When you lead a gypsy life, where gaps between employment are often wider than is economically desirable, the idea of exchanging Christmas gifts becomes secondary to, say, mortgage payments or keeping the lights on.

In 2011, however, Viking Woman and I were both blessed with full-time jobs and so decided that a few simple gifts under the artificial tree would not break the bank. I had to keep in mind that she is a Born Again Jenny Craig disciple, while she kept reminding me that my wish list of Toys For Boys would be fulfilled the instant we won the lottery.

Come Christmas morning, however, the presents that were purchased made the desired impression and hardly any at all were mentally tagged for regifting.

But the more I pondered on the items Viking Woman gave me, the more I realised she was sending me coded messages, if only I was astute enough to understand them.

For instance:

The Starbucks coffee? Message: You have a refined and sophisticated palate, even if you are going to slurp back most of this before your eyes are actually open in the morning.

Boutique soap? Message: You are a well-groomed metrosexual with excellent hygiene who needs to stop using my expensive body wash.

Tom Petty CD? Message: You have excellent taste in music and after you’ve inflicted Mr. Petty on me, I’m going to torture you with both of my favourite music genres: country and western.

Lifetime membership to Jenny Craig? Message: You’re a fat bitch.

OK, it’s not like I didn’t see that last one coming. After all, it does take me longer to shave in the morning these days, what with all those extra chins flapping about. And my clothes seem to have shrunk, for reasons I simply cannot explain and so blame the washing machine.

But I have a perfectly good explanation for this sudden growth spurt: It’s not my fault.

In my defence:

I recently spent a week in Las Vegas. Anyone who has been served a meal in the U.S. knows there is enough on that plate to feed an entire African village.

I recently spent two weeks visiting my parents. Mom, knowing I wouldn’t be home for Christmas, trotted out samples of all her baked seasonal goods. Mom, knowing I wasn’t home at Thanksgiving, hauled out the pumpkin pecan pie that had languished in the freezer for two months. One does not, after all, send their first-born back to his wife looking famished.

I know: I put the sick in homesick.

And then I return to the loving arms of Viking Woman just in time for Christmas, which meant an office lunch room filled with chocolate sirens calling me by my first name, like they knew I lacked willpower. It turned out the little bastards were right.

See what I mean: Not. My. Fault.

And so now December is winding down as I belly up to my computer desk and Viking Woman is asking when I will be joining her at the altar of Jenny. Just as soon as the house is emptied of all the junk food we bought for that Christmas Day party you insisted on hosting, I tell her while being careful to smile.

When all the chips and sweets and ice cream and potato salad are safely tucked away (read: stuffed into my pie hole), then I will bare my soul, and my bulging abdomen, to the acolytes at Jenny Craig and begin the long, hard, calorie-less, fat-less, tasteless slog back into my jeans.

It could, however, take me a while to empty the pantry and the fridge. A condemned man would never wolf down his final meal.

While I’m doing all that chewing, I will not be thinking ahead to how svelte I will look once I shed 60 pounds.

What I’ll actually be contemplating is how many days into the programme I will get before I gnaw off my own arm.

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The kid beaming out of the photo looks positively ecstatic. The goat he’s clutching, not so much. I’m guessing the animal somehow comprehends the child’s broad smile is in anticipation of a big bowl of goat stew for dinner.

While Christmas shoppers scurry outside the office, I’m sitting at my desk looking at an ad for World Vision. You know the one: “Buy a World Vision Smiles gift this Christmas and help change lives.” The ad copy is accompanied by photos of cute, but obviously needy kids, holding assorted critters ($9 for a chicken and chicken feed!; $20 for a duck!; $40 for a goat!”) as well as some second-tier actor whose face is meant to add a dose of legitimacy.

Donating to the welfare of hungry children is probably a  guaranteed instant deposit in the karma bank but I admit to being wary, having seen too many images of warlords hijacking trucks belonging to assorted humanitarian agencies and then feeding their soldiers while villagers starve .

How do I know my $40 is actually buying a goat, as opposed to ending up in some pirate’s bank account? How do I know the goat is going to that cute kid, as opposed to some fat general?

Who knew gift giving would involve so much thinking?

