Playing Mind Ball with Ant Farm

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The year was 1975, or possibly 1976, or maybe 1973. Hey, I hit the hootch hard that decade. The place: Auckland University School of Architecture – positively seething with hippies, radicals, wondrous new visions for humanity’s collective future as grateful recipients of the latest architectural trends, and Quantity Surveying students.

Actually, it wasn’t like that at all. It was mainly seething with hormones.

Oh: and very hairy men, doctor’s daughters, under-ventilated armpits and the lingering smell of World War II. At that stage they had not yet built their shiny New Brutalist Vision Of An Architecture School, so most of our time was spent trekking between various demountable huts leftover from W.W.II . Yup. For real.

And IMO it was the perfect place to dream big; to pass through one’s apprenticeship un-trammeled by someone else’s idea of ‘Space’ and ‘Form’; a neutral place to foment one’s architectural style within an environment so bland that anything was going to be better; more visionary; more spacious and more suitable to nurture human enterprise.

[I wasn’t there for the naked-concrete-and-glass caverns that followed. Was it an influence? Was that why everyone turned to Deconstructionism? Maybe.]

Anyway, they were exciting times. Barely a year before I arrived there’d been a sort of revolution. The students had agitated to shake off of the dowdy, dusty, out-dated curriculum and created something vastly more exciting – or at least one full of ‘options’ (as long as one also ‘opted’ to do the mandatory 80% course requirement that was suspiciously (& exactly) the same as what had been there only two years earlier).

But. Exciting. Times! Hundertwasser arrived in town. We all flocked to his lecture. He was ALL THE RAGE! We loved him, we loved his art and his architecture. (And someone I knew ended up loving him far more directly – but that is her tale to tell, not mine.)

There were gatherings, parties, outings, camps, sex and drugs and even a smattering of rock and roll. People I knew were getting smashed and sneaking out at night to paint the trees. We took LSD. We led each other into downtown Auckland blindfolded, effectively inventing trust-games from scratch. Often stoned, we seldom hit the books.

But anyway; scene is now set. Let me introduce Ant Farm.

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Suddenly the new buzz was Ant Farm, “an avant-garde architecture, graphic arts, and environmental design practice, founded in San Francisco in 1968 by Chip Lord and Doug Michels.” [Wikipedia] [and hey: I didn’t know any of that at the time]. and they were coming to Auckland! Some of the senior Arch students had arranged it. They were big fans; in touch with trends; connected to the real world in ways I was not. I’d never heard of Ant Farm until then.

So, quick recap: Ant Farm buried some cars in the desert, and they drove a car through a wall of burning TV sets, and some other stuff I missed in the memo. They were architects, apparently. Seemed to go with the territory: eccentrics, radical stirrers, pot-heads, dreamers, optimists, visionaries … [tick as many boxes as are appropriate].

They did a presentation on their second day, spoke about their epic works of conceptual art and showed us a long dreary video of how they did it. It made no sense to me. Just looked like a terrible waste of good automobiles and TV sets.

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But I had already joined the throng by then. The hype. They arrived on a 707. First event: dinner at this down-market greasy-spoon steak cafe on Ponsonby Road – someone’s idea of irony, I guess. Not my scene. The food was awful. We were just wrong. Mostly we were the offspring of doctor’s and lawyers and accountant’s, and yes, architects. (except me) Educated, sophisticated South Pacific Colonials trying so hard to entertain three jet-lagged Americans by taking them to the worse dive in the city. Yeah, right.

With that finished, we immediately re-grouped in a upstairs venue further down Ponsonby Road for a party. The Ant Farm guys were … I don’t know. Bemused? Jet-lagged? Horny? All three? Anyway a prodigious amount of Mary Jane was pulled out by all and sundry (except me: I was always a freeloader) and the room soon filled with smoke and conversations, and that was when the Ant Farm guys really blew my mind.

I was stoned out of my gourd, trying to follow their conversations, when one of them turns to the others, “Hey, y’know, this is the perfect time for a game of Mind-Ball.”

The others agreed enthusiastically.

