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Not standing upright there – Atlas

Not standing upright there

Paul Stanley Ward

I’ve always had a thing for birds.

I grew up in Marton. The farming service town’s slogan touted it as ‘the hub of the Rangitikei’—letters radiating from the spokes of a settler’s wheel hub—lest it wither in isolation, bypassed by SH1. But it felt like the edge of the world. We used to grip electric fences for a buzz. In the 80s, its suicide rate made getting out alive an accomplishment.

The escape offered by flight was seductive—kahu hawks circled high over the plains, but flight wasn’t necessary to the birds’ appeal. To this small town cop’s son, it was their freakiness that seduced: birds were my Bowie.

A school lesson that stood above the Ewoks and E.T. was on poet Allen Curnow’s iconic moa. In 1943 Curnow remembered regarding a moa skeleton in Canterbury Museum as a boy. The reconstruction of the extinct big bird with its 3m+ tall ‘Guinness Book of Records’ height provoked Curnow: ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvelous year … will learn the trick of standing upright here.’  Curnow’s moa was given literal meaning for me as an adult: I was working in Venice, Los Angeles, at the beginning of the 21st Century and having trouble standing upright there. It wasn’t the drive-by shootings, it wasn’t the record drought, it wasn’t even the earthquakes, or the Burning Man parties. It was the concrete that was the problem.

Out of the blue, I’d passed out twice.

The first time was a hungover Sunday. I’d walked down to Venice Beach for a body surf. I dried off on the grass by the roller derby; feeling the sun’s warmth on my lids, eying the boardwalk’s hippy Pynchon heroines, dreamcatcher spruikers and that roller-blading guitarist from the 90s NZ TV ad for chocolate milk (it was like seeing Maui in the flesh).

On standing, I felt my heart hold back a beat. My gyroscope went wonky and my legs crumpled like a marionette with the strings cut. A skater rolled over to help me up.  

I was producing for a Discovery Channel reality TV show. I was in my mid-20s and employed in ‘the entertainment industry’. It was a vague box tick. I felt OK about it because the concept was about achieving dreams rather than fetishizing human frailty (carmel cleaners at cccleanindiana.com).

The second fade-to-black happened after I filmed a story about a kick-boxer from the hood, who now trained celebrity clients at his Venice gym. The boxer’s tele-dream was to build a ring for needy kids in South Central, and we were picking up shots to emphasise the ‘Rocky’ arc. A boxer beat a ‘1-2-3’ combo on a punching bag. A metallic ‘pop pop pop’ echoed it outside. Thirty metres away on the rim of the Venice Circle, a black kid lay on the tarmac. Blood seeped onto the concrete with CGI fluidity.

When released from the police cordon, we drove down to South Central, near Watts Towers; we were late to interview the boxer’s childhood neighbours. Outside the police station we filmed the ex-leader of The Crips gang: ‘Kids here are lucky to get to your age. Growing up here is like living in a war zone.’ On cue, gunshots rang out blocks away, and squad cars spat out of the garage.

Amid the sirens, an XXL bee hovered above a shrub like a detail in a Sergio Leone western. Looking closer, I saw it was a hummingbird (my first)—manic wing-beat, honeysucker bill, oil-slick iridescent in the sun.

That night, I returned to Santa Monica to debrief with my friend Anya, who was waitressing at Casa Del Mar, ferrying cocktails to stars. Later we watched ‘21 Grams’, and pondered guns, the size of popcorn servings, and the weight of the soul. In the carpark’s concrete geometry I felt woozy trying the door handle of Anya’s wide-beamed station wagon. My eyes rolled and my gut lurched. The door took my weight and I kept the swoon discrete, as Outkast shook it like a Polaroid picture on the stereo.

The ‘spells’ continued, and an apprehension of fainting began to creep into my LA days. A few weeks later my heart announced its presence by thumping into my throat, and I needed a lie-down on the production office floor. The lack of control piqued me. I had been reared on the Kiwi Spartan traditions of rugby and rowing. As a teenager, I imported a mail-order weightlifting guide from LA. Wellington’s northern suburb garages became Muscle Beach for a trio of teen Mr Universe wannabes. We followed the ‘Weider System’s’ ‘no pain no gain’ mantra: loaded shoplifted plates, chugged Body Bulk and sculpted our bodies towards personal bests and a pose-down. Schwarzenegger was my Nietzsche, and I gained a will to power through pumping iron.

I was sure my LA spells were physiological. I had insurance and I underwent a run of blood tests and MRIs that would exhaust a Quantified Self acolyte. All came back clear, with ‘heart like an Ox’ platitudes from the physician.

