Time stretches and collapses. Some things fade as soon as they happen. Others burn themselves into our vision until we look at them again. Our post-pandemic future seems too far off to imagine, 2025 at least before we can say we’re through it. Three whole years! But our future of climate catastrophe is here, now, and threatening to make our lives unrecognisable by as soon as 2030, certainly by 2050. Then: someone clicks their fingers and it’s already been three months since the last phase of that work project, the one that was going to kick into gear again next quarter, so it’s time to review the plans for implementation. But then, I’ve felt every second of the six months since I last published a podcast episode, always aware that I wasn’t working on it, or on any of the dozen or so other projects I have on the go, including this post.
I’m cramming it in as I inch towards 40. But it all falls away in dutiful bliss whenever my family need me, which is most of the time. My salary goes up and we still struggle to save, but also in 2021, I came into a life-changing amount of money and spent it all immediately. As Aotearoa prepares to join the rest of the pandemic-ravaged world, every aspect of life seems less certain, less sacred, than ever, at the same time as needing to hang on to all of it as long as possible.
The hard part is not knowing what to do next. It was all so simple: they told us what to do, and it worked. Now we have to figure most of it out for ourselves. I suppose we always did, but not like this. Never so new and strange and unsettling, for so many millions.
It was the year of selling and buying houses in New Zealand, and we too sold our house and bought a new one. Nine incredibly stressful months throughout which we didn’t know if we’d made the right decision, or if we would ever find the right place. In the end, we found the best place we’d seen in three years of open homes, and somehow we got it. Even better (for us), we seem to have sold at the height of a rising market and bought just after its peak.
You don’t need to hear about my crocodile tears for all those people struggling to pay the rent while I bank a ludicrous capital gain. Our experience fits almost perfectly with Bernard Hickey’s analysis indicating the New Zealand Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to date has seen one of the biggest transfers of wealth from workers to landowners in the history of New Zealand. Very little about it is fair.
What does this mean for us, day to day? There’s a budget and it’s fairly tight. We now live with my parents-in-law, wonderful people with whom we now have to share space, and that is never easy, no matter how wonderful anyone is. Most of all, we all have a home for the foreseeable future, as everyone should, and we have the luxury of thinking five, ten, twenty years ahead, with this roof over our heads at the heart of it.
While trying to teach the kids how to pause and breathe deeply to come back from the brink of fury, Tara realised she was only coaching them at bad moments, immediately after the altercation. And I realised I was doing the same thing to myself — and barely doing it, once in ten lows if that — when I needed to be doing it a few times a day, regardless of mood, because every time I do, it helps. Like drinking water.
No, I’m still not doing it a few times a day. Nor am I meditating, of which I’ve known the extraordinary benefits and potential for otherworldly experiences for a full decade now. Or writing in a journal and getting all those thoughts out of my head, which I used to be really good at. As for going for a run… come on. At least I still drink loads of water.
Tara doesn’t want me to die, so she got quite exercised about getting me in for another skin check this year, which I knew I needed. A bunch of my moles were itchy for a couple of months before I finally agreed and booked in with retiring dermatologist Dr Jennifer Pilgrim. What a name! And my mother swears by her.
I disrobed and she looked carefully over my skin. “I see you’ve had a few removed already,” she said, looking at the enormous scars on my back from when I was 16, a memorably unpleasant experience of 160 injections and an hour on a half on a table while benign (though large) moles were removed. “I hope whoever did it has improved since they did these.”
Back at her desk, Dr Pilgrim said, “I don’t see anything I’m worried about. But you need to keep getting checked regularly, and I won’t be doing it.” She gave me the names of a couple of big skin clinics first and told me absolutely not to go to them. “The amount of moles of unusual appearance you have, they’d take one look at you and see the dollar signs and start hacking bits out of you.” Which is more or less what happened to me in my teens, though it was free butchering by the public health system in that case. She sent me away with a couple of names and wished me all the best.
On the way out, as a special treat, my mother was coincidentally in the waiting room, waiting for her skin check. We had a good yarn and I drove home. A few days later, histology confirmed she had a melanoma. So go and get your skin checked.
As for COVID-19, we are still only a little way into this thing. The “it’s just a bad flu” crowd seem to be winning and you can all get back to work. I still don’t know exactly how bad it might get in the long term and I don’t think anyone does, even if it’s likely industrialised countries have passed the peak. So let’s socialise outdoors where and when possible, keep wearing masks after we’re told we don’t have to, and normalise sharing vaccination status.
The absolute audacity of me, a well-meaning liberal with an asset in my name and a solid family network nearby, to think for a second that climate change is the only political issue that matters now. If your rent’s just gone up another hundred dollars a week, or your boss insists you come to work despite being immunocompromised, why should you be thinking about anything beyond survival, today?
