Monthly Archives: March 2020

Medicine show

Toy hospital and ambulance on carpeted floor with balloon

Everyone, everywhere, Santa Fe to Timbuktu, is talking about the same thing.

Has there ever been a time like this? Instant information, distance from the environment, and a global threat to public health: a new set of conditions to steer all seven billion of us down the same path. I suppose you could argue that any conversation during either of the World Wars was ultimately about the war, but you could still go out and get drunk, and there was still a side to take. COVID-19 is in everything, and despite the efforts of some charlatans to spin it to their own ends, the virus brings with it undeniable truths — contagion, illness, and death, but also hand-washing, elbow-sneezing, and flattening the curve — to alarm and compel.

If it’s true that everyone reverts to a base state during a crisis, I appear to be a pessimist, or at least a cynic, drawn to the more troubling scenarios than the hopeful ones. It might instead be that a media diet of RNZ, The Guardian, and Twitter leads the average person to doubt humanity in general. I am trying to leave the tabs closed more often.

The hard part, though, is that I, a know-all hipster since I could talk, am forced to live through COVID-19 with everyone else. There’s no lesser-known virus you probably haven’t heard of. I am in this and this only, just like you. How irritating.

But — also — how hopeful, actually. When has every person in the world had to stare down the same disastrous consequences and act in unison to prevent them? And when have so many signed up so willingly?

There’s no medicine. People are the medicine, in so many ways. And it’s just as well I don’t have anything different to say, because it isn’t my job to make sense of it; to zoom out and paint the picture in a way others might understand. My job is to stay home.

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Won’t somebody please think of the children?

After the Prime Minister’s announcement of an imminent shift to COVID-19 alert level 4 (mandatory self-isolation and physical distancing, essential services only), I immediately went out and panic bought a slide.

I entered Kmart as at least three other parents exited with literal armloads of board games. A woman and I circled around the two last remaining slides — massive boxes that wouldn’t fit in our trolleys — until I finally pounced. She stood staring at the last one for a few more seconds before hauling it up.

I only learned at checkout that it cost $139. An insane amount of money, and completely out of character for me, but what if we need it? What if the country locks down even further? What if vigilante mobs sweep the streets in snarling, two-metre-spaced rows? What if the Defence Force is deployed to enforce a full curfew? These are the kinds of thoughts you have because no one knows what, exactly, is going to happen. No one in the country has ever lived through anything like this before. Even in wartime, you could still go out for a drink.

It was just me and the other parents, mostly, stocking up on games and arts and crafts. A minimum of four weeks at home with the children. We love them — they’re a blessing, a joy, we are so lucky to have them and all that — but can you see why we were panic buying playdough and poster paints?

There was also a guy in stubbies yelling into a cellphone, “Nah mate, I’m at Kmart. Yeah nah, it’s basically dead here.” Compared to queues out the door at the supermarket, most definitely.

We’d already been to the supermarket that day. Limit: two of any similar item per customer. I tried to buy a third bottle of milk for my friends in self-isolation (trim milk! As if I would drink that swill) but was quietly and awkwardly denied by the cashier and her supervisor.

When I jetted off to do the Kmart run and pick up those same friends’ dear little dog from the kennels, I forgot to take the trim milk. It’s still sitting in our fridge, unopened. Maybe I’ll end up drinking it after all.

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This is really happening

Grass with babies and brightly coloured ball

Ball practising social distancing

I had an embarrassing realisation earlier this week.

I’d been following the news closely for months, keeping an eye on the COVID-19 cases map, and responding daily to its escalation at work.

But I still wasn’t taking it seriously until last Friday, when they cancelled the sport.

For a certain kind of person, news of global contagion and measures to stop its spread don’t hit home until the Premier League is postponed or the cricketers fly back home. It turns out I am that kind of person.

