Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The racket formerly known as Prince

When I play competitive tennis, I normally bring a spare racket just in case. So last night I turned up with two Princes, a 2005 model (my weapon of choice) and a 2000 version which I expected to remain firmly in its bag. When I arrived at Forrest Hill last night – an oppressively muggy evening for tennis – I wasn’t too bothered about winning or losing; I just wanted the damn thing over with. And then I found out who my opponent was. We’d met twice previously. The first time was five seasons ago, back when I still knew how to play, and I won in two sets. Our other encounter was pure torture for me – a memorable match for all the wrong reasons. My fragile mental state, a tenacious opponent and inhuman playing conditions culminated in a complete meltdown – for all the gory details click here. So just when I thought emotionally-charged tennis matches were a thing of the past, if there was ever a time I would lose the plot again, last night had all the ingredients for it.

I win the toss, serve first, go 40-15 up and … that’s as close as I get to winning my serve in the entire first set. I couldn’t get anything going on my serve at all. At 5-2 down, I realised the importance of the next game. If I could break his serve, then even if I lost my own serve I’d have the advantage of serving second (!) in the next set. That’s exactly what happened. I dropped the first set (which featured eight service breaks!) 6-3, but I felt myself coming into the match towards the end of that set, and from then on made a conscious effort to hit deep groundstrokes. Anything short and he gained the upper hand, so getting depth on my shots was vital. It worked, and after a succession of long rallies, I was 4-0 up in the second set. I wasn’t enjoying it though; I was sweating like a pig. After every rally I had to wipe my sweaty palms on my shirt so I could grip the handle of my racket. My shirt soon became a greyish-brown smudgy mess – I must have looked more like a potter than a tennis player. The rallies became longer, my legs got heavier, and at 4-2 I was really struggling. For want of a better word, I was shagged. In contrast my older opponent looked as fresh as a daisy. How can you not be perspiring out here? It was after the first point of game seven that everything kicked off. I missed a seemingly easy shot at the end of another interminable rally and for the first time I can remember, I smashed my racket against the ground in frustration. “That sounded expensive,” said someone on the next court. Well it’s a five-year-old racket and isn’t worth much, but I felt embarrassed and ashamed. It’s only a game after all, and now I was going to lose due to my own stupidity. My racket looked usable, but when I hardly got a ball in play in the rest of that game, there was only one thing for it.

Out came the Emergency Millennium Edition Prince. I had to come out straight away and serve. Switching to a different racket mid-match is hard enough, but serving with a new racket is another thing entirely. To my surprise, my first serve landed smack on the line. The baseline. I was quickly love-40 down and I hadn’t won a point in ages. Somehow I scrambled back into the game, which morphed into a 15-minute monster and had me gasping for air. I clung on to my serve at what might have been the tenth attempt and eventually took out the set 6-4. On to the decider, and it started badly. Down 2-0 and a point for 3-0, I was being outplayed; the end didn’t seem far away. I levelled at 2-2 but fell two games behind once more. Again I came back, and at 5-4 I had my nose in front for the first time in the match. When I stepped up to serve for victory, what little power I had in my serving arm had vanished. My second serves became lollipops, and at 30-30 I double-faulted to give my opponent break point. Realising I might not survive two more games, I went for a winner on the next point and thankfully it was good. After yet another bruising rally, and an exchange that saw him err with a volley, I had won. There was no celebration: after two hours and 20 minutes I was exhausted.

I tried my best in the doubles, but I’d have been up against it even if I was fresh. My partner had played a very long singles match too; that probably didn’t help. I made a lot of mistakes and we lost 6-3 6-4. At least I could go home. The bad news is that I’m playing again tonight, though in a less competitive situation. Now which racket should I use?

Figuring out my next move

I played tennis yesterday and will be playing again tonight. And tomorrow. I’m very much looking forward to Wednesday, my next tennis-free day. I don’t enjoy the game anything like I used to, and when I play at night I take ages to get to sleep and need gallons of coffee to get through the next day. Four or five years ago, tennis was the highlight of my week. Now I really only do it for the exercise.

Richard came over to Devonport on Saturday. We didn’t do all that much I suppose. The warm weather didn’t lend itself to vigorous activity, and we mainly just lay in the park and dozed. We also had an ice cream and talked about possible flatting arrangements. I’m still a bit apprehensive about sharing a four-person flat, especially when I’ve only briefly met two of my potential flatmates. Instinctively I feel it should work out fine, but we’ll only get a better idea of our compatibility (or otherwise) if we all meet up. Hopefully that can happen this weekend. It was good to see Richard, and there’s nothing wrong with just having a relaxing afternoon.

