Cup O’Kava

9 November 2008

Ruminations on a Social Ritual

The kava bowl, by Stüssi, with Creative Commons licenceProximity is rarely a good measure of learning. We might spend countless days surrounded by those more knowledgeable than us, but never know what they’ve learned. I spent most of my life living on the eastern coast of Australia without the slightest hint that the social rituals of the Pacific islands, geographically my near neighbours, could teach me something I needed to know. But yesterday in distant Hong Kong I learned a thing or two, over a bowl of Kava.

For those of you who don’t know much about the subject, Kava is a plant in the pepper family, and its roots are ground, mixed with water and drunk as a slight soporific. In other words, it makes you a little sleepy, but it mainly works as a muscle relaxant. Unlike alcohol or other drugs, it doesn’t interfere with perceptions and doesn’t promote aggression. Introduced to indigenous communities in Australia’s Northern Territory over the last decade or so, the local government has created a good deal of noise about Kava’s supposed dangers, but the arguments are more steeped in anecdotes than scientific evidence.

The point about Kava really isn’t its use as a drug – you could get more stimulation smoking a cigarette. And unlike drinking alcohol with friends, drinking Kava doesn’t split everyone off into isolated worlds with their attendant delusions. Kava isn’t about the individual – it’s about sharing something as part of a ritual.

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Red Eye Plight

14 September 2008

A Conversation on Condition

Health is a curious condition, marked best by an absence of symptoms and most often appreciated in hindsight, when it’s gone. In a conversation earlier today a friend who recently had a cancer scare, and thankfully a scare alone, reflected that he was fortunate to have enjoyed good health for almost all his life. He contrasted his own luck – although it was probably more than just that – with my various ailments, which in defence of unpredictable circumstance are largely due to a series of back and neck injuries spaced out over 15 years, with a little bad genetics thrown in. Mulling over the situation and reflecting on my latest medical misadventure, he said that he took his own health for granted, with what seemed a touch of guilt.

But guilt is hardly something that should be associated with good health – it verges on regret, and the only other option would be to court illness. That, I’m sure you’ll agree, would seem a little perverse. So I said that appreciation for what you have, when it all comes down to your body running the way it should, is best avoided, ignored if you like, enjoyed subconsciously. It would, at the extreme, hardly befit the rude glow of health to mumble about a lack of aches or near perfect vision, or anything else you might imagine, each morning when you wake. Complain all you want about the world, but just don’t worry about yourself. It’s all going fine.

Of course, the flip side of this is that a lack of good health is most definitely worrisome. Yet it pays to put your condition in perspective. Allow me a personal example. One of the two genetic conditions I have is keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease. It’s manageable, and even though my days are spent – by both profession and compulsion – in front of a computer monitor, it would unduly burden perhaps fifteen per cent of my hours on this earth now that I have an understanding of the problem and the appropriate contact lenses. That allows a good deal of time for everything else. Usually.

It just so happens, and this was the impetus for the conversation today, that I currently have a related problem. Aside from anything I feel, the main observable symptom is that my left eye is bloodshot – not a happy circumstance, but hardly a tragedy. Still, people notice, and my sensitivity to sunlight is now bordering on the vampiric. So failing a perfect match, I’m probably not an easy person to be friends with at the moment. Yet that very lack of a match is encouraging. Statistically I’m a rarity, an outlier, and everything always reverts to its mean.

Please don’t argue with the shaky mathematics; its naïve simplicity makes me happy. Soon I’ll be the same as everyone else, and my friend will have no cause for concern. Now that will be a truly healthy condition.