The Cuba Account

I’m having a crisis about the number of crises I’m supposed to be concerned about. We’ve got food, water, oil, energy and a serious clean undie crisis in our house – due to the incessant rain. I’m finding it hard to muster the energy to be concerned about the lack of water in the globe when rather a lot of it is dripping through my ceiling.

If you’re one of those really organised women who have the perfect house, man, children, and can afford to care what your cutlery looks like or feel depressed about your investment portfolio - do not read this column. If, on the other hand you are the kind of woman who runs away with a taxi driver from Buenos Aires (that was me) or a Brazillian bongo player (that was my mate) or someone who has three pre-schoolers, works two jobs and worries that the gaping hole in one of her teeth would possibly be cheaper to fix if she went to a guy working out of a subway in Thailand, then you may find something in the following to lift your heart a little. I’m talking about ‘The Cuba Account’.

In a dank Wellington flat where I spent whole days studying in my sleeping bag, I would get out my old ‘Dragon’ album and be transported to Cuba – in the April sun, from the first 3 seconds of those ecstatic thumping rum soaked beats of that song. It was my mantra of escape. One day, I would sit, in April in Cuba when this studying lark had paid off. I didn’t realise then that a BA in Eastern Religions, Wimmin’s Literature and probably a paper in knitting as feminist rebellion were about as useful as tits on a man in terms of getting paid to do anything and probably a quicker route to Cuba, would have been a Business Admin degree at Massey and then a job in a bank. And then one morning I woke up in a rented house in the suburbs of Northland with a 6 month old baby, 2 jobs and the knowledge that although my partner had once been the yo-yo champion of Argentina this was unlikely to bring us fame or fortune. We budgeted hard and got a house, but for the next 3 years ‘the budget’ squeezed every bit of joy – from Sunday papers to coffees, out – the disposable income had been disposed of entirely. I was feeling the drudge. And I started to mind that I had never got to Cuba.

Then I noticed a group of new immigrant women that I worked with always managed to get away on small trips despite living on tight budgets. While the blokes were away fishing they spent the $10 a week they’d taken out of the grocery money by doing something fun. I liked it a lot. The Cuba Account was born.

I and my two amigas now put 15 dollars a week into the account. In as little as 8 months we had a night in Auckland complete with a great dinner out and quite a few great bottles of wine. We planned Cuba. We ordered another bottle. We stayed up all night and slept in all morning ordering lattes in bed. Only women with small children would actually get the cheap thrill of this so I’m only talking to you. We decided that in 4 years we’d be in Cuba. We would take photos of ourselves drinking cocktails and smoking cigars and write ‘Because we’re worth it’ underneath. We would dance. With all this crisis talk it’s great to have friends and a bit of fun. Every budget has to contain room for friends and The Cuba Account. Bored with budgets? Tired of the city life? Summer’s on the run. People tell me I should stay. But I’ve got to get my sun. So don’t try to hold me back. Ain’t nothin’ you can say. Snake eyes on the paradise … and we got to go today…da da dada da….

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Outward Bondage

Why on earth would anyone ever, in a million years, sign up for an eight day Outward Bound course for couples? According to Outward Bound’s marketing manager, Greg Thomas it would be so that couples could experience ‘an adventure with their loved one.’ Hasn’t he read Evelyn Waugh? A ‘loved one’ is the one that has passed on. Brown Bread. Which is precisely what I would prefer to be if given the choice between bungy jumping off this mortal coil and being shouted at by my significant other from the top of a rope climby thingy before 6am.

I have enough issues negotiating child rearing and quantities of laundry powder without throwing a rock face and a canoe into the discussion let alone the horror of spending time quietly in a tent reflecting on what I value in our relationship. I might discover that what I value most about the time we spend together is that it makes my weekends away with the girls that much more … special.

Sophie McKay, (An Outward Reboundee) said that doing the course with her partner would ‘help create trust and let them push each other to new limits.” Of course she did. She’s 20. In my case letting the Latin push me to new limits could end up being less like a touching bonding session and a lot like Touching the Void. (If you never saw this documentary… it involves someone dangling at the end of a rope on a rock face and a Swiss army knife. It doesn’t end in a McGuiver happy ending.)

Is this what the recession has brought us to? Next thing you know they’ll be advertising luxury weekends for two… in Invercargill, or workshops on how to make a brew that tastes just like Lap sang Souchong Tea out of cigarette butts.

We haven’t even had a decent go at this recession yet and already I’m bored. Now all the fun has been taken out of my guerrilla gardening attempts because John Key has gone and endorsed it by saying that growing vegetables is a very credible and constructive thing to do. To date my incredible lack of capacity in the gardening department has meant that trifid like waves of kikuyu grass have smothered pretty much everything.

