“I decided that there was a place for me and my music”: Ashish Seth on ‘Firstborn’

Album cover of Firstborn by Ashish Seth. Stylised art of people looking up at tall trees

I see Ashish Seth as a kindred artistic spirit. We both wrote for The NRI, an online magazine active in the early 2010s, and I spent a lot of my writing time listening to his Problem Child EP, which he released under the Mustardapple moniker.

As is now common for people linked across countries — Ashish in Canada, me in India (and then New Zealand) — we became Facebook friends, where he often posted heavily edited photographs with enigmatic captions that struck a chord with my love for art that’s off-kilter and opaque but still recognisably of this world. These photographs were often linked to a blog post, often a poem, sometimes a new piece of music. Transient vignettes of a life filtered through multiple artistic disciplines.

Like most other artists, Ashish does none of this professionally. How do you find an audience for your self-produced music in the Spotify era? (Or for your self-published travel memoir?) Through hustle and grind, mainly, sinking hours into promotion and research for a few more eyes or ears on your stuff. Those hours are hard to find when you work full time. It’s hard enough to find time just to make the art. So there are legions of us out there, toiling away at projects that will likely never generate widespread appeal, driven to write and chop and edit despite this fact. We know it’s for us more than it’s for anyone else. A necessary release of pressure. A therapy.

That said, I suspect I’m not the only person in Ashish’s orbit to connect with his music. I loved the Problem Child EP for its cinematic feel, especially ‘The Faceless Hero’, which to me evoked one person’s minor life-and-death struggle; a kid standing up to bullies in the projects, maybe. The tracks were raw and rough-edged, probably ripe for re-editing to smooth out the sharper sounds — but I liked its unpolished feel.

Ashish’s recent full-length album, Firstborn, released under his own name in the wilds of 2020, has a richer and more refined sound. This is the work of a musician whose production ability has evolved to match the sounds he wants to make. It is as sample-heavy as his earlier tunes but the samples now serve the song without drawing much attention to themselves. Again, I find myself listening to the whole thing on loop as I work — albeit at my day job, rather than at home working on my own projects. There’s a comfort to the way it flows from one track into the next, and a comfort in the cut-and-spliced melodies, which stand out enough to keep you engaged but never to the cost of the overall piece.

Firstborn was produced between approximately 2013 and 2015, then shelved for five long years. It’s a concept epic of syncopation and reverb, and the fantasist in me wants to say five years of fermentation gave rise to those rich echoes and overlaps, even though the reality is they were always there by Ashish’s design. He questioned that design, though, weighting his first full-length album with expectations he didn’t think he could meet. So he put it into the archives and had to coax it back out five years later. For all his doubts, it sounds to me like the work of a clear artistic voice.

There are other voices, though. A long list of collaborators could fill the liner notes. I’m not talking about Hemant Badya, whose guest vocals anchor the meditative ‘Aum’ at the centre of the album, but about the many other works sampled, all of which hint at a clearly universal struggle: I could be better, do better, but how? Among them: Death of a Salesman, Cutty from The Wire, ‘Passing Through’ by Rare Bird, F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line about American lives not having second acts. Ashish is tallying up evidence across years and art forms to prove that anyone who tells you’ve they’ve got it all figured out is full of shit. He himself seems to be ‘looking for an answer’, as the refrain of ‘Somehow’ goes, and finding only the persistence of the question.

That ultimately seems to be a comfort, to my ears anyway. ‘Give Up’, the penultimate track, starts out gloomy and ends with hope; to me, it’s the hope of acceptance, not resolution. Of prizing the act of creation and claiming its inherent worth. But I’ll let Ashish tell you what he thinks. Then, listen and decide for yourself. It’s 100% free (or pay what you want) and freely available, so you might as well.

*

Your new album is called ‘Firstborn’. Why?

I called the album Firstborn because it is my first completed work. That’s the practical, uninspiring reason. It just seems like the simplest title. The artsy, literary, reason for the name is because the album, in a way, tells the story of a first-born child. I love concept albums so I tried to do that here. I am the first child in my family, with a younger brother. The expectations, experiences, and general anxieties of being the firstborn, or being the first one, or of being born and having arrived, all echo in the album’s story. So, in a way, the title suited the theme and underlying narrative of the album.

I also hope to release more music in the future so the title was is an apt signal for the start of something new.

What were you hearing (or not hearing) in Firstborn when you shelved it in 2015?

I don’t know what a lack of confidence sounds like but that’s what I was hearing when I shelved it. I don’t have a background in music or playing in a band. I don’t have any musical training. I play guitar but just for fun.

Unfortunately, it took a long time for me to get over the mental barrier of what’s considered legitimate music. The traditional notion of playing in a band, basic song structure, and the old teachers in my head prevented me from seeing it as a piece of music. Then there were the copyright issues.

Eventually, perhaps after seeing how liberal music has become, I decided that there was a place for me and my music.

What changed in order to convince you it was worth putting out into the world?

I wanted to move on. Start something new. But I knew I couldn’t until this project was complete. It’s been strange, surreal times. The pandemic. Something about that compelled me to look at it again. As I said previously, I think with platforms like Spotify, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud, artists like myself feel a lot more confident that there is a place for the type of music we make.

Sunrise through curved window with trees in distance
The World in a Globe by Ashish Seth: “Horizon lines confined to the slope of the hemispheres. Every good feeling is choked with a little fear.”

What software/hardware did you use to make Firstborn? It’s quite sample-heavy, right?

I mostly used Ableton Live and some other VSTs and patches to create the album. I’m really into sample-based music, repurposing, recontextualizing, cutting and pasting. Unlike hip hop producers who dig crates for vinyl to sample, I dug the internet. I pulled sounds from my library of music, all the music I collected before streaming became the new way we listen to music. There are some guitar licks and bad keyboarding on it as well. I tend to throw everything at the wall.

