Category Archives: storytelling

it’s about the stories (on becoming an international financier)

I recently changed my job. Feels good, thank you. The team I worked with were/are some of the smartest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Legendary hospitality, funny, generous, and indeed, some of the sharpest minds ever. And yes, I left and am now working elsewhere. In my old team it was customary to farewell colleagues with a morning tea and to have a whip around for a gift. Frankly the gift thing really caught in my craw – my previous experiences in these matters have been none too good – some gorpy horror – I only just rid of the last vase at a garage sale…

Meanwhile, on the other side of the (global) village, Ayawa Djoka – a married mother of five kids and entrepreneur who’d quit her studies in primary school – decided to step out again and seek investment capital. Ayawa has been successful twice previously, having borrowed and repaid money from the international pool, without incident. Located in Tsévié, Togo, Ayawa is following a deceptively simple regime – she buys fresh fish, and adds value by smoke drying it, and then resells the fish at a profit. Some of the profit is then reinvested in her produce farming – and the surplus is sold at a profit. Demand exceeds supply and so Ayawa sought capital to buy larger seed stocks of fish and materials for her farming enterprise. All of this is with the hope that she will be able to increase her revenue and her profit, and this so the surplus can be used to improve the living conditions of her family.

Not exactly Donald Trump. Rather than end up with some cloying and ghastly gift (I was particularly frightened by the thought my former team would identify my need for wall plates with kitten designs) I figured they’d really enjoy engaging with sorting out an investment with Kiva – the micro-investors. After a couple of false starts – the investment business is so hot by the time we’d sorted out an investment it had gone – yes, in minutes – we ended up shortlisting and then investing with Ayawa.

Image of Ayawa Djoka from Kiva.org - make an investment with them today, please.

I don’t imagine visiting Tsévié, Togo, any time soon – although I do have a craving for some great smoked fish. I just believe that thanks to Ayawa, and Kiva, and my generous colleagues, I’ve got a farewell gift that I will remember, and cherish for a very, very long time. Thank you all for playing your respective parts, and I wish the very best for this new business in a country I’ll probably never visit, run by an enterprising woman I’ll probably never meet, who uses a language I’ll probably never learn – all thanks to the foresight of strangers and the power of the web.

How good is that? What? You want to be an international financier too? You can, at Kiva.

what did I want?

What did I want?
I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and Lost Dauphin.

I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and to eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be the way they had promised me it was going to be, instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.

I had had one chance – for ten minutes yesterday afternoon. Helen of Troy, whatever your true name may be – and I had known it – and I had let it slip away. Maybe one chance is all you ever get.
– Oscar Gordon, “Glory Road” Robert A. Heinlein

My father died back in 1990. It’s taken us some time to sort out his stuff. Partly because Dad was a collector – a hunter/gatherer of the old school; and partly because he was a graduate of the 1930’s depression and his collector behaviours became reinforced. “You never know when it’ll come in handy.” And quite frequently that has been proven to be correct. The last few days have been a bit of a nightmare – we’ve (my sister, brother-in-law, and myself) been working through the tail end of the various collections – and there is a continuum of values – some things have sentimental value, some have commercial value, some have entertainment value, and some have recycle value. And some things are just valuable for helping balance the load on the way to the landfill.

I was unable to get leave from work so Friday night saw frantic grabbing of rental vans, scarfing down food (no pasta lest I go to sleep at the wheel), and then on the highway north to my old home town. I spent the last night in my childhood bed, and listened for the call of the poaka – the pied stilts. Their beeping call used to reassure me on empty nights, but on Friday night it was just the sounds of the wind. Saturday dawned cold – as if wanting us to get finished and get on with our lives. Dad used to say “Cold shoulder, hot tongue”, and it was bitter outside.

We packed and loaded, with laughter and tears, Dad’s prized books. I don’t have the room or really the interest for all of Dad’s books, and so some fairly heartrending decisions were made. When we were kids, if we got sick, we were allowed to get up and get a couple of Dad’s books to read. Dad’s collection was essentially about New Zealand history and culture, Māori culture, and in particular, New Zealand flora and fauna. Dad had a particularly soft spot for New Zealand birds.