To sweat it out I sat on a rowing machine at Gold’s Gym and I went running in Griffith Park, thinking of mountain lions, brain tumours and James Dean. Here there was no risk of fainting—even in the dusty heat—searching towards a collision of endorphins and environment to take me out of my body. I didn’t know it then but I was running from the hills of Te Whanganui-a-Tara.

From the edge of the world, Los Angeles was one of a clutch of destinations that Air New Zealand flies to direct, tracing umbilical paths to global centres. In Aotearoa, Māori stories are drawn back with the waka to the great migration from Hawaiki. For a Pākehā New Zealander, most of our traditional stories are drawn back on a Gandalf-emblazoned 747, to Hollywood.

During school holidays growing up, daytime soaps like ‘Santa Barbara’ were in loco parentis. While my more sophisticated mates yearned for Manchester or Dunedin on their teenage bedroom CD players, not I: I was ‘Born in the USA’ and had an appetite for 90s LA hair metal. Even my father’s VHS porn collection was made in LA (the Vaseline-soft sunlight and Hollywood Hills pools felt … err intimately familiar). LA should have been a homecoming, to the place where myths were made—like a classics scholar visiting Rome or Athens.

‘This is where ‘Die Hard’/‘Bladerunner’/Tupac was shot’. I met a pop star at a party (Beck), sat next to a reality star at the movies (Nicole Ritchie), and watched the Super Bowl in Orson Welles’ old house. I went on a pilgrimage to the LA intersection where Bruce Willis crashes in Pulp Fiction, and the song scoring that scene,  ‘Flowers on the Wall’—‘smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kan-ga-roo …’—wormed about in my ear: it was the same tune used to open sheep wrangling 80s Kiwi TV staple ‘A Dog’s Show’.

Bleary eyed in the sun at a Los Feliz market I picked up a blue 1998 Teen and Miss Barstow Pageant t-shirt, and added another spell to my tally. I began to be conscious of walking on soft earth.

This time the doctor skipped the tests and wrote me a prescription: ‘Lexapro’. Googling revealed: ‘generalized anxiety disorder’ and ‘depression’. Eh? My Type A ego was insulted (and the possible ‘suicidal thoughts’ side-effect was unnerving). But my Angeleno passport was stamped. This was the town of the i-Max, Self-Realization Fellowship, and Scientology.

To supplement the serotonin capsule, I gnawed at a cause, so I could fix ‘it’. My school teacher Mum would’ve asked if I was ‘burning the candle at both ends?’ Work hours were long, but I was capable and, drive-by excepted, comfortable.

Was ‘it’ the ecology of denial? LA was built on the edge of the desert and tectonic plates, but the dirt was coated with concrete—even the river runs over concrete—disguised with freeways, fairways and tropical palms. Would citizens’ remains—teeth, mobiles, silicon, Doritos and crystalised Pfizer—provide clues to archaeologists of the future? I became obsessed with dams and where the water came from, and went on a field trip to the Hoover, where I stood on the edge of the massive cistern in egg-frying 100 degree heat.

Was ‘it’ culture shock? But I was enthralled. LA was nothing if not fascinating. I went out wide-eyed, scoping the strip malls, waxy industry town, and under-the-bridge underworlds, expanding my horizons and all that OE guff. I didn’t know it then; but when I wasn’t gawking, I was homesick.

I was flummoxed by the spells’ schedule: I could run for hours with the coyotes in the canyons, but would be felled inside an Ikea display room. A trigger was fluorescent lighting. Between the high shelving of the Silverlake 99c store my heart skipped, the sands slipped through the hourglass and I deflated on the lino.  

I noted the date on Santa Monica’s ‘historic’ Roy Jones house: 1894. This American city (post Chumash, Tongva, Spanish and Mexican habitation) was younger than (Pākehā) New Zealand, than Johnsonville or Geraldine. California, like New Zealand, is a new idea: recently populated with grifters who have gone west, trying to graft themselves to wilderness. In Griffith Park I saw that the Hollywood sign was just a modest-sized real estate advert.

Laconic Pākehā NZ doesn’t go in much for myth-making (or prescription solutions popped out of silver foil). Official selections in a recent flag-change debate were eclipsed by a clip-art kiwi with a laser beaming out of its eye. When it comes to a song or poem to represent us on a marae, we Pākehā struggle for choices; sports terraces ring with ‘Bliss’—’forget about the last one, get yourself another’—but without booze we’re more uptight, than upright.

