Monday, January 28, 2019


It was not the first place I would have thought of, but when it was decided that we'd go to Whangarei for the Auckland Anniversary long weekend I was quite happy. It was one place that I'd only passed through without stopping at anything more than a petrol station. Quite often I find myself with a Aucklander's condescension of some of the smaller "cities" of New Zealand. Besides the outstanding feature of Whangarei Heads (and the piece of rock that is Mt Manaia), in my head I had thought it to be something of a backwater.

On arrival though at the Town Basin, it showed itself to have scrubbed up pretty well. There was a decent family friendly open space along a waterway that parked boats. Boats were a feature - even the flash looking Te Matau o Pohe bridge can open in the middle to allow yachts through. Whangarei Harbour is close to both recreational fisheries as well as marine reserves. Now, I'm not the seafaring type but I like the feeling of almost being in this natural canal-like environment. We didn't do that much on the only full day we were there: a visit to Whangarei Falls, which isn't bad, and a dip at Ruakaka Beach (average waves, but at least not a safety hazard), but it still felt a good place to be.

People were nice. Even the out-of-towners. Our hotel was mostly taken by a wedding party on the first day but the guests instinctively and proactively accommodated when we went over to the pool. They were a mixture of locals and guests. Since they'd spread out, they quickly offered space up. One guest started talking to my wife with relish. She had been born in the north but had been living in Sydney for decades before returning for this wedding, apparently. And another moment, at Ruakaka Beach, our car was briefly spinning its wheels in sand, when the guy from the neighboring car popped out immediately and offered to push the front of the car. That's all it needed. There were quite a few other small moments which made me remember the small town niceness I'm familiar with from my youth.

The only backwateriness I got was on a run, where there was a loose dog that decided to run after me on both my run away from the hotel and then on my return. Fortunately, he was just a curious dog, even though he looked of a breed that if raised in a less loving environment might have done more than nip at my heels. But loose dogs are quite a detraction for me, even if it is one person who may have accidentally not chained up their canine.

The distance to Whangarei was not too bad either - once a bypass is finished at Warkworth it and the rest of the north would be so much more accessible. This being a long weekend, we learned more about the "alternative route". Both the to and from journeys were made through part of SH16, which though longer is often as fast or faster than SH1 when there is a lot of traffic. It's a bonus that it also avoids toll charges that you'd get on the main SH1 road.

Would I go back? Well, I've wanted to walk in Whangarei Heads and that desire still remains. The beaches are worthy of exploration, too, and having been travelling in a bigger group with its own needs and wants, I missed out on some interesting places. So, if given the chance, I'd be back.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Six weeks

Yesterday marked the end of my six-week recovery period from hernia surgery. It's felt a long time since that very interesting experience in hospital and the time since has been loaded with doubt, impatience, imprudence, angst and regrets. The first week I knew I was doing too much even while I was doing too much and then the second and third week I was wondering whether I'd harmed myself by doing too much, while still doing a lot at work and play and travelling with my parents-in-law.

"Six weeks" is a puzzling length of time for someone who hasn't had surgery. Even the two weeks' complete rest period after surgery had been rather odd to me. Perhaps it's because I've had "wounds" before that never took too long and not really understand what surgery meant. Open inguinal hernia surgery, to be clear, has many steps from cutting through skin and muscle, to inserting mesh, to sewing the mesh in, then sewing the muscle together and then the skin together. Precision Stab Wounds + Plus.

At the two week mark I went to a GP in an agitated state. I was a jittery mess both physically and mentally. I couldn't wait for some guidance or insight, or just the assurance that things were on track. (I still don't know if what I got was good advice. I believe I had a mild infection at that time that wasn't noticed or treated at that point that caused a lot of discomfort.) She gave me a couple of gauze bandages and the assurance that surgical recovery is often a case of two steps forward and one step back. That wisdom which applies to so much was some relief.

Six weeks should signify the opposite of quick recovery - progress is slow and sometimes imperceptible. And that's where the doubt creeps in. Between week 4 and week 5 there was still discomfort that arose during both weeks. Even with a gentle run in the fifth week the "healing ridge" from the surgery pounding and swollen. It hadn't done that and felt "wrong". In the fifth week how could it still feel so swollen.

I now have a belly. It's not your usual belly - it's a result of my core muscles all going flabby as I used my limbs rather than my core for getting out of bed, chairs and automobiles. Even though most of the discomfort has gone I still instinctively prevent any use of core by locking by spine and hips and using my arms to level myself around. Running, which uses the core when done right, has been odd without the core that I had. I have to reprogram my habits and do regular exercises to build it back up. 