Work seems to be gradually drying up – at this stage my last day looks like being 10th December. Some months ago I registered with Edge, an employment agency for people who have had mental health issues. They had a long waiting list which I reached the top of a couple of weeks ago. Last Thursday I had a chat with one of the people from Edge – he came round to my flat – and we talked about what I should do once my current stint comes to an end. He was quite adamant that the mental health industry would be too stressful for me right now, and should therefore be avoided. However he pushed English teaching to the forefront of my mind once more, and came up with a new idea – working in medical statistics (clinical trials for new drugs, for instance). We also talked about my CV. For some reason, there is huge emphasis put on CVs these days. This chap gave a recent example of one of his clients who applied for what he called a “donkey job”. There were dozens of applicants for six places, and apparently CVs were the deciding factor in who was successful. I said it would have been better to have put everyone’s names in a hat and picked out six at random. Probably just as fair and less time-consuming for everyone involved. In fact, the Lotto method could also be used for some non-donkey jobs, and would in many cases be fairer (and would certainly be more easily understood) than the current selection criteria. At least people who are less connected (like me) wouldn’t be discriminated against. He also suggested I need to be socialising with different people three or four nights a week, but I’m less sure about that. It’s likely that would just make me more stressed. All in all though, our meeting was very useful.

I rang my grandmother yesterday. She has taken a definite step backwards in the last two weeks. She was confused, but worse than that, she sounded quite unhappy and for some reason she was itching to get off the phone. She might get moved to a different home, one that caters specifically for dementia patients. Somehow she had got wind of this possible move, although she didn’t know the reason for it. After some very positive phone conversations with my gran, this one was quite upsetting.

It is now seven years and one day since I arrived in New Zealand to live. I remember that day very clearly – it was a crystal clear Canterbury day; the brightness of the sun (far brighter than you ever get in the UK, even in the height of summer) was almost intoxicating.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


There seems to be little point in blogging at the moment - there is hardly anything happening in my life that is worth blogging about.

There's plenty happening in other people's lives however. The mining disaster on the West Coast has taken up a lot of air time in the last few days, and rightly so. Things aren't looking good there to say the least. Yesterday's developments were described as "two steps forward and three back", but even that seemed to be putting a positive spin on things. It's a very close-knit community down there; I just hope we can find out something in the next 24 hours. It must be hell for the friends and families of those who are trapped. As for what the miners themselves have been through, that doesn't bear thinking about.

On Saturday I attended the monthly autism group which was interesting as always. The topic of discussion this time was adverts; people had to vote on their best and worst. I like to think I'm immune to advertising. Although it probably influences me more than I imagine, I'm pretty sure I'm less susceptible than most. I can see that a lot of ads (car ads being a prime example) are trying to press some kind of emotional buttons, but they're wasted on me I'm afraid. I'm particularly unimpressed with ads for banks, who are all trying to out-Kiwify each other, even if most of them are Australian-owned. ASB (owned by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia) have ditched Goldstein and jumped on the Kiwi bandwagon. TSB (who really are a Kiwi bank) used to run an amusing series of ads, one of which featured someone let loose on a solo plane flight with no training; they've since gone down the "real Kiwis only" route too. On a similar theme is Resene's "Colours of New Zealand" paint advert which, if I'd thought about it, would have got my vote on Saturday for the worst ad. Lake Wakatipu blue, it's so much bluer than bog-standard blue. How can you get away with such crap?

Worst of all must be ads that use sportsmen and other "great" New Zealanders to endorse medical and financial products. These ads aren't just crap, they're downright dangerous. Being a great rugby player or cricketer or golfer doesn't give you the authority to promote products that, should they go wrong, can wreck people's lives. One example was Colin Meads' endorsement of Provincial Finance. "South Island based. Solid as, I reckon," he said. Yes, solid as a house of cards during the South Island earthquake. Provincial was one of the first of New Zealand's many finance companies to go under.

This weekend I hope to meet up with Richard and two female members of the autism group to talk about flatting. I'm a bit unsure about sharing a four-person flat. It might be fine but I'll need to give it some thought. There will be plenty to discuss at the weekend.