There was a time Viking Woman and I spent willy-nilly on each other: “Did she just glance at that and smile? Sold!”

Those days are long-gone.

Maybe it’s our small budget and big mortgage. Maybe it’s our small house and even smaller storage space.

Maybe we just have all we really need.

I, for one, cannot think of a single thing I’d like for Christmas. Scratch that: I cannot think of a single thing we can afford that I’d like for Christmas. A new camera? A new computer? Not gonna happen.

Thankfully, we have plenty of memories of Christmases Past, ones when there were presents under the tree as opposed to the dust bunnies who inhabit that space these days.

Viking Woman still enjoys seeing the shock on people’s faces when she relates how, soon after we were married, I gave her a tool belt. And then she laughs and assures her listeners it was one of the best gifts she’s ever received.

She also chortles every time she remembers the expression on my face when I tore open a present from her, only to find a Brooks and Dunn CD.

“Surely this is a mistake,” I said, “because it is you, not I, who is the lone country and western fan in this household.”

“Look again, Mr. Ungrateful,” she said. “That CD contains the song you’ve been singing the last several months.”

“Oh. Right,” I said. “How very thoughtful. Love you!”

We’ve got dozens of such stories about Christmas gifts given and received.

Maybe it’s time for a story about a goat.

Wham, bam, scam you, ma’am

December 21, 2011

PHOTO CREDIT: DUNCAN BROWN, NAPIER COURIER

Carissa Lewis leaves little doubt about how she felt after being scammed by a smooth operator.

“My exact words afterwards were, ‘I have been raped through my laptop’,” says the Taradale resident. “That’s what it felt like.’”

Carissa was at home earlier this month when she answered her landline. She’d barely said hello before a man speaking in a thick Indian accent told her he worked for Microsoft Windows and began berating her in a loud voice.

“He was like, ‘We’ve got these alerts coming up showing that you’ve got a virus on your laptop’,” she says. “It was like it was a serious situation that needed to be fixed immediately and I need to listen to this guy because he’s going to fix it.”

Caught off-guard, Carissa was unwittingly about to fall victim to what’s known as the AMMYY.com scam, where operators bully unwary computer owners to log onto a website and activate a programme. Rather than the promised virus purge, the computer is, instead, commandeered via remote access and such sensitive information as banking details and passwords are quickly harvested.

“I was watching the screen and everything that we had ever typed into the internet was coming up,” says Carissa. “I saw one of my passwords and I just knew then that they had everything off my laptop.”

Carissa’s partner arrived home at that moment to take over the phone and disconnect the computer, but the damage had been done.

While she later felt embarrassed and “really silly,” Carissa says in the heat of the moment, it was difficult to spot the warning signs of the carnage about to be wreaked. “They were yelling at me over the phone – they were very insistent,” she says. “The sense of panic distracts you from what they’re actually doing. That was the scary part. They could have pretty much got me to do anything over the phone by talking to me in that tone.”

Napier Police crime prevention adviser Paul Miller says the country has been inundated with such scam calls, including several to his own residence.

“If someone with an Indian accent calls to say you have a virus, it’s a scam in big letters,” he says. “It’s potentially very dangerous.”

He advises anyone who receives such a call to contact the police so they can keep tabs on what scams are currently active.

“But we won’t investigate because it’s impractical to do so,” he says. “We don’t have the resources to put into it.”

Justin Andrews, the director of Laptops R Us, says his household used to receive computer scam calls on a nightly basis. The best thing to do, he says, is inform the caller that you don’t have an internet connection.

“Once we said that, the calls stopped,” he says.

Whatever you do, Justin says, “don’t go to the website and don’t follow the instructions.”

Laptops R Us sees one or two computers a week brought in after being infected by AMMYY. In response, the company has a special price of $199 to back up data, wipe the hard drive and do a clean install.

“The computer has to be restored to its original state as if it’s brand new again,” says Justin. “That’s the only way to guarantee nothing is in your computer’s system.”

Carissa has yet to do that. In fact, she feels nervous at the mere thought of even turning the machine on. In the meantime, having reported the scam to the police, she and her partner have changed passwords and credit cards, and informed friends, their internet provider and their cell phone provider that sensitive information may have been compromised.