Politicians have to constantly examine risk models and make decisions based on what would happen if they made a different one. It must be really hard, especially when anything mildly deviant from the status quo is likely to see them relegated to the opposition benches at the end of their three-year term. While I would like them to make sweeping changes to reframe the way our society works and where value is placed, I understand why they don’t.
All of which doesn’t change the fact that nature and science are indifferent to policies that “build permission”. Sorry to be writing so vaguely and gravely this year! It’s just the times. I’m too burnt out to have a laugh.
I read 55 books in 2021. 25 were written by women. 8 were written by people of colour. So I still don’t think I’m reading widely enough. Luckily, the remedy is simple.
But here’s what I find interesting: I thought those numbers were way higher, as if each book by a woman was worth 1.5 in my mind, or each book by a person of colour worth 2. I read ‘One of Them’ by Musa Okwonga AND ‘Raceless’ by Georgina Lawton, so I thought I was doing okay. It goes to show the extent to which white men are the default, invisible in their firm grip on the lectern. And it goes to show you can always try harder.
I also stuck almost exclusively to the last fifty years, reading only three books published pre-1971. A pity, because time travel is one of the main reasons I have a reading list. I did however read a lot of new books, despite being a curmudgeon, so it was nice to be up with the zeitgeist for a change.
Some lists and selected reviews from the books I read in 2021.
- The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
- The Five Gates of Hell by Rupert Thomson (1991)
- Embassytown by China Mieville (2011)
From my review of ‘Embassytown’ on Goodreads:
Ursula K. Le Guin gave this a glowing review in the Guardian, and even a few pages in, it’s easy to see this as a successor to THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and Miéville foremost among her inheritors. And here I am, wondering why I’ve resisted him for so long. A novel about language, and ideas about language, and anthropology, and wrestling with change, and genuinely alien aliens, and thrilling and packed with ‘holy shit’ moments to boot? Like, you’re lucky if you get one such moment in a novel, but EMBASSYTOWN has at least five reveals that blew me away. The sentences are purposefully dense, such that I had to slow down and occasionally re-read to make sense of them, but in a manner that absolutely fits the material. And as I got closer to the end, I slowed down even more — because I didn’t want to find out what happens. I wanted to keep finding out what happens. For as long as possible.
At the most basic level, this is a novel about changing your mind — how that’s possible, though scary, and can be very much to your advantage. How information can bring the possibility of freedom, and how language is the conduit between your mind and that freedom. But it’s about so much more than that as well. I loved it.
- Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett (2001)
- Guts by Raina Telgemeier (2019)
- The Illustrated History of Football: Hall of Fame by David Squires (2016)
- Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes (2019)
- Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh (2020)
- Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)
- We Run The Tides by Vendela Vida (2021)
- Border Crossings by Andrea Karim (2021)
- Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships by Robin Dunbar (2021)
- Times Like These by Michelle Langstone (2021)
- The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro (2021)
- Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan (1971)
- Meg by Maurice Gee (1981)
- The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
- Everybody: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing (2021)
- Barcelona Dreaming by Rupert Thomson (2021)
From my review of ‘The Good Girls’:
I was stunned by this book’s central revelation — one of those reading moments where images and ideas flash so quickly through your brain as they coalesce into a briefly coherent picture. I could see Katra, UP, India. I could see journalism and politics. I could see feminism and patriarchy, rich and poor. I could see abject hopelessness, even pitch darkness (if it weren’t for the light Faleiro shines). I could feel my distance from everything that happens in the book, things that could never have happened to me, and yet also feel a sense of connection to the girls and men at its centre. I saw everything and saw that I knew nothing. All of which comes on the shoulders of Faleiro’s astonishing feat of reporting, her clear and insightful prose, and the dots she joins to make some sense of it all. It’s her picture I’m seeing, and I’m glad of that, because as always, she has something compelling to say. But the picture fades; I play Nintendo with my wife and read other books and stop thinking about India, patriarchy, poverty. Until I read another exceptional book that excavates it all once more and makes me see, just for that brief moment. It goes without saying that you should read the blurb for this one and think twice before pressing ahead with it.
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)
From my review of ‘Ready Player One’:
The masturbatory fantasy of the dominant species in the gamer subculture-turned-overculture — i.e. the white male, fan of Kubrick and Tarantino and Kevin Smith and several other white male directors whose names you could easily guess, fearlessly definitive in his defence of the narrow Pantheon of arts and artists that define not just his personal taste but Taste itself, entirely uncomprehending of women, blind to all but the broadest strokes of identity, concerned in passing with notions of equality but lacking the complexity of thought to see any bumps in the road to utopia once the obstacles to his own wants are removed, ultimately just fine with the capitalist doctrine because money can and will solve everything.
