Category Archives: New Zealand

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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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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Shayne P Carter

I finished reading Shayne Carter’s autobiography Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press). It’s an excellent book: reflective, honest, occasionally moving, occasionally funny. It also contains the best descriptions of music since AMADEUS.

I saw Carter perform one time, a Dimmer farewell gig at Bodega in 2012. Bodega is now closed, its central, eyeline-spoiling pillar a collective sigh in the memory of Wellington’s gig-going faithful.

From my vantage point at the extreme right of the room, I gripped the bar on which my beer bottle rested while Carter ripped through one face-melting, feedback-laden guitar solo after another. He seemed in a mood to indulge his fingers more than his voice that day, and that was fine with me. I barely remember him speaking, let alone singing.

What I do remember is his body doubled over in submission to his guitar. His fringe hung down over his sharp-featured face. His lips pursed out in a demonic grin. He must have spent half the gig in that pose.

“The facial expressions,” my friend and I agreed over a beer a few months later when the subject of Shayne Carter live came up. “The facial expressions.”

Years later, she would edit his book. And I would borrow the book from another friend, whose photos are in the book. Just so you know how small New Zealand is.

And I say again, it is an excellent book, worth reading even if you couldn’t name a single one of his songs. It’s almost as good as his facial expressions.

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Cheezy Weezys

I was at Waikanae’s famous Fed Up Fast Foods fish ‘n’ chip shop with Stephen when I first encountered Cheezy Weezys.

I felt like they should have been advertised on an A4 printout in all-caps Arial Black, like all the other speciality items, but there they were on the big menu alongside hot dogs and spring rolls, as if they’d always been there.

We speculated as to what Cheezy Weezys might be. I suggested six or seven strips of mozzarella, battered and deep fried. Stephen proposed a scoop of chips with plasticky orange cheese squirted all over them from a bottle.

A subsequent image search proved Stephen right. Given they were called Cheezy Weezys, he was always going to be right.

But we didn’t order the Cheezy Weezys. I decided not to risk it, which is unlike me, because I usually try any old rubbish if it’s junky enough.

In the ensuing weeks, Cheezy Weezys seemed to be everywhere. I assure you, I’d never seen them on a fish ‘n’ chips menu before that rainy evening in Waikanae, and I’ve eaten a lot of fish ‘n’ chips. But there they were, again and again without fanfare, about $5.20 a pop.

Last weekend, when we went away to Foxton Beach, I cracked. Not only did Mr Grumpy’s have Cheezy Weezys, they also had Curry Chips, Cheese and Gravy Chips, and Blood ‘n’ Guts Chips. I ummed and aahed and eventually decided on Blood ‘n’ Guts Chips.

This is what they handed over:

That’s a scoop of chips, tomato sauce, sour cream, and grated cheese from one of those ready packets with loads of de-caking powder at the bottom.

Needless to say, my fascination with novelty hot chips is cured.

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The call bell

Ding goes the call bell.

I pressed the button fifteen minutes ago when Tara’s tramadol wore off, four hours since the previous dose. A big, angry wound in her abdomen is giving her acute pain. One of our twin infants dozes in my lap, the other in a cot. Tara lies in bed, brows knitted in pain and exhaustion.

It’s about 2am.

There’s a speaker right outside our room. Every couple of minutes, the call bell dings again.

We’re waiting on one of the two overnight duty midwives to come and assist us. After a few more dings, she arrives, and we ask for more pain relief. Of course, she says, and promptly leaves.

Another fifteen minutes pass. In one of the other two dozen rooms served by two midwives, someone else presses the call button. Ding.

Approximately thirty-five minutes after I initially hit the button, the midwife returns with the tramadol. Tara ingests it and waits for it to take effect. Eventually, after a full hour of agony, she gets some relief.

Ding goes the call bell, on through the night and day, summoning health professionals that don’t exist.

*

This is far from the most gruelling episode of our six-day hospital experience when the kids were born, but it’s one that stays with me. It’s symptomatic of a system that is desperately under-resourced.

You look back on times like that and think, well, we got through it. And people are more than willing to tell you it’s just something you have to get through. Some people, anyway.

But I’m sharing this tiny story today because a much worse case of maternity ward understaffing and negligence is being widely reported. A baby died after a labour and birth in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Individuals made mistakes but the system overall is accountable.

And if so many people are ringing the bell to say that the system is inadequately resourced, that midwives are constantly at breaking point, that having a baby outside business hours loads significant risk into an already risky process, that the trauma of their hospital birthing experience haunts them for years, why are we still talking? Is anyone listening?

Ding.

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Louis Sergeant

A variety of macarons in different flavours and colours

I saw Louis Sergeant at the vegetable market the other day. He was selling a variety of macarons, some croissants, some pains au chocolat.

Louis Sergeant used to have an inner-city patisserie where delicious dessert sculptures and pots of artisanal tea were conveyed to your table by bright-eyed women in black aprons. The cabinet presented at least a dozen options with shiny mousse spheres, gold flakes, and curved pieces of chocolate. I thought $14 was a rip-off until I tried one.

Then Louis Sergeant opened a second patisserie about two hundred metres away. They both closed within six months, and it seemed like that was that.

But here was Louis Sergeant himself, previously unglimpsed, peddling fine French pastries in a packed carpark alongside greengrocers from Levin.

“Got plans to open another shop soon?” I asked as he bagged a pastry.

“Yes,” he said, after some hesitation.

“My wife and I really miss your patisseries,” I said.

“Thank you,” he replied. “2019 was…” He grimaced and didn’t finish the sentence. I could only imagine the disastrous spreadsheets and red numbers flashing before his eyes.

“I hope 2020 is better,” I said.

“Yes, me too,” said Louis Sergeant.

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War of the worlds

Pōhutukawa stamens collected in gutter by road

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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