Back in 2009, I began producing music with DAWs like Sony Acid Pro and Soundforge. I’ve always been very music-minded and these new tools, instruments in their own right, made the medium accessible for me. I began obsessively trying to create unique sounds and imitate artists like J Dilla, Burial, and DJ Shadow. I’ve always loved hip hop and sampling as a form so I just buried myself in trying to mimic those guys and do it myself. I knew a bunch of producers who were making beats for MCs and initially thought about doing that but it never appealed to me. I preferred finished songs that could stand on their own. I wanted to create a record with the dense samples of Endtroducing…… and the distant ethereal quality of Untrue by Burial. You can probably hear some of their influences in it.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

My favorite track is “Dreamcatcher.” It was the first track of the album and the one in which I really felt I’d gotten better as a songwriter.

I really love the strong beat of ‘Give Up’, the catchy string sample, the playful percussive stutters in the final stretch. It seems hopeful and decisive in a way that most of the other tracks don’t. So why is it called ‘Give Up’?

As I mentioned earlier, I envisioned the whole album as a story. This song is the climax. “My Own Church” is the denouement. “Somehow” is the end of the dark second act. I think a part of me wanted to be subversive and ironic. “Give Up” starts very doomy, as if the narrator of the song or character has come to the end of their rope and has lost all hope, until he sees a glimmer of inspiration which he carries to its logical conclusion. The ending is meant to be a hiccup in the road towards the end of the goal you’re trying to reach, and it ends on an ambiguous note. It is up to the listener to decide.

Impressionistic bubbles in light green and dark blue haze
Cover for ‘Space Opera’ by Ashish Seth

You write, take photos, and make music. There’s probably other art in you that I don’t know about. Which medium did you love first, and which do you love most?

The medium I loved first, and still do, is writing. That’s my first love. I’m an aspiring novelist. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing two years ago and have been working – chipping away is the better way to put it – on my first novel. Being able to express myself creatively is a critical aspect of my life because it fuels me. And I think a creative life, beyond whatever an artistic life is, requires the constant pursuit of creating.

I’m currently reading Moby-Dick. I try to read the classics. Certain truths ring true through the test of time. I found a quote in this book that kind of represents a mantra I want to follow. It’s a quote I read recently so it’s not something I’ve always had – I’m not trying to be pretentious – but it resonated with me and reminded me what it’s all about. It goes: “[t]hough I am but ill qualified for a pioneer, in the application of these two semi-sciences to the whale, I will do my endeavor. I try all things; I achieve what I can.” I try all things, regardless of my aptitude or skill because I have to in order to get where I want to go. The book Moby-Dick is such a tome of knowledge on a whole bunch of things, most especially whales. It can be a slog but when you step back to consider the wonder with which he writes about whales, not the authority, it kind of boils down the truth that perhaps life is a struggle to comprehend and the only thing you can do is try if you want to participate in meaning making. By trying, who knows what can be achieved.

You’re also a teacher, which I imagine demands a lot of you. How do you make time — and room in your brain — to make music (or art more generally)?

This is the ongoing struggle – balancing these two parts of me has never been easy. Carving out spaces of time is really difficult, especially of late. Balancing the two areas of my life is something I’m constantly figuring out and getting better at. But every so often growth spurts of creativity will make it happen. You can only plan. I try to carve out time for my craft every day. I start small, five minutes a day, to ten, to fifteen, and eventually momentum builds. Finding a discipline and relentless passion to keep going in the face of it all is the real artistic battle.

Ice-covered trees in dark orange glow
‘Rickety Thicket’ by Ashish Seth: “A rickety thicket of trees looking humid against the red sky. Except it can’t be humid because they’re coated with a translucent layer of ice. Ice storm 2014 in Brampton.”

On your website, you mention the period during which you made Firstborn as a difficult time. How did that colour the music?

I was going through an existential crisis. I don’t wish to say much more on the particulars. I wrote the bulk of the tracks at the end of 2013 in a frenzy of productivity and just poured all the despair into it. Whatever was going on, all of that colored the music, in the sounds I sampled, the structure, the mood. I think if anything was captured, it was that. And out of all that, an album came out.

Also on your website, you once wrote that “if you sit with an idea for too long [it] loses creative vigor and nothing seems natural”. But Firstborn has undergone a rebirth of sorts after five years locked away. Do you have other finished or half-finished projects sitting in a drawer that could be worth another look?

I think that’s what happened with this album. Everything takes so long to finish that you wonder whether it’s even worth doing and then at the same time you’re wondering whether the creative ideas you’re trying to reach are just you getting in the way of yourself. I take so long to get things done. I can say that also about the novel I’ve been working on.

But then when you take a step back or put a significant amount of time between the work and yourself, and grow in the interim, and then come back to it, you see it with different eyes, hear it with different ears, and you realize that perhaps it was fully finished when you left it. I think all creative people who work on something for a long time are constantly wrestling with the work, trying to figure it out, negotiating with it, churning it, molding it, and by turns, it molds them, forces them to consider new avenues, grows with the happy accidents that occur in the process and that we leap to put our name on when we see worth to them. And in the end, the totality of it all, the successes, the misfires, the signature it ends up taking on, what it sounds like, feels like; all of that is in some ways an illustration of the struggle of who you were putting it together, and once you understand that, trying to get it perfect makes no sense. It is what it always was. Once I came to terms with that, I had to accept it and move on, lest it sink me and prevent me from growing past it.

I’m glad I went back to it with fresh eyes and ears. Seeing the joy it brought to my loved ones was even sweeter.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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).

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

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

Burning much more than ever before

door to hell burning cave with people standing on edge at night
‘Door to Hell’ cave in Turkmenistan. Image by Ybrayym Esenov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope everyone gets home safe.

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.

Things of 2017

Front Page

A lot changed for me in 2017. I got married. I got my driver’s licence. I moved out of Wellington. I became a father. I had a brush with mortality. Each of these big changes begat dozens more smaller changes, and from the outside, it might seem my life has been upended and rewritten.

My inner life, however, is largely the same. I still like to read, write, and watch movies, albeit with less tolerance for violence and misery. I still dwell on things a bit more than I’d like. Bottle feeds at five a.m. are part of my life now, and the logistics of keeping the roof over our family – going to work, power bills, rubbish collections etc. – fall largely to me, but the piles of books on the floor and incomplete manuscripts on the computer (and dearth of new blog posts) show I am still fundamentally quite lazy.

