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Saturday, April 25, 2009

We will remember them.

Today in New Zealand it is ANZAC Day, a national holiday. It is a day of remembrance for all those who have fought for the country, those who serve to protect it now and most especially those who went to fight for New Zealand and never returned.

Although I have been here for two previous ANZAC Days, today was the first day I went to a dawn service. These happen all across the country, rain or shine. I turned up a little late (6:00 AM, the ceremony had begun at 5:45) but as the parade had gathered outside the Upper Hutt City Council building it was easy to filter into the crowd assembled on the street.

As it was still pre-dawn, the skies were dark but the street was well-lit and I could see that at least hundreds of people were present, if not a thousand or more. There were some lovely speeches from a local priest, the president of the RSA (Returned and Services' Association) and the chief of staff of Joint Forces New Zealand.

There was then a laying of wreaths accompanied by a somber number played on the bagpipes, followed by one minute's silence. Then came Reveille, which is listed in the program as "The sounding of Reveille proclaims our belief that the landing at ANZAC heralded the dawn of a brilliant era in the march to Nationhood of Australia and New Zealand."

This references the Gallipoli campaign during World War I when the ANZAC company was directed to the wrong part of the shore to stage an assault that was designed to force the Turks to surrender. It was an ill-fated campaign and I refer you again to this page for a far better synopsis of its significance than I can provide.

The parade then closed with a singing of the New Zealand national anthem and by now the sun had started to rise and cast its light over the cold Hutt Valley. Having never been to a dawn service before, I wasn't sure what to wear so I figured it'd be better to be over-dressed rather than under-dressed. My coat and tie proved to be a bit too formal as most people were dressed nicely but not to such a degree, so next year I will be a bit more relaxed in that department.

In a way, I did come under-dressed after all, as the poppy I had received for making a donation to the RSA yesterday was still pinned to my smock at work. Most everyone around me had their poppies on display, but that being said I wasn't made to feel embarassed in the slightest. The New Zealanders present were, as ever, polite, introspective and friendly. I'm sure none of them noticed I wasn't wearing a poppy anyways - it just wouldn't bother them!

I know I wasn't the only American in New Zealand turning out for ANZAC Day, either, as there were some U. S. Marines from the embassy's guard detachment handing out poppies at the railway station downtown. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also issued a statement of commemoration for ANZAC Day from Washington, DC.

I'd love to get to the dawn service next year at the War Memorial in downtown Wellington, which I have visited in the past, but not on ANZAC Day.

The last Monday in May is, of course, Memorial Day back in the States. It looks like, from past news items on its site, that there will be a service for this at the U. S. Embassy or somewhere nearby in Wellington. I'll be sure to get to this if I can this year, too, work schedule permitting.

As for the rest of my day, I'll be repairing to Westpac Stadium later this evening with a friend to cheer on the Wellington Hurricanes in their match against the Brumbies from Canberra, Australia. I look forward to it, as always, but it will be a little more special today given the intertwined history of these two great countries that has been illustrated today.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Somebody stop that cat!

So there I was, sitting on a bench by the side of the road, waiting for the mechanics' shop to open. The car was due in for its Warrant of Fitness, and as I was a bit early for dropping off the cah at the yahd, I had no choice but to take a seat outside.

It was a fine morning out, so I didn't mind one bit. Where I work is quite literally right around the corner from the mechanics' place. Sunlight beamed down all around me, bathing me in warm morning light. A few cars passed by, filled with people on their way to the workplace. Birds were chirping and flitting about. A small grey and white cat darted out into the street. A few people made their way --

Hold the phone: what was that?! I held my breath for a moment, frozen by the sight of this cat running carelessly into the road as a car began to approach from around the corner. The little fella didn't seem to have his street smarts yet, as not only did he time his jaunt across the open road poorly, but right as he reached the middle he allowed himself to be momentarily distracted by a bird flying the other way across the street.

