War of the worlds

Pōhutukawa stamens collected in gutter by road

It’s been cool and damp in Wellington today. Cue a dozen overheard conversations in the office about it being a typical Wellington summer, i.e. over in a flash and barely there to begin with.

In reality, the sun has shone bright in blue skies recently and will shine again soon. But in order to belong, you must sign up to the mass delusion.

Christmas time is however ending. I know this because everywhere I go, I see millions of brilliant red pōhutukawa stamens collected in drifts on the footpath, like the spreading alien tendrils in War of the Worlds.

The pōhutukawa is also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree because of its vague resemblance to holly and its seasonal blossoms. When the flowers die, their crimson threads fall to the ground in clumps, the blood of Tawhaki under our feet. They’re beautiful and then they’re gone. They are our hair that has fallen out.

You can be sure they’ll be back next spring, though, until we’ve burned it all down — back from the underworld, leaping for the heavens, caught in flight on evergreen branches.

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Things of 2019

Front Page

Warped view of old buildings and trees through thick glass window

Husband. Father. And now homeowner. There is an account with a hilarious negative balance in my internet banking, an unimaginable amount of money until you break it down into x-hundred a week. This will be a key driver of so many decisions about how to spend my time and money over the next couple of decades. At this very early stage, with the first planks of borer-riddled wood uncovered and the first tree toppled by the wind, I am excited to get stuck in and learn how to do things yourself. I’ll let you know in a year whether I still feel that way.

As the kids get older, sleep gradually becomes a priority once more. I’ve done two years of thinking five hours was enough to get by – two before the night feed, three after. Now they are sleeping through more regularly, which means I am too. It’s too early to say whether this means my memory will be restored to full function. In its place, I have written a brief note in a physical diary every day to mark what happened that day. I look back over it sometimes and read what appear to be words written in someone else’s hand, about someone else’s experiences… then I remember, in vivid flashes, and think how much has changed since then.

I have a new job, one that challenges me in new ways every day. I have put out an email newsletter stuffed with book and movie reviews every month of the year. I have written bits and pieces of other things (but never enough to be satisfied). Overall, I am content, if a little unsure of what exactly I’m meant to be doing here, apart from continuing to be a husband and father, neither of which is a bad purpose in itself. I guess this is normal for a lot of people in their mid-thirties.

Film

Children standing on table in sunny room watching looking to right

Watching MOANA

Looking back over my viewing log on Letterboxd, I saw more new (or newly released to NZ, at least) films in 2019 than I thought I did. The answer is the increasingly up-to-date nature of movie streaming. Which is also the defining story of the decade in movies, but if you are anywhere close to the average viewer, who now most likely watches everything down a 100% legal cable from servers on the other side of the world, you’ll know this already.

Going to the cinema is a different story, which is actually the same story. Six NZ International Film Festival screenings aside, I went to the movies four times in 2019. Gone are the fantastical days of my early 20s when I would go to something every week, usually at the now-demolished Regent on Worcester in Christchurch. I could be indiscriminate in my viewing as there was so little riding on each $8.50 ticket: if this week’s film was rubbish, I’d be back the following week anyway. Now, with marriage and parenting and a house to make over, it’s likely to be months between screenings. I have to choose carefully.

I can’t judge. The streaming revolution has come at exactly the right time for me, syncing perfectly with my need to kill time cradling a small child in a darkened room most nights. I am worried about the future, though. My parents are now able to go to the cinema more or less whenever they like, and they are taking full advantage, which is great. They are now invariably the ones filling me in on the latest releases. Will there be enough picture houses around to serve me when I reach that stage of life, though? How much longer can ‘going to the movies’ hang onto relevance, and how detached can it ever be from the octopoid Disney corporation, who will surely decide the answer to the question?

I wait in hope. But in the event it all crashes down, and those who want to watch anything on the big screen have to go cap in hand to the guardians of the galaxy, I am steadily rebuilding a collection of physical media to keep me – and my family – going. A title can disappear off Netflix or Disney+ at the click of a button. No one can take away my PAPRIKA Blu-Ray.

*

Enough of that. Taking screen size out of the equation, I saw 24 new-to-NZ films in 2019. In the order I saw them, with hasty ranking in brackets:

THE SISTERS BROTHERS (7)
RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (21)
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (6)
WHERE HANDS TOUCH (19)
HOMECOMING: A FILM BY BEYONCE (16)
DEADWOOD: THE MOVIE (4)
WIDOWS (14)
UP THE MOUNTAIN (2)
MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL (22)
HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING (15)
PONOC SHORT FILMS THEATRE, VOLUME 1 – MODEST HEROES (11)
CHILDREN OF THE SEA (23)
AQUAMAN (24)
THE HATE U GIVE (10)
WEATHERING WITH YOU (20)
EIGHTH GRADE (3)
LEAVE NO TRACE (5)
WHEN THEY SEE US (1)
YARDIE (17)
US (12)
THE IRISHMAN (9)
MADELINE’S MADELINE (13)
MARRIAGE STORY (8)
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (18)

*

One more quick word for an unfinished project of 2019, which was to watch 52 films by black directors. I reached 28. I wouldn’t call it a failure, though, because it opened my eyes to many new ways of seeing and thinking, and it showed me how rare it has been throughout film history for a dark-skinned person to be handed the reins. Thankfully, that rarity is becoming less of an issue, both in the multiplexes and the arthouses, not to mention the big streaming platforms.

This one will carry over into 2020, and you can track my progress here. In the meantime, some highlights so far:

TRAINING DAY
I AM NOT A WITCH
BELLE
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
THE HATE U GIVE
WHEN THEY SEE US
GET ON THE BUS

Books

Twin girls on woman's lap reading book with teenagers on sofa

Stages. Reading with Auntie Rach

Look, I read and I read and I read, often outside my privilege, black women as often as possible, and I give five stars on Goodreads and waffle about how my mind was broadened and everyone should read this, but I couldn’t actually have a conversation anything like the ones in the books I’m reading. I can tell you yes, I have read that book and it’s brilliant; I can’t explain to you exactly why.

They say it so much better than I could! And anyway, why listen to me? Another beardy white bloke with his reckons. Get some Maya Angelou or some Bernadine Evaristo into you. They are the ones who merit your attention.

I’ve sought purpose in being a promoter of underprivileged voices, but I’m increasingly finding that ground shaky, a cop-out – especially when you look at my corporatist lifestyle and weasel words about giving up meat and fast fashion and Facebook and hopefully volunteering some of my time at some point in the not-too-distant future. I feel that if I’m out here saying anything, it should be something worth hearing. I also feel like my thinking is not refined enough to adequately parse and summarise what I learn from these books.

What I really want is to let their words sit, drift off into my own meandering thoughts, and produce art of my own that can stand up to critique from people who understand identity and privilege better than I do. Tara always says I am one of the dreamers; that is what I do here, read and dream, which does nothing for oppressed people beyond the tiniest signal boost here and there.

The defence might be that putting so many other voices in my head one after the other – especially with books like NEW DAUGHTERS OF AFRICA and GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER, which themselves contain many points of view – makes them hard to assimilate. That no person can become woke in a hurry, and to pretend you are is to perform it. But I never want to let myself off that easily.