Now she wants to warn others so no one else ends up feeling violated the way she did.

“I was so gutted – I still am,” she says. “I thought I was computer-savvy. Apparently not.”

If you’re going to whine and bitch about a company so the entire blogosphere can read about it, then it’s only fair to also post said company’s response and resolution.

Readers will recall my Nov. 20 blog which reproduced my letter to Air New Zealand in which I listed all the problems I encountered trying to fly from Vancouver to Auckland, not the least of which was an eight-hour layover in a holding cell terminal at LAX. I was basically venting and never actually expected any kind of action or even reply.

And so imagine my surprise when I received an email answer this week from a fellow named Matt McDonald, sections of which I have pasted in here:

Thank you for your email.

On behalf of Air New Zealand I do apologise for the disruption you experienced when travelling with Air New Zealand from Vancouver to Auckland.

I do appreciate your frustration and understand this must have been very inconvenient. While this flight cancellation was a very unfortunate and uncontrollable incident, Air New Zealand does have direct control over how passengers are accommodated and provided with information regarding alternative travel arrangements. When major disruptions like this occur we may rebook you on available services going via a different route, which may involve an alternative carrier for part of the journey. I do regret this involved additional transit time in Los Angeles.

It is disappointing you had such difficulty receiving information regarding the alternative travel arrangements. I am sorry you were not provided with the correct information when first calling Air New Zealand. The standard of service provided by our contact centre is concerning, especially given the circumstance around your call. Please be assured your correspondence will be passed to our Contact Centre management to review.

We expect our Airport staff to provide regular updates to passengers affected by a disrupted flight as to the new departure times or alternative arrangements made. It is disappointing to read that the level of service you received on this occasion was not of the standard we aim to provide any of our passengers. Customer feedback is an integral part of our review process. I trust therefore that your comments will be recorded and reviewed so that we may be able to better handle future disruptions out of Vancouver.

I am sorry your experience has fallen short of your expectations of Air New Zealand. I trust we will be able to restore your confidence in our service when you next travel with us.

Thank you, Mr. McDonald. Thank you, Air New Zealand. I asked for a simple apology and you have provided that in spades.

I am well and truly impressed.

I closed a chapter of my life this week. And by that I mean I finally finished reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. It only seemed like it took a lifetime to struggle through to the end.

Call me a silly optimist, but I tend to go into movies or start books with a fervent desire that the time I’m about to invest in them will be worth the effort.

The restricted version of the poster for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that won't be coming to a theatre near you.

On far too many occasions, however, I’ve emerged on the other side with a “meh” shrug of indifference, neither the journey nor the destination having lived up to expectations.

That’s is how I felt about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. While I wasn’t overwhelmed by the same tsunami of hype that accompanied The Da Vinci Code (the sound and fury of which cleverly masked what was, ultimately, poorly-written tripe), I’d heard enough positives about the late Swedish writer’s books to give them a go.

Certainly the timing was right – I was, after all, living by myself on a tropical island where the absence of a TV and evenings that plunged into darkness by 7:30 provided the perfect inducement for cracking open a book.

There was a time, when I was much younger and my responsibilities did not extend much beyond finishing homework, where I would cruise through two books a week. My nose buried in the pages, the rest of the world went by unnoticed, so engrossed was I in the adventures of Biggles or John Carter of Mars or whichever unfortunate character happened to be fleeing from Stephen King’s latest monster.

There was no cruising when it came to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or The Girl Who Played With Fire or The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.

Larsson’s books are corpulent with details (not the least of which must be every street name in Sweden) and littered with characters, most of whom are of the minor variety and not worth remembering. Did I mention that all their names sounded the same after a while?

While Dragon Tattoo at least had a mystery – albeit a fairly pedestrian one – at its core, the other two were about, well, I’m not really sure, to tell the truth.

Larsson, a journalist by trade, had a few cats to kick as far as the Swedish government was concerned and he gets so busy taking shots at every institution or group or agency that pissed him off that he seems to have forgotten that he’s brought a reader along for the ride.

The plots are needlessly convoluted, the characters little more than ciphers: mouths Larsson uses to spout his theories, the majority of which are of the conspiracy variety.

