Sunday, 26 August 2007

"Virtual Reality" published August 26

I had just managed to change my shirt from purple to blue, make my hair blonde and change my pants from jeans to black when a friend rang suggesting we catch up for a drink in an hour.
I was hoping that in an hour I would have removed my blue shirt and my black pants and would be having sex, but that’s the great thing about the internet I could log out and do it later.
I am one of nearly 9 million registered members of a virtual colony called Second Life. I signed up because I read about it in Time magazine and I couldn’t quite believe anyone would seriously want to exist in a virtual world, buy land, build houses, go shopping or have sex. Pretty soon I was an “avatar” and while my co-“avatars” had names like “Echo” and “Wind.” I opted for a more Kiwi approach and called myself “Kauri.
My first session lasted four hours by which time I had managed to change my clothes so that I didn’t look like Paris Hilton, conversed with several other Second Lifers who were all new too and just having a look around (although one woman was practicing yoga and hid behind a tree when I said hi). Another man dressed in black sat on me, well virtually, and I got scared. Sitting at my laptop on a Sunday afternoon a man who doesn’t exist scared me shitless and I felt certain he was going to virtually rape me. So I flew away and landed at the bottom of the sea. But I didn’t drown I just walked out dry as a bone and fresh as a daisy, no blow dry needed.
It was about this time that my husband wandered in to see what I had just bought on Trade Me, that being the only other reason I would sit at my computer for hours without moving. I asked him if he’d mind if I had Second Life sex for research purposes. Call me old fashioned but I just had to see how you did it. The words “virtual” and “orgasm” were weighing heavily on my believability register. He wasn’t keen but did suggest that he could enter Second Life too and we could have virtual sex with each other. “Kauri” meets “Rubber Plant”, how sweet. He’s always been quick on his feet when it comes to problem solving, damn him.
The trend to live your life in your computer is something I have been battling to prevent others from doing for several months now. Friends send me emails saying they’ve signed me up for Facebook so instead of emailing, phoning or actually physically seeing me they can send messages from a website which seems to provide little else than a virtual community of like minded knob heads.
Why are we all avoiding real life?
Because in real life we are fat, and in cyberspace we can be thin. In real life we might not be as charming and witty as we would want to, but in cyberspace we have the time to think up the lines before we tap them out. I no longer visit Second Life, simply because things took forever to do and the Second Life community would often freeze while it caught up with my commands, which is probably more Telecom’s appalling broadband delivery problem than theirs. I just couldn’t face the thought of having sex and freezing at the wrong moment. It might send the wrong signal.
And I just couldn’t get my hair right. It insisted on looking like a dish mop after a big load of dishes, and quite frankly my hair looks like that in real life, so I wasn’t about to put up with it in virtual land.
Perhaps our computer is safer for many people. If you make a mistake, like landing in the ocean, then you’ll survive. You will always have something to do and people to meet who won’t judge you because you have a wart on your nose, big hips or a small dick. And at the end of day with your computer keyboard you will have had some emotional interaction of some kind. You may have been scared like I was, or you may have been loved, appreciated, listened to or played with.
Pretty soon you’d forget the joy of reading a good book, walking in the sun and meeting a friend for a glass of wine in an hour.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