So I continue to read, and listen, and kick the can of action another year down the road, expecting myself to one day be useful to people less privileged than myself.

*

For all that pessimistic navel-gazing, I had a great year of reading. Books I loved:

THE 10PM QUESTION by Kate De Goldi (2009)
MAN ALONE by John Mulgan (1939)
INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri (1999)
THE BOOK YOU WISH YOUR PARENTS HAD READ by Philippa Perry (2019)
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe (1979)
TRICK MIRROR by Jia Tolentino (2019)
MORIORI: A PEOPLE REDISCOVERED by Michael King (1989)
KID GLOVES by Lucy Knisley (2019)
NEW DAUGHTERS OF AFRICA edited by Margaret Busby (2019) (if I was going to pick one to recommend, this would be it)
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou (1969)
TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE by Becky Chambers (2019)
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
KINDRED by Octavia E. Butler (1979)

Books I disliked:

HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad (1899)
A MESSAGE TO GARCIA by Elbert Hubbard (1899)
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie (1939)
FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC by VC Andrews (1979) ← absolute trash

For the very keen, here’s my reading list for 2020.

Politics

Children in hoodies playing on playground platform above slide

Waiting for a turn: playground diplomacy

People just want the mob who will get things done. It doesn’t matter what things.

The most hated section of society is the group(s) perceived to be sitting on their backsides – for the purposes of my argument, beneficiaries and civil servants – while the rest of us struggle in the real world. Votes therefore follow the politicians who present themselves, however facetiously, as not only just like you but actually capable of changing things. Because things are so bad, right? Surely any change has to be better than this!

That’s why the Conservative Party is going to Get Brexit Done. That’s why Trump is there doing whatever it is he actually does. That’s why, in 2020, the National Party is likely to replace NZ’s “part-time Prime Minister” – a classic slur against working mothers – and “part-time Government”. Whether or not things are actually changing, it’s the image of executive capability that brings votes in.

As for who can actually bring about lasting positive change in society, I wish I knew. But I’m sure there are some great books written by other people on the subject.

(I also wrote this bit of commentary after the March 15 terror attacks.)

Sport

Selfie with bearded man and young boy

Hanging out with nephew Lyo during CWC ’19

As I write this, my beloved Liverpool are the best football team on Earth. Not just the Champions League holders and Premier League leaders, but probably capable of winning the World Cup if they were dropped into it. It’s an amazing and unfamiliar feeling, almost unsatisfying after so many years of not quite being up at that level, but then I watch another inch-perfect cross-field pass by Trent Alexander-Arnold and just revel in the moment.

The rugby, I barely noticed. Watched NZ lose the World Cup semi-final to a much better team. About time we went through that as a nation again.

The cricket. Oh, God, the cricket. I apologise if you thought I was done with hyperbole, but the World Cup final was the greatest game of sport I’ve ever seen: tense all the way, with several genuinely jaw-dropping moments of skill and luck. I say all this even though my team lost – except they didn’t! I won’t try and explain any of this, but this video may give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uw5QzbDCbI

*

Late in 2019, Shed 1 started recording videos of our lunchtime five-a-side indoor football matches and uploading them to the Glory League website. Privacy implications aside, I’ve found it fascinating to review my own performances back and assess what I am doing well or not well. It’s a relief to learn the kind of footballer I actually am – basically, a lumbering giant with decent technique and passing range and absolutely no hope of outpacing anyone – isn’t that different from the kind of footballer I thought I was.

Travel

Young children laughing in back of car

On the road again

We pulled into a large bay at the side of the road on a blazing hot February day in the Bay of Plenty, I think to make sure Nora was buckled in properly. When we set off again, I drove to the left of a large pile of gravel, thinking our Nissan Teana would pass just as easily over the stones on either side. I was wrong.

With the gravel mountain immediately to my right, I heard the undercarriage crunch angrily into stones that were much deeper than I’d anticipated. To my left, Tara knotted her brow in worry. I thought we’d get through if I pressed a little harder on the accelerator. I was wrong.

A louder crunch, a lurch up and to the left, and spinning wheels when I put my foot down. We were stuck. I had marooned my wife, my one-year-old kids, and myself in a hot car miles from anywhere. Panicking and swearing, I leapt out and examined the extent of our submergence. The right rear wheel was slightly off the ground, while the right front wheel was concealed to about a quarter of the way up the tyre. I began scrabbling desperately at the hot, dusty stones, giving myself blisters that would remain red with blood for days and making no discernible impact on the heap in which the car was entombed.

You won’t be surprised to learn my further attempts to drive us out of our predicament only lodged us deeper into it.

As I walked around and around the car, head in hands, still swearing, a van-load of leather-skinned East Coast types pulled over and bounded to our aid. “You guys need a push?” “Bloody hell, it isn’t coming out of there.” “Come on, here we go.” And they just heaved the Teana backwards out of its prison, back to solid(ish) ground. Then they buggered off, waving away my almost tearful thanks. “Drive to the right, eh? This way. To the right. Yep, that’s it. See ya later.”

I choose this story to tell from our Big Family Holiday in Taupō, Ohiwa, and Rotorua, which contained many highs and lows, because it illustrates the precariousness and blind luck of successful travel with young kids. Will they nap when they’re supposed to? (Sometimes.) Will road works bugger the whole schedule? (Always.) Will we get any sleep? (Rarely.) Will we, their hopeful parents, make good decisions that benefit the whole family? (In this case, no.) On the road, you are always ten seconds from disaster or glory. There were some calm hours reading under a tree in the sun, thank goodness, but the bits I remember most are the moments of triumph and chaos, moments that cut through all the noise in your head. I guess that’s parenting in general, too.

Music / Podcasts

It was tempting to choose Blanck Mass’s ‘Wings of Hate’ as my track of 2019, which brings to mind a fiery phoenix soaring high, turning everything we love to ash in its wake. Like the evil guy winning at the end of a horror film. Instead, I give you the mysterious and magical ‘Movies’ by Weyes Blood:

I love movies, too, and the way this song gives language and melody to the way I love them was impossible to resist. I felt seen. I’m going to see her perform it live in 2020 and the anticipation is such that disappointment is assured.

Other new music I enjoyed in 2019:

Edwyn Collins – Badbea
Jenny Lewis – On the Line
Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury

That’s not including a dozen or so new releases I listened to once or twice, might have enjoyed or barely noticed, then never listened to again. There were new ones from Angel Olsen and Bedouine, for example, and Charly Bliss, who so captivated me a couple of years ago, and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, back with the pretty spoken word sadness, and Solange, breaking more new ground. I didn’t let these records sit with me.

I don’t know why, but it probably has something to do with my most played songs of 2019 including Teddy Bears’ Picnic by Anne Murray and Baby Shark by Pinkfong. “One more Baby Shark! One more Baby Shark!”

