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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Other people’s breakfasts are strange

weet-bix wheat biscuits in bowl with no milk and spoon

via cogdog (Flickr)

It’s 9:45am on a Wednesday and I’m sitting at my desk in the office, eating a rather unsatisfactory bowl of wheat biscuits. Late breakfast — second breakfast, in fact, as I grabbed a chocolate twist from the railway station supermarket on the way to the office. The chocolate twist is a) a regular payday treat, b) a foot-long monstrosity of croissant pastry and brittle, plasticky chocolate, and c) bloody delicious if you have an appreciation for coarser pleasures. Where I usually eat some wheat biscuits at about 8am for breakfast, payday treat chocolate twist stodges up my belly until at least 9:30am, at which time I grudgingly add more stodge.

Anyway. Unsatisfactory? What is it that makes this particular bowl of wheat biscuits unsatisfactory? Well. This may take some time and effort on both our parts but I will attempt to explain.

My office is cold. Two clothing layers at least. That makes chilled milk from the fridge less palatable than it usually might be, like smoking on a hot day: why drink liquid fridge when you’re already shivering? So today, I had the idea of pouring some milk from the bottle into a mug and heating it — just a little! — in the microwave. I’m a genius, I thought to myself as the microwaved blared radioactivity and loud beeps at me.

I poured the milk from the mug into the bowl of wheat biscuits (which also contained yoghurt, un-microwaved, but that’s not important right now), and marched out of the kitchen with an excited grin on my face.

By the time I’d reached my desk, the wheat biscuits were already beginning to disintegrate. Too quickly. I should have known I was in trouble. The first bite made my error plain: I’d overheated the milk very slightly from ‘glacier’, through the intended sweet spot of ‘council swimming pool in summer’, to to the unfortunate ‘lukewarm’. The entire bowl was sullied. Oh, I’ll eat it, don’t worry about that, but I’ll also come on here and complain about it.

It brings to mind a shocking experience in my youth. Staying the night at friends’ houses was a frequent joy of childhood, and it was always interesting to compare the breakfast routines of other families with those of my own. Often, my friend and I would emerge from slumber to an array of branded cereals, some in tall, airtight receptacles, and a jug of milk alongside them on the dining table. I would wonder if this was the weekday standard or a special effort from mum for a weekend visitor (me). It certainly bore no resemblance to the one or two cereals in the dark pantry at my own home.

One time, I stayed over at the farm house of my friend Chris, he of his own trail bike and air rifle, both of which terrified me. Two aspects of this breakfast were particularly unusual.

First was the jug of raw, unpasteurised milk on the table, ultra-fresh from the milking sheds a few hundred metres away. I decided on wheat biscuits and placed two in my bowl, thinking it a potential faux pas to take my usual three or four. Then I began to weigh up whether or not I was all right with consuming milk of known provenance. It was fine to open the cartons delivered at home by the milkman every Monday and Wednesday; that was Milk, its mysterious origin obscured by industry, conveniently expelling any thought of actual animals from my head. But this stuff had been inside a cow just a few hours before I sat down. I wasn’t sure I could deal with that.

As I hovered on the brink, the second unusual thing happened – the shocking thing. Chris’ mum picked up the just-boiled kettle, that strange, noisy object that occasionally furnished me with hot Milo but otherwise meant nothing – I wouldn’t drink tea or coffee until my twenties. Then she carried it over to Chris, who had also taken two wheat biscuits, and poured boiling water all over them.

My eyes went wide. This seemed abhorrent. I was sure Chris would object. But he didn’t; he just reached for the sugar (another item you’d never see on our breakfast table). I couldn’t believe it. This is normal? To obliterate all texture from the wheat biscuits and transform them, instantaneously, into mush? This is what you want?

I was so confused and appalled, I didn’t see what was coming. Chris’ mum came to my bowl, kettle in hand. Then she poured boiling water all over my wheat biscuits.

To be honest, I don’t really remember what happened next. I think I copied Chris exactly: a spoonful of sugar, then the milk (if I wasn’t going to object to molten wheat biscuits, I couldn’t very well draw the line at raw milk). I imagine we downed our piping hot sludge and headed out on the dreaded motorbike, the air rifle slung over Chris’ shoulder.

Chris and his family sold the farm and moved away soon after. We didn’t keep in touch.

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The twins at three months

bairns

The kids are now three months old. They have more than doubled in weight since birth, gaining plump cheeks, chubby thighs, and burgeoning foreheads along the way. They have discovered their voices and (very recently) their hands. Every day is different in some way from the last or the next, which is of course true of life without children, but the repetitive nature of their care and the subtle adjustments you constantly make bring that reality into focus.

For the benefit of anyone interested — those who are about to become parents, maybe, but probably just friends and family — here are some surprising things learned in the early months of being a father to newborn twins.

