The Mack the Knife Incident

You may not have heard about the Mack the Knife incident… The Ruski works hard to be the most masculine, most daring, most dangerous burlesque performer that ever took the stage, and what better way to do this than to make an act where he cut his clothes off himself with a razor sharp Georgian bone carving knife? I told one of my workmates this was happening that night and she facepalmed, and said she’d check the obituaries in the morning. He HAD practised, leaving bits of shredded clothes all over the lounge, but we both knew that (true at the time) when he got on stage his enthusiasm doubled and his accuracy halved. Stage fighting with him was exciting.

Watching him on stage that night I realised something had gone wrong when I saw his hand shaking as he was trying to cut off his underwear. I was afraid he was going to circumcise himself. As it was he flashed half the audience when his hat drifted, and in a gay bar that went down well. One was overheard saying “Well… there’s my $5 worth right there”. What happened was, the trousers he used for the show were lined, and therefore much more difficult to cut, and when he got to the bottom of leg one he flexed his foot into the knife sweep and sliced the top of it, and he didn’t even notice. He apparently didn’t start bleeding until he was off-stage (adrenaline works like that) and I tracked him to the manager’s office where they had a meagre first aid kit. Locking ourselves into the men’s room, I cleaned up the many scratches over his other limbs and declared he’d need stitches for his foot, but he wasn’t going to A&E until after the show, so we bandaged him as best we could.

At A&E (Accident and Emergency clinic at the hospital) the triage nurse asked him what had happened, so he said “I was cutting my clothes off myself for a burlesque act, and I slipped”. She looked at him with a completely straight face, and said “All in the name of art, right?” I cracked up. He did say I didn’t have to stay with him, but I know how much I hate A&E, and company makes it better. Because his injury was very low priority it was about 5am in the morning before they were stitching him up (three stitches in all), and commenting favourably about his toenail polish. I got about one hour snooze before I had to get up for work. Before my workmate asked, I said “So… I spent last night in A&E…” She was extremely sympathetic, and volunteered to prod me during the day if I fell asleep at my desk.

 

3 and a Bit Months Without Official Job and Income

I knew that my company was struggling to meet financial targets, and actually asked my manager if redundancies could happen. He didn’t believe it at the time, and acknowledged my perception when we got the word that it would happen, after all. When we were told I got the strangest feeling. Having just started 9 months before, and having failed to gain the approval of the clique of older women (long term employees) who told people how things were to be in the business, I felt there was a good chance I would not survive the cull in early August. Where the other testers whose jobs were at risk were metaphorically kneeling on the cliff edge pleading or stoically waiting for the push, I found myself looking over the edge, wondering where to jump to.

I really did not want to go back to my original job, that I had left for much better pay and opportunities. I thought I’d try my hand at contracting. I really liked the idea of doing my job, which I enjoy, in a variety of environments where I wouldn’t stay long enough to suffer the effects of office politics, and getting paid really well so I could have the time after each job to enjoy my life and explore new interests, like training to be a clown, and writing. I discussed this plan with the people who I have regularly financially supported in the past – none of them legal dependants. I needed to know that if I took the option of a non-guaranteed income that they could survive without my help. The Ruski bravely declared he could handle it. The Girlie already owed me a lot of rent, from when I had a job, and was on her last warning, but it seemed she had her act together. The one overseas brushed it off, and my daughter went pale but assented. I believed I had all their understanding and support, so I signed up to a few agencies looking exclusively for contract work. They warned me the market was flat, but I am not risk adverse, and I can survive like a cockroach, so I buckled down for a wait.

First thing we did for damage control was add another flatmate, making four, including me, and we divided up the household expenses evenly (I had been paying for most of them). Moving him in involved clearing out the spare room, which I had also been paying for, of all my stored junk. We do not have a lot of storage space in our flat, so I have given away / thrown away / sold a whole lot of stuff I really no longer need, but have been keeping “just in case”. I learnt this trait from my parents, who scrimped and saved themselves up from blue collar to comfortable middle class. They like stuff, and give gifts of stuff, and protect their stuff, and put it on display. To me, a lot of my stuff is just junk, and useless, and collects dust. It’s funny how such stuff accumulates in our lives. Like emotional baggage we just keep carrying it around and not dealing with it. It’s not as though we even care for it, and it weighs us down, making an anchor we can’t walk away from, and we have to live in a house just to put a roof over it. I considered the possibility of living in a van, like some of my circus friends. It has appeal. I am low maintenance, and happy in small accommodations, and by myself. If I didn’t get a contract, perhaps I would do that, and roam around NZ teaching acrobatics and other stuff, and bringing circus to places that had limited options.

