November 2020

30 Nov We Really Should Dance More

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 30.11.20)

 

We really should dance more. Not necessarily in the one-two-cha-cha-cha way with neat choreography and spandex. I’m talking about that thing where you kick your shoes off, toss your hair back and spin with your arms outstretched, unfettered joy sparking from your fingertips.

Too much? Appreciate it’s not very Kiwi to whoop and holler when good things happen. Settle down, mate, no need to make a fuss. Except that there are some really terrific reasons for celebrating every win, big or small. And it doesn’t have to be dancing – you are also allowed cake or whatever your personal go-to is for revelling in a triumph or a job well done.

It has been fascinating over past weeks as the results of US and New Zealand elections have rolled in, and those who have expressed delight in them online and in real world conversations have been told to shush up a bit, think of the work ahead, not assume the path will be easy, and been immediately reminded of the flaws of various personalities and their policies.

British journalist Jonathan Freedland describes this as our tendency to “search for the defeat contained in the victory”. We warn each other about the next dire thing, remind ourselves that this success (whatever it is) is not the end of the story. There are – gird yourselves, sisters and brothers – more horrors awaiting us.

All of which is no doubt true but it feels… deflating. Is there a sadder sentence than, “Yes, but…”? Everyone needs a moment to breathe out. We might know, too, that people who celebrate each small win do something very useful – they build resilience to keep going. Talk to anyone who has faced a major challenge with their health, a job, a relationship or some kind of natural disaster and they will tell you that an essential ingredient to having enough puff to reach their big goal is about setting smaller goals along the way, and then doing some version of a little dance as you achieve each one.

This is why we have invented birthdays – one day a year for each of us where we invite everyone to say, Hoorah!, You made it through another year! Look at you, you beautiful thing (for you are beautiful on this, your special day) and we will celebrate your achievement of making it one more time around the sun!

Imagine how discouraging it would be if you blew out the candles and, instead of “Many happy returns!” everyone shouted, “Look out! Odds on, the next year is will be dreadful… If you even survive.” Bollocks to that. I don’t care if you’re 103 – you deserve the gift of the thought of another great year that ends in another fabulous party.

This is also why we invented anniversaries, particularly of the wedding variety. On an appointed day in our annual calendar we take a moment to remember why we got together in the first place, and take a moment to find those first feelings again, rekindling the flames of early passion. Settle down, mate. But, yes, park the kids up with grandparents and gaze into each other’s eyes for a bit, and stop thinking about next week and whose turn it is to put the bins out and flea the cat.

Similarly, Casual Friday at the office works best when it does not contain a trace of the coming Monday. Anyone who spends Friday drinks reminding co-workers of next week’s deadlines should be immediately reported to HR, or sent out to buy chips.

When your child is bursting with joy at mastering the scooter, don’t tell her this will mean nothing in terms of her ability to ride a bike. Give her a round of applause and let her feel how great it is to become adept at a thing, and she will find her own hunger for trying the next one.

Celebrating each win is also how we find each other. Every heaving, sweaty, crowded dancefloor has its beginnings in one or two brave souls who could not sit still any longer, tossing aside their reticence and snatching up their confidence on the off chance a few others might feel the same way and they won’t be left hanging for too long. When you tell people what delights you, you give them permission to share their joy, too. This is how we find our dance partners, and our tribe.

So let’s allow ourselves moments of unfettered glee – the dancing in the streets is not a distraction, it is the essential thing that grows our resilience to keep going with all the other less dancey stuff that happens next. Feel free to take yourself for a wild spin.

 

 

 

 

 

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20 Nov NZ Television Awards 2020

Nominees for Best Presenter: Entertainment – Alex Casey, Leonie Hayden & Michele A’Court

This is the team that brought you the award-nominated “On The Rag” in 2020. We didn’t take home the prize (some dude called Paddy Gower won Best Presenter: Entertainment) but we still feel like winners! Here we are on the red carpet at the NZTV Awards on Wednesday 18 November: Natalie Wilson, Gayle Hogan, Amber Easby, Alex Casey and Leonie Hayden. We did good.

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18 Nov Tempting Fate

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 23.11.20

We can be slow to learn some of life’s simplest lessons. That whole “not tempting fate” thing is a class I have failed time and time again. 

There was that Christmas Eve several years ago, for example, when the whole family had gathered at my place. I always find the preparation for Christmas crazy stressful (who doesn’t?) coming as it does during the busiest time of my work year. So all the big things – late night gigs, shopping, food preparation, making up the spare beds, end-of-year paperwork – gallop along beside each other as the immoveable Christmas Day deadline looms.