It might also have something to do with my obsessive listening to podcasts. These are the ones I kept up with, religiously, until I got a job that doesn’t really allow for five hours of headphones in each day:

Against the Rules with Michael Lewis
Chat 10 Looks 3
David Tennant Does a Podcast With…
Football Weekly
Fresh Air
Papercuts
RNZ: Fair Play
RNZ: Mediawatch
RNZ: Morning Report
RNZ: Saturday Morning
Still Processing
THE ADAM BUXTON PODCAST
The Bugle
The Empire Film Podcast
The Guardian Books Podcast
The Trap Door
Two Pros in a Pod

*

In lieu of a 2019 Spotify playlist, I’ve made a 2010s Spotify playlist. Each track on it has, at the very least, a moment that makes me stop whatever conversation I’m in so I can listen to it properly. As always, I’d like to think there’s something on there for everyone, but especially for people who like long and repetitive electronica.

Tech

If I’m at a loose end, I open Facebook or Twitter and scroll for a while. Both of these sites continue to tweak their designs in ways I find less and less appealing, and to remove features I like and replace them with ones I hate. They contain glorious nuggets: a heartwarming video of a friend rolling on the floor with their new child, a dog playing Jenga. As media, they chip away at their own worth in favour of an algorithm-centric model aimed at keeping your fucking eyeballs on their page. All the good stuff, all the actual content, is contributed by users for free.

I have to stop this. Tara catches up on popular culture and popular tweets by reading Buzzfeed lists, and I’m finding it increasingly hard to argue for sticking with social networks that not only refresh away the thing I was looking at but also promote anger and division. So I’m going to spend more time reading ebooks, reading articles in Pocket, and writing my own rubbish. Not cold turkey; no, that never works. A new suite of phone-based habits to balance the scales a bit. A lifestyle change.

Also, I got an electric drill for Christmas. I’m going to drill some holes in my new house. There’s some tech with real-world implications.

People

Mother and young daughters smile at camera with father looking into frame from above

The family unit in 2019

I can almost understand why that tech guru on the Fresh Air podcast decided to set up 24/7 surveillance inside his home to ensure no moment of his child’s life would go unrecorded. This is excessive, obviously, and bordering on sociopathic, but I look at my own kids each day and think how much I want to remember about who they are and what they do at this moment in time. Right now as I write this, Tara just said, “I wish we could go back, just for one day,” as she puts together a 2020 calendar from our thousands of photographs from the past twelve months. “Now they’re gone, and they became something new, and we’ll never see them again, except in these pictures.”

The truth is fuzzier than that. Nora and June are developing at an incredible rate, especially their language, but they retain recognisable flashes of their former selves: an eyebrow twitch first seen at a month old, for example, or the tiny bruises that have always just appeared on their shins without any indication of how they got there. If you ask me how they are, I usually explain how well they’re sleeping at the moment because that’s the only aspect of their lives I track with any accuracy. The rest is lost in a haze of unique moments and those several thousand photos, so many as to almost render them useless — almost. But then I go back and trawl through a few to find suitable images to include in this post and a thousand of those moments drift back into focus, filling my brain with sense memories and an emotional high that eventually overwhelms me once more. And back I go to my books and movies to wind down.

Tara remains my partner in the ceaselessly taxing and rewarding endeavour of raising these children. “Nothing confronts you with who you really are more than parenting,” she once said, or something along those lines. This year, I have often been reminded of how close to the surface my anger sits, just waiting for a loose thread to catch on an open drawer so it can explode and dominate everything. Together, we try to support each other through the bad moments and amplify the good ones. Our bleary-eyed, late-night show-and-tell sessions of recent photos on our phones is a joy whenever we remember to do it.

We are also still learning how to communicate with each other in a way that makes both of our lives easier and richer, as I feel good communication in a long-term relationship should. Yes, we still have ridiculous arguments about who should do the night wakeup (“me!” “no, me!”). But I believe we are always getting better at being married, and I think we share a deep satisfaction in each other’s successes, however small.

And around this unit, a small community swirls. We remain lucky to have weekly visits from the kids’ grandmothers and the constant knowledge that a dozen or so family members in the region are there to help us when we need them. But we also had visits from family in Auckland and Dunedin, people we can’t get to easily. And there are the friends who made a point of keeping in contact as we go down the parenting rabbit hole. This time often feels lonely but actually, we and our children are surrounded by people who care.

In 2020, we will extend our household to include Tara’s parents, a huge change in all of our lives. We will drive each other mad with our foibles, and our love. The world is on fire and we gain nothing by marking off our own patches, damn the rest. We must all pull together now.

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The power of the megaphone, the call to prayer

Flower tributes mosque Auckland New Zealand Christchurch shooting

Neighbours laying flowers at Imam Reza Mosque, New Lynn, Auckland the day after the massacre at Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand (Image by Nick Thompson)

Above all, the people we should listen to after a terrorist attack are the victims. So, before I get into my mediocre white man reckons relating to the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch, here are a few examples of Muslims having their voices aired in NZ’s media:

One Family’s Story of Survival and Loss in New Zealand (The Daily podcast, The New York Times)
We warned you. We begged. We pleaded. And now we demand accountability (The Spinoff)
The people we lost (Stuff.co.nz)
Hear their words: Muslim voices on the Christchurch attacks (The Spinoff)

Our media have done very well to boost these voices. It’s been exciting, and a little sobering in retrospect (why is this not normal), to suddenly have so much easily available to read and listen to from groups of people who lack power in our society. For me, it’s prompted a lot of thinking about the intersection of power and speech: who has power, and how do they wield it in their words and actions? Who should have our attention right now, and what are those that do have our attention using it to say?

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has gained an enormous amount of national and international attention for her response to the shootings: not just the quick mobilisation of her government to outlaw the kinds of weapons used in the attack, but the uncommon sensitivity and caring she has shown to the victims. This constant examining of her actions has led to plenty of debate. For example, her wearing of a headscarf, which some insist is a symbol of oppression, has been a hot topic for both the white New Zealanders and the Hindu Indians on my Twitter timeline.

Whether or not you agree with how the Prime Minister has conducted herself, she is the most powerful person in the country and the figurehead of our grief. It’s therefore right that her response has been subjected to such scrutiny. I was uneasy about how she was centered in the days after the attacks, particularly in the mass sharing and printing of photos in which she hugged strangers and displayed emotion. It seemed to me that those images should be of victims’ families, or of Muslim adherents left shattered by the targeting of their community. But it’s complex: they didn’t sign up to be part of anything like this, or to be relentlessly photographed, or to play a central role in a crisis. The Prime Minister did, opting into the front pages in the best and worst of times. It’d be strange if she wasn’t there now.

And I got another perspective a few days after the attacks. A Muslim friend in India sent me a one-line email expressing sympathy, and attached four of the more widely shared images of the Prime Minister with her headscarf proudly in place. If her symbolic representation of everyone else’s love and support meant something to a Muslim on the other side of the world, that’s good enough for me.