Still, nothing ever stays exactly the same in your mind. I’m not sure if it was having kids, or just getting older, but I am quicker to anger than ever before. I have become far less tolerant and forgiving of unpleasant behaviour, and I’ve started to speak up more against it. I even began to relish the opportunity to tap into my ire, mostly on other motorists. Actually, this new tendency to anger may be solely attributable to my spending a lot of time – several days if you add it all up – behind the wheel of a car. But, with politics and #metoo and the intersection between them, there was plenty to get angry about in 2017.

It never lasts, though. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away. The constant shrinking and expanding of life abides.

Health

superficial spreading melanoma stage 1a breslow skin cancerAt the back end of 2016, two months before the wedding, I told Tara a mole on my left ankle had become itchy. Increasingly catastrophic discussion of maladies and death followed, at the end of which she set out an ultimatum: there would be no marriage unless I got a mole map before the wedding date. I’d meant to get one for years, but here at last was an effective motivator.

The session began with a quick brief on what the melanographer was looking for: asymmetry, jagged margins, six millimetres or more in diameter, different colours. “Down to your underwear and we’ll get started,” she said. It wasn’t that uncomfortable; I’m a lot less worried about other people seeing my body than I was at 16, when surgeons at Greenlane carved five ugly lumps out of my body and left unsightly scars behind, or at 19, when a consultant and six student doctors poked and prodded at me on a bed in Christchurch Hospital. On both of those occasions, the surgery and the skin check, it was all just a precaution. I assumed this time would be the same.

‘Possible melanoma’, said the words on the report, referring to a lesion on my inner left forearm. Tara used to call it my yin-yang mole because it had a dark part curled around a light part. We were both rather fond of it. Left unchecked, it could have killed me. Out it came: first in a tight excision, then with a 5mm margin, just to make sure it hadn’t spread deeper or wider. (The mole on my ankle — the one that sparked all this — was fine, unremarkable.)

I have a ten-centimetre scar where the yin-yang mole was, much bigger and more obtrusive than the original lesion. The skin around it is numb or hypersensitive depending on how it’s touched. I feel like a fraud even using the ‘c’ word, given how minimally it had invaded my body and how easily it was treated, but I did have cancer. It sat right there on my arm on hot summer days. Please, keep an eye on your skin, and get it checked if you are in any doubt.

**

All that was nothing compared to my wife’s pregnancy. She carried two babies (and two placentas and a whole lot of amniotic fluid and double her usual blood volume, a good 15-20 kilograms) for 38 weeks, suffered nausea throughout (don’t believe anyone who says it always stops at 14 weeks), lost all her fitness, and ultimately endured major surgery to bring them into the world. She assimilated knowledge of the many possible disasters that might befall her and the children along the way, and she managed these risks with regular adjustments to her behaviour and routine, even if it meant giving up something she loved.

It’s the most impressive physical feat I’ve ever observed up close. And then came the trials of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, which she is bearing mostly with aplomb. I am in awe of her and her incredible body — forever changed, still recovering, but incredible above all.

Music

This year, I made an effort to hear a good amount of new music. I have this subscription to Spotify, which gives me access to more music than I could ever possibly listen to, and which includes virtually all new releases, even obscure ones. Keeping up with the latest has never been easier.

So, here’s a playlist of some of the best music I came across in 2017. A real mixture. You should be able to find at least one thing on here that you’ll like.

Particular favourites included:

Bedouine – ethereal, Americana-tinged folk by a Syrian-born Armenian; an effortless listen
Blanck Mass – an old favourite, new album World Eater was billed as harsh and abrasive (and this being Blanck Mass, it often is), but it is less of a punch to the face than his previous record and contains many thrilling, spine-tingling moments of beauty
Charly Bliss – Pixies-esque, harsh-edged, incredibly addictive punk-pop that is rougher than the bubblegum bounce its vocals might initially suggest
Grizzly Bear – a five-year wait since the last album, and was it worth it? Well, they’re as tight as ever, but such perfection can feel cold at first; it took me a while to warm to this and once I did, it wouldn’t get out of my head
H. Hawkline – perhaps my album of the year, certainly my favourite discovery of 2017, catchy guitar pop in a crystal-clear Welsh accent, all sounds trimmed clean
Kendrick Lamar – finally listened to this guy and he is outstanding, a percussive and lyrically complex rap artist, in his element as a strong black voice in a year of necessary protest
Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley, a concept piece about coal mining in Wales, is their best record yet
Slowdive – shoegaze is back with a dreamy new masterpiece from some old hands, I tended to restart this immediately after it finished

But if I had to pick one song, it would be ‘Big Enough’ by Kirin J. Callinan, featuring Alex Cameron, Molly Lewis, and Jimmy Barnes. Silly, earnest, and ridiculously catchy, with Barnesy delivering a best-ever scream, it’s like they made it just for me.

Finally, I got to see one of my favourite bands live this year, and that was Pixies. My expectations were not high; it’s a long time since their peak, Kim Deal isn’t part of the band any more, and their new songs are fine but have none of the thrill or menace of their old songs. But then they wandered out onto the stage and fired up with Gouge Away, one of my favourites, and blazed through a 30-song set with barely a five-second pause between each song. I was carried away.

Politics

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, stripesA lot happened in politics this year. We got a new government in New Zealand. Donald Trump became president of the United States. Both of these events were dramatic and surprising reversals of the status quo – perhaps not a complete upending of it, but the landscape is undoubtedly changed. And it was all many of us could talk about.

Me, I was personally struck by a couple of political things in 2017. First, during the interregnum, Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter went on Morning Report and explained she was not a party delegate so would not have a vote at the Greens’ conference to determine their approach to coalition negotiations. Genter is a prominent public face of the party; she’s been in Parliament since 2011, is third on the Greens list, speaks for the party on transport and women’s issues (among other portfolios), and has been touted as a potential future co-leader. She comes from a strong professional background in transportation planning. And yet, when the Greens meet behind closed doors, 180-odd delegates unknown to the public have a vote but she does not. This disenfranchisement of MPs within the party might be commonplace across the political spectrum, but that would only make a strange thing even stranger.