An hour after I posted this, it was confirmed that there had been a second explosion (much bigger than the first), ending all hope of finding any of the 29 miners alive. Devastating news. I found yesterday's extended news bulletin quite moving.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Not much to report

It's been light on the news front in the last ten days. I haven't given much thought as to what I'll do when this job finishes, nor have I looked at flats. My landladies are selling the place I'm living in; I don't know whether I'll be able to stay there and for how long.

I played tennis on Monday night. In Superman's absence I had to play at number one in our team and I was up against it from the start. After losing the first set 6-1 I needed to change the game but lacked the necessary weapons, so I chose to slow the game down, a tactic that brought me three games in the second set. The doubles was a bit closer - 6-3 6-4 - and if we'd decided to stay back from the first point, rather than play "proper" doubles at the net (where we couldn't compete), we might have had a chance. As a team we were well beaten, five matches to one. I've now lost seven of my last eight matches in all competitions. As is usually the case, it was a struggle to get to sleep after tennis, and just as big a struggle to stay awake the next day.

I've given my last maths lessons of the year - my two 16-year-old students had their exams on Monday. I rang them up to see how it all went. Contrary to what I might have expected, the boy was quite happy with his performance while the girl was a bit disappointed with hers. I've noticed girls have a tendency to play down their efforts in exams, so that might have something to do with it. But also this NCEA system can put too much emphasis on a single question, to the point where a student can know with certainty that they won't get Excellence or Merit just because of what happened on one question. It sounds like this is what happened to her.

The Rocky Horror Show is currently on in Auckland. I'd quite like to go, but as it's only on for another week or so, I doubt I will. I did ask Julie - it seemed her kind of thing - but she isn't able to go. Richard O'Brien wrote the musical. In the early nineties he presented The Crystal Maze which I used to watch religiously every Thursday night. The show was very cleverly designed; O'Brien's wit and intelligence (and the fact that the was totally barking) helped make it very popular back in the day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Extreme pétanque

It was a good weekend, dominated by various competitive pursuits: tennis, pétanque, online poker and extreme ironing. I got a fair bit of sun.

Tennis on Saturday was up at Whangaparaoa (well Manly actually) and to be honest it wasn’t much fun. I was well out of my league. Playing number two in our team, when I was clearly the weakest player, it seemed I was the sacrificial lamb. Our team did win overall, so I guess it was an astute tactical decision by our team captain. In the men’s match, both our opponents were excellent net players (my partner was pretty handy in that department too), but when I get to the net I’m suddenly playing at 15,000 feet. We lost that match 6-2 6-3 and the mixed 6-2 6-2. It was a nice sunny afternoon for tennis but to be honest I just wanted to get home.

At the other end of the enjoyment scale was yesterday’s pétanque on Waiheke. This time I teamed up with Phil (we’d had a practice on Friday night) and Sylvain. As always Patrick, the dreadlocked hippie Frenchman, was in attendance. He’s been on the championship-winning side several times in the past and takes his pétanque pretty seriously; the only hope for the rest of us was that he might be stoned. Unfortunately the only weed we could see was an unusual formation of seaweed. We breezed through our first three matches, easily qualifying for the semi-finals from the nine teams who started. We were playing jolly well, mainly going for long jacks because we felt our opponents would struggle to match our accuracy from that range. We had a 13-2 win in the semis and inevitably came up against Patrick’s team (who had also had four big wins) in the final. His wife was on their team; she’s even better than Patrick – less dynamic perhaps but deadly accurate from any distance. The other bloke on their team was very handy too. The match started off nip-and-tuck – we were 3-2 down after five ends – but that soon became 10-2 and we had a mountain to climb. Short jacks and they could take our boules out; long jacks and they would get within inches. They were just too good. We scored two singles and a shock four to move to within two, and suddenly we had a real chance, but that was snuffed out when they cashed in on the very next end for a 13-8 win.

The pétanque was a lot of fun. It always is, even if you get thrashed. Everyone was really friendly. Next time I’ll make more of an occasion of it; a couple of beers or a bottle of wine (or even some Pastis) wouldn’t have gone amiss.