*

I always thought babies became interesting after the first year. Now that I have my own kids, who I spend several hours a day with, witnessing their constant development and increasing attachment to me, I find it hard to imagine a more interesting phase of life for an observer. It didn’t take long to appreciate the privilege of knowing these people intimately from day one. From there, through beginning to follow my face with their eyes to today’s daily delight of beaming and cooing, it’s been impossible not to be constantly fascinated.

*

That said, long night feeds have made me a more prolific movie watcher through these first three months than at any other phase of my life. Forty so far and counting, plus a few false starts. Not even my days as a student layabout can compare.

*

Everyone talks about the gruelling nature of early parenting. Yes, it is hard — but the establishment of breastfeeding aside (that’s a whole other story that I can’t really fathom), the work itself is not hard. You feed them, you change their bums, you have a bit of a play, you put them to bed. You keep an eye on them and tweak your techniques and routines — Tara is particularly good at this — to the best of your ability. And that’s it. Tara and I call it The Job, and no matter how fraught we get, we always take comfort in having done The Job for another day.

The major challenge is not in the demands of the children but in the demands of the parents. We both have to sleep and eat, obviously, but we also have complex lives we’d like to maintain to some degree while we embark on our lives as parents. This is made trickier by the unequal division of labour: one parent is out for 60 hours a week, the other stays home 24/7. How do you balance the needs of the partner who misses his wife and kids with the needs of the partner who rarely gets to leave the house? It’s an ongoing balancing act, never perfected.

*

Did I gloss over sleep? Sleep is very, very important. You have to figure out how much sleep you need as quickly as possible and carve out an adequate allotment for each parent. And it isn’t as simple as taking the chance to sleep whenever it arises. You might not be able to sleep during the day. You might be fine on five consecutive hours but a sodden heap on two three-hour stretches.

Most of all, you may not realise how much you need to sleep until you’ve both stayed up an hour later than you should have to argue about who should go to bed early tonight. Definitely our dumbest fight, and our most frequently repeated.

*

A caveat. We have easy babies. They started sleeping for 5-6 hours at a time at about two months old, and they have slept through the night twice already. They take breast and bottle without drama, at least since the first couple of weeks. There have been no visits to A&E.

It goes right back to day one, when the maternity unit wouldn’t let Tara deliver until there was room in neonatal intensive care for them. Twins are at much higher risk of birth complications and they didn’t want to be caught short in an emergency. But out they came, bonny as can be, and we went home after a few days. Apart from an increasing tendency to lose the plot shortly before bedtime, there have been no serious curveballs.

*

In mid-December, we took the kids to Auckland to meet Pop and Ange. People thought we were insane to plan this a mere six weeks into their lives. Tara liked to say we should start as we mean to go on, by which she meant if we are going to be the adventurous, risk-taking parents we want to be, pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone for the sake of our children, we might as well start as early as possible.

And it was fine! No problems on the plane up or back. No problems adjusting to new surroundings for a few days. No problems spending half a day at Auckland Art Gallery. I’m skimming over all the work we and our support crew did to get us through those four days, and that was a lot, but the kids themselves hardly broke a sweat.

*

People have been quite willing to get stuck in with us. The grandmothers each visit one day a week to help with childcare. The rest of the family are properly involved, hands-on, whenever they see the kids. All the relatives who said they’d die before changing a nappy? They’ve changed nappies, plural. I guess I’m not surprised by this; they’ve always been supportive of us.

But then there are people like my ten-year-old niece’s friend — she barely knows us — who joined us at a waterside picnic and jumped at the chance to do a bottle feed. Some people are just keen to have a go, and it’s always heartening.

*

I was actually dreading the nappies. They will no doubt get stinkier and more explosive as solids are introduced, but so far, they have been one of the easier parts of The Job. I am always amazed when people baulk at changing a nappy (which takes five minutes) but are quite happy to do a bottle feed (which takes anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour and can be fiendishly complex if the infant is not calm and willing). So, if you find yourself able to offer support to new parents, doing a feed will be most appreciated BUT changing a nappy will earn you some quick and easy respect.

*

Strangers are always quick with a smile and a comment when you’re out in public with twins. By far the most common thing you hear is:

“Double trouble!”

People say this as they peer into the pram, as they jog by on a woodland path, as they look at you with a knowing nod. I used to offer “double the fun” as a cheerful riposte until one woman at the supermarket gravely retorted, “No. Double trouble.” My bad!

Other frequent questions/comments:

“Are they twins?”
“Gorgeous!”
“Are they identical?”
“Are they natural?”
“Enjoy them now, they’re going to be a lot more difficult in a year!”
“You must be busy.”
“Oh, a boy and a girl?” (and sometimes, after we have answered they are two girls, a follow-up, “So are you going to try for a boy next?”)

It seems a lot of people really want you to have had a boy and a girl, or at least have had a boy somewhere along the way. One person explained at length how they kept trying until they had a boy. I don’t really think there’s a need for strangers to put my infant daughters in the box marked ‘girl’, even if that box is getting bigger and more comfortable and pierced with holes. I much prefer it when people ask, “What are their names?” Because as much as anything else at this point, their names are who they are.

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