Tens of millions of people in lockdown overseas? Well, that’s a shame. Crystal Palace v Norwich has been called off? Oh my God, I need to fill the cupboard with tins and stop touching my face and talk to the people I love, slowly and clearly, about this not being a drill.

Embarrassing, as I say. But I know there were plenty of other people the world over twiddling their thumbs on the weekend and thinking the same thing.

And it’s not even the best wake-up call in our house this week. For Tara, the pandemic wasn’t a central concern… until they closed Disneyland.

Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for global stress?

C-O-R-O-N-A V-I-R-U-S!

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The fuck noise

It had been a trying afternoon, the way it just is sometimes with kids, by the time I got them home from feeding a friend’s cats and laid June down in the living room for a bum change.

As I did so, one of the strings from my hoodie caught under her body and flicked me in the face when I sat up.

“Oh my god! For fuck’s sake!” I said.

June’s eyes went wide. “No make that noise!!” She fixed me with a hard stare. “No make that noise, daddy!”

Nora, calmly playing with Duplo off to the side, said, “No make the fuck noise.”

My anger turned to amusement. I couldn’t stop myself laughing, so I turned my head away from both kids. They still noticed.

“I just wanna say – fuck,” said Nora. “FUCK.”

“I just wanna say fuck too,” said June. “FUCK.”

Did I stop myself laughing even harder?

Did I fuck.

And that was how the fuck noise came to be made often, by the smallest voices in our house, for a couple of weeks.

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Burning much more than ever before

door to hell burning cave with people standing on edge at night

‘Door to Hell’ cave in Turkmenistan. Image by Ybrayym Esenov

“I don’t know if you know what’s happening back in my country,” said Natalie Mering aka Weyes Blood in a whispery Pennsylvania drawl, “but we’re all… kinda… freaking out.”

It was Friday March 13 2020, a day when a lot of people who weren’t already freaking out about COVID-19 began to do so in earnest. The bog roll all left the shelves days before; now people are realising it won’t be enough.

“I’ve spent most of today crying,” she said, as laconic as ever. You wouldn’t know it from her singing voice, sharp and true, as certain as anything in this wild time. Some artists — Weyes Blood above all for me right now — give me the impression they observe the Earth as a pale blue dot from space, seeing and understanding and making sense of it all for the rest of us. I often marvel at how her lyrics cut through the muddle of human existence to coruscate with clinical beauty:

Lift the heart from the depths it’s fallen to
We all want something new
But can’t seem to follow through

Some people feel what some people don’t
Some people watch until they explode
The meaning of life doesn’t seem to shine like that screen

Lost and tangled up in you
Everyone knows you just did what you had to
Burning much more than ever before
Burning down the door

It was hard to believe someone seemingly so plugged into ecstatic truth could be so vulnerable. But there she was, a person, imploring us to get on our feet and move with her in this frightening time.

A couple did. I wish I had. But I’m a shy Kiwi; it’s not in our nature to push our way to the end of the row and boogie in the aisle when overcome with the music. Instead, I sat there and let it fill my heart.

I hope everyone gets home safe.

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Phantom Planet

Here’s how this post was initially drafted to end:

So I cut the red AAC wristband, straightened my non-existent tie, and walked off on damp pavements to catch my bus.

When I wrote it, the wristband still encircled my radius, bright and crumpled. I didn’t think it mattered whether or not the words were true; they evoked letting go, a holiday beginning its transition from vivid recency into hazy past. I felt that the inclusion of an absent tie signalled my awareness of whatever lies I allowed into my account. I wondered whether the words written down here would eventually become truth in my memory.

But what actually happened ended up being more interesting than the lie.

The last big activity of this year’s summer holiday with the kids was a trip to Splash Planet. It used to be called Fantasyland, a crumbling, community-built theme park famous for the train that ran around it and the smell of urine in the big castle. There were no water slides or pools with slow-filling buckets that saturate you if you time it right, or wrong.