"Celebrity Do Gooders" published August 19

When you spend your career writing about and therefore living off celebrities you tread a very narrow line if you turn on them. Welcome to my very narrow line.
On one side of the line is the right for all celebrities to be someone people recognise. Work on the tele, talk on the radio, star in a movie, read the news, learn to dance. Talk about these things in the magazines and give us some inside information on your personal life because people find you inspirational. They feel they own you and your star shines a little light on their ordinary lives. That’s celebrity culture and something I will always defend for its right to have a positive influence on people. I will also defend celebrities like Jools Topp to talk about her breast cancer and John Kirwan to talk about his depression. They are talking about their own experience of these issues.
But the other side of the line is where celebrities should not tread. Putting themselves out there to discuss issues they are not qualified to talk about, such as child abuse. There are doctors, social workers and Plunket nurses to do that. People who have actually met abusers and their victims and therefore have a reasonable understanding of why these atrocities happen and how one could go about starting to fix them. You don’t find many child abuse cases at a Trelise Cooper children’s fashion show. Well not the kind you read about in the paper anyway.
Celebrities do not own the exclusive rights to expressing their anger and concern either. We all have that in spades and don’t particularly need to watch them parroting how we feel on television. We have mirrors. If they have answers because their charity has invested its funds into research then let’s hear them, we’re interested. But don’t wring hands and talk about your embarrassment and the fact that you don’t know or don’t care about “the Maori problem.”
Recently we’ve seen celebrities emerge from behind their glamour and carefully maintained images to “protest.” Christine Rankin and her team of yummy mummies had the relatively easy job of turning up and saying nothing for three minutes to show their concern about child abuse. I was so deeply affected I went to Christine’s charity For the Sake of Our Children Trust on the net to see what I could do to help. I was encouraged to talk about the problem with friends and politicians, to sign up to the charity and get others to as well, to report incidences of child abuse and to become a positive role model. Who had any idea it was so easy to solve the child abuse problem?
Jonah Lomu recently reminded us to remind our power supplier if we might die if the electricity was turned off. Ta, Jonah. And let’s not forget Breast Cancer Awareness week when celebrities find a friend’s mother who once had a lump removed and recall the pain and agony this knowledge inflicted on them when they found out.
Some might suggest that celebrity wagons are being hitched to such shocking and disturbing issues as child abuse as a way of fleshing out their brand and getting them some much needed coverage. I prefer to see it as a misguided attempt on their part to use their celebrity status to draw attention to a cause they know little about. “If just one person stops beating a child because I’m embarrassed and I think it’s a Maori problem then it’s worth it because then I’ll feel better.” That might work for the correct way to put out a fire or not be killed on a railway crossing but child abuse? Such an endemic, historic, complex issue, will not be fixed by the stroke of a celebrity highlighter.
Celebrity causes are not new. Brigdet Bardot has devoted her life to saving little animals, Angelina Jolie’s work inflicting media intrusion on unsuspecting orphans is well documented and Diana Princess of Hearts tiptoed around a few land mines in her time.
But people are still cruel to animals, children are still suffering and people are still being blown up by landmines.
And Christine Rankin gets more news coverage for the alleged firing of a TVNZ security guard who challenged her racist views, than providing any useful suggestions for this nation’s child abuse recovery.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

"Grandma Envy" published August 12

Grandma envy is not something many women admit to. When you have adult children it is usually a signal to stop wearing underwear, remind yourself that “flirt” is not a dirty word and take up Ceroc dancing. I’m not one of those women. I can’t wait for grand children. My own kids grew up at SPQR so I figure it’ll be business as usual with the grand kids.
Which is why I’m practicing on Cleo. She’s four, and one of those kids you would repeat order if you could. She ticks all the right boxes from cute as a button right through to immaculate comic timing.
She came to stay for five nights. In anticipation I bought her a pink cuddly rug, a gypsy skirt, a bunny rabbit, two princess books and junk food. I’m not sure why I bought the baby rug but it was soft and cuddly and it made me feel grandma’ish.
What I didn’t realise was that no one else in my house was feeling remotely grandma’ish.
“Did you think about consulting the rest of us before bringing another child into our home?” said the indignant husband.
I think he was about to say: “A dog is not just for Christmas, it’s for life!” but thought better of it.
Men can be such pricks sometimes. Especially when proving points about consultative practice which is a theme we’re working on at present. Not to mention the new theme which emerged when Cleo came to stay called “doesn’t lift a finger.”
Non envious grandparent of the future chose to ignore the overwhelmingly positive and gorgeous presence of my practice grand-daughter.
So it was me and Cleo with some help from the adult kids who found her vastly amusing on the topic of nude male paintings.
“I have to move, I’m sick of looking at that man’s penis,” she announced.
Even the dog had something to say by urinating on the kitchen floor as she does when she’s emotionally unstable and coping with the realisation that she has just been relegated one notch further down the food chain. And Pearl the nine-year-old requested a day off at her friend’s house.
“I just need some space Mum. You know how it is.”
Meanwhile Cleo, sensing my acute aloneness in a house of many subtly worked on the husband in an impressively early display of sisterhood.
“Oh you are so tall,” she would say eyeballing him with her clear green eyes. “Uncle Paaauuulll can I have a cuddle.”
Good girl.
I tried to hide my exhaustion from Cleo. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to get my arse off the couch to watch a child have a bath, read bedtime stories or negotiate with a pre-schooler. “I don’t want to!” are four words Cleo uses a lot.
“I’ll give you a piece of chocolate!” were seven words I used a lot.
On the third night after I had cooked a meal for 10 (our usual contingent on a Sunday night) Cleo slipped in a puddle of emotionally unstable dog urine and everyone just kept on eating. As I calmed her and the dog down, changed her clothes and put dog out the back I caught a look of horror from the five big kids. And it was directed at Paul. The normally hands-on, can’t do enough Father of the Year. He was nonchalantly forking spaghetti into his mouth and looking the other way. Too nonchalantly. The kids were not impressed.
“Why is Mum behaving like a single parent?” my eldest daughter demanded to know in a reassuring display of sisterhood.
More spaghetti. More nonchalance.
“She saw me and ran up and gave me a huge hug!” he announced the next day after picking her up from day-care having casually mentioned that he could probably manage it on his way home from work.
“She’s soooooo gorgeous,” said Uncle Paaauuulll. “I’ve bought her a green umbrella. I can’t wait to be a grandpa,” he gurgled.
I put my feet up for the first time in days.
And then she was gone. Swept up by her tanned parents who reacted quite calmly to the news that “Aunty Wendyl gives me chocolate if I go wees before bed” which were the first words to tumble out of her deliciously funny mouth.
The dog is only just back to her normal non-urinating inside self and Cleo left behind the baby blanket and the green umbrella.
But they’ll be waiting anxiously for her next time, as we both are.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

