. As we wound through the foothills, ridges and valleys that led to the town of Akaroa, Meloy's tales of "Eli, The Barrow Boy" and "The Engine Driver" seemed to fit the setting perfectly. But just before we reached what was to be a quaint but nauseating township, "The Mariner's Revenge Song" piqued my interest.

We are two mariners
Our ship's sole survivors
In this belly of a whale
Its ribs are ceiling beams
Its guts are carpeting
I guess we have some time to kill

You may not remember me
I was a child of three
And you, a lad of eighteen
But, I remember you
And I will relate to you
How our histories interweave

The almost nine-minute song is narrated by a mariner, who, having found himself in the stomach of a whale with a fellow seafarer, seeks to explain the events leading up to what can only be their tragic end. He tells the story of his mother, who fell in love with a gambling love-cheat who leaves her with tuberculosis and a mountain of debt. On her deathbed, the mother relays her dying wish to her son:

"Find him, bind him
Tie him to a pole and break
His fingers to splinters
Drag him to a hole until he
Wakes up naked
Clawing at the ceiling
Of his grave"

The rest of the story spans fifteen years - the narrator becomes a street urchin, then a cleaner at a priory. He is later tipped off that subject of his revenge is working as a ship's captain; he goes to sea to find him, only to swallowed whole by a giant whale. Luckily the ship's captain also survives to hear the tale, and the song ends with what we can only assume is the mariner dishing out an untimely end, before his own untimely end. I spent the better half of the song asking questions of my travel companion ("So they're in a whale?" "What does consumptive mean?" "What's a prior?" "What's a penitent whaler?") and was surprised I didn't meet my own untimely end in the process.

For me, "The Mariner's Revenge Song" was a perfect entry-level track to both the band's instrumentation and my understanding of Meloy's lyricism. Meloy's exquisite storytelling, combined with the lush sounds of accordion, mandolin, upright bass and xylophone, have painted many a curious picture since then, and Picaresque, the 2005 studio album that contained "The Mariner's Revenge Song", quickly became one of my favourite albums (and continues to be).

The second leg of my Tour De Meloy came just last easter, on a similar trip - this time through the winding coastal road between Thames and Coromandel Town. Through the thick pohutukawa trees that made up the many glades of the route, the sounds of The Crane Wife could be heard escaping from the speakers of my small Toyota.

And under the boughs unbowed
All clothed in a snowy shroud
She had no heart so hardened
All under the boughs unbowed

Each feather it fell from skin
'Till thread bare while she grew thin
How were my eyes so blinded?
Each feather it fell from skin

(From "The Crane Wife 3")

Interspersed between songs, my companion told me the story of the crane wife, which Colin Meloy explained to NPR in 2007 as:

"...a story about a peasant in rural Japan who finds a wounded crane on an evening walk; there's an arrow in its wing. He revives the crane and the crane flies away. A couple days later, a mysterious woman shows up at his door and he takes her in. Eventually they fall in love and get married. But they're very poor, so she suggests that she start weaving this cloth which he can in turn sell at the market—the condition being that when she's weaving it, she has to do it behind closed doors and he can't look in. So this goes on for a while and they actually become kind of wealthy. But eventually, his curiosity gets the best of him and he looks in at her while she's weaving and it turns out that she's a crane and she's been pulling feathers from her wings and putting it into the cloth, which is what makes it so beautiful. But him having seen her breaks the spell, and she turns back into a crane and flies away. That's the end."

I remember marvelling at both the story itself, and Meloy's interpretation of it. I thought to myself, "Where would I find similar inspiration for my writing? How would I use it?" I quickly (and quite self-indulgently) collated these Driving-With-Decemberists stories down into a little autobiographical piece that you can find in older posts. Or here.

Later in the year, whilst travelling the States, my iPod sent out another signal - shuffling to a track from 2009 Decemberists release The Hazards Of Love whilst on a train. A train to home of The Decemberists: Portland, Oregon. Earlier in the train ride, my travelling companion and I met a couple from New Zealand, who told us tales of their son's coffee roasting adventures, and a boy called Owen, who spent much of our time on the train poking faces at me from the seat in front, and singing songs he'd made up about trees and dinosaurs and characters on Yo Gabba Gabba. But as soon as the tense tale of "The Bower Scene" unfolded in my ears, I was reminded of my own questioning after hearing "The Crane Wife 3". Where would I find similar inspiration for my writing? Everywhere. And how would I use it? In any way I could.

The main lesson I learned from listening to The Decemberists is one of storytelling. How you don't have to re-tell one's experiences in an encyclopedic - or even factual - fashion for it to be interesting to a reader (or listener). Take "My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist", one of The Decemberists' first tracks, found on 5 Songs, for instance. Meloy penned the track after a "super, super intense" three-day river trip with his family. In 2005, he told The Stranger, "I came off that trip with this loathing for my family... and I wrote a song about basically completely re-creating the family in this really fantastical setting, using myself as this sort of sad anti-hero."

"So my parents had me
To the disgust of the prostitutes
On a bed in a brothel
Surprisingly raised with tender care
Until the money got tight
And they bet me away
To a blind brigadier in a game
Of high stakes canasta
But he made me a sailor
On his brigadier ship fleet
I know every yardarm
From main mast to jib sheet
But sometimes I long to be landlocked
And to work in a bakery"

After four years of Meloy fascination, I think I've learned that when it comes to story-telling (and indeed blog entries about Portland-based lyricists) - you don't have to tell it all, you don't have to tell it order... heck, you don't even have to tell it right - you've just got to tell it well.