Man, my little brother was something else. No one really knew what to make of him, he always had his head up in the clouds. That was what killed him, I think. He never knew what was going on around him, and I suppose we all knew he’d get into some kind of trouble eventually. But it was about a year or two before he finally went away that I think I finally came to terms with just what kind of a soul he was.

Our family had a place by the beach. Nothing too flash. It was a two-room bungalow up in the ranges out of the city. A nice, sheltered little cove where sixty or so other families also had a place. The cove had young sand that was still made up of tiny seashells and larger stones. There was a rope swing hanging from a tree at the top of the cove and at high-tide you could swing out and drop into the water between the rocks. It was that kind of place.

Since I could remember we had always gone fishing. Dad, Mum, Uncle Mike, Aunty Nan, myself and, of course, Pete. Pete hated fishing but man, if you got him in the water he was something else. Sometimes when we fished in a bay he’d take off with a mask and snorkel and a big spear for an hour or two. He’d come back an hour later with a full bag most times, with a trail of blood spilling out behind him. It looked like dust, from beneath the water. Like a bag full of trailing dust.

The rest of us usually stayed in the boat. Dad and Mike would drink beer while Mum and Nan would spread themselves in the sun up on the front. They seemed to put so much effort into their tanning, but it was an endless task – they were never done. I fished – and Dad and Mike let me bait their hooks.

It was one of those summer days when everything just looks so crisp. It was about two in the afternoon – the water was bright blue, and clear, and when you looked at it you saw weird tentacles of light waving below the surface. Pete was long gone, and everyone had settled into their respective places and activities. No one was saying anything, you could just hear water lapping on the boat, and the occasional squawk of a gull.

It’s hard to describe just what was wrong with Pete. He was just different. He seemed to see the world in a completely different way to the rest of us. Sometimes you’d see an expression on his face that showed you a glimpse of how he saw the world and it was in those moments that you saw just how different it was from the reality. But sometimes as well, you’d think afterwards that maybe his reality was somehow more true than your own. And that was the worrying part.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at one stage Mike remarked: “Looks like a fin over there.” He nodded at a shape about one hundred metres from the back of the boat.

We all strained our eyes. If you went out on the boat enough times, you eventually saw some strange things. Once we saw a massive sunfish just floating around on its side. Another time it was a pod of whales coming through Century Bay. It wasn’t unheard of to see a shark, or dolphins.

“Yep, that’s a shark,” Dad said. “Mako I reckon.” He leaned his head over the side of the boat and called out to Mum. “Babe, see the shark over there?”

“Shark?” The ladies started making their way back. “Where’s Pete?” Nan called back.

He’d been to the left, over by some rocks closer in to the bay.

We saw him, his flippers occasionally kicking up a tuft of water as he made his way back to the boat. His head was down in the water, which meant he was probably carrying a full bag. A bleeding full bag.

“What do you reckon Mike?” Dad said. The good humour didn’t seem to be in his voice so much anymore.

“Can’t hurt to get the anchor up, I reckon.” He jumped up onto the side rail and quickly edged up to the front of the boat. Dad keyed up the engine.

It took a minute or two, and in that time both the shark and Pete were making their way to the boat. They looked set to converge at the same time actually. “Should we be worried?” I asked.

“No, he’ll be fine.” Dad said. “It’s just better to be safe I reckon.” Mum and Nan were both leaning on the side of the boat looking at Pete. They started calling out. From over there, above the chugging of the engine, you could faintly hear him calling back.

“What?”

They tried pointing at the fin off the back of the boat, but he was too low in the water to see it I think.

It was about that time that Mike got the anchor up. The boat swung around and we chugged forward in Pete’s direction. It wasn’t long before we’d swung alongside him. He looked up as he treaded water with his mask sitting on top of his head, spear in one hand and catch-bag in the other.

“What?”

“There’s a shark back there,” Dad called over from behind the wheel.

