Things of 2020

Front Page

IMG_20200404_092312679_BURST001I am ticking all the expected boxes of my thirties: marriage, house, kids, minor existential crisis. I earn more money than ever before, more than I ever imagined I could be earning, and through a time of increasingly precarious employment at that, and I can confirm that shooting past the median wage does not in itself bring happiness. But I am content most of the time, rarely low for longer than a few days.

Our amazing house needs work. A lot of work. So many people come to help us but still it overwhelms. Meanwhile, my brain fills up with writing ideas waiting for the time to be put down. The kids are growing up so fast. My wife and I do our best to make time to look at one another. In lieu of close friendship, I read books. And I try to stop sometimes to take notice of the world around me. Check out all my privilege, for God’s sake.

Like no other year I can remember, 2020 defies easy summary. It was all so new. I got so accustomed to it being 2020, with all the twisty connotations that number came to represent, that I couldn’t believe it would ever be 2021. And yet, here we are, spinning along the same unfamiliar trajectory. Anyhow, here are 5000 words trying to make sense of what I saw, felt, heard, did.

Health

IMG_20200406_103709SARS-CoV-2 spiked its proteins into all of us in some way or another this year. I am one of the lucky billions not to come into contact with it and develop COVID-19, largely because I live in an island nation that took an elimination strategy in fighting the pandemic. Meanwhile, millions died around the world, and as I write this in the days between Christmas and New Year, much of the world’s humans are still not safe to go out.

My most repeated phrase about COVID-19 has been ‘we’re only five minutes into this thing’. With the vaccine rollout commencing in other countries — mostly for rich and important people — I might now admit we are a couple of hours in, albeit with a concerned finger pointed at the new, more infectious mutations and steepling case number rises in certain countries. Say we are all vaccinated or otherwise immune, though, and the spectre of COVID-19 recedes into the past. Do we carry on just like we used to? Arguably the real triumph of New Zealand’s COVID-19 response was the resultant flattening of influenza infections by 99.8%, meaning 500-odd people didn’t die who in any other year would have. So why are sick people still coming to work, sniffling and sneezing and unmasked?

The answer, usually, is they feel like they have to. Their workplace doesn’t have extensive sick leave, or doesn’t allow them to work from home. More broadly, paid work is what our society is oriented around, and the inability to carry it out is a personal failing, not a social failing. So people keep showing up when the obvious choice should be to stay at home. You’d need a lot of resilience and financial backing to fight and change this.

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In the middle of the year, I went to the dentist and had a wisdom tooth removed. For a month afterwards, I kept remembering the dull feeling of the machine grinding through numbed tissue and bone to cut it out – especially the sounds, a sharp, whirring ‘screee’ and the gurgle of my blood and saliva being suctioned away. I’d never undergone a procedure like this and was surprised at how it could simultaneously be less taxing than expected and also indelibly violent. That ‘screee’ is my sound of 2020.

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IMG_20200405_132619It seemed you couldn’t move in this fragmented year without hitting another message about breathing, grounding, centering, practising mindfulness. You’ve got to look after yourself. It’s okay to look after yourself. Everyone was saying it, from the Prime Minister to my favourite podcast hosts. I was saying it myself, writing comms after comms reminding fellow staff this is not normal and we understand how you feel and here are some tips to help you through these unprecedented times. It began to feel hollow after a while. But the alternative, ignoring the struggle, would be worse. In the meantime, I continued to ignore all the advice, doomscrolling first thing and jamming headphones into my ears at every opportunity.

In June or so, I saw a helpful infographic about the places we hold tension in our bodies. My unconscious mind turned it into a how-to guide: in addition to neck, shoulders, and jaw (got those sorted already, thanks) I tensed my abdomen and held air in my lungs, forcing it back out with my eyes darting and unfocused, taking in anything except what was in front of me. I downloaded an app that had a little animation to help you breathe deeply, and halfway through the first minute, I was surprised to feel my eyes welling up, as though this app had unlocked some complex emotion that had been trapped all year.

It seemed to be a year of struggling to breathe for most people I know. And no one I know got COVID. Looking back, it may have been a year of seeing exactly how poorly we were taking care of ourselves, so that we can learn and try new ways. A year of genuine mental health awareness. More likely, that’s just me having my own epiphany, and you all have been there or have it to come.