“Okay, I’ve got the ball … and it’s away!” I followed their eyes, trying to spot this imaginary ball. This was subtle. This was something damn-near spirtual! Yup, I think I figured who had it next. I watched him intently. Nothing much happened. They resumed their previous conversation. Me? I was hyper-alert!! I didn’t want to miss it when it came to me. <Conversation, conversation, suck on beer, glance around the room, suck on beer, light another cigarette, conversation> …. These guys were incredible. all that going on and they were still playing Mind Ball! I spaced out.

“So who’s got the ball?”

Fuck! I’d missed it. Utterly spaced out. FOCUS! FOCUS!

“I got it.” .. “Okay, send it on.” .. “It’s away.”

It didn’t come to me. Man these guys were subtle! Once again I watched them closely. Were they passing it when they sucked on their beers? Was that the signal? They did it a lot. Or was it a clue in the conversation? Every time the subject changed? Was it a ‘pass’?

“So who’s got the ball?” .. “Here.” .. “Send it.” .. “It’s away.”

Shit. Caught out again! I so wanted to get this game, I so wanted to get a turn with the Mind-Ball, but it just wasn’t reaching me. A few times I thought I had it, but my every attempt to ‘signal’ it onward fell on deaf eyes. So … must have been mistaken. Shit.

The evening drifted onward, timelessly as it does, the crowd was a self-stirring entity, people drifted into/out of conversations, which drifted into/out of different things. The Ant Farm guys were happy to talk, drink free beer, smoke free dope, while my brain gradually melted into a worthless puddle, and finally they admitted they were jet-lagged and just wanted to get to their motel. Party broke up. Dope wore off. I rejoined my companions and we crawled home at half the speed of light in someone’s mini, sagged onto our sagging sofas, drank tea, conversed … And finally I remember the Mind Ball.

Where had it gone? Someone must have scooped it up, but didn’t pass it on, or something. Anyway I never got it. Farrrrk those guys were on another whole level! Hard to believe they’d just taken a bunch of cars and buried them in the desert. How could such clever guys do something so dumb? I just didn’t get it.

Anyway, I met Ant Farm. The experience added nothing to my life.

[LINK TO A STORY ABOUT THE CAR-THRU-THE-TVS STUNT:] 

 

 

 

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“Elf Oil”

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It was 1983. I had been in Sydney a bare few days. It was my first (and as it transpired, temporary) act of immigration. We’d taken up residency on a mattress in an empty room in a rental house with some other Kiwis – already seasoned Aussies.

Next day I heard, as our hostess bounced out the front door, “I’m going to the shops for some Elf Oil! Anyone need anything else?” – My head whirled with excitement, “What a place! you can even buy Elf Oil !” Whatever next?! I couldn’t wait to get inside one of their wondrous supermarkets. (But I’ll admit to wondering by then what Elf Oil was, exactly.)

I was destined to be intensely disappointed. Elf Oil turned out to be ‘Al-foil’; ‘aluminium foil’ – for cooking. I knew of it already. Utterly mundane stuff. Every household uses that!

But once upon a time it wasn’t so. Long long ago, I recall a world that lived without cooking foil. We all still managed to cook, despite having to use cookware made of ordinary common metals or crockery. These primitive things came in a wide range of sizes and shapes, some had lids, and they all worked. I recall may kinds of food successfully cooked and eaten during this dismal phase of human history – cakes, roasts, biscuits (but never ‘cookies’), even fish! Yes, yes: Aluminium did exist in those ancient times. Pots were made of it (‘saucepans’ to other speakers of English) and frying pans too.

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Then Television came to New Zealand and with it the message that we and our primitive inadequate lifestyles were failing to benefit from a whole range of new and exciting products. I recall the arrival of potato chips (as distinct from ‘chips’ – which were merely made of potato, served with fish, and otherwise completely unrelated).

On TV we saw shiny happy people demonstrating how to open their shiny packets of this new miracle foodstuff and repeatedly stuff it into their happy mouths, while cheerful voices exhorted us to mimic this obviously joyful and socially enhancing experience.

Thus we all took to potato chips. There was 1 flavour: Salt. (It’s now called “Original!”)

I also recall with breathless excitement the arrival of themed icecreams-on-a-stick. We losers always had the ‘chocolate bomb’, but Television soon showed us how inadequate they were. We needed to be hip and switch to ingesting almost identical icecreams-on-sticks dipped in a cheaper grade of chocolate then smothered in a crunchy layer of crushed rice-bubbles of such garish colour that I doubt they’d now get FDA approval. All this for another 12 cents per unit! (One of them was called the ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, I kid you not. It sold for an extra 15 cents per unit, and how glad we were to pay the extra!)