Michelle Obama would probably enjoy Outward Bound for couples. She says even Barrack is going to be out there pulling weeds ‘whether he likes it or not’. Perhaps pulling weeds for economic victory is what is needed in these supposed tight times but I don’t know that it’s ever going to win out against ten pin bowling or a night at the pub. And I’m deeply suspicious of politicians who come up with wonderful new ideas for how the poor can spend their time and money rather than concentrating on the harder and yet more effective job of clipping the ticket a bit harder at the upper echelons of the salary ladder.

It takes me back to that other recession in the early 90’s when the MP Katherine O’Regan suggested that she could demonstrate how much better she could live on a benefit than real live beneficiaries by eating Weet-bix stew and making her own undies out of cereal packets. She had to give up on day two however when she got sick and couldn’t afford any of the medicines. Apparently her calculations had only stretched to an assumption of perfect health (something the poor are not noted for) and a reliance on the already packed pantry that she’d stocked up on the week before on her other, parliamentary salary. From now till the end of the recession – any politicians coming up with brilliant or boring suggestions for how we should all live should be made to go on an Outward Bound course for couples – which is then made into a reality TV show whereby we get to match and dispatch them to their own onset vegetable patch to do a spot of weeding.

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Guns Girls and Money - The Real Thing

If you’ve been watching any kids playing on the x-box lately you will know that life really is all about the Guns, the Girls and the Money. You might wonder how healthy it all is, as you watch a real 14 year old breaking and entering a virtual house with a virtual gun and taking anything he pleases, (the girl and the money), solely because he’s the one carrying the gun.

I know. It’s just a game. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

Except that I can’t help but think that it’s actually… people with guns that kill people. I mean when was the last time you heard someone go on a fatal rampage taking out random victims with… a leaf-blower?

When has a kid ever had a bad day at band practice somewhere deep in the Southern States of America and gone on a spree of mayhem and murder killing his classmates with… a clarinet?

Nope – guns are definitely the weapon of choice if you are serious about killing someone.

Bank robbers don’t show up for work armed with a pair of chopsticks and the police don’t retaliate with bags of marbles – guns may be used for lots of legitimate purposes but they also happen to be really good for intimidating and killing other people.

And it turns out we do have a bit of a gun problem in New Zealand and indeed in the North. Last week the police had to deal with 2 armed offender call-outs, close down State Highway one and put 2 schools in lock-down in the space of 4 hours in Whangarei alone. Expensive, not a good look for the tourists and scary for the kids. Fortunately no bystanders were killed in either incident. However, given that a ‘small picturesque town’ in Germany is dealing with the fallout of a teenager, armed with a hand gun, shooting 13 innocent people, and Alabama lost 10 victims to a mad gunmen last week, I’m beginning to think we got off rather lightly.

Which was why I was surprised to find in my Wilkinson’s Sport promotional flyer – a full back page of hand guns that were guaranteed to be ‘high precision’ that I could pick up for less than it would cost me to buy an x-box. It turns out I wouldn’t need a license for them because they are only ‘air’ guns. This felt slightly reassuring until I realised that I couldn’t tell the difference between the ones advertised and the ones that I see on every cop show. So I rang the firearms licensing division of the police to ask how they did it when they get called to armed incidents. “We don’t.” came the unsettling answer. “It’s very difficult to tell them apart – especially at a distance.”

Whoa. Let me get this straight. Any idiot over the age of 18 can buy one of these things over the counter (and possibly give it to even younger kids – it’s what happens with alcohol after all) and once they have one in their hands – even firearms experts find it difficult to gauge if they are the real thing or not?” “That’s right.” “And this is legal?” “That’s right.”

“How dangerous are these things?” I asked. “The undercover policeman (Don Wilkinson, killed last year) was shot with a high powered air rifle.” “I see.” “He wasn’t wearing his vest.” “So, unless you’re wearing a bullet-proof vest these air-guns are potentially lethal?” “If they get you in the right (wrong!) place they certainly are.”

Whether or not these guns are ‘air guns’ or not seems largely irrelevant. The police certainly can’t afford to try and distinguish between them in tense armed situations.

The woman fatally shot in Whangarei was armed with nothing more than an air rifle. Look how that worked out for her- the outcome was the same as if it had been real.

Why should the licensing be different?

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To V or Not to V

There are some days when I think the nanny state has gone soft. What I’d like is for a good old tranny nanny like Castro to take over and decide every aspect of life so that we could all luxuriate in the bliss of total abdication of all personal responsibility.
Sure. We’d be eating plantains (whatever they are) and listening to appalling speeches for the rest of our non-working days but at least we would never have to suffer under the weight of having made the wrong decision about anything – because there would be no decisions to make.