I love how Cline sees the beloved genius at the centre of his story — a dead programmer who fashioned a globally significant game (and eventually a reality-defining quest) after his very favourite films, music, and games — as a benevolent Tastemaker rather than a fascist intent on narrowing all minds down to his level. […] because people like Cline take their taste so insufferably seriously, I also find it very funny. But then I think of Gamergate and the abuse of Kelly Marie Tran and remember that a belief system centred around pop culture worship is actually dangerous.
My biggest habit change in 2021 was to listen to more new music, following the list of new releases on Metacritic and keeping an open mind. Perhaps I should focus habit formation on health and mindfulness! But I could argue the mental stimulation and sanity brought by wide listening, reading and watching promotes good health. (Couldn’t I?)
I managed to mostly keep up until about September, at which point the house hunt and attendant mental strain had me reaching for the gold I’d already discovered, or The Field’s back catalogue. Because that’s how all but the most carefully trained brains work with art, but especially music: to seek out that which is familiar and comfortable, maybe very slightly surprising, but not so much that you have to work to get into it. The catch-22 being, if you can’t get into something if it isn’t familiar, how do you get into anything? So, I’m proud of the effort I made for three-quarters of the year — and look at the gifts I received in return:
Album I listened to most
- Fatigue by L’Rain
Top ten favourite albums, in order of release
- Introducing… by Aaron Frazer
- Yol by Altin Gün
- Fir Wave by Hannah Peel
- For Those I Love by For Those I Love
- Frontera by Fly Pan Am
- Fatigue by L’Rain
- Animal by LUMP
- If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power by Halsey
- Screen Violence by CHVRCHES
- HEY WHAT by Low
Top fifteen favourite songs
- Ride With Me by Aaron Frazer
- Yüce Dağ Başında by Altin Gün
- Fir Wave by Hannah Peel
- The Shape of Things by For Those I Love
- Leafy by Dry Cleaning
- Avalon by Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi
- Orion From the Street by Field Music
- Pop Star by Tom Jones
- Church Girl by Laura Mvula
- Two Face by L’Rain
- Gamma Ray by LUMP
- Big Appetite by Liars
- I am not a woman, I’m a god by Halsey
- Lullabies by CHVRCHES
- Battle by Andrew Hung
- All Night by Low
Biggest discrepancy between Metacritic rating and my level of enjoyment
- Dead Hand Control by Baio. Loved it.
- Or Carnage Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I think Skeleton Tree was enough Cave to last me a few years.
You may notice the lack of rap or other historically Black genres on there, and lack of metal or classical (or psytrance. Metacritic is limited, and I would love your suggestions for how to spread the net wider, but I think the biggest limitation with my habit change isn’t access to music (or lists of music) but in when I have time to listen to it — and that is when I’m at work, or when I’m in the kitchen. I want something to drive me on if I’m working or cooking, or something to luxuriate in, not something with quick wordplay or intricate drum fills. Mid-tempo, ideally, with indistinct lyrics (if any). That narrows the range down.
I try to take it easy on myself, though. You’re never going to listen to everything, or read everything. But if you make an effort to listen more widely than you usually do, you will be rewarded.
Follow along with my music discoveries in 2022:
You all seem to have so much time to watch stuff. My brother visited the other day and went through his Plex account, rattling off dozens of titles he’d watched lately, including several multi-season series. Everyone else is bingeing Squid Game or Succession or whatever. Almost always, my response is the same: haven’t seen it. I am lost to books (and my children) now.
These are the new-to-NZ films and TV series I watched in 2021:
- NOMADLAND (good)
- WANDAVISION (sigh)
- LUCA (wet)
- BO BURNHAM: INSIDE (inauthentic)
- VIVO (yawn)
- IN THE HEIGHTS (long)
- THE POWER OF THE DOG (mannered)
- ENCANTO (trying)
None of them were very good, NOMADLAND aside. Sorry to Power of the Dog fans (the rest of my family + festival juries) and Lin Manuel-Miranda fans (my wife) in particular.
These are the new-to-me highlights I watched in 2021.
- BABETTE’S FEAST (1987)
- COLUMBUS (2017)
- LITTLE WOMEN (2019)
- VAI (2019)
I had plenty to say about COLUMBUS, a masterpiece of precisely drawn and observed connections between people and places, in my Letterboxd review. It’s right there on Kanopy for many library card holders to stream for free, but I am now a proud owner of it on Blu-Ray as I continue my campaign to raise awareness of a terrifying possibility: the streaming services may remove access to your favourite films and shows at any time, for any reason. So buy the disc or the file, store it safely, and enjoy it at your leisure with the smug superiority of one who knows they have directly supported the artists.