He tracked it flawlessly with his gaze as he ran the other way, blindly into the lane where there was an oncoming car. I was about to leap to my feet to warn the driver, but they must've already seen this little air-headed kitty as they had already begun to slow down.

As the cat disappeared behind a wooden partition, now safely on the other side of the road, I felt a wave of relief pass over me. I also realized why perhaps he was so determined to cross the road: I think on the other side of the partition lies a series of dumpsters, used by the large shopping mall there. He had probably penciled in a little dumpster diving to get his morning going right.

So imagine my surprise when, later on that same day, I am in an exam room and I go to open the cardboard carrier that contained these young owners' newest cat - and out jumped my little jaywalking friend! Yes, it was the same little grey and white cat I had seen just a few hours previous as he made his way towards the seedy Dumpster District.

I laughed and told the owners the story of how I had just seen him that morning, right around the corner. The couple seemed surprised he had wandered so far, but they had also just moved into a new flat so perhaps he was still figuring out the boundaries of his home turf. I pointed out that dumpsters were hard for cats to resist, and as this little guy had yet to be neutered, perhaps he'd settle down once that had been, ahem, arranged.

Remembering this young couple from a few months back, I asked about their other cat and how he and the new guy (named "Casper", as I came to find out) were getting along. Sadly, their last cat had been hit by a car - something that very possibly could've happened to Casper that very morning!

But, he was scheduled for the chop soon, so hopefully he'd learn to be more careful and we wouldn't have any more sad stories for these owners.

Fast forward to a few days later, and after work I hit the supermarket to load up on groceries. As I often do, on the way home I decided to stop in at the BP for petrol. As I pull up next to the nearest open pump, I see Casper's male owner standing there. He works at BP, you see, so I often see him whenever I get petrol.

As I got out of the car, I struggled to remember the little grey and white cat's name, but was keen to ask this guy how things were going nonetheless.

"My cat ran away!"

"WHAT??" I said, exasperated.

"Yeah, that night, after we saw you. We let him outside after his dinner and we haven't seen him since."

"Oh no. I am sorry to hear that," I said, remembering how he had just lost his previous cat not a few months ago, and now it was maybe happening again. I also felt absurdly guilty that the cat decided to do a runner the very night after I stuck him with a needle. Perhaps, with some sort of crooked feline logic, he had decided that humans who took him to other humans to be stabbed with needles were not to be trusted.

I asked him if he had seen any sign of him at all, or if they had put up signs. He said they had put up posters and ads in all shelters and vet clinics, but he had not yet put an ad on Pets on the Net, which I strongly suggested he do. He also theorized that the cat had probably been picked up and kept by another owner, something he said happens a lot in Upper Hutt. I found this moderately disturbing and said as much.

Well after talking to Casper's owner, I began to feel rather helpless about his situation. As I got back into my car, though, inspiration struck. I decided to drive around, looking for Casper, the melting ice cream from the supermarket be damned.

After all, I had pretty good intelligence as to just where this little blighter might have run off to. The very spot where I had seen Casper run across the road a few days earlier was just a few hundred metres from this BP station. So I turned onto that street, slowed down and began to scan both sides of the street intently.

The white wooden partition behind which the dumpsters lay came and went with no sight of Casper. I kept creeping along the road, looking everywhere, but didn't see any grey and white flashes anywhere.

I did notice, however, that a guy who had been walking up the sidewalk towards me the entire time was looking at me oddly. He was a pretty big guy, wearing a black singlet and also a Yankees cap (something I'm not used to seeing round these parts). He probably wondered what in the world I was doing, driving so slowly and looking about in a crazy manner.

But then I saw Casper! There he was, just off to the left of the shopping mall carpark. I had little time to act so, forgetting about the suspicious pedestrian, I flicked on the hazards, pulled over to the kerb and hopped out.