At the very least, the Prime Minister seems to be aware of her effect on the social landscape. She has led with a view to consciously establishing new norms that are inclusive and hopeful. Get behind me, she seems to say, and we’ll make things better together. That’s more than can be said for various commentators in the American political media, who of course have had plenty to say about Christchurch. Ben Shapiro, who hosts a very popular conservative news podcast, uses up a fair amount of oxygen sharing his views on everything from universities as liberal indoctrination centres, climate change belief as religion, and the anti-Semitism of anyone who supports the idea of Palestininan statehood. Naturally, he was quick to comment on Christchurch, particularly to rebut the idea that white supremacist violence has anything to do with prominent critics of Islam such as himself, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and indeed President Donald Trump.

Okay, but no. A cursory look at the repeated phrases used in comment threads and social media profiles – #MAGA and its derivatives, Trump Supporter, Not Politically Correct – reveal a collective that is very openly a collective. They just happen to speak the language of individualism. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s freedom of speech. Not my choice to get offended, buddy. Broader civic discourse has extended the reach of this type of language with phrases like ‘lone wolf’ – a phrase used often to describe the Christchurch attacker, who professed an admiration for Trump and Norwegian terrorist Anders Bering Breivik in his manifesto. The ideologues set the tone and establish communities, and every individual is then empowered to act alone against the Other. (You could say the exact same thing against fundamentalist Islam, which is to say that neither extremity lacks a coherent movement to back them up.)

But to Shapiro and his ilk, it is insane to suggest Trump’s forceful anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views have anything to do with the Christchurch shooter, let alone any of Shapiro’s own diatribes about Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar or Bill Maher’s panel discussions about the dangers of moderate Islam. Every event happens in isolation, in a Randian vacuum, caused only by the free will of the actors involved. It works the other way, too: if you want to stop climate change, give up meat and take the bus, never mind the staggering emissions from multinational corporates and the lack of political will to actually use power for change.

This is the thinking that dominates our society nowadays. The Christchurch massacre seems to have prompted a closer look at what we as individuals say and do, and how we can collectively mitigate the threat of extremism. If only the likes of Shapiro – and hey, Trump, as if that would ever happen – were able to reflect on the communities they have created; how their words are transformed from mere opinions into calls to action when expressed from a megaphone. That’s the kind of individual responsibility we need right now. And there’s a model for it in Jacinda Ardern.

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Things of 2018

Front Page

Kapiti Island on a cloudy day over the Tasman SeaThe great rearrangement of 2017 is now firmly established. I am married with two kids, and my life revolves almost entirely around those facts, except for a long window every weekday during which I sit in an office and earn money. I watch in fascination as my now one-year-old children develop, especially when I look at photos from a month or more prior; you don’t see how they’ve grown until the evidence of their past limitations is in front of you.

What else can I tell you? I am a little less lazy but ache a lot more. I would like to own a home but am very happy in my current rental, which provides three bedrooms and a sunny, leafy backyard. I have a good, stable job. My short-term memory is suddenly appalling, a casualty of sleep deprivation. And I still have a need to write, but I’m less interested in writing about myself than ever. Now here are 3500 words all about me.

Health

Writers and podcasters have contributed a lot of morbid fodder to my resting state of mind this year. This is no doubt partly a function of getting a bit older, and of having kids, and of having a minor brush with my own mortality in 2017, but there’s certainly never been so much public discussion of The End in my lifetime. The main influencers into my brain have been Cariad Lloyd’s podcast Griefcast and Leigh Sales’ book Any Ordinary Day, but I feel like death is highlighted in plenty of other places, too. There’s also the spectre of climate change, too big and scary for me to sit and contemplate, a large-scale existential threat galloping over the horizon and into plain view.

Tara and I often joke about who will die first. The basic meaning is ‘I’m dying first because I don’t want to have to be the one to go on alone’. It isn’t really a joke, we both mean it. I am starting to think it’s a bit flippant, though, when so many people press on after the untimely death of someone they love, and when so many people would give anything to live a little bit longer. In December, I learned that a Twitter friend in their thirties had died, and wrote about how the broader availability of grief is a strange side effect of this age of conceded privacy. We have so much more information at our fingertips now, from details of the latest mass shooting to an online acquaintance’s taste in romance novels. It means that death and dying, like everything else, is that much more immediate in our lives, and that much more likely to appear on our radar.

But don’t worry! There are no signs of impending doom in this house. Even during these, ‘the tired years’, as my father-in-law put it, we are all healthy and mostly happy. Although I have often had to substitute calories and caffeine for sleep. The way I see it, that’s just part of the deal, something to iron out when I get a minute to breathe.

Music

I tended to return to old favourites in 2018, often long and repetitive electronic tracks (five hours’ sleep a night will have that effect). And to my good fortune, three of my most favourite favourites brought out new music during a two-week bonanza in September:

Aphex Twin — Collapse EP (good)
The Field — Infinite Moment (very good)
Orbital — Monsters Exist (not so good)

At this point, I can confidently call The Field (aka Axel Willner) my favourite musician. He’s so reliable. Every new release satisfies for many listens; I tend to have my initial favourites, then enjoy more and more of the album until I don’t really see any dead wood. It was a pity the new Orbital — after a long hiatus — only sparked intermittently, but I think they had their time in the 90s, and what a time that was. As for Aphex Twin, he’s still a genius who makes music no one else could even imagine.

There were a few other new records I found in 2018:

Sarah Blasko — Depth of Field — Blasko’s gone all out for hits here and nailed a few. I even heard one in the supermarket the other day. Very catchy tunes in her familiar soulful, whispery voice
Jonny Greenwood — Phantom Thread Original Soundtrack — just love this, listened on repeat for a good while, grand and romantic
Robyn
 — Honey — glittery, perfect pop with great lyrics and earworm melodies. Tracks seven and eight threaten to sabotage the whole thing but the rest of it is so damn good
Leon Vynehall — Nothing Is Still — what a discovery! The shimmery Brooklyn Bridge on the cover looks at first glance like trees parting in a forest, and that’s kind of what the music is like, shifting textures and moods from track to track. My favourite album of the year
Marlon Williams — Make Way For Love — he’s got ‘it’

I’ve chucked a track from each of these records into a ‘Barns Picks 2018’ playlist on Spotify. Bit less variety than previous years, so hopefully your tastes overlap exactly with mine.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1230979649/playlist/3AfEtddCUjsh10w37msHSH

Politics

At this point in the devolution of our political discourse, is it more effective to debate with calm reason or to loudly insist your opponent fuck off? We all know by now that arguing politics (or just about anything, especially on the internet) only leaves both sides more entrenched than before, so surely it’s better, when faced with abhorrent racism, misogyny, homophobia, or greed, to drop a few choice insults and leave the situation?

I haven’t had the opportunity to test this choice in real life. People tend not to confront each other on the street, at least on the streets I walk. I spent a sizeable chunk of 2018 thinking about it, though, especially after recently seeing this unpleasant video, which takes only 23 seconds to summarise where we’re at.

I’ll describe so you don’t have to watch it. The scene is, I think, Palmerston North — it isn’t clear in 240p. A group of women cross the street holding placards and chanting slogans. They are protesting the then-National Government’s sale of government-owned assets. The man holding the camera forcefully tells them to “go back to the commune” and insults one in particular for her appearance. He says all this in much fewer words than I’ve used here. His tone is jocular, mocking; you can almost hear the smile on his face. He is relishing the opportunity to get stuck into such contemptible people.