“Oh,” laughed Pete. “I thought something was wrong.” He shot me a devilish grin. I could see that he wanted to make a game of it – to show us all how unafraid he was of the shark. I knew better.

“Yeah, better to get you out though,” Mum said in a stern voice.

“Yeah, yeah,” Pete said. “Can you grab the bag?”

Where was the shark? I’d only taken my eyes off it for a second. “Dad?”

Mum was leaning over the side taking the bag from Pete’s up-stretched arms.

“Don’t see it anymore,” I said. Dad was looking too. There was a big cloud of blood-dust around Pete.

It was then, while Mum was taking the catch-bag that the shark snatched his leg. She instinctively dropped the bag and fell back into the boat – falling on Dad and knocking me back. Suddenly everything was yelling and splashing and you couldn’t see Pete’s head or body – just an arm flashing above the water. The water had turned bright red. It was Pete’s blood, definitely.

I will always remember and love my father for this: without hesitating he tore off his shirt and dove right into where the splashing was thickest. He appeared above the water in a second, pulling Pete up with him. I thought Pete had Dad confused for the shark at first- because he elbowed Dad in the nose and plunged back beneath the water.

Mum was reaching out to dad over the side of the boat. Mike was searching for something – the gaf, a knife – any kind of weapon. I was frozen to the spot – transfixed by the spectacle, and Nan stood behind me with her hand clutching my shoulder.

Suddenly the thrashing ceased. You could see shapes moving beneath the water. It had been less than a minute since the attack first started. From the centre of the mass below the water, massive clouds of blood were blooming. Dad gasped down a lungful of air and dove again beneath the water. He seemed to grab onto something, seemed to be fighting with something.

He came back with Pete. He pulled him above the water and Pete was choking and gasping in air. Mum exclaimed at the sight of the blood that surrounded them. Half of his choking seemed to be coming from the fact that Pete was trying to say something. Dad hauled him up onto the backboard of the boat. Pete paused for a moment, and seemed to be gathering some force of will.

I saw immediately that his leg was mangled. He needed surgery – massive lacerations ran from his thigh all the way down to the calf – and in parts you could see this white stuff that could only be torn muscle spilling out from the wounds.

“I killed it.” He finally gasped, staring wide-eyed into the face of my father. “I killed it,” he gasped again. “And I’m taking it with me.” And with that he dove beneath the water – kicking his legs behind him – kicking up further clouds of blood as he dove beneath the water. “Fuck’s sake,” Dad yelled, and dove after him. This time Mike went over the side behind him. The three of them went down together, until they clustered around the still, dark blue floating body of the shark.

And together they came back up. Once Mike had a firm hold of it, Dad saw to Pete. He put him into the cabin where Mum and Nan started tending to him with the first aid kit. Mum was screaming at Dad that they needed to go.

Years later, Dad would say that he didn’t know why he didn’t go immediately. He said that maybe it was something he’d seen in Pete’s eyes, that he knew things would never be okay in his life if he left the shark behind. But he looped a length of rope around the gaf and hooked into the mouth of the dead creature – secured it so that it could hang off the back of the boat, and then helped Mike back onto the boat.

Then together we headed back into shore. Mum sat in the cabin with Pete’s head on her lap the whole way. The whole time Pete kept saying: “I got him. I got him. Showed him.”

Pete was basically in and out of consciousness from then on. It was a long trip to the hospital and everyone was worried. But those few times he was awake, and lucid, he wouldn’t shut up about the shark. Mum, who never left his side, kept trying to ask him how he felt, but all he wanted to talk about was the shark. How big was it? Did they still have it? How he sure showed him. That shark had thought him dead meat, but he hadn’t counted on his opponent. And so on.

When he came out of the hospital, I think that was when things really changed for him. Suddenly he seemed to regard the world around him in some sort of adversarial context. The first thing he did when his leg felt better was to sign himself up for self-defense classes. This was Pete, who had never enjoyed anything physical if it was oustide of the water.

Even today, we still have that shark’s jaw above the fireplace in that house. You can fit your whole head into it, if you’re careful.