Second, I know a few people who refused to vote in this election because they did not feel any of the parties represented their interests. I’ve often defended those who don’t vote because I think it’s undemocratic to compel people to turn out at the polling booth, and I still believe this, but it has started to frustrate me. If you don’t vote because you want bigger change than any of the options on offer, and you aren’t standing for election yourself, how are you going to explain that to those in poverty? To their children? To mine? For all the talk you often hear about NZ politics being mild and samey compared to polarised places like the USA, there are tangible policy differences between parties (and independent candidates) on critical elements of our society: health and education, for example. Do these differences not matter to you? Is the long-term crusade worth some short-term pain?

Sport

I was largely inactive this year, apart from the odd game of beach cricket and a few runs. My appreciation of sport has turned back to the screen: football highlights every Sunday morning, and if there’s cricket happening, it’s on by default, especially if it’s night and Tara thinks she might struggle to get to sleep. “Is there any cricket on?” And if there isn’t, she sometimes asks me to tell her cricket stories, like a spoken word lullaby. “Tell me about Bradman.”

Fortunately, she doesn’t only find cricket soporific. Just the other day, she was disappointed there was no Super Smash on for us to watch together while we fed the kids. So, after four years together, my enthusiasm for cricket appears to have taken root in her.

The next thing is to grow my daughters into White Ferns. To live vicariously through the achievements of my children. To go full Sports Dad. I’m sure that’ll go down well.

Film

I didn’t see many new films in 2017, but I did watch on in thrilled, appalled shock as a succession of sacred relics was picked off for their transgressions. First, Harvey Weinstein’s victims; then Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Singer, and more. It was a familiar story, usually ignored, but this time it stuck. It had everyone — every man, at least — trawling their memory for instances of assault or harassment. I hope it means things are never the same again. (See also: my post on whether you can separate the art from the artist.)

Okay, but what new films did I see? Just these ones, with order of preference in brackets. (Connect with me on Letterboxd to follow my film-watching in real time.)

SILENCE (1)
BEYOND THE KNOWN WORLD (7)
GET OUT (2)
LOGAN (8)
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (5)
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (9)
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (6)
WONDER WOMAN (4)
MOTHER! (3)

Tech

2018TechWith every year that passes, I get further behind the tech curve, safe in my Luddite haven. There are four computers in our house but the newest is from 2012. There are two smartphones, both cheap and a couple of years out of date. There is one television and its projection is via cathode ray tube. There are two cars in the driveway: one from 2000, the other from 1991. Still, I sit on Facebook and Twitter a lot more than I’d like to.

Tangentially related: I have finally come to understand that Silicon Valley innovations, and those of startup culture generally, are not necessarily good for society. Sitting on Facebook and Twitter is the obvious one, especially Facebook, with its unholy quest to capture as much of the global population’s attention as it can. If Uber (a company that will never have me as a customer, for the awfully unimaginative name as much as the dodgy business practices and toxic work culture) reaches its goal of a fleet of ultra-safe, self-driving cars, the roads will become a funnel for capital to Uber shareholders, and they will have the power to shut them down any time they like. So, for that matter, will hackers. Such ideas are presented as a logical next step for our species, an evolution; we all need to pay attention and speak out, with words and dollars, when we see that it isn’t as simple as that.

Books

2018BooksThis year, I undertook a new project: prioritise reading books from years ending in 7. I put together a master reading list of books from 1917, 1927, 1937 etc., aiming for a variety of voices (i.e. female, people of colour) in there, and hoped the jumping around in time wouldn’t be too taxing on my rather comfortable reading mind.

I managed 45 books in the end, most from this project. You can browse them here (and please, add me as a friend on Goodreads if you haven’t already!). The highlights:

‘Summer’ by Edith Wharton (1917)
‘Oil!’ by Upton Sinclair (1927)
‘Trout Fishing in America’ by Richard Brautigan (1967)
‘Consider Phlebas’ by Iain M. Banks (1987)
‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo (1997)
‘Then We Came To The End’ by Joshua Ferris (2007)
‘Rants in the Dark’ by Emily Writes (2017)
‘The Whole Intimate Mess’ by Holly Walker (2017)
‘The New Animals’ by Pip Adam (2017)

And a few major disappointments:

‘Death on the Nile’ by Agatha Christie (1937)
‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac (1957)
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom (1997)

The same project will go for 2018, and 2019, and so on until I get bored of it. It’s the best time travel we’ve got.

Travel

2018TravelOn the fourth day of our honeymoon, Tara and I hired a two-person sailboat and tacked out to the middle of Muri Lagoon. Neither of us had ever sailed before. “It’s not that hard,” said the incredibly laconic, shirtless man who had drawn some basic diagrams in the sand and sent us on our way.

That first leg was tense. If we weren’t shouting half-baked instructions at each other, we were crouching in uncertain silence. Then we came to the buoy we had pointed ourselves at, and I announced I would try to manoeuvre us around it, so I gently leant on the tiller.

In no time at all, we were whipped around in the breeze, picking up pace as we turned. I panicked and strained to pull the rudder back to a more neutral position. The boat started to list, Tara screamed, and we plunged into the water.

I thought Tara might be freaked out by this, but instead, she roared with laughter. I was confused and distracted for a moment, then I started laughing too. We righted the boat, hauled ourselves up into it, and headed back in the other direction — with Tara at the tiller this time. “My turn! I want a go!”

We must have capsized another six or seven times in the next two hours as we hurtled back and forth across the lagoon. Every time, Tara’s amusement would ring out across the water, drawing stares from sunbathers on the beach. We got terrifically sunburnt and drank a litre of saltwater each, and there was the food and the snorkelling and the cheery hospitality, but that mad sailing experiment was the most fun we had on our holiday.