Now that the six weeks are up I still feel I have some time to go. I still feel twinges at odd times for odd movements. The healing ridge, while not protruding out from my body, is still evident to touch. I still don't want anything pressing on the area. On the plus side, I'm running although still mostly at an easy pace. I'm 18 days away from a series race that I'll likely just cruise rather than race. One little sign I'm close to recovery is my resting heart rate. This goes up when you're sick, drinking, tired and down when you're body is well, without much inflammation. These two days it's sunk back to 52 which is pretty much in the normal range for me.

Tomorrow I'll be meeting my assailant, the surgeon who cut me, for a consultation. She seemed nice enough before she wounded me. I'm looking forward to it.

Running-related curious addendum: I've mentioned here previously my dicky heart rate while running. It went low going uphill and rose downhill which is rather counter-intuitive. It had patches of random lower heart rate (115bpm) and rates higher than 180bpm with no factor of speed, effort, ascent or descent. Post-surgery, I noticed my running blood pressure is much higher than my previous running, but with fewer troughs but more peaks. Interestingly, my recent runs have been more similar to how it's meant to be: the more effort I put in, the higher my heart rate would be. A pattern that normal people have. It might be temporary normality but something that I'll watch and reflect on.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


It's hard to know whether the world is getting more cynical or skeptical. The democratism of views through online media certainly amplify all views, but on the flip-side, the targets for cynicism are also amplified. Facebook is after all replete in "feel-good" messages, as well as the views that make fun of them. It'd be interesting to count the number of positive memes versus negative memes - if you count cats, it might be a dead-heat. 

We were at a company training yesterday where a session was delivered about how to stay above the line. It's just another way to look at how we can look at our responses to incidents and improve them. The facilitator had some aphorisms written on paper placed on a side table which she had laid out but not actually used in her talk. At the end she just said they were there for reference. Some looked at it and took them as a keepsake but I don't think most really looked. They were all the standard "truths" you'd see on a nature background shared on Facebook, etc. They were these kinds of lines: "Accept what is, let go with what was, have faith in what will be" "Opportunity is missed because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work" and the like. Those ones may have pricked the facilitators ears but I thought they were all pretty ordinary. However, three caught my eye.

"Start each day with a grateful heart" seem pretty much the same sort of stuff as the others but perhaps it was something that I'd been thinking about quite recently. So much dissatisfaction arises in a banal way that takes a whole lot for granted. There is so much to be grateful for, and the more you realise how contingent your happiness and success is on everyday factors both within and without, people and circumstance. If you forget all the positive things that have helped you you can only experience the world negatively, as well as being something of a dick to those whose actions have allowed you to be above what you could have been. I remember in my China days that a manager Jake also told me that he had a prompt on his phone to help him think about the things and people that he is grateful for. 

The flipside quote was: "Being told you are appreciated is the simplest and most uplifting things you can hear." If every time you rationally thought about what you are grateful for you'd either in action or words express your appreciation to people. Perhaps this is timely because I haven't generally been one to verbalise genuine appreciation. I have though tried to make sure it is part of my language during chats with staff.

The final one is "What you allow is what will continue" which is a huge test for managers. It makes for a judgement call on what you tell team members about some habits that are not conducive to a happy office or successful, effective work. Difficult conversations are difficult and they aren't to be shrunk away from.

Some people say you become more cynical with age but I'm not so sure any more. Some millennials seem to be gullible disbelievers. Though older sometimes are weary of reflection and change as well as wary of philosophical bunkum, some also realise the wisdom that comes with age and the importance of values. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

It's #YouToo

2018 overall was a good year in staffing in my school, with the exception of a failed probation turned grievance case. (Which saying aloud sounds like a rather large exception to make.) We gained mostly effective, positive teachers including some who had worked previously with our school and then returned. (It always feels like a vote of confidence when staff return to the fold.) 2017 in comparison was the challenging year for staffing where I was stretched dealing with two teachers involving themselves inappropriately with students and another two performing so poorly that they had to be managed out of the company. But in the final wind-down to the year that familiar theme of teachers going too close to the line of ethically again came to the fore, and it made me think about #MeToo.

Thinking back to my time in Guangzhou, the message had to be said to every male teacher who arrived. (Of course, these issues aren't strictly male but the incidence is so much higher; during my time I was aware that some female teachers had also crossed the line.) It was a simple message: "Company rules state that you should have professional relationships with students. For your own good, play it safe and if you have concerns, come to me." Of course, it isn't company rules. It's basic ethics for being a teacher. But China was more of a challenge because many male foreigners had their implicit or subconscious purpose in coming to China as looking for romance. And the additional problem that the only English-speaking people they see day-in-day-out, professionally and socially were students and staff. Then top that pie with a cherry of inordinate admiration that borders on stalking that might also occur. (I might have mentioned it elsewhere but one long-time expat teacher confided that: "In my country, I'm nothing special. But here I'm a god!") When I gave the talk there the older, wiser male teachers nodded and ahh'ed appropriately regardless of what was going on in their own mental calculations. While the younger ones who hadn't anticipated that there were going to be extreme administrative restrictions on their selection of the romantic smorgasbord of the "student body" often had "tells" that showed they were likely going to try anyway.