Notice how the man’s response has nothing to do with what the group is protesting. Their argument does not interest him for a second. He has already dismissed it and moved straight to ad hominem attack. Almost all of the comments under the video on YouTube are positive, calling him a legend and wishing they had the presence of mind to be so profoundly and articulately rude to strangers.  The acquaintance of mine who shared the video on Facebook captioned it, simply, ‘classic’.

“This might be a dangerous time for politeness,” writes Rachel Cusk in her essay The Age of Rudeness. She gives a few examples of situations in which rude or overbearing behaviour is confronted, sometimes rudely, sometimes politely. Her sort-of conclusion is that politeness at least acts as a compass in navigating the world, allowing you to respond consistently to toxic acts and to let them bounce harmlessly away as you continue living your life. If someone is as rude to me as the man in the video, though, or as rude as the man I saw the other day yelling abuse at a fellow Coastlands Mall patron for their poor parking, I’d feel within my rights to take back some of the space they’d snatched with a few angry words of my own.

What does all this have to do with politics exactly? Well, we can tut at other Western democracies as they spiral into ugly, unstable, evidence-denying shitshows and say ‘it couldn’t happen here’. But it could.

Sport

Grandparent, mother, and babies playing soccer in the park

I finally got back into indoor football this year, joining a work team and playing at lunchtime every couple of weeks. Things learned during these fortnightly escapades:

  • I am not in my twenties any more and cannot expect my limbs to consistently execute skills as instructed by my brain
  • I am fortunate to maintain decent natural fitness despite limited concerted exercise and regular potato chip consumption
  • It’s more fun to lose alongside teammates who pass the ball than to win alongside teammates who don’t
  • There is always that one guy who takes it a little bit too seriously, even though it is mixed five-a-side and we are all on our lunch breaks

I lacked confidence to begin with, and struggled to trust my body to win one-on-ones or dribble past opponents — and with good reason. As the matches have totted up, though, I’ve reached a point where I think I’m a half-decent player. I commit at least one clanger per game, for sure, but all of us do.

A more pressing concern now is the broken lock on the shower door at work. No one else uses that shower, so I’m not at great risk of having to frantically hide behind my towel, but I do hope the building manager returns from annual leave soon and sorts it out.

Film

According to my Letterboxd log, I watched 91 films in 2018. My most watched actor was Edward James Olmos (probably because I saw both BLADE RUNNER films in November). My most watched director was Brad Bird (that’ll be TOMORROWLAND and INCREDIBLES 2). So I must have hopped around a fair bit.

It was my most prolific film-watching year since university days. The reason for this is the night feed. If I’m not sleeping, but the light has to be low, and I know I’m going to be up for at least an hour, what am I going to do? Simple: watch movies.

Because I love a project, and ways to whittle down the unmanageable gargantuan morass of films available to watch, I jumped the #52filmsbywomen bandwagon this year and cracked #55filmsbywomen in the end. Some things I learned:

  • It is not hard to find interesting films made by people who aren’t sex offenders, bullies, or otherwise problematic in their actions
  • Plenty of first-time female directors made mediocre films but weren’t given another chance easily, unlike their male counterparts
  • Women seem to me to have a broader appreciation of the breadth of human experience, possibly from empathy conditioned over millennia, and tend to present more complex characters as a result
  • Seeking out female directors led me to take more notice of who the writers, producers, and directors of photography were

And here are some standouts from the exercise:

  • THE HOUSE IS BLACK (1963) dir. Forough Farrokhzad
  • WANDA (1970) dir. Barbara Loden
  • A QUESTION OF SILENCE (1982) dir. Marleen Gorris
  • AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (1990) dir. Jane Campion
  • POINT BREAK (1991) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
  • BANANA IN A NUTSHELL (2005) dir. Roseanne Liang
  • WHIP IT (2009) dir. Drew Barrymore
  • FISH TANK (2009) dir. Andrea Arnold
  • MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010) dir. Kelly Reichardt
  • WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) dir. Lynne Ramsay
  • ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011) dir. Sarah Smith
  • ENOUGH SAID (2013) dir. Nicole Holofcener
  • 52 TUESDAYS (2013) dir. Sophie Hyde
  • ZERO MOTIVATION (2014) dir. Talya Lavie
  • THE RIDER (2017) dir. Chloe Zhao

Next up, I was going to do 52 films by ‘people of colour’ but that category is so general in a global cinematic context as to be worthless. Instead, I’ll try for 52 films by black directors — the definition of ‘black’ cinema is tricky but African and African-American movies will be good places to start.

Tech

Tech.jpgThanks largely to the beneficence of family, 2018 saw me get a new phone, two TVs, and a Blu-ray player. Of these, the Blu-ray player is both the most exciting and the least used. We just don’t get time to watch many movies. But it has been fun starting yet another collection of physical media about to lapse into obsolescence. How, in the all-digital age, will we display the books and movies that mean something to us? It’s so interesting to walk into someone’s house and cast an eye over their bookshelf and their DVDs, and these displays are such effective shorthand for saying ‘this is who I am’. Are we going to lose that, too, along with the bookstores and video shops?

As for the phone, I didn’t need a new one, but the old one was getting a bit old. It is nice to have a chosen app open as soon as I press the icon, or register a keypad press in real time. Of more concern now, though, is how we are going to raise our children to have a positive and active relationship with screen-based technology. It hasn’t been difficult to leave the phone in my pocket and focus on the kids once I get home from work, but as they get older and more aware of the myriad capabilities of these revolutionary devices, it would be nice for them to see them as objects of freedom and not limitation, and an augmentation to the physical world around them rather than a replacement for it. Keeping the kids away from such devices forever is not going to help with that.

The more pertinent issue may be that my attitude to technology is itself already becoming obsolete, so pushing that stance on my kids could be more damaging than I ever intend it to be. Many schools already demand most kids work on laptops or tablets; the future world of work is likely to require high-level computing facility, including the ability to code. I will do my best to pay attention to my growing kids and keep an open mind as technology advances (and hopefully doesn’t eat us all).

Books

Father with twins readingMy wife was shocked when I told her that if I had to choose between books and movies, forsaking the other for the rest of my days, I’d choose books.

“What! But you’re Barns! You’re the movie guy!”

Yes, that has been true for a long time. And I think I still understand movies better than books. But where movies are more fundamentally concrete — you can’t imagine different images or sounds than those presented on the screen — there is infinite possibility in a book: a world to disappear into, a character to examine closely, a story to carry you along, all projected in the cinema of the mind. Books are magic, books are philosophy, books are time travel. I’ll never be able to read everything I want to, even if I were to devote all my film-watching time to books. I find this thought comforting.

In 2018 I continued my reading programme, begun the previous year, of reading almost exclusively works written in years ending in the same numeral as the current one. That meant a master reading list of books from 1918, 1928, 1938, etc., all the way up to 2018, on which I tried to include a half-decent variety of voices.

My goal was to polish off 52 books — one a week. I managed 78. Pretty pleased with that, especially considering 51 were novels or non-fiction. You can view the entire list of 78 here.