People

I was a family of one for many years, intermittently linking with brothers and parents but still very much a loner. And then Tara came along and became my family.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, beard and outdoor

We were married in February on a day that drove us mad in the planning but is increasingly golden in our memories. Friends and family came and smiled with us in the sun, and if we don’t get to see them much now, at least we got to see them that day. It helps that Meeko & Redge captured such perfect images for us: romantic but not idealised, formal but not constrained. Their photos show our best selves, loving and joyous and a bit messy.

Soon after – thank you, Rarotonga – we found out our family was growing inside Tara’s belly. Soon after that, at the 12-week scan, two blobs on the monitor indicated we would be a family of four. Just like that! And so 2017 became, more than anything, the year of pregnancy: bearing it, managing it, supporting it.

Nora and June were born in November. Because they are my babies, and I therefore see them for several hours a day, observing their subtle developments and interacting with them more and more, they are the most interesting babies in the history of the universe. Their enormous eyes, deep blue and alive, stare out at me (or at least the wall behind me) for several hours a day. Their limbs flail about haphazardly when I plonk them on the change table, or under the play gym, or in the bouncer by the window. The work of caring for them is long and repetitive, but never boring: their continuous development and discovery forces us into the moment.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, baby and hat

My dad told me in the lead-up that once they’re out, everything changes. He was right, but not in the way I expected. In Lost In Translation, Bill Murray’s character says at the moment of your child’s birth, “your life as you know it is gone, never to return”. Instead, I feel a great expansion of possibility for all four of us. Easy for me to say as the dad who goes off to work each day and gets barely ten per cent of the social pressure of parenthood, right? But Tara is in the most meaningful ways the same Tara, just like I am the same Barns – valuing the same ideals, preoccupied with the same thoughts, distracted by the same distractions – but with bigger, fuller hearts (and perpetual bags under our eyes). The thought of what lies ahead has never been so exciting.

Things of 2014

Front Page

As a child, I would often think about turning 20 in the year 2004, 30 in the year 2014, and so on. While 20 seemed within reach, I didn’t imagine I would ever actually turn 30; it seemed too distant and grown-up a number to attach to myself.

But now I am 30. I’ve breached the asymptote. And I’ve come out the other side feeling much the same. I constantly refer to myself as not being a ‘real grown-up’ or ‘proper person’ yet, perhaps because I still don’t have kids or a mortgage or a clear career path. And yet I am in my thirties, and a lot more of my thoughts are taken up with long-term planning. After all, I am sure I want kids, and a house, and a satisfying career. I just don’t feel quite ready for them yet. The itch to travel still tingles, and I expect I will scratch it before I embark wholeheartedly on any of the above legacies. Round up a few other 30-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

A lot of what follows is about me, but for much of it, there’s someone important beside me.

Sports & Leisure

Indoor footy remained integral to my physical well-being in 2014, as it was in 2013 and 2012. But it became one of many athletic pursuits rather than my sole half hour of proper exercise each week.

Early in our relationship, Tara explained that she used to be just as sloth-like as me and passed endless wasted hours on Reddit. She wasn’t happy, so she started hiking, tramping, and scuba diving instead, replacing idleness with a thirst for new outdoor experiences.

When you spend so much time with someone who has so much energy, that thirst will become part of your life, too, and you have a choice to reject or embrace it. After a few weekends of farewelling Tara as she headed off on another expedition in her trademark yellow cap, I embraced it. I went tramping in the Tararua Range, hiking in the Orongorongo Valley, swimming at Titahi Bay, stand-up paddle boarding at Port Nicholson, and wire-walking at Porirua, all things I would have hesitated to even attempt in the past. Now I marvel at how much the world has to offer, and I occasionally wonder how much I’ve missed over the years.

It wasn’t that I was necessarily afraid of any of these things. It was just that it all seemed to take up so much time. But all I did with that time, sunny day or no, was sit on the computer and chastise myself for not doing any writing. I’m finding that as a general rule, it’s better to be outside.

On an international scale, the success of the Black Caps (New Zealand’s national cricket team) in 2014 has been a great source of joy and even made me shake my head in amazement at times. It began with a one-day series win in January and a glorious fightback to draw the Basin Reserve Test in February, both against India. I was there for the fifth one-dayer, and I watched nearly every ball of the Basin Test, including the one Brendon McCullum dispatched to the backward point boundary to reach his triple century. Those five days were probably my favourite five days of the year for they also encompassed a super Valentine’s Day out at Wellington Zoo, a successful and sunny dinner party on the deck with Tara’s family, and an Italian dinner with Tara to celebrate six silly months together.

There was also the Football World Cup, which is always a joy. This was my favourite ‘fuck yeah’ moment.

Music

My favourite album of the year was Morning Phase by Beck — great song after great song — and my favourite 90 seconds of a song this year was the final 90 seconds of closer ‘Waking Light’.

Those 90 seconds feel like the meandering calm of Morning Phase finally breaking the shackles and bursting out into triumph — but it’s still tinged with all the uncertainty that preceded it. Morning Phase seemed dark and depressed to me at first, but with each listen, I found it more and more beautiful, even as an underlying sadness remained. Beck seems to aim for ambivalence rather than assuredness with this album. I think that’s why I like it so much.

I also enjoyed Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs and rediscovered Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise. I didn’t give Syro or a whole lot of other new albums enough of a go. There was a lot of music I missed, largely because I now live with someone who has different tastes in music. And music is one of many areas of life subject to renegotiation when someone moves in with you.

In 2014, Tara introduced me to songs by Auditorium, Cloud Cult, Avalanche City, Sam Cooke, Semisonic, Disney heroes and heroines, the a cappella stars of Pitch Perfect, Hanson, and some Mutton Birds albums I hadn’t previously heard. I’ve liked some of these songs, and she’s liked some of the ones I’ve played for her. Our shared command of Spotify has been an interesting and enjoyable challenge. Rewards have included butchered harmonies and spontaneous living room dancing.

