As long as it’s black

I bought a sweater this year. I last owned one in 2011, when I unwisely stripped down while trying (and failing) to make macarons and casually tossed my sweater onto a hot hob. A friend from Goodreads asked me, “What color did you buy?” I bought black, of course. I also could have chosen from charcoal and grey.

All women’s clothes in Auckland are black. Ok, that’s a lie. But 85% of women’s clothes in New Zealand malls are black, with a sprinkling of brighter accent colors that work with black. Check out any line of humans waiting for a bus on an Auckland workday morning and everyone is wearing black.

Here are photos I took at the mall today. I didn’t deliberately select the stores, these are just the womenswear stores between my car and the shop where I bought the “fluffy” towels my realtor told me I needed to tszuj my bathrooms.

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shop 4

shop 6

shop 8

shop 2

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Admittedly it’s winter, but the season makes no difference. Our best known designers like Zambesi and NomD work black like it’s an entire palette in itself.  I love them for it.

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Current NomD collection
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Current Zambesi collection

The color is ingrained in our culture, even though apparently our preference for black branding is hurting New Zealand businesses overseas. New Zealand’s obsession with black was the subject of a 2011 show by the New Zealand Fashion Museum.

Confession: this has given me some qualms about packing for my October trip to GRL. I like blending in, because it camouflages my social awkwardness. I guess I’ll have to wait and see how many other people in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Maine choose the best color of all.

Te Ika a Maui

Hey, did you guys see Disney’s Moana trailer?

And did you see the teaser, where Maui recounts his exploits, including pulling islands out of the sea?


I live on that island!

The official name of the North Island of New Zealand is te Ika a Maui – the fish of Maui. It’s a whai, actually – a stingray. See?


Don’t see it yet?

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The South Island is Maui’s waka. Actually, not his waka. His brothers’ waka. Maui’s five brothers didn’t like him, and they wouldn’t take him fishing with them. “You’re too little, and you bring bad luck,” they sneered (they thought Maui was coddled: typical older sibling issues). So Maui stowed himself away under some gear and didn’t come out until the waka was far out at sea, too far for his brothers to take him home.

Man, they were so pissed at him. They refused to give him any bait, so he punched himself in the nose and smeared the blood over his fish hook – the one made from the jawbone of his grandmother.

Fun fact: the jawbone fish hook? Based in truth. All Pacific peoples are descended from the Lapita people, from South-East Asia.

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Lapita pottery ca. 1000 BC.






The Lapita people buried their dead, then, after the flesh was gone, they dug up the skulls and carried the heads of their ancestors with them as they migrated from one island to the next, spreading out across the Pacific.

Lapita pot, just the right shape and size for a skull.


Owning your grandmother’s jawbone was an act of great reverence. As the youngest grandson, Maui was clearly special if he was the one who had care of it.

Maui’s nana’s jawbone is cooler than your nana’s jawbone

Look! Lapita pot with a chicken’s head it in in the trailer. Blink and you’ll miss it. Kind of disrespectful, but also a great in-joke for anthropologists and archaeologists.

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So, anyway, Maui smeared the fishook with his blood and cast it into the water. His brothers caught many fish, but Maui caught nothing, and they teased and jeered at him. Finally, with a canoe full of fish, the brothers raised the anchor stone to set off for home. But just as Maui was pulling his line in, an enormous fish took his hook, and took off. The fish dragged the waka far out across the ocean, way beyond their normal fishing grounds, further south than anyone had gone before. Maui stood on the bow, playing the fish with skill, and saying a karakia to Tangaroa – the god of the sea – so he wouldn’t let Maui’s line break.

Maui’s brothers clung for their lives to the sides of the waka.”Cut the line! Cut the line!” they begged, but Maui refused.  It took many days, but finally Maui fought the fish to the surface. It was an enormous stingray, larger than their home, Hawaiki. He had hooked the fish through one wing, and the tip of this wing was the first part to be pulled out of the water. Finally Maui pulled in the huge ray, and it died.

Maui left his brothers to guard the fish, and went back to Hawaiki to bring everyone to see his huge catch. But while Maui was away his brothers argued about who would have the best parts. They slashed and beat at the stingray, staking their claims. When Maui returned his brothers had carved the smooth surface of the stingray into gorges and steep hills, which we can still see in the rugged terrain of the North Island.

The waka is the South Island, and the anchor stone is Stewart Island. The place where Maui had hooked the ray is Gisborne, still the first place in (mainland) New Zealand to see the sun each day.


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This is Te Aurere, a reproduction of a traditional waka, the life work of Hekenukamai Busby of Te Tokerau. It’s traveled between Tahiti, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand.

Maori sailors – like all Polynesian peoples- were excellent navigators, and had a good understanding of the shape of the New Zealand landmass to be able to deduce it was the shape of a stingray and a long straight waka. Polynesian sailors even made it to the subantarctic in the 13th century, spending at least one summer living off seals and seabirds.