I don’t recall that he had any exceptional favorites, but I have a happy memory of him showing us the Ruru – Ninox novaeseelandiae – the native owl (Moreporks) that used to sit on the post and wires when we lived on our farm. Later the adult ruru were joined by a clutch of juveniles – I can remember their eyes glowing with the reflected light from the house. Dad told us stories about how in some areas the ruru nested in tomo – like hakoke, the extinct laughing owl – in holes the ground instead of in trees, and how there was even a place named for their home – Putaruru. He said that in the Māori tradition, the ruru was the guardian, the watcher. I loved hearing their calls at night – some say the call is ‘mournful’ or ‘haunting’, but I have always found it friendly and reassuring – a clear sign that things are as they should be.

As I drove home on Saturday night, I got to thinking about reading – I guess the books in the back were talking about their new lives living with Marica and I. I read non-fiction voraciously, however I love it when an author can persuade me to get on a raft down the Mississippi, or some other adventure. I’d told Marcel that I planned spending time while driving plotting out a novel I’m working on. Instead, I spent the time thinking about how the books now in the back of the van had influenced my father – provided the education he’d hungered for but had never been able to achieve in a formal sense. As a result of his reading and learning he’d willing shared the ideas, information, and insights with me; and so, in a way, I was carrying not only my father’s collection, but in many respects my own collection. I didn’t have to bring it all, just the bits I wanted and needed; but no matter what, I couldn’t avoid bringing some of my heritage with me; now and where ever I go in the future.

I drove in our gate, flicked the van off, and stood outside in the still night air. The moon was exceptionally clear and the stars were bright. I could smell the fragrance from the night blossoms. It was good to be home. From somewhere very close, a ruru called. I felt uplifted – it was as Dad said – everything is as it should be.

every thing tells a story…

Some years ago I took my Mum to Townsville, far north Queensland. She’d had some surgery that hadn’t gone well. I was working three part time jobs being as full time work was unavailable. It was the middle of winter and some recuperation in the tropics seemed like a good idea for us both – I wanted my Dad to go with us, but he wouldn’t be parted from home. Off we went and we had the best time. We really enjoyed having a decent cappuccino – Wanganui being something of a coffee desert in those days. I decided to buy a cappuccino machine – and snapped the dividers out of the polystyrene box the machine came in to act as a chillybin (esky for the full Australiana) when we drove up to Cairns. We made very full use of the box – it was absolutely brilliant for keeping food and drinks cool. When it came time to come home there was no room in our suitcases to bring the box home – and so I went out to the dumpster to toss the box away. The nearer I got to the departure point, the worse I felt. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such complete guilt as I consigned our helpful friend to the trash. I went back to our rooms and I told Mum about what a complete fool I felt about feeling guilty about discarding the box. She felt the same – but there was no way we could bring the box back with us. Years later I still feel bad. And slightly silly about being emotionally attached to polystyrene packaging, repurposed as a chillybin.

Lately I’ve had cause to work through a lot of my possessions from my past. They’re just things – inanimate things – usually man-made, but not exclusively. Some things I’ve kept, some things I’ve sold, some things I’ve given away, and some things I’ve dumped. At times it’s been heart wrenchingly traumatic; other times it’s been a ‘oh no, just no, what were you thinking?’ moment. I have been wondering why some things are so hard to deal with. My niece, Catherine, said, ‘The trouble with all your stuff is, every thing has got a story. There’s nothing here that doesn’t have a story to go with it.”

To which my sister, Gillian, replied, ‘Well, yes. That’s why it’s here. If it didn’t have a story we wouldn’t bother with it.’

When I used to leave Melbourne (Tullamarine) Airport, there was a sign that spanned the highway – ‘Every story has a beginning, a middle, and a beginning’. It was an ad for something – I have no idea what. But I loved the idea then, and now. When things arrive in my hand it’s rarely the beginning of the story. Rather it is part of the middle of a story. And the story continues once the thing leaves my hand. Objects don’t attain their own energy or their own personality – that’s what we/I ascribe to them – it’s their role in our stories that makes them hard to part with. What I’m realising is that the story doesn’t end when the item comes to me, and really, it’s better if I keep the story going by keeping the item moving. I’m feeling better about it that way.