About two months ago, having spent the entire year and probably the ten before that responding to ‘how are you?’ with ‘I’m all right’ or ‘I’m okay’ or ‘Not bad’, I started saying ‘Good’, regardless of the mess of home and work tasks clouding my head. Because it is true on many levels. I am here, and my body is able, and my mind is bursting with ideas, and I go home each to day to people I love. By saying ‘Good’, I am making a conscious effort to iron out the petty doubts and worries of the day or week. I am reminding myself that my life can be summed up with the most basic positive. ‘Good’ is an affirmation.

Politics

We have been coasting in the era of capital for long enough. Or struggling, more likely. Day to day, week to week, month to month, trying to make it all add up, trying to stay above water. The ruthless few get all the cream and most of the milk, too. The investor class gets their imaginary money in carefully structured bank accounts to work for it while they retreat to the beach in sunglasses. A privileged few scramble their way onto the property ladder and watch their asset grow in imaginary value (hi!), finally safe from the churning wheel of rent and inspections. The Earth slowly burns in an ash cloud of rainforests and boiling seas.

This awful moment brings it all home. We’ve known where the inequity rests, and the various pandemic responses show the value of collective effort and inclusivity in opportunity. We might just have the social and political capital to finally do something about it at the highest level.

So what did we do? What blueprint did our leaders offer, what vision did our democracy of three-year terms lap up with gusto?

Books

IMG_20201020_123057360A book is a beautiful thing. It’s full of promise before reading, and also pleasant to hold, which it will always be. After reading — if it was any good — simply looking at it brings words, characters, and ideas flooding back. In your mind’s eye, it now represents all it contains. And it retains the promise of hours of possible reading, or re-reading. It doesn’t matter if it’s your book or someone else’s, or if it was borrowed from a library. The book has all the same potential.

I spent quite a few spare moments in early 2020 flitting from one charity shop to another buying piles of secondhand books, especially those on my 2020 reading list. Five-years-ago me would’ve been confused: why gather so many of these objects when you could get almost all of them from the library or the internet? Even current me is a bit confused, for the same reason. But I live in a big house now, with a set of bookshelves just for me, and I want to fill them. I want to look at the spines and sense that potential. I do however resolve in 2021 to focus my buying in books I know and love, lest I end another year with another pile of books I’m never going to read. I have enough of those in my annual reading lists (here’s 2021, if you’re interested).

Here, in reading order, are some books I particularly admired in 2020.

HUNGER by Knut Hamsun (1890)
DEAD PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN by Shayne Carter (2019)
NVK by Temple Drake (pseudonym for Rupert Thomson) (2020)
FIERCE BAD RABBITS by Clare Pollard (2019)
HOWARDS END by E. M. Forster (1910)
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C. S. Lewis (1950)
ON WRITING by Stephen King (2000)
NOTHING TO SEE by Pip Adam (2020)
THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by N. K. Jemisin (2010)
RUFUS MARIGOLD by Ross Murray (2019)
HELLO MUM by Bernadine Evaristo (2010)
USE OF WEAPONS by Iain M. Banks (1990)
MOSHI MOSHI by Banana Yoshimoto (2010)
BEN, IN THE WORLD by Doris Lessing (2000)
UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber (2000)
PRODIGAL SUMMER by Barbara Kingsolver (2000)
SURFACE DETAIL by Iain M. Banks (2010)
THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)
OWLY: THE WAY HOME by Andy Runton (2004)
FIRST CONTACT by Soni Somarajan (2020)
CHINAMAN by Shehan Karunatilaka (2010) (re-read)
AKISSI: TALES OF MISCHIEF by Marguerite Abouet & Mathieu Sapin (2014)

My favourite of these was THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE. I’m still so taken with it, and I’ve noticed a cult of fellow readers spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook. Those that love it REALLY love it. So here’s my review, initially posted on Goodreads and shared in my monthly email newsletter. I hope one or two of you track it down and read it.

THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE
by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2020
 Let’s see if I can do this. The effects of escalating carbon emissions will lead to human catastrophes of extraordinary scale – heat waves, inundations – and when the representatives of affected countries turn up angry to international symposiums and throw their numbers of dead on the table, the world will take notice – but it won’t take action until there is mass financial disobedience, the simple refusal to pay trillions of imaginary dollars owed, at which time the entire financial system will collapse and be reborn under the auspices of central banks trading in currency backed by carbon sequestration. They will only be following the money, true, and money will still rule everything, but the money will now have a sound moral and ethical underpinning. In the meantime, those who hang on to the old ways and power structures — the shipping and airline industries, for example — will be hit by violent acts of highly organised eco-terrorism on a mass scale, some carried out by dark wings of international organisations, whose commitment to a lasting greater good will accept a few million dead if it gets the point across; this in addition to targeted assassinations of the most obscene polluters and pursuers of inequality. Socialism will finally overthrow capitalism in this way, ushering in public ownership of all the basics — home, food, water, job, energy — and a comfortable minimum standard of living mandated through democracy across much of the world. All this but all that carbon has still been burnt, the glaciers are still melting, so some very expensive geological interventions will be necessary: drones to recover the Arctic with sea ice, pumps to draw water up from underneath glaciers and spray it on top so it freezes again, dye sprayed in oceans and over land to reflect more solar rays back into orbit so the sea doesn’t boil so soon. Then there’s the ever-multiplying eco interest groups reforesting and creating larger habitat corridors and generally giving more of the planet back to non-anthropocentric ecosystems, leading to government-backed schemes to buy whole towns out and move their populations to the suburbs and let fauna wander their deserted streets unbothered. A more equitable society is the result, and a more equitable planet, in which humans might endure for longer than they otherwise would have.

So. I found this book utterly compelling, to the point that I need to find some sceptical reviews (edit: found one here) to pick holes in Robinson’s science, which is explained in frequent short chapters and seems sound. These crash courses are so frequent as to comprise about half the book; reading it is like going on a curated Wikipedia tour on climate change economics. There is plot dropped in, often revolving around the titular Ministry and its head but also darting in and out of dozens of other communities across the planet — refugee camps especially — and it is propulsive enough. But it’s the way Robinson constructs his utopia in asides that drew me in so thoroughly. I’ve never read anything like it.

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Sayip Shock book jacket front and back coverI also published a book in 2020. It’s called ‘Sayip Shock: Three Years in Kerala’. You can buy the ebook for $0.00 or more at Smashwords, or get the Kindle version or physical book on Amazon. Credit to Athul Chathukutty for the amazing cover design and to Tara Dench for the back cover blurb.

Music

As in 2019, I fixated on one album early on and hardly listened to anything else. And as in 2019, it was an album from 2019: ‘Perfumed Earth’ by Purple Pilgrims. They were the third-billed act of three at a big Arts Festival concert I attended the weekend before lockdown, where Weyes Blood (fav artist of the year before) had second billing (you what!) and Aldous Harding was the main act (I left early).

I’d never heard of Purple Pilgrims before. The levels were wrong, the bass drowned them out, they veered occasionally into ethereal floaty pop cliché (billowing tunics and yogic movements), but I’d heard enough to try them in the headphones — and then in the car, and while I was cooking, and while I was washing the dishes. It’s one of those albums with no dud track; I’m Not Saying doesn’t fit with the others so well, but it’s still a really good pop song. Big synths, beautiful and slightly off-kilter guitar and vocal harmonies, killer lyrics that hint at true love and darkness. Ancestors Watching was my most-played track of 2020 (ignoring all the hits from the musicals mentioned in the Movies section below).

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Aaron Tokona died in June. I spent two weeks listening to Let It Go and Calling On on repeat. Like thousands of other Kiwis, I imagine, screaming “like I’m suffocating” at the climax as they finished off the dishes.

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It was a great year for new music, according to Vulture and Wisconsin Public Radio. I surfaced from under my Purple Pilgrims-shaped rock in about November and blasted through a number of acclaimed releases. Dua Lipa, Perfume Genius, Phoebe Bridgers, BC Camplight, Ariana Grande, Moses Sumney, Rina Sawayama, Fiona Apple, Four Tet, Ital Tek, Laura Marling, Yves Tumor, Beatrice Dillon. Each album tried a couple of times, then left alone. I liked most of these, could’ve loved some of these, but not now.

