Sunday, January 17, 2010

Exposure Therapy

People who suffer from irrational phobias cope with a host of unpleasant symptoms, such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and the fear that they’re going insane.

A few days ago, we drove into Invercargill. It was the first time we’d visited since escaping six months ago. And as soon as we got there, I started to choke.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” asked Peter, steering our ancient van through familiar streets. “You sound like you’re coughing up a hairball.”

“I’m dying,” I told him. My left hand started picking chunks of flesh from my forearm. It felt strangely relaxing.

“Stop that,” Peter swatted my hand away. “You’re acting crazy. Let’s go get a burger.”

“Not crazy,” I corrected him. “Phobic. I have Inverphobia. It’s an irrational fear of the Asshole of the World.”

“Whatever.” He rolled his eyes, parking our van in front of the world’s most southerly Burger King. “We’re here now, so you’re getting exposure therapy. Let’s try to find something to like about Invercargill, instead of just bitching about what a depressing place it is.”

Peter’s so great. He knows exactly how to pull me out of a funk. And he was right. While visiting Invercargill, our mission was clear: we’d find things to like about the Asshole of the World.

First up: the media. The main Invercargill newspaper is called The Southland Times, and that day’s copy just happened to be lying on the counter while we ordered our lunch. As luck would have it, the headline was a heartwarming animal rescue story. SOLVENT POURED ON DOG, the cover read, with a big color picture of the dog. The dog was bald, his skin bright pink. This made him especially cute and soft-looking.

Next, we visited the Southland Museum. Now, the great thing about the Southland Museum is that a dinosaur lives there. It’s true. His name is Henry.

Henry looks sort of like a dried-up iguana, but he’s actually a tuatara, which is a kind of Mesozoic sphenodon that flourished about 200 million years ago. Henry’s not quite that old, but he was born at the end of the nineteenth century, which means he’s seen pretty much all of New Zealand’s European settlement. If he wasn’t around for the Treaty of Waitangi, he hatched soon after, and he’s borne witness to the end of the Land Wars, World Wars I and II, the great flu epidemic of 1918, and the world’s first votes for women. Now, he lives in a glass box in Invercargill. He spends a lot of time biting the other tuatara. Nobody's sure why.

There’s also some great art at the Southland Museum, such as this lampshade made out of a varnished blowfish:

Many people choose to mock the bedraggled citizens of New Zealand’s most southerly city, but that seems cruel. Instead, we chose to count them, like endangered birds. In a rigorously scientific enquiry, we defined three basic population groups for study. They are:

THE TEENAGE MUM (TM): This group is easy to spot. They are pushing baby carriages, and they’re too young to drink in the United States.

THE CRAZY SOUTHLAND MAN (CSM): Somewhat more elusive than the Teenage Mum, the Crazy Southland Man displays at a minimum three of the following characteristics:
• wild grey hair
• darting eyes
• sunken cheeks
• autolalia (talking to self)
• open container (likely containing solvents to pour on dog)
• gum boots
THE AIMLESS RUFFIAN (AR): The Aimless Ruffian is defined by the following: he or she would be quite happy to spend a happy afternoon inhaling solvents. In fact, he would consider it time well-spent.

During the course of a 48-hour observation period, Peter and I observed the following:
TEENAGE MUMS (TM)............................10
AIMLESS RUFFIANS (AR)...................... 65
There are a great number of important conclusions to be derived from this data, such as the likely fact that each Crazy Southland Man has mated with an average of 1.6 teenagers, impregnating each an average of 6.5 times, thereby producing a small army of Aimless Ruffians. Where, one might ask, do they get all the solvents? How much of it do they inhale, and how much do they pour on dogs? These questions go beyond the parameters of our initial study, but I’m considering applying for a grant.

Then, there’s the wild mushrooms. Sure, the Italians talk big about their truffles, and in the American Northwest folks pick chanterelles right off the forest floor. But how many of those so-called connoisseurs can harvest mushrooms from their living room carpet? My friend Melissa can. Last winter, she couldn’t afford enough coal to heat her home, so she only warmed the place up a couple of times a week. Her house was so poorly insulated, and the air was so cold and damp, that she grew a healthy crop of mushrooms right in the living room floor. Imagine that. Wild mushroom risotto, without even leaving the frigid damp of your own house. That’s the kind of life Invercargill can offer.

And without a doubt, the highlight of our trip was our visit to Alliance Freezing Works, a sort of Wal-Mart mega mall of sheep death. This is the local slaughterhouse, where they process four million sheep in a nine-month season. By “process,” I mean electrocute, kill, eviscerate, dismember, and shrink-wrap to feed the world.

This was an amazing experience, and not just because Peter had to wear a sexy beard net. We got to follow the whole operation, dodging sheep carcasses and doing our best not to slip in the gore. And here, at the heart of the slaughterhouse, I saw the philosophical core of Invercargill, the man who made our trip complete.

"This guy here's cutting the asshole off,” our tour guide told us, indicating an elderly man on the line. He was wielding a razor-sharp knife, and as each sheep carcass came past, he lopped off the asshole with a flick of his wrist. That’s 16,000 assholes in a 12-hour shift. This man sliced out the assholes of sheep, lodged deep in the Asshole of the World. Four million assholes, all in a nine-month season.

I caught the guy’s eye, and he gave me a wink. And that’s the best part about Invercargill. If you can have a laugh here, you’re doing all right.


  1. This could be your best post ever. To be sure though I'll need to do a scientific inquiry. Awesome, thanks for the laughs. Victoria wants to know what you keep in your galley, and if you have a plastic mandolin(e)?

  2. Of COURSE I have a plastic mandoline. What sort of fool do you take me for?

  3. Love to read your blogs! Fabulous sense of humor, fabulous writing. The best. Don't quit. I'm hooked.

  4. So.
    Did you sell the boat and the kid?

  5. HILARIOUS!! Have been following you guys since you "pimped" out your boat - that video clip had me in stitches. Keep it going, fantastic writing always worth a read. We leave on a 5yr voyage in December with 2 kids from S.Africa. Hope I can take it all as well as you guys have. Well done!!

  6. LoL! That is just disturbing. Note to self, stay clear of Asshole of the World aka Invercargill.