I had expected to be still wrapping gifts and assembling trifle till midnight but somehow at 5pm everything was done. At which point I said in a much too loud voice to our houseful of guests and also the Fates that I was Ready For Christmas. Boom! The phone rang and it was my father’s doctor saying his test results had arrived and we needed to admit him immediately to hospital. At almost the same moment, my little niece ran face-first into our glass door and smashed it – just the door, thank goodness, not her face, and I don’t know how that worked but there was much relief amid the general confusion that we were only whisking one of us off to the admissions department.

So Dad spent Christmas in hospital while we tried to find a glazier, and everyone googled “concussion, signs of” while checking the size of the egg-shaped bump on my niece’s head. Note to self: do not tempt the Fates with your over-confidence.

But I keep forgetting. So much so that if I ever say definitively that I have something all sorted, my husband gives me a look. He should have been there last week with the look when I announced to no-one in particular (except the Fates, obviously) that I hadn’t been sick all year. Nothing – not a bug, not the flu, not even a cold, I remarked. Lockdown, I figured, plus a flu shot, plus careful handwashing and a lot of staying home and much less contact with large groups of people during winter, and doubtless the masks. Wonderful, I said, and maybe this is one of the upsides – we’ve adopted protocols that take better care of ourselves and each other.

Boom! I sneezed, and my eyes started streaming. Classic hay fever, and just the time of year for it when the broom and the flax pollen always drives me crazy. I knocked back the antihistamines I keep handy for just this purpose and soldiered on.

But it’s different now, right? You sneeze and feel you need to explain this is not The Plague. Your health is everyone’s health in Covid times. You can’t catch hay fever, but… is that what it is? I don’t know about you, but one of the thoughts that keeps me awake at night is the possibility of having a cluster named after me. Rationally, I know there should be no shame in it – this is, as we know, a very tricky virus and so long as you do the right things with testing and tracking and tracing and going hard and early, no one would think less of you for it, but…

Certain it was hay fever (achoo!) but also worried I’d worry other people, I diligently wore my mask in public places. Being one of the few in a mask at our supermarket takes a moment to settle into – will they think I’m paranoid? Neurotic? Plague-filled? But I swear people went out of their way to smile sympathetically as I went out of my way to say out of their way. It was as though they figured I had a reason for not wanting to breathe on them, and we all knew it wasn’t them, it was me. I am grateful we don’t have that American cultural divide that places masks on the side of stealing our freedoms. Here, covering your mouth when you’re sneezy is just good manners.

The morning I woke up hot and with a sore throat, our household drove to our local Covid testing station and let the nice lady put a stick in our noses, and then cancelled plans and stayed home to wait for the text. Negative. Just a cold, and largely gone when the message arrived less than 24 hours later. Happy, though, to be safe, not sorry.

We talked, my husband and I, about how this might be another upside to Covid times. That before, with a cold, I would have swallowed some pills and soldiered on, putting work and family commitments before my health, feeling the weight of responsibility to get the job done more keenly that the need to get well and – more significantly – protect other people from me. He is welcome, next time I’m feeling a bit off but start putting on a brave face, to give me that look again.

 

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12 Nov Weighty Issues

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 16 November 2020

Actually, I’ll tell you what, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to achieve and maintain a healthy weight ever since obesity became a topic of conversation near the end of the election campaign. So grab yourself some frozen vegetables out of the freezer and do something with them, and then let’s have a little chat.

New Zealand is listed by the OECD as the third fattest country in the world, with 31% of Kiwis regarded as obese. Aotearoa sits behind only Mexico (32%) and the United States (38%). Two in three Pasifika (66%) and half of Māori (48%) are obese. So collectively we have a problem – which already suggests that we might need to look collectively for the causes and find solutions.

I’ll start with my own experience of weight loss and gain. Like a lot of women, my weight has fluctuated over the years – weight “loss” is something that happens when I work really hard at it, weight “gain” is something that seems to happen by stealth. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything differently – unaware that I’m either eating more or exercising less – but suddenly my pants feel tight and someone will say, “You’re looking well” which is code for, “You’re chunkier than you were last time I saw you”.

But I am old enough now to be able to look back and spot the patterns. I have been at my lightest during those months and years when I’ve been able to focus on me, and take great care with food by spending time on it, and also money. There was a patch there after my daughter left home and before I was daily involved in caring for my parents when I achieved and maintained exactly the weight recommended for a women of my height. It took effort, focus and cash.