Some highlights from my 2018 reading mission:

The Rehearsal‘ by Eleanor Catton (2008)
In Watermelon Sugar‘ by Richard Brautigan (1968)
A Wizard of Earthsea‘ by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
Rebecca‘ by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
Things Fall Apart‘ by Chinua Achebe (1958)
Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World‘ by Snigdha Poonam (2018)
The Player of Games‘ by Iain M. Banks (1988)
The Fifth Child‘ by Doris Lessing (1988)
The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids‘ by Alexandra Lange (2018)
Plumb‘ by Maurice Gee (1978)
Never Anyone But You‘ by Rupert Thomson (2018)
Unaccustomed Earth‘ by Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)
Normal People‘ by Sally Rooney (2018)
Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety‘ edited by Naomi Arnold (2018)

And some disappointments:

Young Adolf‘ by Beryl Bainbridge (1978)
Finn Family Moomintroll‘ by Tove Jansson (1948)
Running Wild‘ by J. G. Ballard (1988)
The Public Image‘ by Muriel Spark (1968)
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting‘ by Milan Kundera (1978)
Snap‘ by Belinda Bauer (2018)
Everything Under‘ by Daisy Johnson (2018)
The Alchemist‘ by Paulo Coelho (1988)

The ‘year ending in x’ rule is working well for me so far, so I’ve got a heaving 2019 reading list to keep me occupied. Happy reading to all the other readers out there, and put some recommendations in the comments — I’ve got plenty more lists to fill.

Travel

IMG_20181019_185423487Much of our 2018 was spent at home, wedded to routine. For most of the year, the closest we came to travel were two housesitting stints at my brother’s place in Wellington — more a transplantation of the routine than leaving it behind, but still exciting, especially our visits to Khandallah pool in summer, sun-dappled and frothy with kids.

In October, we undertook our biggest expedition with kids yet: a long weekend away in Taranaki to introduce them to Tara’s relatives. Granny — Tara’s mum — joined us to share the load. We anticipated carsickness, restless anger, wariness of so many unfamiliar faces, and no sleep at all; it turned out that a little less sleep than usual was the worst of our problems. They were equally tolerant of long rear-facing journeys and fussing relatives. The great Taranaki Maunga, which is to be made a legal personality, loomed watchfully over us, drawing our fascination whenever it appeared. “Wow! You can see Taranaki from the bathroom window!”

But don’t forget to appreciate the wonders where you live. When you come northbound over the hill at Pukerua Bay, either by car or on the train, and you round the final corner below the village’s pōhutukawa canopy, Kāpiti Island hoves into view — dark and magnificent in the Tasman Sea, its zigzag skyline dominating the vista. Depending on the weather, you might only see parts of it, or not see it at all. If we had had a Hokusai, I could imagine him painting thirty-six views of Kāpiti.

People

Family selfieI couldn’t count the number of people who told me that raising kids gets easier. True, the first couple of weeks of constant floundering through sleep-deprived fog were as intense as anything I’ve experienced. Once you have the basics of bottle sterilisation and nappy changing down, though, it’s just a stream of simple tasks. Relentless, but uncomplicated. Things have only gotten more complex — and, to my mind, much more challenging — as they’ve gotten older. The highs are higher and the lows lower. And still 10+ years before they become teenagers. It really is a rollercoaster!

The hardest part of all has been the maintenance of my marriage, and our mental health. Both recede into the background very quickly when you’re faced with two needy infants and only two pairs of hands. It’s lucky, then, that I’m married to Tara, in whom I have a firm ally dedicated to preserving what we have and improving what we lack. We are in it together, sometimes in battle with one another — usually over stupid shit like who’s less tired and therefore better placed to do the night feed (and not the way you’d expect; we are always fighting to keep the other person in bed) — and taking brief moments where we can to actually look at each other.

Maybe this is where it gets easier. Maybe we’ll get some time back for us, in increments, over many years. In the meantime, the blessing of young kids is their immediacy, how they force you to deal with what’s in front of you and not some imagined future catastrophe (not that this stops the terrible daymares descending in idle moments). And then, when they’re finally in bed, we talk to each other about the day and prepare to do it all again tomorrow, together.

(Together! Man. Who am I kidding? Tara is the one who is home with the kids. She does by far the hardest job; I come home and pitch in for a few hours before bedtime. I do wish we could switch places for a while. She’s so good, though, so conscientious in crafting the best possible childhood for our kids. I can only admire her work.)

We’ve had plenty of support along the way, but especially from Nana (my mum) and Granny (Tara’s mum), who have given up a day each week to come up the coast and help. The best indicator of how successful this has been is in the kids’ excitement whenever they show up, and the tears when they leave. They bloody love them. Our first year as parents wouldn’t have been nearly as fun and coherent without them.

What next? Another bum change. Another night feed. Another train commute. Adelante, as one of our hosts in Spain used to say whenever there was a moment of silence. Forward.

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Remember me

The shock of learning my internet friend had died was more confusion than anything else — like, that doesn’t make any sense?

Once it sublimated into a permeating, low-level sadness, the first thing I did was go back and read our email threads. The pattern was familiar to most of the back-and-forths I’ve had with many internet friends for years: their incisive, thoughtful, witty paragraphs; my rambling, overreaching, too-long drivel. As I kept reading, though, I was surprised to see their replies did not shrink quickly to terse sentences designed to end the thread. The word count was about even on either side, and our discussion continued until we both felt we’d said enough. I didn’t hate myself at the end of it. It reminded me of a satisfying lunch date and made me think that but for lack of proximity, we might have been friends IRL.

This strange new grief is hard to describe and still slightly taboo. I didn’t know this person in real life; I’d never met them. But I was not alone among their internet friends in feeling genuine loss at the news. It feels unreasonable, out of proportion, even intrusive, considering how bereft those that knew this person would be feeling. What right do I have to mourn this person with whom I’d only shared occasional lines and images on a screen?

Privacy is a huge elephant in the room in the internet age (or at least it was, until the elephant appeared before the US Senate). It’s usually spoken about in terms of loss — as in, we are losing our privacy with every social media post. But I’d suggest the ledger is balanced somewhat. Through this person’s Twitter and Facebook, through the posts they made and the likes and interests pushed at me by the apps on their behalf, I got a haphazardly curated window into their psyche. I know what art they loved, and loved to hate. I have a rough overall picture of their politics that is extremely detailed in a few areas. I can see the quiz they favourited to complete later, which they probably never got round to. This is completely different from the way I know people I’ve looked in the eye, who are made up in my head of verbal tics and distinctive laughter and that thing they did for me that one time.

Still, I care for both sets of people, my in-person friends and my internet friends. Some friends have transitioned back and forth across these categories. The line is not clearly marked.

The broader availability of grief is therefore one of the side effects of our increasingly public existence. It’s as simple as having more people to care about, and having more people to care about other people with. The outpouring of emotion about this person has been moving in the same way as a funeral: sadness at the person lost, comradeship and community at sharing feelings and memories with a group. It’s similar, if personal in a different way, when a celebrity (e.g. David Bowie) dies. A collective howl, more physical than intellectual.