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A hollow where the eagle rays lie to bask in the sun and hide from orca at my local beach. Luckily, smaller than Maui’s stingray. Still, never wade in the shallows. Much safer to swim.

If you visit New Zealand you will be hard pressed to leave without a hei matau – a bone carving of a fish hook. They’re everywhere. Most are made in China. Of beef bones.

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See how the barb goes the wrong way? Don’t buy this.

Seeing the Moana trailer is a bit like the moment I first played Far Cry 3 and heard the Kiwi accents and the cry of the ruru. It’s so tough growing up knowing that everywhere real – everywhere that matters – is someplace else. It’s amazing to see Pasifika mythos reflected on the big screen. I don’t care it’s a kids’ film: I’m going.

Bonus trivia  1: Kakamora [1] warrior from trailer, and Kiribas puffer fish helmet, early 2oth century. There’s one of these in the Auckland museum and I still go see it every time I visit because it’s so cool.


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Bonus trivia 2: Moana’s rooster is called Heihei. Heihei means chicken in Maori. Her chicken is called chicken :/ Until recently, chicken bones found in Chile and dated to 1302-1424 were thought to prove that Pacific peoples voyaged to South America long before Europeans did. Sadly, this might not be the case. There’s still the sweet potato, though.


[1] I won’t lie, I admit I’m slightly worried about the “coconuts” issue. This epithet still gets thrown around a lot in New Zealand regarding Pasifika people. We have a big problem with racial prejudice.





First degree burns and the rack


My January beer of the month is Double Happy Imperial Ale (8%) from Sunshine Brewery in Gisborne, New Zealand.

double happy label

Usually I select my beers based on the graphic design of their labels, because I know fuck all about beer, except that it’s delicious. But this one I picked for the name. The explosive artifact known as the ‘Double Happy’ was a treasured part of my childhood. Because Guy Fawkes.

Guy Fawkes – 5th November – is the day we celebrate the attempted blowing up of the British Houses of Parliament by, you guessed it, Mr. Guido (Guy) Fawkes, in 1605.  The motive – surprise, surprise – was religious differences. Happily ­– or sadly, depending on your point of view – the plot was foiled by a warning letter which fell into the hands of King James.

Guy Fawkes was caught and broken on the rack to force him to reveal his co-conspirators. In case you are not au fait with 17th century devices of torture, the rack involves the dislocation of the victim’s joints, the snapping of the cartilages and ligaments, and the destruction of the muscle fibers.

When I image searched ‘The Rack’ I got more breasts than I anticipated

Guy talked. Of course he did. He and his seven confederates were executed in 1606, by being hung, drawn, and quartered. The condemned is tied to a ‘hurdle,’ head down, and dragged, by horse, a considerable distance to a platform where they are hanged by the neck until they are nearly – but not quite – dead. Then someone cuts their cock and balls off, burns said cock and balls while the former owner watches, cuts open their abdomen, pulls out their bowels and heart through the hole, and only then, when the presumably guilty party has finally died of blood loss and shock, would their bodies be quartered – cut into four – and, in the case of Guy Fawkes and his buddies, distributed around the country to be put on display as a warning to others. Which all is excellent fodder for the imagination of growing children, as you can imagine.

a hurdle
A hurdle, apparently

So, in honor of Guy Fawkes, the countries that once comprised the British Commonwealth celebrate the 5th of November by lighting explosives and making jokes about what a pack of bastards politicians are, and isn’t it a shame Guy Fawkes isn’t around to free us from the lot of them now. (In New Zealand jokes about terrorism are tickety-boo as long as politicians are the ones hypothetically dying.)

Guy Fawkes is the best event for kids ever. In some ways it’s better than a birthday because it’s pure. There’s no cake. No party. No carefully wrapped gifts. Guy Fawkes belongs to everyone. And you get to blow shit up.¹

For the big fireworks – your rockets and your roman candles – you had to wait for actual Guy Fawkes night. The best was the Catherine Wheel,² a flat, circular piece you needed to nail to a fence before lighting. A carelessly hammered nail meant the wheel would skitter free, revolve along the concrete, and lodge itself under Mr Anderson’s prized Jaguar, setting the engine alight. Why yes, that is very specific, isn’t it? My, how we danced to the delightful and unexpected flamboyance of the red flashing fire truck light. The firemen let us take a ride around the block after they extinguished the car, too. This probably explained why we were not allowed to light these without parental supervision.

But you know what was fair game? Double happies.

A double happy is a cylinder of paper, dyed red, with a long fuse, filled with a very small quantity of gunpowder. They came in a pack of 24 under the Po Ha brand, fuses plaited together, and wrapped in vivid red waxed paper.

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My own co-conspirators were a brother and sister duo who lived next door. Let’s call them Jack and Sarah (names have been changed to protect the guilty). And double happies were our chosen weapon of destruction.