Take vaccinations for example. In Cuba they’re obligatory and they get almost 100% coverage while New Zealand struggles along at about 66% with about 100% of mothers-who-read, agonizing over the decision and later becoming convinced they’ve done the wrong thing anyway.

There are few topics likely to cause catastrophic social discord in wealthier NZ suburbs as the question of whether To V or Not to V.

The non-vaccinators are usually fairly strident and having lived with several of them while they were following gurus and questioning the organic integrity of my carrots while managing to spend the weekend dancing on party pills, (lucky pills have no chemicals then…)

I have some issues taking them seriously.

While they may call the SPCA thinking they have a dying seal in their backyard only to discover it’s just their child with a bad case of whooping cough – the non-vaccinators can take comfort in the knowledge that they’ve saved their child from any number of possible side effects that the jabs have been blamed for. Most of the time they are vindicated, because their children don’t get meningitis or hepatitis, which further infuriates the vaccinators because as they see it; the non-vaccinators only get to enjoy the benefits of a largely immunised population because other people’s children have suffered the risks.

Mostly – none of the kids in either group end up getting any horrific childhood disease because they’re not poor and they’re not living in over-crowded sub-standard houses – but that’s a whole other issue.

Seen as epidemiological free loaders by the pro-vaccine crowd, the jab-happys are, in turn viewed as gullible conventionalists who will one day wake up to the pharmaceutical companies conspiracy to wrangle huge government contracts at the expense of the health of our kids. Which is why the lack of public communication around the decision to start, and then abruptly stop the meningococcal B vaccination programme, based on its lack of long term efficacy, has done such damage. Although the vaccine programme could well have contributed to the overall waning of the epidemic, the knowledge that the three trips to the doctor and the painful jabs were of no more benefit than a few months protection from a disease that is very rare anyway, has seriously undermined the confidence many women have in the public information that is available on vaccines. Which sends us off to the internet; in all its random, pharmaceutically funded, fringe group, lunatic glory.

And now we have another vaccine. A vaccine which could potentially save thousands of New Zealand women’s lives.

Cervical cancer kills around 60 Kiwi women every year and the HPV vaccine is purported by the Immunisation Advisory Centre in Auckland University to have a close to 100% efficacy rate on the two strains of virus responsible for around 70% of cervical cancers.

When tested after 5 years, women who’d been vaccinated showed a robust immune ‘memory’ which indicates that they could be protected for a lot longer than that. While some internet sites are stating that 18 women died on the trials, what they forgot to add was that the deaths were from such things as trauma (car accidents), suicide or drug over-doses. What they didn’t die of …was cervical cancer.

Thankfully this is not Cuba and we do get to make our own decisions.

All we need is access to all the information – it’d be a shame if women dismissed the possible health benefits of this vaccine outright simply because the lack of information surrounding other programmes has undermined their faith in the system as a whole.

Related Information:

NZ Government Cervical Cancer Vaccine information site

NZ Ministry of Health "Medsafe" medicines safety division, responsible for regulating medicines in New Zealand. Their website has a Consumer Information Sheet and Datasheet on the HPV vaccine, Gardasil®.

NZ Ministry of Health’s HPV Immunisation Programme, the National Immunisation Schedule and the Immunisation Handbook.

University of Auckland Immunisation Advisory Centre, provides factual information about immunisation and vaccines for the public and health professionals.

One for the Girls Auckland District Health Board, provides information about the cervical cancer prevention initiative for girls and young women.

NZ National Cervical Screening Programme cervical screening and smear test information.

The World Health Organisation directs and coordinates health across the United Nations.

The Australian Department of Health and Ageing provides information on the Australian HPV Programme including information on vaccine safety from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration.

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Say what you like

I have to confess in the citizen of the year awards I’m a bit of a slacker.

I have been called up for Jury service 3 times in 7 years (with a 2 year reprieve from being called again after each time of being excused) and have never actually served. I began to think that there were very few of us who had never served prison time or were not mentally infirm who were actually resident in Whangarei. If I’d had the same luck with random selection of my number with Lotto then I’d never need to work again and therefore could actually afford to do jury service.

For small business owners serving on a jury can be an expensive option when you’re in the early stages and not even drawing a wage. Jurors get paid about $30 for a half day in court which pays for the espressos to keep you awake while wading through all the evidence. If however, you have to pay someone a couple of hundred dollars a day to take over running the business while you’re gone, doing your bit as a citizen starts to look like financial suicide.

There are more than a few problems with being a juror in New Zealand. Trying to pretend that there will be a select few individuals who know little or nothing about cases that have been played out in the media long before the trial, and can therefore pass impartial judgement is naive. New Zealand is one big small town. On Sunday I was at Waipu and met a woman from Wellington. I asked her if she knew a woman I’d been friends with about 20 years ago and whom I’d had no contact with for over 15. She did. That’s how small it is. I still remember a Burmese woman grieving for the demise of her minority ethnic group living in the jungles of Thailand. ‘There are only 3 million of us left’ she wept. I was going to feel sorry for her when I realised that the whole of New Zealand had the same population.