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Summer is how the world should be all the time. Summer unlocks all of the latent happiness potential that lies dormant within us as people. It was in Europe that I learned how fleeting and pressure summer can really be. I still haven’t felt pangs where I miss home, though I certainly am more aware of what I’ve left behind. But what I have felt is a more sincere appreciation for the value summer has for a soul. 

cwww.youtube.com/watch?v=1zgpQeHOZc0

 

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What fills the gap

It’s only these last couple of days that I’ve started to notice how happy I am again. I think I’m the happiest I’ve been since I arrived in Amsterdam. I realise how comfortable and enjoyable my life is here, and see how much further it can grow and be improved. The only determining factor is my willingness to engage with the world.

Somewhere along the way I learned to recoil from the world somehow, to shirk from the transaction. I hated paying for things at stores, I hated having to engage with another person using a set of rules I was unable to wield. Shyness, the word seems like a little and simple thing, but the thing it describes is so much bigger.

I am also remembering how easy it is to be happy. Happiness largely consists of doing more of the things you like and less of those you don’t. And when you spend more time doing things you like, you realise that many of the things you thought you didn’t like doing really aren’t that bad. And in fact, even those thing are filled with happiness if you know how to look for it. Somehow I had unlearned that.

With happiness has come motivation. All of this stuff is hooked up somehow, there’s all sorts of feedback mechanisms and flow-on effects so that it’s really cumulative.

Some budding musician posted this video on reddit the other day:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmT3t2Kdr3I

I find it very moving. It seems to represent how I feel right now. Inspired, and becoming aware of just how big the world is.

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In which we return after a long hiatus

Well, my initial publishing efforts didn’t last long. But that’s okay, I think half of writing is learning to get over the guilt associated with not-writing, which then makes it something we stop avoiding, and so paradoxically become more open to putting pen to paper. 

Winter was rough. Part of me had known it was going to be, but another more cavalier part said, with almost teenage bravado “we’ll be able to stick it out.” And we did, but it almost cost ourselves our job and our sanity. The last two times I had winters like this I flushed two years of university down the toilet. This time around, after a strong start at work, I lapsed into a kind of fog where I wasn’t much use to anybody. Added to that a couple of high-profile mistakes that pissed off a senior manager, and I think my boss was thinking “why did we even hire this guy?”

But just the other day they announced that it was the first day of spring. I am too disorganised to store in my skull the specific date, so I always rely on others for these kinds of information. So spring is here and soon the trees that line the canals will sprout leaves again. In the height of summer they’re the most glorious, bright green things. In winter they’re just bundles of sticks. 

Now that it’s spring, life is good again. I’ve been going to the gym on alternating days, have found myself an apartment, have become a star at work again, and am working at becoming more of a social animal.

I have also resolved that I am going to learn how to skydive. I have told a few people about this, so I suppose that I’m locked in now, and that’s a good thing. 

The other day I went to IKEA for the first time in my life. That was like coming face to face with globalisation. Some indignant liberal part of me wanted to find flaws in the whole arrangement, as though in solidarity with the workers in China and the villagers in Brazil who are having their forests cut down. But even I had to admit that it was convenient, likely cheaper than its competitors, and not a bad system for getting all that various bric-a-brac we surround ourselves with. I left with a couple of towels and pillows. James was kind enough to take me to some guy in Bos en Lommer who sold me a bed for 500 euros with delivery – it should be at Renes place within a fortnight. 

 

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In which the weather turns out just lovely and we have a nice cruise down the canals

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In which we watch the England game… also baby swans

Last night went to see England play Sweden in football at Cocos in Rembrantplein.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, surrounded as we were by a group of rabid English supporters.  It was amazing to see the energy they brought with them – it seems they view being a spectator to their national game as a full-contact sport.  In between sinking a prodigious amount of beer they would frequently launch into a number of different songs and chants that seems to be encoded into the DNA of all English people.  Whenever a goal was scored, they would jump up onto the tables and throw beer everywhere.