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And so on. It is, in fact, a recognised fact of commerce: certain types of crap .. sorry; products .. can only achieve mass market penetration and acceptance via TV. Introduce them before the marketing machinery is in place and they’ll die the sad lonely death they really deserve. But with TV marketing – hell: the suckers will buy anything!

So along came cooking foil. I remember it well. Out of the blue we were suddenly bombarded with the Miraculous News; cookery had changed for all time! The cheerful celebrity chefs of the time were suddenly telling us that everything we’d ever done was wrong. Lids? forget them! “It’s so easy; just cover the dish with aluminium foil and pop a few holes in it for the steam, now bake in the exact same oven at the usual temperature and it’ll come out perfect!” Ditto the women’s magazines and cook-books. Everyone was revamping their recipes to include a generous splash of aluminium. “Prepare!” “Line the dish!” “Create layers!” “Wrap fish!” “Cover!” “Roll!” “Store food in the fridge!”

Its uses were nigh-on infinite, and we were all suckered. We purchased literally millions of miles of aluminium foil, used it once, and threw it away as instructed. And that is exactly what They wanted – a market. It was not a case of “Find a need and fill it,” it was a case of “Create a need for this frivolous crap we’ve invented that no-one really needs!”

And why was the entire thing a crock of crap? (And still is?) Because if anything, a super-thin layer of aluminium does nothing except slow the cooking process down. WARNING! SCIENCE CONTENT: Heat moves in three ways: Conduction, Convection, and Radiation:

Radiant Heat: Al-foil deflects it really well. If you were only relying of radiant heat, your foil-wrapped food would never cook. Conclusion 1# – Foil slows down cooking. Energy is wasted.

Conductive Heat: aluminium is an excellent conductor. As long as there is a large contact area with other oven metals, cooking proceeds well. But a lot of the time, the foil bundle is just “popped on the rack ready to cook!” Conclusion 2# – Foil slows down cooking. Energy is wasted.

Convective Heat: circulating air moves heat around inside an oven. Oven-temperature air does most of the convective heat delivery. But wrap the food in foil, or cover it, and you obstruct the circulation. Conclusion 3# – Foil slows down cooking. Energy is wasted.

Thus we pay money for a product that wastes our time and increases our power bill, then we usually throw it away after one use. Aluminium has one of the highest carbon-footprints of all metals so there is also a final cost – to our climate.

Ladies and Gentlemen, start you ovens. But please: Cease using cooking foil!

Look out instead for Original Elf Oil! That’s the cooking miracle you need!

‘How I became a Successful Stalker!’

How do you brag about one of your most resounding successes, without actually revealing exactly what it was? Because I want to brag. I’ve wanted to brag about this for over a year.

You see – I became obsessed with a voice. A voice I first heard way back in the 1960s in the middle of a pop-song that was climbing the charts at the time. Just another song, when I was 14, when pop-music only ever came out of a radio. It came, it went, and four decades rolled by.

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No, not this voice. (Shirley you know her!? )

Then I asked the internet: ‘Who was behind that voice?’ and Wikipedia gave me a one-line clue; her name. Okay: not much to go on, but Google!  I discovered an obscure blog about the famous group in question and its many adventures, and it gave me one more clue: the age of The Voice at the time of recording.

A name, an age, and by deduction a year-of-birth. But girls become women and women get married and trail is lost. Maiden names disappear. But I persevered, finding myself tracking an entire family history through the List of British Peers. I had spotted a possible marriage, a possible husband, but was it enough? For all I knew I could have been tracking an entirely different [NAME REDACTED].

Then a breakthrough: I found a sad note on a discussion thread written in the original name, to a friend about their mutual loss. Three school-chums, divided by a death, now down to two. Chums who were now in their forties. The ages matched perfectly. I found more on the deceased; their school; more data-points. But it was not enough. I couldn’t go bothering The Voice without certainty. [Hey: I shouldn’t’ve been stalking her, full-stop!]