Early in our relationship, I told Tara of the wonders of Hamilton Gardens. She gave a sly, sideways grin, obviously disbelieving that anything with ‘Hamilton’ in front could never be wonderful, and said, “Sure.”
I mentioned it a few more times. Better than the Wellington Botanical Gardens. Better than any municipal gardens I’ve seen. Quite possibly the best free (for now) attraction in New Zealand. Tara would smile and nod, seeing a sweet country boy loyal to his origins, failing to hear the gospel in his faith.
Every summer since the kids were born, we go on a road trip holiday. A couple of times, we’ve skirted Hamilton, and I’ve tried to build in time to visit Hamilton Gardens. But we never managed it. “Next time eh, dear?” Tara would say, genuinely disappointed for me, but with a hint of that sly grin.
Finally, in 2021, we had a whole day to get between our shitty glamping tent in Raglan (it was next to a noisy carpark, a noisy water pump, and another tent full of three noisy drunkards) and my dad’s place in Auckland. Could it finally happen?
“I’ve deliberately avoided looking up photos,” said Tara.
“Good,” I said.
“I don’t want to spoil it for myself.”
We were cooking in the car as we drove up, fresh from another of the many miscommunications you have travelling with young kids. Hot, tired, frayed around the edges. I slathered everyone in sunscreen and in we went. Under the tension, I couldn’t wait to see the joy on their faces.
We started with my mum’s old favourite, the Japanese Garden of Contemplation, where one of the kids wet themselves. A good start. We moved slowly through the English Rose Garden and the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, separated at first, all trying in fits and starts to connect with the stunning flowers and ponds and sculptures, and to reconnect with each other. Nora and June cuddled the dragons at the entrance to the Chinese garden while Tara and I looked on with forced smiles.
The American Modernist Garden changed the mood. Tara and I stretched out on the sun-loungers while the kids took their shoes off and romped around in the pool their cousins used to splash in a decade and a half earlier. Everyone’s smile came back.
And then into the ones that are still new to me but almost twenty years old now: the Italian Renaissance Garden, the Indian Char Bagh Garden. The kids were gushing over the colour, the columns, the cherubs. And into the actually quite new Fantasy Collection, every one a winner. Delight at the enormous wheelbarrow in the Surrealist Garden. Freestyle singing on the stage at the Chinoiserie Garden. Thoughtful chin-stroking at the Concept Garden. Identifying all the items on the long afternoon tea tables in the Mansfield Garden. The Waikato River snaked along beside at all, every glimpse pointed out by the kids: “River! There’s the river again!”
I turned to Tara as we dragged ourselves back to the car three hours later with weary legs and full hearts.
An exhausted smile. “Amazing! Yes. Best gardens in New Zealand. Hands down.”
I posted a picture of one of my children on Instagram in late December. My brother in Dunedin commented, ‘Looks like you have a big kid on your hands!’
They are getting bigger, that’s for sure. Unique, increasingly independent, but strongest together. Full of words and always coming up with koans that make them seem a lot older and wiser than they are. Confidently tackling climbing frames at the playground that would have freaked the shit out of me at their age (and still do). Helping us assemble flat-pack furniture. Still keen for a cuddle most days, and sometimes all day.
I have been with Tara for eight years now, and we’re just past the point when more than half of that has been with kids. They are our life’s work — but so are we, also strongest together, and always trying to be a little bit better together. She is about to push herself outside her comfort zone in a new way, going back to school to study what she has always wanted to study, and I am very excited for her — and a bit proud of her for taking the leap.
Four years of the “four family”, as the kids put it. Now, with my parents-in-law on the other side of an internal wall, we’re six. It’s a new stage of life for all of us, with losses and gains that will in time be forgotten. We will endure and make the most of it together.
Together. Perhaps the biggest change we made this year — at least as big as moving house for the impact it’s had on our lives — was moving the kids back into our bedroom. It had been three years of trying to get them to sleep happily in a separate room, then their own rooms. Seemingly endless nights of sitting with them for an hour or more at bedtime while they slowly worked themselves into sleep. Letting them into our bed in the night when they inevitably cried out for us. We listened to the received wisdom that they have to learn to self-soothe, and as parents, we had to have our own space. Then we went on our summer holiday, and found ourselves all sleeping in the same room a lot, and it was so much easier. And we were like, why aren’t we doing this all the time?
Time — stretching, collapsing, intangible. Bringing the new, the strange, the unsettling. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.