Got pretty hammered myself, and woke up with a pretty bad hangover.

Now that we’re through spring and into summer, there don’t seem to be the nesting birds in the canals as much.  The other day we had a pair of swans leading their chicks through the canals in front of our house – it was quite a cool sight, and I was lucky enough to snap a couple of photos as they went by.

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In which we visit the Rijksmuseum and encounter idiot Americans

Yesterday I was tired of being cooped up at home and so went for a walk to the Rijksmuseum to check out a bit of Dutch history.  It was pretty cool – I got in for free with this 50 euro card we bought a couple of weeks earlier, and which covers us for any museum in Holland for the next year (I think).

So I wandered around and looked at a giant cannon and some armour used by cavalry men in the 1500′s or so.  Military costume from the 1500′s till about the 1800′s looks ridiculous in my opinion.  There’s too much plomp, too many feathers.  It’s hard to see how people at the time were meant to be intimidated by a man in oversized comically breeches and a purple cape waving a thin scrap of metal in their face.  I’ve been listening to a lecture series on the birth of modern Europe lately, and by all accounts the military people at the time were thugs – so it’s interesting that their military costume seems so feminine to us now.

I remember coming across the concept of élan, which is a French word that means something like gracefulness and eagerness.  Apparently up until the First World War, military strategies still employed élan as a tactic.  Essentially, it entailed the belief that when the enemy saw the French army crossing the battlefield looking so elegant and brave in their military costume, so graceful and resolute in their action, their will would be broken.  I wonder if this was part of the idea behind the military dress of the Renaissance/early modern period – a kind of romantic version of ‘shock and awe’.

The gangstas of their age

The original gangstas: I find it hard to see how these guys were meant to be intimidating

I saw a few paintings by Rembrandt and that guy was talented!  There was this self-portrait that he did when he was 22 that had me captivated for a while.  I also saw the famous Night Watch, which is an absolutely massive portrait of the Amsterdam city guard.  One thing I found that was quite cool is that on Google Maps you can explore the inside of the museum on streetview – so you can see the painting I’m talking about here.

All-in-all, it was a pretty cool way to kill some time, though the walk there and back was a bit long.  I was feeling quite socially anxious that day, uncomfortable in my own skin somehow.  The walk to and from the museum was thoroughly uncomfortable, despite the fact that I stopped for a beer at a pub, which I thought might kill it off.  I had hoped I’d leave all that garbage behind when I left New Zealand, but it seems that my personality has followed me here against my best wishes.

That said, it’s important to keep things in perspective – life is exceedingly good for me at the moment.  I’ll eventually find a job and everything will fall into place nicely.

Last night we went to a pub and watched Netherlands get knocked out of the competition.  When you get a few beers into you and surround yourself with passionate natives, football is almost watchable.  It still it has nothing on rugby though.

IDIOT AMERICANS
While we were there there was this table of idiot Americans who had ordered a plate of bitterballen and other Dutch food, and spent the next 20 minutes essentially badmouthing Dutch cuisine and (indirectly) Dutch culture.  If I was one of the locals, I would’ve wanted to  give them a swift roundhouse kick to the face.  What made them even more retarded was the fact that they were operating under the assumption that no one around them could understand English.

“We’re soooo lucky they can’t speak our language,” the morons actually said.  Motherfucker this is Amsterdam – everyone speaks English here!

I’ve got nothing against Americans, but ignorant retards like that are really bad PR for your nation.

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In which we just show some pretty photos of the city…

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In which we fear the metro will explode…

It would seem I’m already falling into the realm of not updating as often as I should, but I will resist the urge to write an apology post because that’s bullshit, and I’d essentially be apologising to my superego.

Life as it is has settled into a pleasant epicurean daily routine of going to the gym, spending some time looking for work, and pissing about on my laptop.  It’s a nice enough life, though I feel like I should be doing a little bit more to enjoy this country while I’m here, as my future here is by no means certain.