We had a long term couchsurfer at the time, who was actually a pain in the arse, but had offered to pay a bit towards his costs and space, so bought himself some grace. Then three weeks later a previous flatmate came back to NZ and shacked up with the Girlie, the girl he left behind, making five and a half flat occupants. We discussed it – he had some time to sort himself out, and would contribute to the expenses when the surfer left, after a month, at the end of September.

I actually had very little time at first: not knowing when I would be employed again, I had a heap of costumes to make for shows and games, stuff to sort out, job applications to write and casual “until I get a contract” job options to consider. I loved doing jobs for my friends – it was good to be able to give them the time I had not had before, and they really helped me in return. I signed up for all sorts of things, and got odd jobs around the place to supplement my rapidly depleting funds, but never enough to cover my weekly expenses. One of the biggest expenses was my insurance: I had only just got it sorted while I was working, and after all that paperwork I would be damned before I gave up on it. I couldn’t expect it with contracts, either, so if I wanted it, I had to keep it going. It’s a big question, though. Do I really want it? “I bet that I will die, or my kids or I will suffer a debilitating injury or illness within my working lifetime”. Given my lifestyle I think it’s a pretty safe bet, actually.

I think it was about the end of September when I bit the bullet and got an accommodation supplement from the government. I did not get the unemployment benefit – I did not want them on my case, telling me to take any job they pushed at me. I had started thinking I should just get a nice part-time admin job, where I got enough cash to survive and time to do my own thing. I was really enjoying the time to myself, and I really don’t care about having lots of money. I applied for quite a few, I didn’t get one reply. I can’t help but wonder what people look for in an office temp.

September past quickly, but October was horrible. Our returned flatmate was causing trouble with us and his girlfriend, and when I asked for the agreed expense supplement he got very difficult. He had apparently not used the free month to get himself any form of income. Then he started keeping a record of all the things he ate to show he didn’t consume as much as he was paying for, then it started coming out how much he actually despised me. This was someone who would write to me while he was overseas “hey, old buddy, old pal…” and ask me to lend him money, which I did. Apparently he was just acting as my friend from the point he got the girlfriend – he had been vilifying me to her the whole time – so I would keep supporting him, and when the money dried up so did his act. I was heart-broken. He is gone from my life now. He says he will pay me back, but in the end a bit over $1K is a small price to pay to learn I have a false friend.

The Girlie was also somewhat concerned about whether I was honest with the cash. While I said I had very little income and was running out of funds I would still buy wine for the household and go for curry after my circus class. People who are broke don’t do such things, she said. I don’t think she realised that I also paid for the studio where she learnt to dance with me, and paid for my martial arts lessons. I told her that, as an adult with no dependants, I would spend my money as I pleased, and take the risk that it runs out before I got a job, and live with small moments of non-essential pleasure while I still could. If I didn’t get a job there would be plenty of time for me to be poor, scraping for every cent, maybe worried and miserable, but more likely dumpster diving and busking. I have lived below the breadline before, and I can do it again.

My long-term unemployed daughter applied for a job. This was a wonderful thing for me – I liked to see that she was beginning to take some responsibility for her life. But the Ruski was suffering. Working 50+ hours per week to pay all his regular bills, wondering what to do about the irregular ones, and with another 20 odd hours training and/or performing was taking its toll. He gets sick easily, and has no time to try to change things for himself. I saw a thing on Facebook, about a family of friends https://www.facebook.com/ash.martell1/videos/10206462910045239/ and I thought that this is what the Ruski and I could do: I could bring in the cash, because I can, and then he could live and grow as an artist. When he’s rich and famous I’m going to be his chauffeur and bodyguard. Until then I’m supporting the performing arts of NZ.

About mid-October, with no funds left, I contacted someone I trusted at my old job and started looking for full time work again. I didn’t want to do these things, but I had run out of options. It makes no sense to me that I can’t work part time and make less money if I want. What is wrong with this world, that we have to do 9-5 five days a week, and make money we don’t need or care about? I’d rather have my life. Then the Girlie’s rent was stolen. After discussion we decided that her best option was to return to her mother’s home where she didn’t need to be financially reliable. At least her by now completely obnoxious boyfriend, who had also not been paying what we had negotiated, left with her. That left us down to three flatmates, however – short about the same amount as the weekly food bill. A couple of my friends knew how hard things were getting, and offered to lend me cash, if I needed it. I thanked them, and said I would ask if it came to that. About that time I also applied to be a bouncer at a brothel. I thought a female door staff would be a good thing for such a sensitive industry, but I got no replies from that job, either. I was rejected by jobs I applied to, rejected by potential flatmates, rejected even by a stage show I auditioned for. They would all say “you were great but we went with someone else”. I got tired of hearing that: just say I wasn’t successful. There was a time when there was no wine and we all looked into the abyss…

…and then I got a part time temporary contract at my old company, at contract rates, which works out at more per week than at the upgrade job. Then we got a new flatmate. Then I got offered a full time job and a contract job at the same time. I have decided to take the full time job, since while I love the idea of my liberty, I would rather have the dependable income to help my friend get his life back on track.