The guy in the Yankee hat was definitely aloof now and I'm sure he saw that my car was filled with grocery bags. I didn't improve his opinions of my motives, I am sure, when I then knelt down on the sidewalk and began to make chattering noises and calling to Casper in that weird, high-pitched voice you reserve for use when trying to entice pets to approach you. You see the thing is, the guy never saw the cat, nor could he have seen him now as I called to it because it was hidden from view around the corner of the carpark!

Well the guy kept walking on but Casper was frozen in place. He regarded me warily with conflicted emotions. Here was this stranger, talking nicely to him and wanting to pat him, yet this human was suddenly not so strange after all... He looked oddly familiar...

Oh no! It's the guy who jabbed you with that needle the other day! RUN FOR IT!

And so he ran, the moment I encroached upon Casper's 'flight zone'. He took off a good thirty metres down the sidewalk before stopping to turn and look at me again.

Not wanting to completely throw in the towel on this attempted rescue - how cool would it have been to rock in to the BP, not five minutes after I had left, and be able to tell Casper's owner I had not only found his cat but that he was waiting in my car!

Remembering my groceries, I had luckily that night decided to splurge and buy the cats some treats so I ran back to the car and fished them out. I could always buy more, and anyways my cats could certainly stand to miss a meal or two.*

Shaking the bag and strolling confidently back towards Casper, I knew there was no way any cat could resist the sound of treats rattling around!

Well, this cat could. Casper wasn't having a bar of it. I'm not sure if it was a sign of him finally getting some street smarts (Don't take candy from strangers!) or his emerging memory that, in addition to jabbing him, I had also shoved a worm tablet down his throat.

He kept his distance, so I decided to pour out a big pile of Cravers right there on the sidewalk. I figured if I couldn't win the battle, I'd try and win a war of attrition. Give him some treats today, I reasoned, and maybe when I returned the next day with some more treats, he'd be more trusting and then I could snatch him up.

As I negotiated the roundabout to return to the BP station and let the guy know his cat was alive and well, I noticed that Casper was gorging heartily on the treats.

I also noticed, as I crossed over the speed bumps leading back to the BP (Driving slowly again! And still with lots of groceries in the back seat!) that I was now passing the very same guy in the Yankees hat on the sidewalk again.

I did my best to stare straight ahead but out of the corner of my eye I noticed him turn his head towards me sharply as I drove past. He must have been thinking, "What the hell...?"

Well I let Casper's owner know about his status and he did seem a bit relieved to hear he was doing OK. He thought it was a bit cheeky Casper kept hanging around the same place I had seen him, and truth be told it was only a couple of streets away from where the guy now lived. So I told him this was likely becoming part of Casper's home turf, even though it wasn't very comforting as it is a very trafficky area.

A couple of weeks later at work, I was heartened to see that Casper's name was on the surgery list for that morning. He was due to be neutered and have his final vaccine booster, so I knew he must have come home at last. Turns out the guy didn't have to go out and round him up from the dumpster area, Casper just came home on his own a day or so after I had seen him.

I was the one who ended up performing Casper's surgery, and if he had any hard feelings about his last experience with me, he didn't seem to let on. In fact, he seemed non-plussed in general, so he probably forgot the pile of Cravers I fed him, too, the little ingrate!

Nah, I could never be mad at Casper. After all, it's not hard to imagine why cats do love to dumpster dive so - especially when said dumpsters are used daily by the likes of Subway and KFC. Being an American, I am no stranger to the appeal of greasy take-away food! Just not the 'in-a-dumpster' kind of take-aways.

Well, except for that one night in college, when we were all really bored. And drunk. And hungry. And we lived right next door to a Dunkin' Donuts...

I better quit now, lest this posting degenerate into something disgusting! Yeah, it's probably too late for that, but I am glad that Casper's life on the streets hasn't lead to him being just another statistic.

Stay cool, kitty.
* Having fat pets is something we vets are loath to admit, but I tell you here freely, in the interests of full disclosure.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Over The Hills and Far Away

There aren't many things that could make me skip a night of training with WIT on Tuesdays, but the chance to see Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie perform as "Flight of the Conchords" sure is one of them.