As for extreme ironing, no I didn’t actually iron my shirts in the sea at Waiheke yesterday, but the sheer quantity of ironing I did last night sure made it feel extreme. The closest I’ve ever come to extreme ironing by the way was during my map-making job in the UK. They wanted all their maps hung in a vertical file, and because they’d all been rolled up, I had to flatten out several hundred of the buggers (all A0 or A1 size) with my own iron.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The rest of my weekend (and last night's tennis)

After the maths tuition on Saturday I joined up with some of the Asperger’s group for a picnic in Cornwall Park. It was a very enjoyable afternoon (we were lucky with the weather) and the turnout was impressive. They were such a nice bunch of people; I had no problem relaxing. We even played a few ends of pétanque – perhaps useful practice for me before this weekend’s Waiheke tournament. Richard did a marvellous job of organising it all, especially as he sat an exam the previous morning. He has a knack of organising events; I have a hard enough time organising myself. We’ll have to do something similar again over the summer.

On Sunday (we were blessed with even better weather that day) I went to the monthly morning tea at the French club. I met up with Phil, who still doesn’t know when (or if) he’ll be returning to Denmark. We had a presentation from a bloke who speaks fluent French and Italian, giving us some entertaining tips on pronunciation. I played tennis in the afternoon – nothing serious, but just enough to get my eye in for the following evening’s interclub.

We played at Albany last night. First up was the doubles; I played with a young gun this time. His game oozed raw power but he didn’t quite have the accuracy to match. My play was a bit scratchy and we went down to a 6-4 6-2 loss. If we’d taken more of our chances it could have been closer, but really we were well beaten by a partnership who knew what they were doing on the doubles court. In contrast my singles opponent (half of the doubles team that beat us) was a good match-up for me. He was overweight and lacked mobility (forwards and backwards in particular), so I was able to work him around the court. The match started off close but I ran out a comfortable 6-3 6-0 winner. Overall our team won by four matches to two.

This is a busy week for me. I’ve got two lots of maths tuition as well as the men’s group on Wednesday. Then more tennis (at Whangaparaoa) on Saturday, followed by the pétanque on Waiheke Island on Sunday.

Some good news from a couple of weeks back that I neglected to mention: I did manage to get off that parking ticket. That's a relief.

Monday, November 1, 2010

NCEA: Not Achieved

I had a good weekend. On Saturday morning I gave some tuition to the Remuera girl – she’d just had her NCEA mocks and has the real thing in a fortnight. I’m still struggling to get my head around NCEA. The maths exam lasts three hours; in that time you have to complete five “mini-papers” on the topics of Number, Algebra, Graphs, Geometry and Probability. For each paper you’re given one of four grades: Excellence, Merit, Achieved and Not Achieved. She loves geometry and blew me away with her perfect paper on that topic. She also got Excellence in the probability paper, but “only” Achieved in the other three. So what does that equate to overall, I ask. It turns out there is no overall maths grade. In the words of OMC, how bizarre. The maths topics are treated as different subjects, even though they form part of the same exam and the concepts are very much intertwined. This makes no sense to me. I also found it strange that there were no numerical marks, such as 8/10, anywhere on the paper. On the flip side, I thought the questions were well constructed and required broad mathematical knowledge, and I don’t think they were any easier than what I had to deal with in 1996.

So what makes a fair exam system? The norm-referencing used in the old School Cert was controversial but despite its shortcomings was fairer (in my opinion) than what we have now. For something as complex as maths, standards-based assessment doesn’t work. So your son Jake can “do” number but can’t “do” algebra – what the hell does that even mean? Nothing, if you ask me. Secondly, exams have to be substantially different from one year to the next; difficulty will therefore also vary from year to year, sometimes significantly, just by random chance. How do the examiners adjust for this, if at all? The fairest (and easiest) way is to say, “Jake, you scored in the 65th percentile.” Sure, under this method you can’t tell if standards are improving, but neither can you under NCEA. Finally, every mark should count. I get the impression that some kids can’t be bothered studying because a few marks here or there are unlikely to make much difference. I’ve never really liked the whole concept of grades, and I certainly don’t like only having four of them. There’s a huge gap between 55% and 69%, but if they both just get you a bog-standard Achieved, no wonder there’s a lot of students out there who can’t be arsed.

At least everyone in New Zealand does the same exam, unlike in the UK where there are several examining boards with names like MEG and SEG and SMEG (OK, maybe not SMEG), each with its own syllabus and corresponding exam. It’s undoubtedly easier to pass under certain exam boards.

I never meant this to turn into a rant about educational assessment. I’ll cover the rest of my weekend, as well as tonight’s tennis matches, in my next post.

By the way, my work has been extended to the end of November. For my mental health as much as anything, that has to be good news.