The child is father to the man

mini-meI’m trying to be not disturbed by the fact that about 45+ years later I have the same hairstyle, heading back towards the same hair colour, I still look at cameras over my shoulder, I still wear jerseys with a vest thing, and I still wear headphones – waiting, now, not for the kid’s session on the radio, but for skype to get its act together. Or, every day in the office, keeping the office hubbub down to a manageable buzz. Karma. Not calmer.

it’s ALIVE!

Maori Language Week is in the closing moments – it’s been a great event this year – it just keeps going from strength to strength. For readers outside of New Zealand it might seem a little strange to have a week dedicated to another language, but be assured, it’s part of the essential nature, the natural essence, of New Zealand. I think it’s just wonderful. Although I don’t speak Maori, I think that the fact that the language is not only alive, but is busy becoming a Google language option is a great thing.

One of the ways of dipping your toes in to explore Maori culture is though their stories, and you can do this online. Maori Legends for Young New Zealanders is an illustrated book, scanned and made available but the National Library of New Zealand. The book, by Katarina Mataira, contains 11 legends – and they’re just great to read and the illustrations by Clare Elizabeth Bowes are lovely as well. If you can’t find a kid to read these stories to, why not just read them to yourself.

I love the way the Children’s Library’s ‘Simple Search‘ works. In addition to the the usual search by subject or topic or author, the Children’s Library, very sensibly (and finally) sorts books by the colour of the cover. Yep, you can search by yellow. Or rainbow. At long last! I’m completely in love – what a perfect solution. Why aren’t all libraries sorted this way?

So, what’s your story?

We were out having a bite with my buddy Trevor, and he kind of just pops this on the waitress. She’s trying to take our order and be surly at the same time. You know – the minimum wage, working weekends, student loan, dealing with aging creeps like you – kind of waitress. And Trevor fixes her with this kind cheeky bland face smiley thing and says, “So, what’s your story?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m Trevor Romain, I write and illustrate books for kids; and I want to know what’s YOUR story.”

The best thing about this is the smile on Trev’s face. I mean, this man has a way with people that’s second to none. But one thing’s for sure, our waitress suddenly was a lot less surly and suddenly a lot better service was happening. But that’s not really the point. The point is, Trev’s right. What is your story? People carry around great stories hidden inside, and rarely share them. Perhaps there’s no-one to share them with. And that was Trev’s gift to our waitress – he listened to her story. I don’t know if – in fact I doubt – she remembers us, but I’d be surprised if she didn’t remember him. Something to think about.

or, perhaps, a planarian…


I was chatting to my buddy Trevor the other day about how business metaphors are all about majestic animals – soar with the eagles, eye of the tiger, bull market, bear market, squirrel this, rhinoceros that – you know the story. I seem to remember that Ben Franklin wanted the USA national bird to be the turkey because he regarded them as fine, upstanding, and moral creatures (I’m putting words in to Ben’s mouth now); where as the bald eagle is – well, something of a bottom feeder on all counts. I wonder how far the wars of the last 100 years would’ve progressed if the national icon had been a turkey. Seems more in keeping with the Statue of Liberty as an icon of peace, prosperity, and independence. Back to Trevor – we agreed that there wasn’t much in the way of commentary or metaphors based on the real workers – the nobility of plankton, the helpfulness of yeasts etc. Who moved my cheese? doesn’t mention the work of the lacto-bacteria, no, not once. Bacteriaphiles should avoid the book from that perspective, however worthy it is from other perspectives.

Charles Schulz, via ‘Peanuts’ said, ‘Anthropomorphism is man’s worst sin.’ So, emboldened by Trevor (he doesn’t know this yet, but I’m sure he’ll be excited … fingers crossed) I urge all you alpha animals to (a) turn vegetarian (ok, optional extra), (b) stop with this racing with the rats, dancing with the wolves, swimming with the sharks (and/or dolphins), charging with the rhinos, soaring with the eagles, biting dogs with the dogs, clawing with the bears, goring with the bulls, or any one of the other crazy zoological ‘totems’; and instead search for zen and the daphnia. If you need to sound exotic, simply fix your business opponent with a beady eye, breathe deeply and then say, ‘I am trained in the Way of Odonata. Bring it on!’