The plaited multi-fuse gave double happies infinite possibilities. You could light the main fuse (and run) which allowed the entire 24 to explode in a cacophony of smoke and fire and a delicious wall of sound. If, by happenstance, your houses backed onto a school, and you hypothetically boosted the smallest of you *cough*Sarah*cough* onto a classroom roof and she, perhaps, inserted the lit slab of double happies into, for argument’s sake, a downspout, you could achieve excellent reverberation, an appropriate increase in noise, and, occasionally, a delightful shower of PVC confetti.

Or you could pull an individual double happy out from the mass, break it in half, hold the two ends firmly between the thumb and forefinger, apply a flame directly to the gunpowder at the broken section, and aim the resulting spray of sparks at nearby defenseless members of the Arachnida or Insecta orders,³ or alternatively, another child. These little beauties were called fizzers.

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Explosives. Fun for the whole family.

A rite of passage was holding a double happy on your outstretched flattened palm. Your friend would light it. Your task was to not throw it away and run. If you withstood its explosion you gained not only scorch marks and 24 hours worth of poor handwriting, but also the respect of your fellows. If you closed your hand around it, of course, you lost the ability to write forever. Along with your hand. Each year, nationally, someone did just this.

But my favorite was when you carefully prised the pack apart while watching Disney’s Adventures of Gummi Bears, shoveled the loose crackers into a highly flammable paper bag, pocketed a box of Beehive matches, and played double happy tag; the game that requires quick reflexes, a sure throwing arm, and a handy turn of speed. The rules were simple: the one who first cried from their burns, lost. (Hint: it was always Jack. Sarah and I were younger, smaller, and therefore harder to hit.)

Oh, happy childhood, the sweet, long, spring evenings, – the sun balanced right on the horizon forever ­­– the fragrance of grass flowers mixed with gunpowder tang and the succulence of singed epidermis. My legs were long like a colt’s, and no one could catch me when I ran. I was just beginning to understand that if Jack’s hand brushed mine as he hurled a lit double happy at my cheek… well, let’s just say that a terror of facial burns and a lost eye wasn’t the only thing that sent a swarm of butterflies into my belly.

This is what it felt like to be truly free.

To my infinite regret, in 1993 New Zealand banned double happies, and their cousins, tom thumbs. In 1994 we banned rockets. Whereas once our families would thrust handfuls of change at us and tell us to toddle off to the ice-cream shop to purchase pyrotechnics (and no, I am not kidding) since 2006 you have to be 18 to buy any kind of firework, and even then you can only get them for four days before the actual event. When enterprising youth learned to construct ‘sparkler bombs’ the sale of sparklers was banned unless as part of a larger pack, and no more than 50 in those. Currently there’s a groundswell to totally ban fireworks of all kinds, which our government calls “inevitable.

In most ways the 21st century is the best time to be alive that has ever existed. Only, to our infinite loss, not in its determination to keep explosives out of the hands of small children.

Oh, and the beer?

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It had a hoppy first bite, with an aftertaste of burnt caramel popcorn. The label says, an “intense spicy grapefruit and citrus nose.” See, this is why I suck at beer tasting. There is no citrus, only Zuul caramel. Overall it was okay. Kind of bland. Sunshine Brewery call it “a broad English malt palate,” but it registers to me as meh. Would not buy again.

Would buy double happies again. Over and over. But the joy of fireworks, like youth, was frangible, and now it is gone. But all my limbs remain intact. And that’s always a win.



¹ In Britain there’s another tradition which sadly didn’t ever take off in New Zealand, where bright-eyed chattering younglings make a roughly human-shaped figure out of straw, dress him in old clothes, and wheel him from house to house soliciting ready cash. Once darkness falls they find a suitable empty lot and burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. Ah, youthful innocence.

We shall burn him and pretend he is alive! Huzzah!


² Given the origins of Guy Fawkes, it will not surprise you that the Catherine Wheel is named after Catherine of Alexander, who was sentenced to ‘the wheel.

“Firstly, the delinquent is placed belly down, bound hands and feet outstretched to a board, and thus dragged by a horse to the place of execution. The wheel is then slammed two times on each arm, one blow above the elbow, the other below. Then, each leg gets the same treatment, above and below the knees. The final ninth blow is given at the middle of the spine, so that it breaks. Then, the broken body is woven onto the wheel (i.e. between the spokes), and the wheel is then hammered onto a pole, which is then fastened upright, its other end in the ground. The criminal is then to be left dying “afloat” on the wheel, and be left to rot.”

Good stuff. (Seriously, is it any surprise I write grimdark?)

Spoiler alert: she didn’t actually go on the wheel; it went boom in a shower of sparks before they could tie her to it. Hence, the Catherine Wheel.

at the execution of peter stump
Breaking on the wheel

³ When I was a child I thought as a child, and was a dickhead. I destroyed fellow beings for nothing more than my amusement. This was wrong, and I regret it deeply. Now I carefully place all spiders outside, or welcome them into my home as free-range mosquito destroyers. I no longer kill defenseless creatures, I swear. Except cockroaches. Cockroaches are even worse than politicians. Just.