"Phones" published August 5

There are three things in life which never happen. The first is having an overwhelmingly positive response when someone calls while you are on deadline to check “you’re happy with our service.” The second is having an overwhelmingly positive response when you’re on deadline and that person is calling from Telecom. And the third is being haunted by that phone call for months, day and night, dreaming and awake, so scary was your conversation.
Her name was Tania or Stacey or something like that. I told her I was unhappy paying hundreds of dollars a month for a phone line, broadband and two cell phones. I told her I couldn’t understand my bill no matter how many times I tried to analyse it Why is it that when you flick it over it is upside down and you have to turn it around and then you forget what you were looking at? And why is it 20 pages long? Why do 1D, 1W, 9D, and 9F in the “type of call” column all mean “mobile to mobile” What’s the difference? What do all my “plans” actually mean? I can’t remember. Tania or Stacey “pulled me up” on her screen. There was a silence. “It’s your cell phone, you’ve already spent $100 this month,” she announced.
“But I don’t use it that much, maybe you need to put me on another plan.”
Silence. Pause.
“Umm, look I’ve got to go into a meeting, I’ll call you back in an hour.”
Tania/Stacey never called back. I waited with an anticipation I found hard to justify to myself in my most confident moments. Why did it matter? Surely Tania/Stacey wasn’t keeping anything from me, like the fact that I was being ripped off and Tania/Stacey’s job was to upgrade me to spend more, not save me money. A nagging feeling planted itself on my shoulder from that day like some consumer time bomb ticking away. In moments of reason at 4am as I lay awake pretending to read but really wondering why she never called back I thought that perhaps the meeting she was called into could have been her last because she was fired for going too easy on the customers. Or maybe she was pregnant and working from home to make ends meet and she went into labour and obviously couldn't call me back.
There was nothing for it but to consult the kids. Not that any of them is particularly skilled in translating Telecom phone bills or was at all interested in a discussion as to why Tania/Stacy never called back. But they did know about Other Network charges. The fact that all my girlfriends, and therefore the ones I chat to are 021 people. When you’re an 027 calling 021 costs more than my life is worth.
“Change to Vodafone,” they announced on their way out the door oozing their particular brand of youth, vitality and cool.
But therein lies the rub. At the caravan only 027 works and I need that for my nifty email connection so that I can work and no one knows I’m actually down there. It’s amazing how many business conversations you can have in the gaps between seagull calls, crashing waves and camp mates dropping off buckets of kiwifruit.
Then Matt, the kids’ friend who just flew up from Dunedin for the holidays gave me the solution. Two phones. One for my 021 friends on prepay the other my 027. It’s not the most environmentally friendly option, he pointed out, but it saves you money. And as he actually flew the plane he just arrived on, I figured he knew a thing or two.
So the two phone option was adopted at the cost of $110 which I would no doubt save in a matter of weeks.
“Gosh it’ll be a bit embarrassing when both of them go off at the same time while I’m out at lunch,” I chortled to my daughter as I headed out to lunch.
“Has anyone seen my extra phone?” I yelled the next morning.
It was gone. It disappeared at lunch and SPQR report that it hasn’t turned up in the little draw under the cash register which so often minds the things I leave behind. I had used the phone for 24 hours.
I now have another one bringing the total money saving exercise into the red at -$220. Which will actually take months to make it worth my while even with my $6 Best Mate deal.
That’s the sort of thing I like to think Tania/Stacey would have warned me about if we’d ever got to have our chat.