In a small town like Whangarei this means that more often than not most people will have heard or know something about the case in front of them. Most jurors I think, would be big enough to put that aside and make up their own minds based on what is presented to them in court.

In cases that have generated huge media interest you would have to select the entire jury from NZ resident Tibetan monks who have spent the last 10 years meditating in caves in order to find someone who hadn’t read or heard a considerable amount about the case. Which is why, I can’t understand Tony Veitch threatening to take Willie Jackson to court in a libel case. Surely being tacitly endorsed by a TV company in the form of being given high profile work is more prejudicial in favour of Veitch than a talk back host shooting his mouth off on air. That’s what talk back hosts do.

I hardly think that’s going to sway a jury any more than the fact that we can now see Veitch on our TV screens again as an entrenched part of NZ’s media scene.

If Veitch had chosen to stay behind the scenes and accept a job working in the media away from the public eye then perhaps Willie Jackson’s outburst could be seen as libellous – but TV Sports commentators carry the same street cred in New Zealand as newsreaders. A point Veitch’s bevy of PR people and lawyers would not have been unaware of.

While Willie may have given his opinion in his usual gun-slinging- open- day- on – the –shooting- range style, it doesn’t detract from the fact that he does have a valid point.

Surely the capacity to express it shouldn’t be subject to the size of your personal PR team or your ability to fund the lawyer’s bills.

The jurors are going to see Veitch on TV and are probably going to hear what is in the chatter of the press regardless because NZ is one big small town.

Let jurors make up their own minds.

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I know I shouldn’t… but I’m kind of looking forward to this recession

When real estate agents sit rocking in corners muttering things like ‘there’s blood on the auction room floor’ as multi million dollar properties sell for a million or two less than what they think they should I know we’re all supposed to feel afraid. Instead, I feel a small glowing ember of - hope.

Obviously, bankrupt celebrities and investment gurus on the run from the law make better news than your average working family renting a house in the North so we don’t often get to hear that the painful process of recession that the media keeps banging on about may actually offer some serious opportunities.
image of developers real estate
Let’s face it – most of us are not really worried about the loss of our second or third investment coastal property. Are we?

Many properties that were bought to be used for a maximum of 3 weeks of the year by Europeans and North Americans who spend half of the year somewhere else are getting flicked off quick as the Northern Hemisphere’s economies tank. Bought with overseas buyers’ spare change, these investments artificially inflated the prices of whole areas out of the range of many working families. As did the access to easy credit encouraged by ‘Money Masters’ who told us that we could all be rich and use someone else’s money to do it.

Can it be such a bad thing if some prices take a reality check?

Arguing with one such ‘investor’ recently, and knowing nothing about economics, I had difficulty trying to explain why I thought things were so out of whack. Until I realised that the minimum wage paid to many grown men and women doing vital work today is less than I was paid 25 years ago as a 15 year old to baby sit already sleeping children. Then, you could get a great house for $100K. Something had to give and with low interest rates and falling house prices it may not be long for many Northland families to start thinking that they might own their own piece of
Godzone after all.

As long as you have a job – say the doom mongers. Well, yes but there’s several benefits, especially in Northland in the current climate.

With Australia’s bum on fire and with its head under water the Land of Oz is looking less lucky by the day. As mines start closing and high paid jobs are harder to come by perhaps some Kiwis will start flapping their way back home bringing their cash and talent with them.

For a few years it seemed like someone had pulled the plug out of the North as I watched a steady stream of the young, talented and ambitious bail from the region hoping to find riches in Australia.

If there is little chance of getting a safe, well paid job in the big cities or Oz or it looks as though you might even lose the one you have right here you might be more willing to dig in and start taking big risks. The kind of risks that small businesses take all the time – the ones that eventually generate jobs and encourage investment into an area.

Matt Watson, the mad Marlin man, while sitting in his shed in Takou Bay, decided that roof tiling wasn’t floating his boat – so he took to the skies in a helicopter in order to land on unsuspecting marlin and film himself tagging them. While his exploits could be described as ‘Irwinesque’ in their risk taking and not for every out of work roofing contractor – he’s landed a whopping contract from Animal Planet and this could potentially generate a fishing tourism boom back to the North that could bring huge economic benefits.

Kaikoura Whale watching venture started from much humbler beginnings and look at it now.

Instead of wailing and gnashing our teeth at this recession maybe we need to go back to our respective sheds and re-group.

The North has shed loads of good things going for it and I can’t think of a better place to ride out a recession.

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