Politics

We played board games while watching the NZ general election results roll in on TV, the sound muted. We shook our heads and swore repeatedly, and once the frustration faded, a week or two of disbelief set in: how are we so out of touch? I thought the Greens might bump up to 15% of the vote, and in the wake of Dirty Politics and Key’s relentless jiving, I assumed National’s vote would decrease. Instead, National romped to the biggest party vote since the start of the MMP era, and we on the left are still sitting down and having a think about it all.

My opinion is that in New Zealand, as in Australia and maybe in other parts of the world, people want strong leadership more than they want strong policy. In other words, voters want someone who will get things done, regardless of what those things are and whether they are in the voter’s own interest. The left in NZ didn’t seem to offer that.

As the dust settled, I made a vow to broaden my horizons outside the white liberal bubble of central Wellington so I have a more accurate picture of New Zealanders’ overall political sentiment. I haven’t done much about that, but I hope the Labor and Green parties have.

Film

The only film I saw twice in 2014 was GONE GIRL, largely because it was such a phenomenon that I knew multiple people who wanted to see it. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the film; I really enjoyed it, and in some respects — especially the ending — it worked a lot better than the book. It was interesting to read the book after seeing the trailer, then watch the full film after reading the book, meaning I had the actors in my head as I read but didn’t know what was going to happen. My conclusion is that Ben Affleck was perfect for the role and Rosamund Pike, who actually had to act, outshone him. And Carrie Coon outshone them both.

My favourite film of the year is tricky. There are quite a few contenders: BOYHOOD, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA, VOICES FROM THE LAND, and UNDER THE SKIN. The latter was particularly memorable, one of those rare films that’s so unsettling I couldn’t shake its sounds and visions for weeks. I also really liked NOAHTHE LUNCHBOX, THE DARK HORSE, and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.

But I have to go with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, which left me buzzing with ideas and appreciation of cinematic craft. I hadn’t liked the Jim Jarmusch films I’d seen previously — they seemed too self-consciously aloof to let me in — but this was a delight in every way, from Tom Hiddleston’s centuries-old ennui to the incredible music, most of it by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. I didn’t think it was possible to get me engaged in a story about vampires, but ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE did it by grounding them in the real world: what it would it really be like to live for hundreds of years? How would you survive? What would you learn about life on Earth? This film answered those questions, and asked a few more. I loved it.

And then there were the losses, particularly Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose greatness is now a void in cinema. Neither of them will make any more films, and both cases but especially Hoffman’s, that is a great loss to the medium.

Tech

I bought a new phone in 2014, a Motorola Moto G. It’s pretty good so far. And my main computer keeps overheating and powering off, which sometimes makes me very angry. I still get angry at inanimate objects, technology more than anything else, and it’s still embarrassing to the point of making me feel like a spoilt little kid every time.

Books

Deno started a book club in 2014, and because I like Deno and want to read more books, I joined up. So far we’ve read some interesting books and repeatedly pushed back our deadlines, which I assume is what most book clubs do.

Travel

For the first time since 2006, I spent none of the calendar year outside of New Zealand. Instead, I got to know new parts of my country — Paraparaumu, Porirua, the Rimutakas, Taranaki, the Tararuas, and more — and revisited old favourites like West Auckland’s beaches.

Travel experiences became more about the adventure itself than the destination, and more about the company than the sights (although the sights were often exceptional). Tara witnessed just about everything I witnessed, and she usually instigated the trip. She is the lead explorer in our relationship and pushes us steadily on to the next adventure as soon as the last one is over. Her family call her the Labrador, partly because she goes a bit crazy if she doesn’t go for a walk each day.

People

As I am now 30, more and more of my friends are getting married. I was even best man at a wedding — that of my oldest friend Stephen, who married Cayley in March. That was a good day.

More and more of my friends are having kids, too. I’m watching them grow up photograph by photograph, video by video, nearly always smiling and happy. Their childhoods are being edited into a selective stream of joyous firsts and daily moments of delight. That sounds a little cynical, but I think it’s a privilege to be able to see those kids at all. I would rather see them all a lot more often and get to know them as people, rather than as two-dimensional flashes of colour, but my Facebook feed is the next best thing. And their parents — my friends — are changing too. A little more weight behind their eyes, a little more openness in their smiles.

I already had a family, but in 2014, I gained another family. Cathy, Jeff, Richard, Ruth, and Kazu have all become an integral part of my life in a very short space of time. We play a lot of board games — preferably ones that involve protracted arguing and shouting, like The Resistance — and we go on walks, picnics, tramps, swims, and holidays. Here I thought you weren’t supposed to get on with your in-laws. I fear these positive relationships in a new area of my life come at the cost of my relationships with family and friends; that the time and energy I’ve used to forge new bonds is limited and needs to be doled out more carefully. Finding a better balance of time spent with people important to me is the biggest thing I have to work on in 2015.

Through it all is Tara, there at my side — or stopped behind me, more likely, to run her hands through long grass or shift a snail from the pavement to the bushes. She adds so much colour to my world and somehow lightens each of my steps — into cold river water, into the vicious slope of another hill, or into the woods with twenty kilograms on my back. She is the constant source of love and intellectual stimulation that sustains me. With Tara, more than in any other part of my life, I am lucky.

Things of 2013

Front Page

I’m now 29 and I have no kids. No property or other investments, either. I would like all of those things at some point in the future, but they aren’t my priority at the moment. I’m more interested in travel and pursuing new opportunities in my career. Round up a few other 29-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

Most of what follows is about me.

Music

The best twenty seconds of a song I heard this year were 3:10 to 3:30 of ‘The Red Wing’ by Fuck Buttons, from the album Slow Focus.

My music listening habits never really developed past the age of 16, when I got my first computer. I come across a new album and listen to it once or for months on repeat. Slow Focus was my favourite album of the ten or so new ones I heard this year. James Blake’s Overgrown would be next, and I also really liked Nothing Was The Same by Drake.

The steady accumulation of layers and abrasions on ‘The Red Wing’ reaches a glorious, spine-tingling apex about halfway through. My second favourite twenty seconds of a song are also from ‘The Red Wing’ as it starts to devolve from 6:10 to 6:30. The album as a whole is relentlessly dark, loud, and repetitive; it calls to mind the twisted sensations of being off your face in a dark nightclub, or the sick emotion that accompanies losing something important you can never get back. It drags me through a 45-minute catharsis. My kind of music.