Back to the sixties. I researched the other name from Wikipedia – the step-father it mentioned. This lead to other web-sites, more stories, more clues, and finally the (likely) name of The Voice’s mother! The dates matched, anyway. Finally, I found a Births, Deaths and Marriages register with that name in it – as a mother recorded on a specific birth, but no baby’s name. Paddington, London. Perfect. It would have cost me a bunch of money to fully unpack the mystery. I felt nosy. Too nosy.

So I left it.

The trail went cold. I found nothing more. Finally, I returned to the only person on Facebook that matched the married name I’d found via the Peerage Lists. (I knew they had since divorced. Astonishing what you can discover via the internet!) So: me the stranger, sending a message to another stranger via FB. You know how that goes: straight into the category called ‘Other” – the dead-letter bin of the digital world. No reply.

Then my laptop abruptly crashed, taking my entire search, every detail – into oblivion. An entire year went by. Then another.

Then she answered: “Yes – that was me.”

I was gob-smacked; like: “OMG – I’m taking to *HER*! The voice I first heard at age 14!”

Typing, I asked questions, promised I was not going to reveal her identity, that I wasn’t a journalist, etc, etc … and little by little (for she was not that talkative), I began to realise something profound: She’d told no-one about it. None of her contemporary friends knew of her ‘fame’. The incident had been all but forgotten. Worse, it had been a small corner of a greater tragedy: A whole tragic morass of abusive step-father/family destroyed/tiny child emotionally trampled during those glorious-but-selfish 1960’s rock&roll days.

Her memories were bad memories – and there I was expecting the exact opposite. All my shiny expectations crashed around me. The person I expected …. Well she wasn’t; not in the least! Hell: I’d been lucky to get a  five-sentence glimpse into that day.  but all of it was treasure, including a passing mention of one of rock’s biggest stars – she’d met him! It had been the one sweet moment in an otherwise exploitative situation. Fook. What an insight; what a sad tale. Murmured my sympathies, I signed off and let her be.

So that’s my brag: I successfully stalked someone, found her, after a 45 year cold-start.

The lesson though was tougher, much tougher, and at the end of this adventure I feel prouder of the fact that I was not so crassly clumsy as to not realise what her truth really was – the very sad truth behind her brush with rock&roll history. There was no fame, except the idea of it that I had created.

 

 

The Day I started School

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Excited, I followed Mother the day I turned 5 and sat in a huge classroom with about 1,000 other noisy little humans, and promptly spaced out. A successful day involved eating my lunch and getting home without being accosted by either friend or foe.

Autism: It’s a sort of invisible stretchy membrane that prevents a lot of stuff getting transmitted either way.

They kept me in that class for two years; told my mother I was intellectually impaired. But enough teachers spied the genius lurking behind the bushes. Those genius teachers found ways to draw out what was there (I was an art prodigy) and gradually my wheels engaged (never perfectly, for mine spun too fast for whatever track they put me on). I finished high school Dux in Math & Science. … [Fast-forward for 35 years]

My son seemed hopeless. At 3, 4 and 5, teaching him to read became a battle that he always won (and I lost, so I just resumed reading him high-school text books) and he was finally assessed as being severely dyslexic (*and* with dysgraphia). “He’ll probably never read for pleasure,”said the assessor, “He may never read at all.”

boy-struggling-readingBut my son stood listening to the expert that day, just out of our sight, and the next day he was gazing determinedly into a book. Within a month he was reading Harry Potter. Max crossed some ten years of education in the space of five weeks.

Take heart. We all travel at different speeds *and* wavelengths, but sadly, Education still manages to transmit on only one.

Having ‘Smarts’ sure helps — it can bridge a lot of gaps given time — and so does determination, or even better: a Sense of Direction; a Calling. I know this because I never had either and spent my life in a ship with a lot of sails but no chart, no compass, and a captain too prone to the cry of sirens. In the end, however (and to my surprise), I became a successful writer.

[EXPLANATION: – this short piece was written in response to an article on Medium. The article is right here: https://medium.com/synapse/too-dumb-to-be-a-doctor-2aa51d577e8b#.3kxnm4v26

Medium seems to be a place with some really high-end writers from many fields (at least they’re the ones that get their stuff featured every day).

Medium is right here: https://medium.com/