This didn’t stop me trying to desperately help the Gold Compass with their viral marketing thing. I mean, virii are sort of almost bacteria. Well, they’re small anyway. I’m a sucker for a nice drawing and what the? Apparently out of the thousands of daemon animals mine is an ocelot. It must be true – how could they know – it must be fate – I always wanted a pet ocelot – or, more accurately, a margay. In between your swimming with the oh, good grief (see list above) you get to interact with my daemon and say how much the daemon is like me. Have a squiz, it makes more sense when you click on the link. But Pelagia? Thinks: sounds like a kind of shoe, or better, a brand of caviar. Best french accent: ‘Forgive me, my darling, can a press you with a little more … Pelagia?’ In fact, it’s a great brand name. Take it for a quick spin –

She looked so hot in her Pelagia as I rode up on my Pelagia. Her back to me, I could see the heels of her freshly shoplifted Pelagias were hardly scuffed. She turned, waved, finished the call and snapped her Pelagia closed, and dropped it in her shoulder Pelagia. “Probably shoplifted”, and she smiled as if to agree.

I’m happy to support Gold Compass (they depend on just me to do all their promotion for them) simply because the movie with that nice Aussie lass, Nicole. My heart goes out to her ever since I saw her in Moulin Rouge and I could see this hideous scar/deformity underneath her nose. No, not on her lip. Under her nose. Go look at the movie again. The other reason for my support is the movie looks visually grand, I would so love to be able to just up and fly (see also: Superman), and the thought of being in a world with talking polar bears? Bring it on!

And now, welcome traveler to this site – as a special get-acquainted offer, you can buy my new book, The Way of the Polar Bear, for just $US19.95. Assure yourself of a unique edge over your less zoo-enabled colleagues. At the very least, please, stop teaching those unfortunate elephants to dance. Ok? They hate it. They’d much prefer to be wild and free. You know, like those totem animals we keep reading about.

Nietzsche’s offered that man is a bridge between beast and the superman. The bridge, in this case, to my animal, was Dan Dixon at digitaldust. Thanks, Dan, sorry that I thought your animal was a raccoon. Honestly, when I arrived it was a tiger, and then it became a snow leopard… no, it was!

6 billion others

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in. Hub (Robert Duvall)

Tonight we watched Secondhand Lions – it’s a great movie. Broadbrushed, the two codgers could’ve been my uncles, and I guess I wouldn’t be the first person to wish that they had been. I got to thinking about how one of the things that separates us from the beasts is humans are storytelling animals. Other animals don’t bother to explain (at least as far as I know) things, and have to resort to the deus ex machina of a god, fate, luck, or whatever. But humans do. When the going gets tough, the tough tell stories. I think that that’s where the writers of Lost have lost it. When two people are stuck in a lift, or even waiting for a bus – when things become bad (read: when the time is ripe) enough they’ll start to swap stories. People (myself included) wear earbuds to keep conversations away, but they’re only semi-effective. People want to tell stories. One of the reasons why I don’t enjoy tv is because storytelling (between people) is the – the – first casualty. The writers of Lost have become so desperate to – well, I can’t tell what exactly – but they’re moved away from what made the first series so interesting – revealing to us the stories that were being revealed to each of the survivors, and in particular, how their (as are our) stories were/are entwined together. Was fascinating, now very less memorable than Gilligan’s Island.

The ‘net is growing up to become the premier tool for humans to tell stories. We’ve finally got the method. We’ve always had the motivation. And now we have opportunity on a scale unimaginable a decade, perhaps even five years ago. Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the man who brought us Earth from the Air, has recorded an extensive selection of short video clips – interviews of people from around the world – telling their hopes, dreams, and fears – their stories, in their voices. Entitled ‘6 billion Others‘, the site presents us with testimonies holding potent magic. They’re compelling in their commonplace – these are everyday folk telling everyday thoughts. According to the blurb, in 2008 you’ll be able to listen to the thousands of testimonies which have been collected, and add your own testimony to the site. In the meantime, take a look at the project, the team, and some interviews that have already been made. It’s not for the faint-hearted with dialup access, and an elderly computer. This site requires demands a high-speed connection, Flash, and a minimum resolution of 1024×768. Our high-speed connection still struggled. Hopefully they’ll get some umph behind the servers – based on the current it feels as though it wouldn’t take much to bring the site down. And that would be most unfortunate, because the work that’s there is beautiful – it’s lovely to see video in portrait rather than landscape – this is about interviews with people, not an imitation of tv as is the norm with u-tube etc.