Much has been made about how fascinating a character is Lisbeth Salander. Tattooed, pierced, ambivalent when it comes to bedmates, a brilliant computer hacker. Violent and, at times, bat-shit crazy.

She should have grabbed me by the balls, or at least the throat. And yet I never felt she came alive for me. Probably because Larsson insisted on abandoning her in dark corners for long periods of time, especially in the final volume.

She is a one-trick pony, a carnival freak show.

It took me so long to slog through the books, the act of reading so onerous at times, that I never felt swept along by the flow of Larsson’s narrative current.

I was bored. OK, there, I said it.

And that’s the real crime of the Millennium Trilogy.

Let me add this sidebar: During an online creative writing course I took from New Zealand writer Jill Marshall, she asked her students to submit the first thousand words of whatever piece we were working on. I sent her the first chapter of The Blue Beneath, the sequel to Brown Girls.

One of the notes Jill sent back was to caution me to be very careful about using too many different character viewpoints.

Read Larsson and you’ll note how he changes point-of-view willy-nilly, often from one paragraph to the next.

And yet he still became a best-selling writer.

Which leads me to this obvious conclusion: one of my characters needs a tattoo and a nose ring.

I can already hear the cash registers ringing.

I make a habit of avoiding trouble. Always have.

I hung out with the neighbourhood kids only until they started being stupid and then I wandered on home. During my first year of high school, I quickly identified the Neanderthals who picked on the short and the pudgy and made studiously stayed out of their orbits.

My home life was more of the same, and I’m sure my parents were eternally grateful. When you have six kids to keep track of, knowing that one of them is reading copies of The Hockey News in the basement must have brought immeasurable peace of mind.

Which brings me to my recent family outing to Las Vegas and the return of Simon to my life.

Those of you who followed my Cook Islands blog (www.backtothebeach.wordpress.com) will remember Simon as one half of the duo I dubbed The Welsh. Simon and his girlfriend, Silent Sam, rented the bungalow one over from mine at Mount View Lodges and for several months we kept each other from becoming too homesick.

Simon and Sam eventually continued their journey – one that would take them to such places as New Zealand, Australia, China and Cambodia – before heading home to Cardiff.

While we remained Facebook friends, I really never expected to see Simon again.

And then he flies into Las Vegas to meet up with me. Heartbroken that his relationship with Sam had ended, he’d hit the road again, this time to America.

The plan was to fly to San Francisco, come see me in Las Vegas, check in with another friend in Atlanta, and then make his way to New York City before heading home.

But planning was never Simon’s (nor Sam’s, for that matter) strong suit and so a chance encounter with the Occupy San Francisco camp put a serious kink in his itinerary.

I have to admit to not fully understanding what, exactly, the assorted Occupy movements were demanding. “Share the wealth” was, I believe, one of the mantras. Personally, I would have gone for “Please help me find a job so I, too, can accumulate wealth,” but that’s just me.

But Simon is 28 and an impressionable young lad – as opposed to me, now far too old for revolution – and so the Occupy SF people fascinated him. Which is why he wanted to visit the Occupy Las Vegas location. With me.

Which is how I – Mr. Avoid Confrontation At All Cost Lest It Lead To Trouble – ended up at the camp.

Did that make me party to the demonstration? Hardly. Considering there were maybe 10 people present, and they all pretty much ignored me, I was consigned to the role of curious bystander.

Simon was right into it, as I suspected he might be. Plus, he had stories to share about the San Francisco movement. While he chatted, I hovered on the edges, trying not to look bored or, worse yet, content with my lot in life.

A policeman drove in at one point and, after eyeballing me as I snapped his photo, he drove away again, satisfied his services weren’t required. There was talk about conspiracy theories, how someone was spreading Chinese whispers about militia members infiltrating the ranks and wreaking havoc.

There were tents and signs and food and portable toilets – even a rudimentary antenna to provide access to the Internet. For the most part, people simply wandered about. No angry slogans, no pumping fists, no anarchy.

Simon and I parted ways soon after.

I went back to my family, to laugh loudly and eat too much and stare too long into the bright lights of commercialism.