I’ve become quite cynical about my Twitter feed. That person’s trying to go viral. That person’s trolling. That person’s scoring points for a tangentially related agenda. Well, this death has jolted me right out of that. This was a real person, and I love that they were a small part of my life, and I can’t believe they’re gone.

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Short story: A Warmer Future

A cloudy sunset with a bright streak of yellow and two narrow streaks of red merging with black on either side

A WARMER FUTURE

The four lilting chords of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major drifted upwards from Gary’s pocket. It was the legislated time – seven p.m. – but to Gary, it felt court-appointed, a sentence. His heart beat a little faster as he reached into his shorts, pulled out his phone, and hit ‘Dismiss’ on the display. Pachelbel stopped mid-bar.

I am Oppenheimer, thought Gary. I am Nietzsche, Galston, and Kalashnikov. When they all realise what they’ve done, will they, too, feel their will to live crackle and evaporate, like water in an untended pan? Will they also carry my weight?

*

Gary’s particular flash of Earth-shattering inspiration came during a morning meditation. Keep breathing, said the voice in his head whenever his mind wandered. But when it wandered to the subject of work, he would often let it run for a while. A lot of his best policy ideas came when he was seated in lotus pose.

Get a woman out there – a nice woman – mother of the nation type – loves nice weather – loves climate change – longer summers – kids running around outside – drives a great brute of a thing – happy to tell her story – imagine the outcry – they’d have to do something then – if they didn’t we’d cruise the next election – put climate change on the front page for good – I’d get on the List –maybe even front bench – Jesus, keep breathing –

As Gary brushed his teeth and dressed for work, he imagined how it would go with the Leader of the Opposition. He would ask him to just hear him out for a minute, to at least listen to the whole idea before dismissing it, to think about how this idea could reverse the appalling slide in the polls. Then he’d explain how Jane Harvey would capture the imagination, and the ire, of the nation.

My car makes summer longer, says Jane Harvey, pictured in front of her four-wheel drive gas guzzler. I do the school run twice a day and leave it running in the garage at home, says Jane. I’m doing my bit to speed up climate change, because if it’s going to happen anyway, let’s get on with it.

She’d go out in the Timaru Herald, carefully selected as the paper most likely to send a story viral. And she would go viral, and the social networks would tear her to pieces, and the commentariat – not to mention the Opposition Leader – would demand action from the government to do something about climate change. Enough is enough, Mr Prime Minister! We can’t have the Jane Harveys of the world spoiling our magnificent country and ruining this planet for her children, and everyone else’s children.

And just like that, for the first time in years, the Opposition Leader would take control of the political narrative, leading to a prolonged spike in the polls and, ultimately, glory on election night.

Never mind that Jane Harvey doesn’t exist, thought Gary as he climbed into his beloved red Audi. No one needs to know that. Maybe one day they will, when Gary releases a tell-all memoir of his long and storied political career. And he’d be lauded, both for coming clean and for an end that justified his slightly underhanded means. Yes, I did manufacture Jane Harvey to stop climate change. And, looking at the results, you’re damn right I’d do it again.

Gary turned the key. The Audi spluttered into life before settling into a clean rhythm. He noticed the gas light was on, and made a mental note to stop off at the service station on the way to work. High octane, of course – 91 put too much carbon on the inner workings.

*

With the revs up in the 6000s, the track shot away behind the Audi. Lotus pose was best for settling the mind, true, but sometimes circumstances called for a more aggressive form of meditation.

That bastard, he thought. That stupid bastard. Doing the government’s dirty work. He’ll write whatever’s politically expedient to keep his mates on the right side of the House. And people think he speaks truth to power! What a laugh. They’re just as stupid as he is.

– Pedal to the floor – hundred metres straight to hard left –

At first the people had hated Jane Harvey, just as Gary intended. She’s a mother, for God’s sake! Doesn’t she understand how she’s sabotaging her children’s future?

The backlash ensured she hit every front page across the country, and in the vacuum of climate change leadership offered by the Government, the Opposition Leader took centre stage. He began to look positively Prime Ministerial. He wouldn’t admit it out loud, but it was all thanks to Gary.

– Revs down – hard left into easy right –

Then, just as suddenly, the people loved Jane Harvey. That bastard columnist, the millionaire businessman and noted advisor to the Prime Minister, went in to bat for her. She’s onto something, he reckoned. After all, who doesn’t love long summers? Isn’t running the car for another half hour a bit like putting the clocks forward in September?

A couple of TV and radio appearances later, the columnist had started a movement. It’s common sense, they all said, all repeating the refrain until it became an ideology: Who doesn’t love long summers? And there was all this money behind it, full page ads in the paper calling for a new perspective on climate change.

– Quick boost on the revs – then hairpin left –

And that was when the Government finally responded. The Prime Minister did his usual shtick. My job is to listen to the people, and they can rest assured that when it comes to climate change, I’m listening. It made Gary sick. It also made the Opposition Leader sick, and with his bilious green tinge, he managed to get thrown out of Parliament three days in a row. His last action before being shunted to the back bench was to fire Gary.

It looked as though the two of them would be the only casualties of Jane Harvey’s legacy. But then the Government changed the narrative for good. The Emissions Trading Scheme was scrapped entirely, and with the money saved, a new, planet-busting incentive was announced: run your vehicle at home for 30 minutes a day and your petrol bills are free. It’s spending more time outside with the kids. It’s saving on heating bills in the winter. It’s a Warmer Future.

– Keep breathing – keep breathing – keep breathing –

The take-up was like nothing ever before seen for a government scheme. People were given special EFTPOS cards to use at the petrol station: Swipe for a Warmer Future. God knows where Treasury got the money. There were rumours of un-calendared meetings at oil company headquarters. But it was hard to argue with free petrol.

– Long straight now – floor the bastard –

Gary always felt like the Audi took over at this point in the circuit. His role involved extending his right ankle and gripping on tight to the steering wheel, while the complex array of pistons and pipes under the hood worked its magic. He could be anyone, or no one; the Audi and its incredible mechanics were all that mattered.

No, there was one other human contribution: the gas in the tank. This was the final irony. My savings are dwindling so fast, thought Gary, and I’ll never work in politics again. I don’t really have a choice. So, when the Warmer Future sign-up form arrived in his mailbox, he suppressed a gag and filled it out.

*

Gary shoved the phone back in his pocket, forced himself up out of his armchair, and walked out the front door, grabbing his car keys on the way. The sunset was extraordinary: fat stripes of apricot and amber, like a desert oil well ablaze, lighting up the sky to the west. When he opened the garage door, revealing his prized red Audi, the sunset turned it orange.

He picked a long rubber hose up off the ground and walked around to the back of the Audi, where he massaged one end of the hose over the exhaust pipe. He then took the other end of the pipe around to the right-hand side of the car, opened the driver’s door, and sat down in front of the steering wheel.

Just keep breathing in and out, he told himself. Stay in the moment. In the end, the moment is all there is.

Gary inserted the keys into the ignition and turned them. It always amazed him, the cough and grind in that first second before the Audi settled into a hum of whirring white noise. He tried to think of the last time it had failed to start, but couldn’t remember it ever happening. Apart from the brief convulsions upon ignition, the Audi was perfect.