Teaching in New Zealand of course is a different kettle of fish but the same rules apply. The case from a couple of years ago had a teacher so besotted that he still couldn't figure out went wrong. He'd helped a student out in a few practical situations and then proceeded to contact her again and again. When she made it clear that she only wanted a professional teacher-student relationship he kept contacting her begging to know what went wrong. Once the student complained and the case was in the open, he even asked me what had gone wrong - not even really realising it wasn't the unrequitedness that was the real problem. If it were a typical relationship between equals, there a whole range of possible reasons it didn't work out as he might have wished. In the mix might be that he had an assumption that he was helping her out at times and there had to be some reciprocation. During the investigation, he even besmirched her in a veiled way saying that she'd worked as a hostess in her country and had emotional scars from it. He was humiliated by the case and knowing that upper management had to know about student complaints left on his own accord.

The recent case fortunately wasn't so icky, but still the same mess to tidy up. It was just a clumsy "pass" made by social messaging, and then a clumsy apology. When the student wished to make it a formal complaint and I was then involved, he recognised he was in the wrong but always gave it away when he explained the cause of it being that she was immature or naive. Even after correcting him on this, his following apology letter talked about being sorry that she was offended or made to be uncomfortable. It really bothered me that he couldn't see that the problem wasn't in her response but his actions. 

While we are human, we err; while we are human, we are bound to have inappropriate attraction and fascination with others. This in normal non-role bound life is hard. When it arises in professional situations it does require strength, honesty and prudence. The heart of #metoo appeared to me to be the exploitation of power for sexual advantage. Though teaching doesn't necessarily have the same "power wielding" side to it, relationships with students are obviously in a similar league. Teachers are assessors; they should give time and support to students in an equal way. It's also dangerous for a school to have teachers who challenge the line between appropriate and inappropriate contact. My 2019 resolution is to have a year where these occurrences no longer arise. 


Saturday, January 12, 2019


Vices come in all shapes, sizes and flavours. Mine are alcohol, excessive smartphone use, vacillation, impatience to progress and change things and people, equivocation, intransigence, general messiness and lack of composure when manoeuvering a car out of carparks (all three scratches on the car are due to that). That's definitely not an exhaustive list. And probably my list of self-perceived vices will differ from those seen by others. Others might limit the definition of "vice" to more extreme, evil kinds of behaviour but a lot of the damaging outcomes can come from small weaknesses of character and behaviour.

Speaking of over-absorption in smart devices, the outcomes could range from phubbing loved ones to crashing your car into another vehicle and killing the occupants. (I don't know if anyone has crashed a plane due to it, but the warnings about turning them off even while taxiing imply that it could increase the chances of it.) Messiness, probably one of my more egregious workplace vices, probably won't hurt anyone but in a world where perception is everything it probably costs money due to agents and even students not believing in my professionalism. It could result in a necessary document for a visa not being processed and the student's situation being irrevocably changed.

Alcohol, which I've mentioned in this blog before, has well-known consequences. In the Herald there was a shock article that many people thought that they could have a drink or two and still be able to drive. I admit that if I know that I'm having a meal out that will last over an hour, I have regularly one standard glass of alcohol with the theory that it "isn't much" and that food and time will metabolise the alcohol. But in 2019, I'm committing not to do that any more. I'm a bad enough driver as it is without imbibing a handicap.

So far in my life my vices haven't caused too much harm to myself (as far as I know) or to others. In alternative realities they easily could. As mentioned last year, I know how drug use destroyed the hopes of a student. I told all students today the moral message of this - when you are abroad, there will be temptations but you must be responsible. I passed on this line to another teacher to present to that student body and he smirked. I then added: "I know it sounds like a community service advertisement, but what happened is reality and not a scare tactic. The student's decision messed up his life." Anecdotally I'd heard that that particular teacher wasn't averse to recreational drugs and even with the real life story didn't seem convinced about the need to share the moral with students. His vice, even if he doesn't regard it as that, clearly hasn't led him to peril and perhaps didn't want to even acknowledge the risk itself.

In recent life, I've seen what gambling has done to the life of another and his family. Frankly this case has dominated my mind lately as gambling addiction along with the secrecy, abuse of credit and trust turn a weakness into a black hole that rips at the fabric of all the relationships and people in the vicinity. Since another one of my vices is an obsession with getting information and analysis, I've had the guilty pleasure of analysing some aspects to the point that I can tremble in outrage. On the day before the addiction came to a head (for the second time in five years), the addict made 23 bets, gambling over $10,000, winning a few along the way but generally losing. Tellingly, even after when his wife realised there was money missing from an envelope she had at home and confronted him in a text message, he still made another two bets. The total debt from the whole affair is enough to buy small house. I spoke to another colleague about this case and he mentioned how he also had a penchant for sports betting and was shocked that it could lead someone's life to come asunder. Presumably his betting never went beyond set limits.