Simon went back to San Francisco where he was beaten by the police and tear-gassed and only avoided being arrested by sheer luck and good timing.

He never did make it to Atlanta. He arrived in New York City mere hours before his flight departed for Cardiff and so never did mingle with the Occupy Wall Street people who initiated the entire protest.

He’s back in Wales now, looking at his photos, reviewing his video. He has a million stories to tell. Some day, if the universe is kind, he and I will sit down once more over coffee and he will tell them all to me.

If the universe is even kinder, Silent Sam will join us. She won’t say anything but, if only for a couple of hours, The Welsh and I will be reunited and life will feel right again.

I accumulate things.

Maybe it’s the influence of my Sagittarius star sign, but I have a difficult time throwing anything away. Even when they’re tatty and broken and falling apart and little more than scattered parts at the bottom of a drawer, I tend to cast my mind back to the time of purchase. A shinier time, a younger time. A time of innocence, a time of need when this object, this thing, filled that need.

None of which explains the latex glove.

I tuck objects into jacket pockets, only to rediscover them, like my own personal treasure hunt, some months later. Inside pockets work especially well as Aladdin’s caves. For example, I have secreted away several tickets from hockey games I’ve attended over the years.

I also have a matchbook from Joe’s Crab Shack in San Francisco that never fails to produce a smile of remembrance every time I encounter it because, from that restaurant’s second-floor window, Viking Woman and I would watch the Bush Man scare the living bejesus out of unwary tourists.

None of which explains the latex glove.

One glove. Singular. Lingering in a pocket of my winter jacket. Why a latex glove, you ask. And where is its partner?

And why don’t I just throw the darn thing away?

That latter thought certainly crossed my mind when, while making a recent purchase, I fished spare change from my jacket pocket. When I pulled out the coins, the glove came with them, fluttering out to sit in a grey, crumpled heap, four fingers and a thumb pointing straight at me as if I were the biggest perv on the planet.

I glanced up at the sales girl but her eyes were riveted on the discoloured creature crouching on the counter, her face reflecting equal parts horror and revulsion.

I suppose a condom might have been more embarrassing but at least it has a recognizable purpose. One dirty latex glove? Not so much.

I may as well have spilled out a balaclava, black tape, handcuffs, pliers and a coil of rope. You could have sliced the menace in the air with, well, a box cutter.

Blushing crimson, I quickly paid for my purchase and dashed from the store.

The glove? It should have been left behind. It should have been pitched into the nearest rubbish bin. It should have been out of my life forever so I could never again look like a serial killer sizing up his next victim.

Instead, it’s back in my jacket pocket where, I suspect, it will sit for sometime to come. Yes, it is an object with evil potential but, dammit, it’s my object.

Customer Support

Air New Zealand

Dear Sir/Madam:

Imagine this scenario, if you will:

You’ve saved long and hard for a new Ford car, paid the dealer in full and have all your paperwork in order. On the day you arrive to pick up the vehicle, however, the salesman meets you at the door with a sad expression on his face.

“During the night the wind blew a tree onto your Ford and completely destroyed it,” he says, wringing his hands. “It was an unfortunate incident for which we cannot in any way be held responsible. And, because it was not our fault, we’re not going to bother ordering in a replacement Ford, nor are we prepared to give you a refund.”

He dangles a set a keys in front of your nose. “What we will do, because you are a valued customer and we desire your future business, is put you into a used Holden. It’s not what you want, it’s not what you paid for, but look at this way: it will still get you where you want to go.”

That customer being screwed over? That’s me. The salesman with the slick pitch? That would be Air New Zealand.

Let me explain:

I was originally booked on Air NZ flight 83 – Vancouver to Auckland non-stop– due to depart at 19:00 on Friday, November 11. I was at YVR three hours ahead of time, as per requirements, only to be told by a gentleman standing by the Air New Zealand check-in counter that there was a problem. It had been a particularly windy day and, he informed me in hushed tones, a passenger bridge had been blown into the jet, causing external damage.

I was advised to come back in an hour for an update on the flight’s status.

Things weren’t quite as organized or efficient when I returned to the counter, if only because, by this time, several more passengers were present. Everyone was milling around, asking each other if anyone had any information. As a journalist, I’m accustomed to marching up and asking questions, and so I did just that.