On the other side of the bathroom scales, I have been at my heaviest when I’ve been broke and busy – time poor plus actually poor – and in a situation that demanded I put my own needs last. “Busy” meant I had little time to plan meals or prepare them from scratch. Exhausted, and dearly wanting a nap or an early night or a sleep-in but unable to arrange my life that way, I’d reach for fast and easy fuel. And when I was poor? That fuel was high-calorie cheap stuff – bread, baked beans and sod all kale – nothing that involved long preparation or cooking time. Get some food in to me, race off to the next task. Anyone on a tight budget knows that healthy food costs more and the quick high carb/salt/sugar options are constantly on two-for-one specials. If you’ve been broke all your life, then win Lotto, you will suddenly notice there are better options on the shelves for people with fatter wallets.

The suggestion that obesity is a “personal choice” is about as nuanced and therefore useful as suggesting that poverty itself is a personal choice – when in fact how much you earn is very much down to a range of factors, including the big ones of gender, age and race, and other contributors like physical and mental health, disability and medications.

I often look at slim, fit women and assume, wow, you are lucky enough to spend time on yourself. You have been able to arrange your life to go to a gym or Pilates and pick up some fresh fruit and veg on the way home in your car. There are times when, no matter how much I have wanted to, I could not arrange that. I remember someone saying to me once that, if I really wanted to join a gym, I would miraculously find the time. I probably don’t need to tell you that the “someone” was a man with a nine-to-five job and no kids.

And then I look at plump women and assume, you are probably very busy taking care of a lot of people – so much so that you have little time to even think about what you might like to do for yourself. I bet you do a lot of kind things for other people, and maybe even make it possible for them to still fit into the pants they wore last summer. You’re a good egg.

Both of which assumptions may well be wildly incorrect. A much wiser person has pointed out that the so-called “plump” woman I am assuming has no time for herself may very well be spending hours at the gym eating fruit, and the “slim” person could be a chain-smoking couch potato. We make a mistake when we associate “thinness” with health. And while, for me, weighing less might be about taking time for myself, for someone else it might be the opposite – self-care will involve taking medications that might lead to weight gain. You can’t read anything at all about a person from the shape of their silhouette.

In my case, you know what would have helped me lose (or not gain) a few kilos? Pay equity, affordable and accessible childcare, and a world that was safe for women to go for a walk or run or bike ride after dark. And for so many women, a better division of domestic labour that would offer them time to focus on themselves for a moment. All of which requires changes to the system, and to the way we socialise boys and how we value unpaid care work. 

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10 Nov 700 Guests, No Canapes – on Working From Home

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 9 November 2020

 

Last week at my place, I hosted an event for 700 women. You’re probably thinking, crikey, that’s a lot of canapés, but – and I think we are all relieved about this – the snack situation was down to individual responsibility. I’m not sure what other people grabbed during breaks – I can only confirm that a couple of times I sent a text to my husband to bring me a cup of green tea if it wasn’t too much trouble. Unspoken was an instruction to leave it near the door so no one would end up in the background of my Zoom screen in their Disney-themed pyjama pants.

This was one of the many gatherings that, in other years, I have MC’d in person but has, in Covid Times, moved online. I do and also don’t miss the planes and hotels. I genuinely do miss looking out at a sea of faces and having random chats in the bathroom with kind and interesting people. But I am also finding the upside to communicating in a virtual world. There was a moment at the start of this day when women started logging on – 45 participants, then 186, then suddenly 600 and climbing – and they were throwing cheerful good mornings! and kia oras! into the live Chat on the side of my screen, and I felt genuinely emotional about making this connection, even if it was by fibre optic cable.

In my less busy moments, I’d scroll through the little squares of faces (microphones on mute but cameras on so we could see each other) and get an idea of how people had arranged themselves. Mostly solo – some at desks, others on sofas or at kitchen tables – but occasionally you’d see a whole conference room of ladies with pens and pads and mugs of hot beverages. It was like walking down a street at night, peering through living room windows with curtains not yet drawn, catching a glimpse of how other people live.

Some upsides, too, when it comes to sharing ideas. It’s a big ask for women to walk up onto a stage, or talk to a room full of strangers with a microphone thrust in their face, but easier to volunteer to unmute your mic and – from the security of your own space – read out the thoughts you’ve just jotted down on your bit of paper. Voices less often heard might be getting more of a turn in this virtual world.

We’re getting used to this new way of working. A survey last month of Australian and Kiwi employees across a broad cross section of industries found nearly two-thirds of us want a range of flexible work options. We stayed home during Lockdown, and we’re not convinced we want to go back to the office.

I was lucky when the world was sent home. No need to improvise – I’ve been working this way for the last 25 years. Aside from the bit where I stand on stage or sit in a TV or radio studio, everything I do happens where I’m sitting now, in my delightfully chaotic home office. My mother, bless her, would refer to it as “the study”, but it is less leather armchair and smoking jacket than this would suggest. Pyjamas mostly, with a good ergonomic chair and all the other necessities – four massive bookcases, a filing cabinet, laptop and other devices in easy reach. And just enough distractions – the cat’s igloo, photos on the walls of places I’ve been, and a cabbage tree on the other side of the window with a bird feeder and plenty of takers.