Never once did I bounce a payment for any of my financial responsibilities. I worked hard to survive and with the support of my friends I pulled through. Bad things happened, and I had to make hard choices, but I didn’t stop teaching circus and dance, couchsurfing, sharing what I could, supporting my family and friends in return, and I didn’t let anyone down. Life has been good for me, in that way. I discussed this with the Ruski – am I just lucky? He says we make our luck, at least in part from our attitude, and this is what I built for myself. It’s a humbling thought.

Of Cats and Dogs

One thing me and the Ruski really don’t see much eye to eye on is the relative merits of cats and dogs. He loves cats, and is happy to be the staff of our little cat, Chilli, who will wake him to feed her and then come back to my bed to snooze with me (without eating anything). He has also been known to chase off the two little dogs from our neighbours who occasionally get loose and like to bark at Chilli. She was perfectly safe, sitting on top of the fence pretending to ignore them whilst driving them crazy, but the Ruski had to ruin her fun. He has mellowed somewhat in the last few years, but for the longest time he did not like dogs. This was in large part to the childhood memory of being chased and treed by a pack of wild dogs in Siberia.

I, on the other hand, have some reservations about our love affair with cats. I get that they are lovely or hilarious to watch (I have been known to spend time watching cat videos on YouTube), and can form relationships with humans and be warm, affectionate company, and cats other than ours can kill pests (or entire species, let’s not forget). Chilli is the worst hunter ever. But those qualities we commonly find endearing in cats, their self-contained and commanding nature, distain, fastidiousness, savagery… we would not like these qualities in a person of our acquaintance. Also, consider these points:

Now I have heard the protests of the cat-lovers: “not my cat – my cat is smart / faithful / friendly / caring…” and I have to admit to seeing a lot of variation in cat attributes myself. This can be attributed to the fact that we don’t spend a lot of time killing off cats that exhibit strange or anti-social tendencies, like we do with dogs, and so more behavioural variation can be expected. Commonly we find the mad cat endearing, even when it scratches us for no reason or steals the neighbours’ panties off the washing line eg http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2397155/A-real-cat-burglar-Cheeky-Norris-steals-neighbours-underwear-night-prowls.html We excuse their bad behaviour in the same way as overindulgent parents, with maybe a slight embarrassment, but private delight.

To highlight this, the other day Chilli came over for a pat when I was in the middle of something. I gave her a quick pat and moved to walk away and she scratched me on the leg. I told the Ruski about this, and he said “What a bitch! [Pause] You should know better than to walk away when she wants attention!” I think he deserves everything he gets with the joys of cat ownership, including the catbox duties and the barfed furballs.

On the other hand, the things we culturally find pathetic or undignified in dogs – their unconditional love, desire to please, steadfast loyalty, and boisterous nature – these are things that commonly make a person our best friend, though maybe we would be a bit nervous of this, thinking we don’t deserve it. Why do we choose to laud the antisocial behaviour of cats over the social behaviour of dogs? Or, if I am to get serious for a bit, why do we imagine that people who treat us rudely or with distain show quality and are desirable, and those that accept us and treat us well can be taken for granted and used? I do believe these traits of humans are interconnected, and bear thinking about.

Why do we have these double standards in the value of these qualities? This is why I have reservations. It’s not because I don’t love cats, it’s because I do love humans, and I wonder if we hurt ourselves and sabotage our relationship happiness by confusing our values between humans and our furry friends. What’s the chance we see the dog or cat qualities listed above in a person and accidentally apply the reversed interpretation we give these qualities in our familiar non-human friends? For example, I suspect the Ruski admires cat qualities in girls, which I believe accounts somewhat for his miserable romantic life. If I say someone has a cat-like personality, I am not saying a nice thing about them, but am likely thinking of a sociopathic or neurotic narcissist. I admit to being a sucker for narcissists, which is probably why I actually do like cats. And this is OK: they are not humans, and they teach us humility. Dogs teach us how to be friends.