I talked to a female employee this time and she seemed just as unclear on the situation as the rest of us. Yes, there had been damage caused to the exterior of the jet. No, we would not be flying out tonight. The plan, as she understood it, would see Air New Zealand bringing in a jet from Auckland to fetch us, but that would take at least 14 hours.

Passengers who had arrived on connecting flights would be put up in hotels; those of us who still had access to local accommodation were advised to go home and call Air New Zealand’s 1-800 number for updates on our flight.

OK, fine. Wind = act of God = no one’s fault. Crap happens. I get that.

Things, however, went swiftly downhill from there. Despite spending several hours dialling the 1-800 number, I was consistently greeted by a busy signal. The one time I did get through to a customer rep, I was told, in a rather cavalier manner, that passengers on NZ 83 were simply being flipped onto Sunday’s (Nov. 13) flight, because it was the next available non-stop flight on the schedule.

Not good enough, I said. That flight doesn’t arrive in New Zealand until Tuesday morning (Nov. 15) and I have to be at work Monday morning.

Plan B, I was told, was to fly to Los Angeles on Saturday, Nov. 12, and catch the LA-Auckland flight that night. LAX? Seriously? The main reason the non-stop flight is so popular is because no one in his or her right mind wants to endure the ninth ring of Hell that is LAX.

Not good enough, I repeated. If I wanted to experience the dubious joys of LAX, that’s the ticket I would have bought in the first place. Like the Ford lover in the above story, my expectations were simple: I wanted what I paid for. No more, and certainly no less.

Since it was obvious that would not be happening, I asked if Air New Zealand had any plans to compensate me for this major inconvenience. And that’s when the line went dead. Must have been the wind again. Yeah, right.

In the end, as the hour grew late and I started to panic about confirming flights, I took the drastic action of making two long-distance calls to the Air New Zealand office in New Zealand. The first time I was told I’d already been tentatively booked on flights that would see me fly out of LAX on the Saturday evening. The second call, made two hours later in an effort to confirm that booking, revealed there was no evidence at all on the computer of that earlier booking, tentative or otherwise.

I was finally confirmed to fly Vancouver-LAX-Auckland, but it took several hours, two expensive phone calls and much frustration on my part before all the arrangements were made and the keys to the Holden were thrown in my face.

Did I mention that I ended up in Los Angeles without any U.S. cash or that I was still in the process of travelling a day after my travel insurance expired?

Did I mention that a day meant to be spent relaxing at home, adjusting to the time difference and recharging my batteries before heading back to work found me, instead, spending eight hours in LAX?

The part that really pisses me off is this: not once did anyone say they were sorry.

Not a single person had the common courtesy, the common decency to say, “Despite this unfortunate incident being the result of a random and unpredictable Act of God – meaning Air New Zealand can in no way be held responsible – I apologize.

“I apologize that you were forced to spend eight hours sitting on your arse in a terminal in LAX and that, because of that, you lost an invaluable part of your life that could better have been spent making love to your wife or massaging your leg muscles back to life after a long, cramped flight, or mowing the lawn or throwing the ball for the dog.

“You had a miserable day and, on behalf of Air New Zealand, I’d just like to say I’m sorry.”

I paid for the Ford in good faith and then had no choice but to accept the Holden or forfeit a day’s wages. Yeah, I’m guessing the very least I’m owed is an apology.

Well that, and two complimentary tickets to somewhere hot.

I’m thinking Rarotonga.

Regards

My Cook Islands photos displayed in gallery.

I look at the photos — the girl shrieking with laughter; the youngster clutching at her face as her brain cramps from ice cream eaten too quickly; the trio peering mischievously from a market stall — and the walls of the Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay melt away.

I’m transported back to Rarotonga. The air is suddenly redolent of frangipani; the sun is hot on my neck. There is sand between my toes.

It’s all my imagination of course, but that’s the feeling I hope to evoke in all those who view my exhibit of Cook Islands photographs in the gallery. If someone smiles at the children’s antics or sighs in frustration at not being able to slide into the teal depths of Muri Lagoon, or recalls their own fond memories of the Cooks, then my job here is done and I can count the showing a success.