Oh, the best New Zealand album I heard this year was Anniversary Day by JP Young. It would be my favourite album of the year but it came out in 2012. I recommend you go and listen to (and maybe buy) it now, especially if you have any connection to Wellington. It is a genuinely great album, poetic and easy to get along with.

Politics

In my dictionary (the excellent WordWeb), the first definition of ‘politics’ is Social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power. No wonder it fills so many pages in the newspaper and minutes on the airwaves. Not here, though.

Sport

Wellington Indoor Sports Shed 1

From in front of that massive, stunted goal in Shed 1 – about waist-high and about a third of the width of the pitch – James rolled the ball out to me. I was just on our team’s side of the halfway line, the opposition goal about fifteen metres behind me. We were ahead, but we’d just conceded a goal and needed to regain control of the run of play.

I leaned back slightly as the ball reached me and tapped it with the outside of my right foot to MHS, who was over by the left sideline. As he put his foot on the ball and drew a defender, I spun round and sauntered into space a few metres downfield. Just as I was nearing the penalty spot, with no defender near me, MHS took a couple more touches and tapped the ball past his marker, into my path. In my peripheral vision, I sensed two things: one, the opposition goalkeeper was positioned slightly to the left of the centre of the goal, back near his line; two, an opposition defender was rushing at me from my right.

As the ball ran in front of me, I controlled it with one touch from my right foot and – judging that I had less than a second in which to act before I would be tackled – snapped a left-footed shot along the ground, past the oncoming defender, and into the bottom right corner of the opposition goal.

The exact same sequence of events could have happened a hundred years ago, albeit on grass rather than turf and with a plain leather ball rather than a bright yellow plastic one. I will remember it for decades, just as I remember my chipped goal from near halfway in a second XI match at high school and a perfectly timed flick off my pads for four from the first ball I faced in house cricket. Such moments in our sporting lives are timeless.

Film

I seem to be getting more bored with the movies. I went dozens of times this year, more than I have since about 2006, and I always enjoyed myself from start to finish, whether it was any good or whether the dude behind me provided a running commentary throughout (as happened in The Hunt and at least one other film I can’t remember). But I rarely left feeling inspired to talk about what I’d just seen, or to think about it a week later. The prime example of this was Hyde Park on Hudson, a film so bland I barely remember seeing it.

Good films I saw this year included 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing, Before Midnight, Fast & Furious 6, Gravity, The Hunt, Like Father, Like Son, Mr. Pip, Much Ado About Nothing, The Place Beyond the Pines, Wadjda, and (if I’m allowed this one) Lawrence of Arabia in glorious 4K at The Embassy. Despite its flaws – particularly a lack of balance between its three parts – The Place Beyond The Pines has stayed with me, proving that striking a resonant tone in film is less tangible than the technical combination of good characters, dialogue, cinematography, sound, and editing. The Place Beyond The Pines only had these things in patches, but I haven’t forgotten it.

Mia Farrow | Cloud Atlas

Casting a wide shadow over all my cinematic joys this year was the disappointment that Cloud Atlas was not released in cinemas in New Zealand. The distributor must have gotten cold feet at the prospect of selling Kiwi audiences on a three-hour epic with six ongoing storylines painted in broad archetypes, which seems like a fair decision when I look at that sentence, but Cloud Atlas somehow fulfils its extraordinary ambitions and offers a new kind of multi-layered spectacle in film. I watched it at home, alone on the couch wearing headphones, oblivious to a storm raging outside. It was the best new film I saw this year, and when a stranger says they also loved it, I feel like the film is recommending that person to me.

Tech

A couple of months ago, someone did a memorably recognisable impression of me. They held a smartphone close to their face, jabbed it with their index finger, and muttered, “Just… fucking… work!”

The way I treat the technology in my life has become a good indicator of my mood. The more accepting I am of my phone becoming unresponsive or my laptop shutting down unexpectedly, the better my overall frame of mind. If I’m already frustrated, I swear and click the mouse harder and bang my foot on the floor. I apologise to my colleagues for this.

The fact that my use of electronics can be seen as a barometer of my psychological state suggests how deeply I’ve involved these objects in my daily life. When you spend more than half of your waking hours with someone, or something, some irritation is inevitable. But if I lost them, it’d be like losing one of my senses.

Yellow shoes, walking

Books

In August I went to the launch of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, putting one foot in the world that knows her as ‘Ellie’. She complimented me on my yellow shoes, and I asked her how she was feeling. “A bit overwhelmed, to be honest,” she replied, looking around at the faces and wine glasses packed tighter than ever into Unity Books. This was a couple of months before she won the Booker.

After the launch, Nik and Ant and I discussed what a positive occasion it was. A good person being celebrated for an amazing feat of creativity. I still haven’t finished reading the bloody thing because I am so terrible at reading books, but it really is great, and I will get there.

Travel

In September I went to Brisbane, and in December I went to Nelson. First holiday was alone, second was with a companion. The weather was great for both.

Walking at Anchorage, Abel Tasman National Park

People

I think it has to be Tara, four months in, as wonderful as my colleagues, friends, and family are. She plucks snails off the footpath and places them safely in the bushes. She attempts to identify each bird she sees: “Thrush? Female blackbird?” She is comfortable speaking to strangers on the phone. She writes good emails. She gives excellent gifts. Our conversations flow easily, weaving from meaning to silly madness and back. Perhaps I am overly observant, but she means a lot to me.

Also, the Internet has a slightly diminished role in my life right now but I was lucky enough to get to meet Charles, Dan, Kathleen, Isabel, Martyn, Naomi, Neha, Reena, and Sarah this year – all people I came to know about through Twitter, and who have all been teachers in some way or another. Each year brings more new connections, and some old ones rekindled. Many bleed happily from one medium into another: Twitter, then Facebook, then a coffee shop or a pub. There will no doubt be more new people in 2014 – more good people, and more effort not to spread myself so thinly.