A few new albums somehow got through to me. EOB’s Earth was catchier and deeper than I initially realised. TENGGER’s Nomad gave me the sense of a pleasant bush walk, with harmonious synths over trickling streams. HAIM’s Women In Music Pt. III brought my favourite new chart pop in years, although it is very much a summer sound, despite the often cynical and self-flagellating lyrics, so it took me until December to actually get into it.

Then there was The Soft Pink Truth’s ‘Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?’, named for a Bible verse in which Paul the Apostle is fed up with everyone carrying on as they always have in comfort that their Lord will forgive them. Drew Daniel wanted “to make something that felt socially extended and affirming”, and there are several ecstatic moments that make me feel warm inside. But I hear a rough, hard edge through it all; the shimmering bells of ‘Go’, the horn blasts of ‘Sinning’, the major chord call and minor chord response of ‘That’. Not that any of this matters in isolation. It’s the cumulative effect of the album that gives these moments their power, especially in the context of #2020, where some other power is behind the wheel and you’re not sure where you’re headed. Thankfully, ‘Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?’ has a happy ending. I go straight back to the start and go through it all again.

Finally, Ashish Seth’s Firstborn saw the light. It was finished in 2015 and shelved due to the artist’s lack of confidence in the material, then released in 2020 for free, with little fanfare. It gave me many hours of listening pleasure and is layered enough that I’m still noticing new things months later. It’s particularly good to write to. I’ll post my interview with Ashish soon.

A playlist of songs by the artists discussed:

I’m trying something different with music in 2021, following the release calendar more closely and updating a playlist with my favourites each week. Here’s that playlist. Follow along with me?

Movies

IMG_20200408_103859902It’s all online now. I went to the cinema once in 2020 (PARASITE). Our household subscribes to five different film and TV streaming services:

  • Netflix
  • DisneyPlus
  • SKY Go
  • Kanopy
  • Beamafilm

I have never before had immediate access to so many films I want to watch. I try to make sense of them by dutifully adding preferred titles to my watch list, rather than letting the algorithm decide for me, and I pile up 50-odd titles on each service. Of them, I’ve only comprehensively combed SKY Go for content that interests me; each of the others could have dozens or hundreds more films I might enjoy.

Maybe I should give in and follow the algorithm. I’ve spent far more time researching and adding to my watch lists than I have watching the titles on them. I don’t have a lot of time to myself, true, but when I go, and I open up one of the lists, I’m immediately paralysed by indecision. Invariably, I close the tab and go back to my book.

The nadir of this behaviour was SHOPLIFTERS. Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of my favourite directors, one whose films I make a point of seeing. SHOPLIFTERS appeared on the SKY Go one day in 2020 and I thought, yes! Finally!! I get to see this modern classic, Palme d’Or winner, the film that finally brought Kore-eda to wider recognition! I’ll put it on the watch list.

It disappeared off the platform three weeks later. I had not watched it.

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Not that I didn’t watch a lot of movies in 2020. I just watched the same ones, over and over. In March, my wife instituted Movie Night on Tuesdays, which quickly expanded to Saturdays as well during lockdown. The four of us took turns choosing what to watch, and because my children were two years old, we watched the following films several times:

  • HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL
  • THE CAT RETURNS
  • COOL RUNNINGS
  • HAMILTON
  • FROZEN
  • MOANA
  • THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE-THE-POOH
  • Any of the Julia Donaldson shorts

And I am not complaining. I am in fact incredibly proud of my children for taking to THE CAT RETURNS and COOL RUNNINGS, which are slower-paced than most modern fare (in fact, they seem to respond better to more sedate viewing than flashy, heavily edited films). I’m not even complaining about HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, whose catchy and knowing songs have become central to our household’s shared set of references (see above). Varsity-age me would’ve been appalled I’d gotten into HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. To be honest, so would last-year me. But here we are. Never been a better time to let the sunshine in.

And then there’s HAMILTON, which we all took to so quickly. The kids know the words to most of the first act. It’s still our default car music. HAMILTON is an imperfect masterwork, harmed by its absences but gloriously elevated by pretty much everything that’s there. It works on a number of levels for every second of two and a half hours, with great tunes delivered by incredible vocal performers. I didn’t see how a musical about the founding fathers could be anything but cringeworthy — then I watched it, these people of colour claiming the problematic past for themselves, and I got it.