I think I was about five or six when we went as a family in my own childhood. I recall some bright colours and the thrilling, uncontrolled motion felt by a small child going down a large slide. Above all, I recall the joy of riding that train, possibly with a grudging (though smiling) parent or older brother on child-minding duty.

For months afterwards, possibly years, I would counter any mention of Rainbow’s End with the superiority of Fantasyland. Have you been to Rainbow’s End? they would say. No, but I have been to Fantasyland, which is AWESOME. None of my friends had, so I had the pleasure of smug exclusivity and their complete indifference, because nobody cares if they haven’t been themselves. It’s not so different when you tell fellow thirty-something friends about your travels to the backwaters of Alappuzha or the beaches of Asturias and Cantabria. They’re mildly pleased for you, but they will quickly move on to the boats of the Bosphorus or the golden sands of Bali.

You move around the world and colour in the parts you see. You flood your senses and your mind and try, sometimes desperately, to commit them to your memory. But you can never hold onto them as they were, because your memory is fallible and the world’s constant physical change is undeniable.

When I visited Christchurch at the height of its post-earthquake demolition in 2012, my brain couldn’t make sense of the absence of buildings I used to take for granted. They existed in my memory but were in the process of being crushed, snuffed out, by reality.

A drive past the Tokoroa house in which I grew up was even more disorienting, with the big filbert trees replaced by a high wooden fence. The current residents scowled at me as I drove away. In this case, I could maintain a strong image of the past because it was so familiar to me as a kid, but I’ll bet nobody outside my family can call it up if required. And it was impossible to lay that image over the shocking disparity in front of me.

And that image is also likely to be wrong in some way. We know this from study after study: the brain misremembers. Its truth is mine, and mine alone.

To my surprise, many of the elements that made Fantasyland so memorable for little me were intact. Large slides, though more dilapidated than before. The tiny town. (Or am I inserting that into my memories?) The train.

I had no sense of the physical details and how they had or hadn’t changed. I couldn’t tell you whether the grassy parklands were laid out as before, or whether the train followed the same path around the castle. But I knew this was the place I had been to and loved all those years ago. I felt a child’s uncomplicated delight at being there again. For me, it was easily the highlight of the trip.

Tara cut her wristband off before going to sleep that same day. I kept mine on, not just overnight but for days afterward, even through an entire workday. I liked the way it reminded me of the feeling of being at Splash Planet the way a watch used to remind you of time passing. I liked the way it peeked out garishly from under my cuff.

I also liked showing it to colleagues when they asked how my holiday was. Fortunately, there was nearly always a connection, because so many people have been to Fantasyland and Splash Planet over the years.

That night, we discovered our chest freezer had been switched off for days. Possibly by us, in our harried and sleep-deprived state, or possibly by a vendor who carried out some work on our house while we were gone.

Point is, hundreds of dollars and dozens of kitchen hours’ worth of uncooked meat and home-cooked meals — perfect for, say, a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period — had to be thrown out. I stacked thawed containers of dinner saw on top of the oven and carted them in batches of five to a dark corner of the back yard, where I hiffed their contents onto the lawn. A feast for neighbourhood cats.

After I’d washed out all the containers and left them to dry, I collapsed onto the couch next to Tara, who had buried herself exhausted and grieving in a puzzle. I felt the wristband tug at my skin so I looked at it. There was a small blob of refried beans on the palm side. Time to let this past go, too.

“The really good thing,” said Tara, sarcastic but sympathetic, “is the scissors are out in the shed.”

I stood and went to the laundry, where I spent a minute using a pair of garden shears to uselessly shave colour off the wristband.

Then I went to the kitchen and levered a blade under it. The circle was finally broken. Pop. Toot-toot. Wheeee.

I can still feel the bracelet. It’s like my brain wants it to be there. In twelve hours twenty-four hours forty-eight hours it’ll be gone for good, but in forty-eight days it (or its imperfect neurological echo) won’t be forgotten, because I wrote this.

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