*

Thanks for coming and looking at this. The years are all arbitrary but regardless of what has happened in 2013, I hope 2014 is all right for you.

Wore a Kanye West t-shirt to the ballet

I have no qualifications for writing about Swan Lake performed by The Royal New Zealand Ballet with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, other than that I saw it and was wearing this t-shirt:

SWAG t-shirt and lollies
(File Photo)

Like many others, perhaps including a majority of men about Natalie Portman’s age, I became interested in ballet — particularly Swan Lake — after seeing Black Swan. As much as I love that epically unhinged film, Tchaikovsky’s music is what has sustained my interest in the years since. I must’ve listened to the whole score a hundred times; in particular, it provided a surreal soundtrack to my daily train commute in South India, clarinet and strings waving in sync with the branches of coconut palms.

From our seats, we were lucky enough to be able to see into the orchestra pit.

St James | Wellington | NZSO | Swan Lake
St James Theatre, Wellington

And when the lights dimmed, and that familiar musical phrase opened the performance, I already had my money’s worth.

Up went the curtain, and the best dancers in the country moved their perfectly toned, muscular bodies with transcendent grace. Between the music and the movement, I wasn’t really sure where to look. My tendency in describing art to others, especially visual art, is to focus on a particularly memorable aspect or moment and let that speak for my overall impression. This is very hard to do with a consummate performance featuring the life’s work of two dozen dancers, world-class choreographers, designers of three-storey sets and 20kg costumes, and an entire orchestra. How can I omit the flautist’s precise notes, the ornate headdress at stage left, the way liquid nitrogen ripples beneath Qi Huan’s feet? If I don’t mention that heartbreaking key change in the final scene, or Odile’s 32 fouettes, can I even say I’ve seen Swan Lake?

One dancer stood out. My companion later told me that she’d earned 100% on a Royal Academy of Dance exam when they were in the same teenage class in Tauranga. Her name is Katherine Grange and she danced in such a way that I could imagine her succeeding in any chosen passion; she just happened to choose dance. As much as anyone else on stage, her performance showed me something I hadn’t previously realised: ballet is a genuine feat of acting, and facial expression is a key element. The feet and arms need to be technically exceptional, but it’s the emotion in the way they move that carries the audience along.

Some of my favourite films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lost In Translation, make a point of telling the story (or long stretches of it, at least) with images and music rather than words. In ballet, I think I’ve found an art which is based entirely on this principle. “Would you like to go to the ballet again?” asked my friend as we debriefed over a beer. My eyes widened. “Absolutely.” If the human species had three hours to demonstrate our capabilities to visiting alien dignitaries, a full performance of Swan Lake would do the trick.

Grizzly Bear Live: Keeping It Up

I have now seen Grizzly Bear perform live. I would show you a photo taken by me of the band performing but the venue bastards were particularly vigilant about NO PHOTOGRAPHY PLEASE SIR THERE’S NO PHOTOGRAPHY, so here’s a photo of their set list by Ollie Labone (via Blog On The Tracks):

Photo by Ollie Labone

So how was the gig? It was INCREDIBLE. Never seen anything like it.

Most bands set themselves up on stage so that each member has a clearly defined space. Drummer up the back, singer up the front, guitars either side is the norm – a kind of diamond shape, or maybe in New Zealand a Southern Cross shape. It can give a sense that each band member is keeping their own part of the sound afloat, rather than working consciously with the rest of the group. With the kinds of songs most bands play, this is okay.

Grizzly Bear line up across the front of the stage to share the performance equally. Even Chris Bear, who is an astoundingly good drummer, is up front. (Admittedly, tour keyboardist Aaron Arntz hangs out up the back, but he at least got to sprint around the Opera House during ‘While You Wait For The Others’). You can see each of them, and everything they do, clearly. It’s like being shown all the angles and all the secrets of a magic trick. Their music certainly seems magic to me – all unusual time signatures, multi-part harmonies, and deft instrumental touches, cohering into a majestic whole.

As musicians, Grizzly Bear are like jugglers, with a number of song elements in the air at any given time. Chris Bear sends up kick & snare drum hits, which come down a Chris Taylor bassline. The bassline is built upon by Dan Rossen’s guitar, and Rossen’s voice is joined in harmony by Ed Droste (and, quite often, by the rest of the band). Taylor switches from guitar to brass to woodwind, Bear from sticks to brushes, while Rossen’s and Droste’s subtly distinctive voices interchangeably pick up and pass on vocal melodies. Grizzly Bear work space into their songs, and give each other space to move in them. Their careful placement of different sounds into that shared space seems so natural and intuitive, but I’m sure they must work extremely hard to figure the songs out in the first place, let alone be able to perform them so perfectly.

Unlike with some other bands, I felt like every member of Grizzly Bear played always for the song and never for themselves. Their songs are so rich and layered that if they hold anything back, the performance won’t work. Somehow, through their consummate individual skills and a four-part hive mind, it all stays aloft.

… I’ve made a Grizzly Bear concert sound like maths. It was, but it was so much more. They appear to take real joy from the art of performance, and I think we in the audience all felt that joy too.

They were also surprisingly relaxed between such moody and complex songs. “Who’s going to Boyz II Men? You guys don’t know about that? Boyz II Men on this very stage. There’s only three of ’em, but still, Boyz II Men. I’d fuckin’ see that. You guys should go along, tell me how it is.” And into ‘Cheerleader‘: “God let it go, it doesn’t mean a thing / Chance and sow, nothing changing…” And afterwards: “That was our cover of ‘End of the Road’ by Boyz II Men.”

They rocked, too, and most of the crowd at least bobbed around in their seats throughout. I bobbed particularly hard to ‘Yet Again’, a current favourite:

and pre-encore closer ‘Sun In Your Eyes’, just spectacular:

Two weeks ago, I saw Radiohead live, and that was a moment of completion in my life. But I can’t remember seeing a better or more complete musical performance than Grizzly Bear at the Wellington Opera House.