A friend I work with, Andrew, lives in Greytown, which is over the Rimutaka Hills and in the Wairarapa Valley. Jemaine grew up in the Wairarapa, in a town called Masterton which is just a little further north of Greytown. This bit of backstory is important as the Conchords had been taking a few weeks off here in New Zealand before embarking on their two-month tour of North America.

During their visit, it came to light that Jemaine's childhood school in Masterton, one Makoura College, was having some dire funding difficulties. Rumours persisted that it might even be forced to close unless they had a quick infusion of cash, and upon hearing this the Conchords offered up their services free for a charity concert. Of course, Makoura College took them up on their generous offer, and as a result a lucky few of us got to see them live.

Lucky in that, as far as I know, Bret and Jemaine hadn't scheduled to otherwise perform while they were here in New Zealand for these few weeks. And further fortunate in that tickets for this gig would first go on sale to residents of the Wairarapa Valley - which is where Andrew lives. My stalwart friend stood in line for a couple of hours. He noticed with increasing alarm that up to 10 tickets could be bought by one person. The closer he got to the head of the line, the smaller and smaller the roll of tickets for sale became. He worried they'd sell out just as he got to the front, as some people had been camping out from the night before, waiting for the tickets to go on sale.

But of course he came through, and in only a short while, all of the available tickets had been sold in Masterton, never giving anyone a chance outside the Wairarapa to buy a ticket. There was even an American from Florida who was desperate to purchase a ticket to see this show! Either he can't make the dates they are playing in Florida or he's almost as obsessed with the Conchords as Mel is.

The show was really great, it was everything I could have hoped it would be. Jemaine and Bret were just as they seem on television: witty, low-key and quite talented. A cellist friend of theirs named Nigel joined them on the stage for most of their songs, and the folk comedy duo (trio?) had a great rapport with the audience throughout the night.

Bret was particularly appreciative of a guy down towards the front who had impeccable timing with the things he shouted out. At one point, Bret was thinking aloud about how he wasn't sure if they could pull off their next tune, as they had yet to play it live. This guy then shouted out the stock Rob Schneider quote, "You can do it!" and got a big laugh. He also won over Bret, who for the second time complimented him on his timing (earlier he had shouted out a song request at just the right moment), and Bret said he wished he could take the guy on tour with them to keep shouting out that phrase.

While I wasn't the one who splashed out $6,000 in the charity auction for the guitar that had been autographed by the boys, I did my part for the school benefit by buying a T-shirt (in the picture below and, yes, I know I need to iron it). It was a real treat to be able to see these guys live and I'm not sure when I may have the chance to do so again. I liked how I also got to see them playing right in their backyard. They joked during the "Humans Are Dead" song that, in the distant future (the year 2000, as they wrote this song a long time ago, haha), Masterton had now become known as MasterTRON.

Yeah, okay, well you had to be there I guess!

This weekend I also bade farewell to my friend Emily, who leaves this Friday for her new life in Queenstown. She managed to work a transfer within her own company (she is an engineer) to arguably one of the loveliest spots to be in New Zealand. Given that there are heaps of nice places in this country, that is saying a lot.

Her party had a jungle theme and I've included a picture of me in my "Dr. Livingstone" get-up below. Emily is on the far left, and between us are her friends Millie and Brett. I should point out he came as Slash from Guns 'N Roses as their song, "Welcome To The Jungle" qualifies his costume as in-theme! That and he managed to find a cool inflatable guitar on TradeMe for $3.50.

Hmm, an inflatable guitar. It gives new meaning to the phrase 'air guitar'!

Ugh, even I have to admit that one was bad. This is why I won't be doing the stand-up comedy like so many of my friends are now!

And on that off-key note, I am outta here. Best of luck on the North American tour, Jemaine and Bret, and godspeed to you in Queenstown, Emily!