I don’t have a boss, I just have deadlines, so there is no one to mind if I get stuck on a job and scoot upstairs to put the washing out while I get unstuck. Bosses and workers will have to find new ways to measure what “working” is if you’re not just relying on seeing bums on office seats.

I spare many thoughts for women adjusting to working from home when that home also includes kids too young to read the “Mummy’s Working” sign on the door – if there is a door. Even as a teenager, that sign didn’t stop my daughter texting me from her room to bring her a juice. Which is where, of course, I got the idea for my order of green tea.

In place of watercooler chat, I have social media – mostly for one-on-one conversations but a few group chats that feel like a staff tearoom. I don’t have to sit next to a guy eating egg sandwiches, or a chatty young thing doused in Impulse Body Spray. And if, on a video call, anyone suggests I should “smile more”, I can turn off my camera and make the kind of finger shapes that would otherwise have me marched off to HR for a chat.

 

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05 Nov Get Out of Town

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 2 November 2020

 

Before all this Covid palaver redesigned our lives, mine involved constant travel. I recall sitting once in an airport close to Christmas, feeling a smidge travel weary, and filling in the time before a delayed flight by thumbing through my diary to count how many days I had spent away from home that year. The long and short trips round the country and the globe added up to a staggering four months out of twelve – fully one-third of a year spent sleeping in places other than my house. It certainly explained why my herb garden had gone wild, and why the cat had taken to sleeping in my suitcase whenever he got the chance. This, he possibly thought, is the only way I’ll get to see her – as a stowaway.

I travel for work, and also for pleasure. Even when I was little, and family trips generally meant I’d be carsick somewhere around Waipukurau, I still loved packing a bag – imagining what I might need for the places I imagined I might go. One of our family’s genealogists tells me there is Romany in our DNA and it feels not at all surprising. Even without the “gypsy” blood, the fact that my great-grandparents on one side and great-great-grandparents on the other travelled half-way round the world to a place they’d never seen suggests an adventurous spirit, right?

Part-Roma, part-shark, maybe – just like the fish, it is the moving forward that makes me happy. When we shifted into Level 2 that first time in May, I was in my car and driving out of the city in the first possible hours – I had grandchildren to see. But as I turned left off State Highway 1 and settled into the rhythm of rural roads, I could feel my shoulders drop and my muscles relax. The thought of arriving was joyous, but the getting there was part of the joy.

In the last few weeks, my suitcase – cat hairs removed with a lint roller – is back in regular business. Where have I been lately? Great Barrier Island, for starters. And I’m not the only one – New Zealanders hankering for a getaway have been arriving there in droves. The fabulous Orla who owns the island’s only pub tells us that, in non-Covid times, they have closed up for winter, but they stayed open this year to feed and water the kind of crowds who turn up for summer high season. Reports of the death of tourism have been somewhat exaggerated, here at least.

I’d encourage you to give Great Barrier a whirl. The locals will be thrilled to see you, and the scenery reminds of me Stewart Island/Rakiura but with the thermostat turned up about eight degrees. (That’s not a reason to not head as far south as you can, but it gives the Barrier an edge in early Spring.)

Living off-the-grid, locals are rightly proud of being the first island in the world to be awarded “dark sky sanctuary” status which makes it an extraordinary opportunity for star gazing. There are official tours, or you might get lucky enough to be invited, as we were, to dinner with enthusiastic locals who encourage you to poke your eye into their telescope and see Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons.

I am also freshly back from Levin, described once by some wag (possibly me) as the Paris of the Pacific. Many of us who grew up in small places have complicated relationships with our home town, but I liked this visit. Without wanting to come off like a crazy person, I will confess that almost all my nightly dreams are set in Levin – our old home, my school, the Little Theatre, the main street – so going for a wander there felt surreal but wildly familiar because, heck, I’m there every night.

Levin still has one of the best libraries – it was the centre of all the things I liked best as a kid (Books! Librarians! Daydreaming!) and is now literally the town’s community centre where you can borrow a DVD, play the piano, drink coffee and vote.

My diary tells me my suitcase will barely be home for the next few weeks – Rotorua, Whitianga, Tauranga, Wellington, Napier and more. Work mostly, but some days off here and there for hot pools and shopping and catching up with old friends. After months of connecting via Zoom, it will be grand to see people’s whole selves and do that hugging thing we’ve missed. Best I remember to bring some treats home for the cat.

 

 

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