 

Living with a Satanist Russian Male Stripper

While many of my readers might know who I’m talking about, I will refer to him as The Ruski and he can decide if he wants to identify himself.

I met The Ruski at the Medieval re-enactment and performance club where I taught the newbies how to sword fight, both stage and combat. He distinguished himself early by:

  • always leading with his head, resulting in several scars around his mouth
  • leaping into combat, making it impossible for him to avoid any point aimed at him
  • bringing an enormous short cutlass that was too slow and heavy to be practical for anything except cutting ropes
  • tragic romances. I think he arrived chasing a lesbian…

… but he had a great stage presence.

When he applied his method acting to LARP (live action roleplaying), leaping off a balcony as only a vampire could, he failed to land like a vampire would and broke his ankle. I think that was about when people turned his name into a verb, to describe hurting yourself whilst doing something awesome and enthusiastic.

At his 21st birthday he introduced me to good vodka, and then assured me that it was part of the experience to also drink the pickle juice – that made me sick. Soon after he moved out of home to move in with me and my daughter. His family was appalled: Russian men are apparently not supposed to leave home until their thirties.

Moving in together, we had a plan: I technically had money, and no time, so I bought the food; he technically had time and no money, so he cooked the food; and my daughter technically did the dishes. That turned out to be a huge technicality… Anyway, I asked him if he could cook? He said “Yes, yes… I am lyearning” (after 20 years in NZ he still has an appalling Ruski accent). It turned out he could make mashed potatoes, but the skin was still on, so they were lumpy, porridge, and if he was paying attention the sausages would not be raw. We were in the last stages of putting on our first show, so I had absolutely no time to teach him, and we survived our first 6 weeks or so on lumpy mashed potatoes and half-cooked sausages. I remember the day when some friends from a vegetarian flat, afraid that we would die of scurvy, came round to show him how to cook vegetables. As I got home from work he was standing proudly in the kitchen doorway, gestured grandly at the stove and said “Look! I have smoked the wegetables”. I said “You smoked the vegetables – I hope it was good for you”. He meant steamed…

He’s come up with some good malapropisms around me. I also remember the time he came back from a LARP and was enthusiastically described the sumptuous settings, with velvet drapes “…and a smoking brassiere in the corner.” He meant a brazier.

He loves acting, and performing, and entertaining, and he’s very good at it. He’d LARP, and perform circus and burlesque acts with us, and he was a star. He was trying to be an academic – he loves literature and philosophy, too – but he sucked at that. It made him very unhappy, to fail in his studies and let his family down (Russians take tertiary education very seriously). His decision to give up on academia and pursue a career in performing arts was hard for him, but he hasn’t looked back, and his classic Russian family have accepted that they now have an artist instead of a scholar, which is respectable enough.

…So long as they don’t look too closely. He’s Mr Burlesque NZ, and spends a lot of time taking his clothes off in public. I once asked him what’s the difference between a burlesque dancer and a stripper? He said “Strippers get paid more”. He once came into the lounge where I was and stripped his shirt off very deliberately, then said “Can I give you rent next week?” I should have held out for the pants… It’s not as though I haven’t seen it before, in practice, on stage, and drunk at parties, and I got to make his chainmail boxers and cock-sock… I was there when, after supporting a stage show called “Whore” (presenting stories from fringe sex workers) his mother called. She had seen pictures of The Ruski wrapped in cling wrap and trussed up in Japanese rope bondage on Facebook, and even though the whole conversation was in Russian I could tell exactly what was going on, as she was freaking out, and he was trying to reassure her that it was both a valid piece of contemporary art and he wasn’t actually working in that industry.

I’m so glad I met him – I don’t know any other man like him. In public he’s a flirt and a tease, and with his confidence very sexy, but it doesn’t go to his head. In private he is very different: tragically romantic, waiting for the perfect girl, to get married and have children and live happily ever after – he does not do casual sex; philosophical, intelligent, open-minded and honest; courageous, disciplined, and passionate. You should know that about Satanists: they can be strong and social free-thinkers, building their self-control, self-respect and personal responsibility on valid philosophical and ethical foundations.

We are friends, not lovers, but occasionally people mistake us for a married couple. It has been nearly 8 years living in the same house, and I sometimes wonder what it means that I think so much like a Satanist Russian male stripper, we do so much alike. Except he hates disaster movies, and I love them. Going through a box of old things I found a forgotten piece of paper from a fortune chocolate: “You will find a faithful and constant friend”. Go figure. It was right.