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These are the new-to-NZ films and TV series I saw:

PARASITE (good, but enormously overrated)
UNCUT GEMS (Safdies with another bleak, high-tension gift)
DEVS (formally superb, some interesting ideas wasted on a dumb plot)
THE GOOD PLACE: Season 4 (blasted through the entire show in a couple of months, a great initial gimmick built on and sustained to make the defining sitcom of the era)
ONWARD (lesser Pixar but still very enjoyable, and another difficult landing superbly stuck)
HAMILTON (still an obsession several months later)
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (stunning, with two moments of spine-tingling movie magic)

There’s one other film I saw for the first time in 2020 I’d like to mention specifically, and that’s FIRST REFORMED. It’s as bold and brilliant as all the reviews at the time suggested, and dovetails nicely with my favourite book of the year above. Whether or not he gives up in the end, the economy with which director Schrader and star Hawke drag so many of our current social and economic demons to the surface is — as Rev Toller says at the moment of his awakening — exhilarating. In case you’re not getting it, we absolutely must do something about the many ways in which we are destroying our planet. FIRST REFORMED asks: what would you do? How far would you go? And could it ever be enough?

Sport

My favourite sporting moment of the year was when Jürgen Klopp, manager of my beloved Liverpool, who won the league at a canter for the first time in decades, conversed with some fans as he entered the stadium.

Traditionally, sports fans have mythical power, especially in football. They’re the reason for it all, the ever-loyal brotherhood (because they are mostly men). Their deification has graduated from sporting custom to the strategic plan — because to alienate them would surely be economic suicide (although the board at Manchester United have made a fine fist of running a football club with only the shareholders in mind). It’s normal, therefore, for coaches and players to show willingness to engage with fans as they enter the stadium; to give them a quick high five as they run down the tunnel, for example.

In mid-March, a week or two before the Premier League was suspended indefinitely, and a couple of weeks before New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown commenced, Klopp was having none of it. As he strode out with his players, he looked up at the faces of the fans stretching their arms out, hoping for brief physical contact with their heroes — including the wunderbar German manager who had delivered the team’s greatest success since the 80s. He did not indulge them. Instead, he bellowed, “Put your hands away, you fucking idiots!”

And that’s why Liverpool won the league. Klopp wasn’t there to muck around. Every detail would be analysed, every drop of effort expended to the most efficient purpose. And when tradition stood in the way, Klopp shoved it aside. None of his players contracted COVID-19 until after the season was over.

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During lockdown, I completed 100 keepy-uppies for the first time in my life. I’d break off from the relentless stream of work a few times a day and do two or three attempts, usually getting to about 40, before bounding back inside to the juggling of Word documents. Eventually I got to 80 keepy-uppies, then 90 keepy-uppies, then 100 keepy-uppies. No one was around to see me do it.

I reflected on the wonder of practice; how you can improve a skill simply by repeating it. And I reflected on talent, and ambition; also during lockdown, a friend who plays proper football at club level achieved the ‘around-the-world’ trick, clockwise and anticlockwise. I had as much interest in following suit as I did in perfecting ball tricks when I was in high school, which is zero. My natural talents are to pick the right pass and shoot accurately from distance, not to showboat, and I am content to ply my trade in lunchtime indoor five-a-side every few weeks.

That’s a far cry from the lofty sporting ambitions of my childhood, when I imagined myself a dual international in rugby and cricket. But I’m satisfied I’ve found my level.

Travel

IMG_20200406_084120Ha ha ha. Well. We managed our usual summer holiday in February, to Hawke’s Bay, during which I got sick and we argued a lot. There were some great moments too: descending the grand staircase in an old convent/school we stayed at for a night in Featherston, days on the beach in Waimārama, and particularly our visit to Splash Planet, which begat a long and pretentious blog post.

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.

There were also two joyous weekends at holiday houses in Foxton Beach. And an expensive night in Auckland during which I ate one of the best (certainly the most expensive) meals of my life. We in New Zealand were lucky to be able to do all this without fear. I wonder when we’ll be able to rock up to Tokyo or Paris again.