Today on the metro with Jimbo, and we sat at the back of the subway, with the door open to the pilot/driver’s quarters.  Suddenly he walked out briskly, closing the door behind him, and stepped off the train.  He was carrying a backpack not unlike mine, did not seem to be wearing a uniform, and otherwise had the appearance of just another commuter.

Suddenly a bizarre and irrational fear overtook me.  I was certain that he had left a bomb in there, and that in a few moments the carriage would explode.  Luckily my fear of causing a scene outweighed my fear of death, and I didn’t start screaming about exploding bombs.  It was certainly a strange few minutes, and I was relieved when we stepped off the metro at the Waterlooplein station and made our way to the gym in one piece.

A few brief moments of panic – what was the cause?  Certainly I don’t feel in my everyday life under any particular threat from terrorism.  In fact, I view all those people who go panic buying after a bombing in a metro on the other side of the world as largely morons.  I’m more concerned about walking in front of traffic.

I’ve worked myself up into these panics in the past, while flying in 747′s.  They usually start the same way, either with me pressing my head against the window next to my seat and deciding that the small cracks on the window are not meant to be there, and at any moment the window will burst open, de-pressurizing the cabin, and sucking out passengers starting with my own miserable self.

Another version of this sudden panic-fantasy starts with my idling mind questioning the existence of God.  I then conclude that if he is real, he should prove it by shattering the window at this very moment and sending me spiralling out into oblivion – the fear of death now accompanied by the horrifying reality that I also now have an angry deity to contend with.

These moments of panic I suppose I shall call ‘Superstitious Panic’, as the fear seems rooted in some kind of primitive non-logical faculty of the mind.

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In which it rains and gets cold

Today went out on the canals with an old school friend and a couple of her fellow flight attendant friends.  They were just in the city for a couple of days.  We offered them a ride on the canals before they flew back to London tonight.  They are new to the city there, having only been there for three weeks or so, they fly the route from Heathrow to Singapore, stay a couple of days there, and then fly back.  It sounds like an exciting lifestyle if you could put up with the work, I personally think I’m too misanthropic to serve people and put up with their shit.

This was probably only the second time I’ve been on the canal when it was overcast.  The weather got progressively worse, so that for the second half of the trip the conversation on the boat dropped away and we were all just thinking about being somewhere warm and dry.  At times the rain grew heavier and we sheltered underneath bridges, cutting the engines and just holding on to a gap in the metal girders above.  It was strangely peaceful, if a little desolate.  In certain places, in wider canals, you could see the wind whipping down the length of the canal and carving little ridges into the water.  We saw ducks and geese and their young.  In one place a mummy and a daddy bird were sheltered in their little nest off the end of a boat, along with six or so of their chicks.  It was a beautiful little scene, mostly hidden from casual observers, as the nest was in the shadow of a moored canal boat.

Sheltering from the weather under a bridge

Last night we went out for a few drinks and met up with some strangers the girls had met the night before.  They were a pleasant enough group, if a little desperate – a temporary configuration of people who had implicitly agreed to spend time together in a foreign city.  There was an American couple, late twenties, who had just gotten engaged that night.  He had popped the question to her on a canal boat earlier that evening, and she showed the girls what I think was probably a quite impressive diamond – I’m not knowledgeable about such things.  It was a little puzzling why they would want to spend their post-engagement afterglow on an unremarkable night with a bunch of people they had just met – though that’s not to say it wasn’t a pleasant enough time.

Still fascinated by the concept of legal marijuana, one of the girls asked me to take her to a coffeeshop to buy some pot.  I agreed, though I knew that if I smoked any after eight or so beers, the result wouldn’t be conducive to social interactions.  I rolled them something, but relented when I was offered the joint and had a couple of puffs.  I left shortly after, and had to navigate from Leidseplein to Brouwersgracht at 3am – which was not an easy feat given my current knowledge of the city.

Tonight we watched Threads, a BBC documentary about nuclear war.  It was quite haunting…

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