It starts to build into a narrative of susceptibility and circumstance, or perhaps that's too simple. Like all things I hope that self-awareness, meta-cognition and knowledge are enough of a solution. In the end, there are very few true accidents and most are due to the little self-inflicted factors, whether it be one crucial flaw or the confluence of many among many people. I mentioned that the gambling disaster was the second time it had happened to this person. The first time when it came to a head, there was much pain and suffering, with only 10% of the monetary debt associated with it. Family helped save the day but there is now the awareness that that might have caused this bigger second coming of the gambling addiction. The support and indulgence of others may itself be a vice in this case. (That and clearly his lack of responsibility, pride and self-control.)

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Fresh eyes

It's nice to take guests around your own country or your own natural habitat (like a home or office) from time to time because it reappraises and freshens everything. My country has had that kind of a glimpse from eyes which are not only from a different country but from a vastly different set of life experiences.

My parents-in-law have been impoverished for most of their lives. Both grew up after the Chinese Communist revolution but in the families of former landlords, a group that was discriminated against until the late 70s, especially during the Cultural Revolution. In the 80s, when they were about my age, they lived in a mudbrick house growing crops and raising chickens and geese. Eventually they borrowed money to open a paint shop in their backwater city and they and their children experienced a more urban life for the first time. Business wasn't good though and eventually they retired back to the village. Fortunately with the land requisitioned by the city for a freeway, they were compensated and built a better home for their 60s. My father-in-law was in his mid-60s by the time he left Guangdong province for the first time. Now they're both in their 70s and have made their first international trip to see the world, and be surrounded by another culture for the first time. 

So what appeals to these very different eyes? The things that have got the most focus are: Trees, beards, barefoot children, summerwear on cool, windy days, roof tiling, wood used in roles that it would obviously rot in a few years, the reality of someone eating cold cereal in the morning, the windyness of the roads, the lack of people employed to clean the streets, Chinese people who were not Chinese, drinking alcohol after meals, queuing, toilet paper in public toilets and many other things.

Some of these things come as no surprise: barefoot children is something even modern Chinese students are offput by, often assuming them to be poor. But the trees and the interest in wood-made bollards and fencing was out of the blue. Even the trees around our house were astonishing for them let alone the massive trees in Cornwall Park and even more massive in Whakarewarewa Forest Park. And then it occurred to me that despite the village being rural it didn't have much beyond tall thin bamboo in most places. Perhaps it was a historical factor: in an over-populated country which had such periods of poverty and at time starvation, and the tragedy of the commons, all the woody trees would be chopped for building materials and firewood. There are parks with trees but massive trees are few in Guangzhou and Qingyuan. It led to my father-in-law always assuming that some of the non-native trees must have been over 500 years old, when that is an impossibility. He was also queried the wisdom of every wooden part of structures that are exposed to water. The explanation of "treated wood" took some time to be understood. Metal roofing was also mentioned a lot in the early days. 

Beards were a surprise, too, although they shouldn't have been. Beards aren't common at all in China, especially for the Han Chinese. In fact I can only think of one Chinese citizen who has proudly and successfully grown a beard. This is not necessarily a matter of ability, although some might struggle more than others. Prior to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, there was a cultural proscription on shaving and there were beards aplenty. Whether it was the connotation that beards belonged only to that era or just a different appraisal of what is handsome or normal, even the most populous country, I'd wager that NZ would have more chin skin surface area covered than the who Han Chinese population. My father-in-law has never had facial hair, apparently. I've shown him the photos of me when I decided to "let it be". 

The "Chinese people who were not Chinese" thing was a struggle. If you'd grown up in an essentially monocultural area, where ethnicity is welded onto nationality (even though it certainly shouldn't be the case), an ethnically Han Chinese person must be Chinese. There were lots of comments that required clarification and then there was the example of a Kiwi-Asian university friend we bumped into in Christchurch. She is thoroughly Kiwi (the accent particularly taking the cake) but even with all the previous discussions, they still had to be talked through the logistics of being ethnically Chinese and not being Chinese. (Of course, there are some Kiwis who have trouble understanding the difference between nationality and ethnicity.)

I could go through more but I have to emphasise that it's a great pleasure to have them seeing what life is in another place. My mother-in-law in particular, now unleashed with a camera, has taken to travel here very well. They ask good questions and make great observations. I hope they've gained enough stories to share when they're back in the village, especially at the dinner tables over Chinese new year.