People

IMG_20200726_161331352Tara is everything to me. She’s my love, my rock, my inspiration; a source of frustration; my comfort at the wordless end of an exhausting day; my partner in the biggest work of our lives; my favourite cook; my cheerleader; the one who will stare daggers at me or look away in disgust, the one who will look at me with pure openness the way anyone would long to be looked at. I will ignore her sometimes in favour of my phone; other times I follow her around the house like a silly little dog. Long-term intimacy has brought almost everything out of us and I would say we love each other more than ever, even with all the worst parts of ourselves left in. We may never sand those rough edges off. Life is probably more interesting with them.

Whenever anyone asks me how the kids are, I try to talk about the things they are doing, rather than ascribe personality traits that may change next week. But they are getting to the point where the things they do are their personalities, in a way. June builds towers out of anything, but especially blocks, and is quite happy to spend two hours in her room each afternoon stacking Duplo on her desk until she can’t reach any higher. Nora wants to be around people as much of the time as possible, and if she can’t be around people, she’ll hold birthday parties for her toys. Both are generally quite shy but increasingly surprise us by introducing themselves to a shopkeeper with confidence. Both want a lolly, right now. They started kindergarten in 2020 and can now use a potty and a toilet; guess which was the bigger milestone in our view. I ignore them sometimes in favour of my phone, too — sometimes you have to if you want them to get to sleep, or to discover the world in their own way — but as much as possible, I try to be with who they are today.

If and when Tara’s parents move in with us, and if we have another child, the times of our little unit of four will come to an end. I’d miss it, of course, but changes like these would bring at least as many gains. Ask me again a year after it happens.

We had the usual visits from far-flung family generous enough to make it to us because we can’t afford to make it to them right now. My dad and stepmother from Auckland, my brother/sister-in-law/niblings from Dunedin. We spent time occasionally with family who live locally, and I always came away thinking ‘we should do that more often’; same goes for the few friends we saw sporadically. But it was a year of focusing on the family unit, especially during those two months or so between March and May. In the worst times, we felt horribly isolated. In the best times, our days seemed crammed full of joy and wonder. I can’t do any of it justice.

During lockdown, I would stop work through the middle hours of the day — approx 1130-1400 — to play with the kids, have family lunch, and put one of my children down for an early afternoon nap. She’d stretch out in my lap, on her back looking up at me, and smile as I rocked her from side to side with my legs, humming songs from MOANA and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and FROZEN. The smile would fade, the long blinks would eventually begin, then she would fall asleep. I can easily imagine looking back at the end of my life and thinking, that was as good as it got.

IMG_20200405_115010

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.

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.

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.

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.

superficial spreading melanoma stage 1a breslow skin cancer

Mole’s worth

Skin mole with animal mole nose and feetMy kids think my moles are animals. If they catch a glimpse of my bare stomach, they’ll dash over and say, “Hello mole! How are you? How are you today, mole?” And they’ll reach forward with thumb, forefinger, and middle finger joined, and say, “Here’s some food for you.” This is exactly how they talk to dogs, cats, ducks, etc.

I assume this comes from the many children’s books we’ve read to them that feature moles. Kinda specific, you might think, but you’d be amazed to learn how many picture books revolve around obscure and non-existent beasts. I guess it’s a gateway to empathy, getting little kids to care about and identify with animals so they might do the same with other humans.

Little do they know one of my moles became a cancer. Where’s the empathy there, mole? No more food for you mole!

It gets weirder. Turns out there are animals everywhere. The other day, we were driving past a fire station and one of the kids got super excited. “Hello, fire station!” And then her voice got really high-pitched and playful. “What you doing? What you doing there? Here’s some food for you, fire station.”

Children in hoodies playing on playground platform above slide

Things of 2019

Front Page

Warped view of old buildings and trees through thick glass window

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

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

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

Film

Children standing on table in sunny room watching looking to right
Watching MOANA

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

Books

Twin girls on woman's lap reading book with teenagers on sofa
Stages. Reading with Auntie Rach

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Books I disliked:

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

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

Politics

Children in hoodies playing on playground platform above slide
Waiting for a turn: playground diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

Sport

Selfie with bearded man and young boy
Hanging out with nephew Lyo during CWC ’19

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

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

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

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

*

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

Travel

Young children laughing in back of car
On the road again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music / Podcasts

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

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

Other new music I enjoyed in 2019:

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Tech

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

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

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

People

Mother and young daughters smile at camera with father looking into frame from above
The family unit in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.