As an inheritor of that bottled-up ‘she’ll be right’ therapy tradition, I kept my falling down secret from my LA amigos and work colleagues. A Kiwi import that was doing a better job of standing upright here was the pōhutukawa tree, whose superhero roots were cracking up Santa Monica’s sidewalks. Before I cracked the pavement again myself, my visa expired and I found myself across the other side of the Pacific, back in Wellington.

‘Take me down to the paradise city.

Where the grass is green …’

Guns N’ Roses

It’s Midwinter. Unemployed. Girlfriend wants kids. The panic attacks (that’s what they were, defined retrospectively) were replaced with a young man’s fear of commitment. Wellington was neither fast nor furious, but middle-of-the-road Middle Earth, with denizens sheltering in wooden villas from the southerly. I had come home with meagre expectations.

I ran to the hills: seeking meditation via movement. Through the suburbs and the gorse’s stigmata, up to the Wind Turbine. Nothing to think about, just the bullish grunt to get above it all and watch clouds fast forward over the harbour on time lapse. (In Wellington the wind redistributes the trampolines and plastic bags like a celestial leaf blower.)  

The blustery rain was an embrace. Coming down Raroa Road, I stooped to tie my laces and looked down over the quaint cold town of Aro Valley. As I was pondering where the bad air gets dumped by the wind god Tāwhirimātea, bits of it pitter-pattered on my cap.

It wasn’t rain, but bark chip.

I looked up into the branches of a gum tree. The delinquent ring-barking a bough was a kākā parrot. It paused from its axe-man routine.

I was baffled. I’d never seen the bush parrot in the city. As a kid I’d nagged my parents to take me to sanctuaries to see kākā, kōkako, tawaki, kiwi and takahē. These manu taonga were not found anywhere else; they had ancient Gondwanaland genealogy; in Don Merton’s pungent estimation they are our national monuments, our ‘Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids’.

I felt a kinship with the birds, with their quixotic right to exist. Like Morrissey or Bruce, Prince or Auel, they offered a wild salve to suburbia. Their evolutionary quirks made them as unique to Aotearoa as the All Blacks. In Māori myth they were born from Rangi and Papa’s interrupted love-making, imagined with rare sensuality. But they’re also passé, primitivists struggling with the rat race. Introduced predators and habitat loss had rendered many of them extinct or exiled on offshore islands.  

So how did the 21st Century kākā get to be here, in the Aro gum? The birds of Wellington city I knew as a university student in the late 90s were introduced rock pigeons and sparrows, emblems of any city … anywhere, mangy birds of the eaves and underpasses. But kākā? Prehistoric punks in rafters of supplejack vines sure, but not road warriors. Its only Wellington contemporaries were stuffed in a museum display. I took a key from my shorts and rubbed it between my fingers. The big rufous parrot hopped down the branch and tilted its head. With a push and flap it was on my forearm. It tried to prise the key from my grip. I was gob-smacked. Hallelujah St Francis. Bless the beasts. But this kākā was not mine to bid. Bored, it opened its wings. With a screech and a wheel-spin the kākā was away down the valley. It flashed its underwing feathers, a blaze of orange in the dawn.

The Lexapro and sidewalk body-slams scudded back across the Pacific on the Antarctic southerly. Chill. I’d be alright here. I ran home past the sleepers, not fretful at all. The parrot whispered the same secret as that moa. I forgot about Chinatown and California girls, and ran towards something bigger than me. Towards Lucy, and Estella and Sylvie. I recognised a quorum of unreconstructed southern souls, working on garage projects, salt-blasted on the coast with their collars up … leaning into the wind with shining secrets hidden under their wings.

I went running in Griffith Park thinking of mountain lions, brain tumours and James Dean. I didn’t know it then but I was running away from the hills of Te Whanganui-a-Tara. The kākā parrot told me so when I got home. I, born on the not especially marvelous cusp of Gen Y, was shown the trick of standing upright here.

Paul Stanley Ward received a Qantas best screenplay award for the debut short film Graffiti of Mr Tupaia. After an OE that took in an Oxford masters and producing for Discovery Channel, he was the writer for NZ series Here to Stay and doco Undercover. Ward scripted 2010 short film festival success Choice Night and 2013 short Cold Snap was selected for Venice Film Festival. He was a founding editor of NZ On Screen. He is currently writing a feature film (‘Shopping’, ‘Six Dollar Fifty Man‘) which is shortlisted for Sundance Screenwriting Lab.