I landed on Raro the day after Cyclone Pat chewed up the sister island of Aitutaki. I left shortly after the general election. It was my sixth visit to the island in 10 years, and the third time I actually lived and worked there.

Between the two major events that bookended my year in paradise, I compiled a lifetime of adventures, experiences and memories.

As a reporter/ photographer for the Cook Islands Herald, I was the first member of the print media to land on Aitutaki, courtesy of a Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules, to record the devastation wrought by the cyclone. My job took me into the National Auditorium for cultural performances, to the retirement gala held for Catholic Bishop Stuart O’Connell.

I attended Christmas carnivals and was on the dock when the police boat returned rescued fishermen to the arms of their loved ones.

School children visiting cultural landmarks, the Vaka Eiva paddling competitions, a huge gathering of Zumba enthusiasts, a day spent on the island of Atiu in the company of sunburned travel agents — I attended all these events, camera in hand.

I worked on the 2011 Miss Cook Islands calendar and photographed models for the Herald covers. I wandered the weekly Saturday market, capturing the faces and expressions of these beautiful Polynesian people, committing split seconds of their lives to my camera’s memory.

It was a time of wonder. A time of magic and delight. It was a time of golden days and purple nights. A time of laughter and friendships. It was, in the end, a time gone too soon.

I returned to New Zealand with some 15,000 photographs — and a new tattoo — as a reminder the Garden of Eden really does exist. The plan was always to share my images and, thanks to Shayne Jeffares and the Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay, that goal has been achieved.

The exhibit is my love letter to the Cook Islands and its people. It’s also a promise to myself to return once more to their warm embraces.

* The Photographers’ Gallery Hawke’s Bay is located at 138 Tennyson Street in Napier. For information: 06 835 8142 or http://www.pghb.co.nz

Little Old Lady has haunted me my entire journalism career.

I’ve never actually met her but I imagine her to be sour of expression, someone who stands in her front yard shaking her cane at the kids playing in the street, berating them for being too loud, having too much hair, wearing their pants too low and their baseball caps backwards.

She owns a small dog and feeds it slices of cheese even though that nice man on the TV says human food is not good for animals. She knits while she watches daytime soaps and yells at the characters for being gullible fools. She doesn’t answer the phone if it rings during American Idol, thinking only an idiot would dare interrupt quite possibly the greatest entertainment ever invented.

She forgets where she put her glasses. She sometimes forgets to put her teeth in. She believes anyone who survived the Great Depression and the Second World War has the God-given right to bitch about everything and anything.

And, oh yeah, she hates me. Or, more specifically, my writing. In fact, she hates all journalism.

I know this to be true because every newspaper I’ve ever worked for — a Times, a Star, a News, a Herald, another Herald and now a Courier — fear Little Old Lady more than they fear the Internet.

Which is why every story I’ve ever written — every story you see printed in a respectable newspaper — has to pass this litmus test: Will it offend Little Old Lady? If an editor experiences even the slightest niggle that Little Old Lady will take umbrage with the content, the story will be edited or quite possibly  killed.

Little Old Lady enjoys sharing her opinions. Her morals violated by something she finds offensive, she will phone an editor to vent her spleen. Or, even worse, mail (!) a handwritten (!!) letter explaining, in no uncertain terms that, should the paper continue to print such objectionable trash, she will have no alternative but to cancel her subscription. No one has the balls to tell Little Old Lady that the paper is actually delivered free.

I was envisioning Little Old Lady this week while writing a story about a new horse trail. On the surface, this is not the sort of story that would normally raise wrinkled hackles but my plan was to use the word “shirty” to describe some rather nasty people who’d objected to equestrian invaders.

“Shirty” is one of those Kiwi-isms Viking Woman and I encountered when we moved to New Zealand. I know it’s not a real (read: North American) word but I have this sneaky hunch Kiwis use it in polite company when what they really mean is “shitty.”

Is Old Little Old Lady going to read that sentence and not give it a second thought because, after all, that’s how everyone speaks here?

Or will she stop short, raise a weathered eyebrow, clack her dentures in disgust and reach a quivering hand for the phone?

I guess I’m about to find out. Wish me luck.