He looked at the end of the hose and saw the air around it shimmer with fumes, then grow dark with smoke.

Keep breathing. As ever, the mantra soothed him. Keep breathing.

Then he stood, walked over to the high windows along the side of the garage, and pushed the hose out. He walked back out the door he’d come in and around the garage so he could admire the sunset from the front of his yard.

His neighbours on either side — Karen, a truck driver, and a banker whose name he’d never caught –were doing the same. Gary nodded hello and glanced at Karen’s enormous truck. It spewed out thick, dark smoke, even when idling. The machines are bigger than us, he thought, as he turned back to the brilliant flashes across the sky. And they’re breathing into life a bright, beautiful, barren world where we don’t belong. And we’ll willingly help them do it.

The exhaust trail from Gary’s Audi snaked off into the atmosphere. He followed it up as far as he could with his eyes until it became indistinct, inseparable from the yellows and oranges above.

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Anime 101: five must-see anime for the uninitiated

A friend who particularly enjoys watching films and television shows recently mentioned he hadn’t seen any anime. Obviously it fell to me to rectify this terrible oversight, so within seconds, I promised him a list of where to start. I had planned just to write down a list of titles; twenty-four hours and a thousand words later, I think I’m finally satisfied. Read on if you are an anime newbie (or an anime veteran who wants to pick my choices apart).

The key point for someone approaching anime (ah-nee-meh) from an English-speaking tradition, especially one so heavily influenced by family friendly Disney fare, is that animation (anime) and comics (manga) are woven into pretty much every part of Japan’s popular artistic tradition. Some anime works are aimed at children, sure, but most are not, at least not specifically. Anime is simply another medium, like TV or literature, and it’s populated with everything from broad comedy to serious drama to high-concept sci-fi action.

Consequently, there’s a lot of it. So where does the anime newcomer start? Chances are you actually have seen some anime, given the popularity of POKEMON and DRAGONBALL Z (and, earlier, SAILOR MOON) around the world. These shows are cultural phenomena with a deep and wide-ranging influence, which makes them noteworthy and worth checking out at least once, but the high-volume, churn-‘em-out production style makes them limited artistically. There’s more to anime than one-on-one battles and big hair.

The five anime works I’ve listed below (four films, one TV episode) are each outstanding examples of writing and visual craft. They also showcase the broad potential of the medium. Listmaking isn’t definitive, obviously – my taste is my taste, and there are countless anime I haven’t seen, especially in the TV realm – but I’d be surprised if nothing in this sample impressed you. If they don’t impress you, it’s probably safe to say anime isn’t for you.

Oh, and one final thing: please watch in Japanese with English subtitles. Anime and the Japanese language are inseparable from one another.

cowboy bebop, spike spiegel, whatever happens, anime quote, classic anime

1. The family classic: MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (1988) – d. Hayao Miyazaki

totoro, my neighbour totoro, rain scene, bus stop

Studio Ghibli, and particularly Hayao Miyazaki, is the obvious entry point for newcomers to anime, and among Ghibli’s many great releases, TOTORO is the greatest. It quickly and seamlessly evokes a mostly recognisable world – a Japanese countryside teeming with humming insects, human-powered industry, and swaying grass – alongside a fantastical one peopled by benign otherworldly creatures. The bridge between these worlds takes the form of two closely bonded sisters facing the spectre of their mother’s life-threatening illness. It’s impossible not to be charmed and moved by their story. Also, the animation is lovely, and a classic Joe Hisaishi score rounds out a perfect introduction to the form.

If you like this, try PRINCESS MONONOKE

2. The mindblowing epic: AKIRA (1988) – d. Katsuhiro Otomo

akira, anime classic, tetsuo, cyborg, chair

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO is small, quiet, and sweet. At the other end of the scale, we have AKIRA. I first saw it when I was about 13, and the experience was similar to watching 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for the first time: a jaw-dropping handful of indelible images orbiting a general sense of confusion. Like, what did I just see? Otomo’s adaptation of his own even more epic manga is big, brash, and overblown, beginning with dickish biker kids and ending in an extended orgy of city-sized destruction. For all its excess, Otomo’s palpable affection for his characters means AKIRA does not live or die by its admittedly extraordinary visuals; you grow to care about these brats, caught up as they are in a mysterious conspiracy that threatens them and everyone they know. It also has one of the great film soundtracks.

If you like this, try METROPOLIS

3. The arthouse masterpiece: MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001) – d. Satoshi Kon

millennium actress, photograph, flashback, anime

A film for lovers of film. On the surface, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS tells the story of a veteran film star’s life and career, constructing it through flashbacks and snippets of her work. Kon’s genius, though, is in mixing the modern-day frame story and the actress’ work, constructing a kind of collective consciousness between the performer, her work, and her fans – and you, the viewer. Periods of Japanese history also play a critical role in the narrative and the visual style. It’s a rich, multi-layered work that only gets better the more you think about it. And hey, guess what? The soundtrack, by genre-defying prog rock legend Susumu Hirasawa, is brilliant.

If you like this, try TOKYO GODFATHERS

4. The slice of ultra-stylish TV perfection: COWBOY BEBOP Session 20: Pierrot Le Fou (1999) – d. Shinichiro Watanabe

cowboy bebop, anime tv series, session 20, pierrot le fou, amusement park, cane gun, crazy clown

A 22-minute TV episode is a bit of an outlier on this list, but there are so many great anime TV serials, I had to include one. And why not this perfectly executed story? Style is Watanabe’s calling card; his work is defined by a cool aesthetic and nimble editing inspired by the likes of Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Tarantino. ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ comes late in COWBOY BEBOP’s 26-episode run, but its monster-of-the-week plot – about an insane clown driven mad by shady government experimentation (a few obvious influences there!) and our anti-hero Spike’s efforts to stop him – stands alone, making it an ideal introduction to the series. Would it be ridiculous of me to comment on its amazing soundtrack? It would? Okay, I’ll shut up.

If you like this, try the rest of COWBOY BEBOP (and then NEON GENESIS EVANGELION)

5. The full-hearted blockbuster: YOUR NAME (2015) – d. Makoto Shinkai

your name, kimi no na wa, anime blockbuster, meteorite scene, beautiful sky

Let’s bring it all together. YOUR NAME is a fantastically entertaining film in its own right, worthy of inclusion here purely on its own merit. It’s also the highest grossing anime of all time. But it also brings with it the added bonus of calling back to each of the four other titles listed above. The countryside charm and childlike wonder of TOTORO, the apocalyptic scenario of AKIRA, the nostalgia of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS, and the flair of COWBOY BEBOP are all present; certain moments are almost carbon copies of scenes in those other films. The element it brings that the others don’t really have is a sense of the new emerging Japan, particularly the experience of urban high schoolers and graduates. Anime has always taken young people seriously; YOUR NAME’s representation of new men and women trying to make their way in a changing world rings very true. The soundtrack? It’s not the work of genius each of the other four titles offers, but it’s very catchy.

If you like this, try VOICES OF A DISTANT STAR

 

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Filed under 'Best Of' Lists, Film, Japan