Michele A'Court, Author at Michele A'Court
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Author: Michele A'Court

18 Jun In Memory of Eurydice Dixon

Last week Eurydice Dixon, a young Melbourne woman, was raped and murdered while walking home from work at a comedy club. Part of the police response has been to advise women to make sure they have “situational awareness” and “be aware of their own personal security”.  They are talking to the wrong people. Women are already constantly vigilant. The people who need to change their behaviour are the men who rape and murder.

 

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Christchurch Press in August 2014:

For the last two weeks I’ve been banging on a bit about a woman’s right to be safe in our neighbourhoods, and the madness of blaming victims of sexual assault. It’s something I care about, what with being a lady and knowing lots of other lady-people and so forth.

 

In fact, I’d suggest all women think about this at a conscious or unconscious level every day. So just in case anyone thinks, in this current discussion we’re having on rape culture, that women are running around half-dressed and half-cut with nary a thought to their personal safety, let’s take a moment to think about what all women do every day to keep themselves safe.

 

Here’s a tiny story. Last Thursday I spent part of a sunny afternoon looking for an appropriate car park. There were several spaces tucked down an Auckland side street in walking distance from where I needed to be. But I knew without thinking about it hard that this wasn’t a road I could confidently walk down seven hours later when my gig finished. Too quiet, too dark, too isolated.

 

Instead, I spent a long time searching for a space on the main thoroughfare under a streetlight, outside something that would be still be open at 10pm.

 

It is a small thing, but it is daily, this constant vigilance. It becomes automatic and unconscious but, if you press us, then yes, all women can think of places we don’t go, bus stops we don’t wait at, trips we don’t take, events and opportunities we miss, jobs we don’t do and careers we don’t pursue.

 

We lock our cars when we get in them as well as when we get out, and walk with keys between our fingers. We dress, not just for style and comfort, but at times also for the ability to run. Second nature. It becomes part of who we are.

 

This is daily, tangible evidence of what people refer to as “rape culture” – the idea that sexual violence is linked to the culture of a society in which the prevailing attitudes and practices normalise, excuse and tolerate violence against women.

 

Not all men are comfortable with that phrase. Innocent people don’t like to be labelled or blamed. We get that. And of course, not all men are rapists. Though it is a woman’s job to assume that all men are, until proven otherwise. “What do you mean you were on that street? In that park? In that bar? Did you not assume that every man there would be a rapist?”

 

And yes, men must be vigilant, too. There are bad places where they might be robbed or punched. But these are perhaps not as ubiquitous as the places where bad things happen to women. And a man is not encouraged to think of every stranger as brutal thief.

 

But women are required to imagine that all men might do them harm and take the appropriate measures. And none of this is doing any of us any good.

 

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25 May “How We Met” debuts at Number 2…

“How We Met” debuted at Number 2 on the Women’s Bookshop top 10 bestsellers for April. To read (and listen to) the nice things the critics have to say, romp on over to the “Reviews” page.
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25 May 50 Years On from the Wahine Disaster

First published in “Your Weekend” 14 April 2018

It is remarkable how deeply some memories are etched. Maybe it’s the first ones that leave the strongest mark. This week, I was in my car listening to old radio reports from the Wahine Disaster, and had to stop to find a paper bag to breathe into.

 

Everything sounded entirely familiar, though I don’t think I’d heard those voices in the fifty years since. Broadcasters’ professionalism barely masking the horror of what was unfolding, urgency seeping through the commentary. “The Wahine is rolling frightfully in the heavy swell in the harbour. Its list increases and then it goes back, but it never reaches perpendicular again.” It might have been the first time I’d heard grown men sound afraid.

 

I was six years old, nearly seven, and kept home from school, sick. Our family doctor made a house call (there’s a measure of time) with his hat and his leather bag. “That doesn’t sound good,” he said, tilting his head towards the radiogram where I lay listening under an eiderdown. My favourite spot – usually “Listen With Mother” or the Sunday Request Session or Danny Kaye records. Now it was bringing a different kind of story into our house.

 

Sixty miles from Wellington, the same storm was at our windows which was scary enough. You could imagine being in the harbour with no eiderdown and no mother, and no doctor come to make you better.

 

It might have been the first time I learned to make personal connections to a news story. One of the women on the boat was travelling to visit my aunt in Wellington. For many hours, they couldn’t find her little boy and thought him lost. Imagine the joy when they found him. My mother says she could never make sense of it when he died just a few years later from something else. Did he escape death then only to be caught again? Or were those extra years a special gift?

 

Everyone knew someone, felt something. It would happen again – Erebus, Cave Creek, Pike River, the Christchurch quake – but that was my first experience of the world listing, and never quite reaching perpendicular again.

 

But also, it’s when I fell in love with real life storytelling – with radio first; then photography (that picture of the Wahine lying on its side in the newspaper delivered to our letterbox the next day – even bigger and sadder than I had made it in my head). And when I also fell in love with stories of real life heroes, and the way disasters – even near misses – make us feel connected, less alone.

 

Which is what this last week has been – a celebration not only of courage, but of doing things for each other even when you’re afraid.

 

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25 May Reviews for “How We Met”

Michele’s new book hit the stores in April, and was listed at Number 2 on the Women’s Bookshop top sellers list for the month. https://www.womensbookshop.co.nz/c/bestsellers

 

Here’s what the reviewers say…

 

RNZ National: [NineToNoon] “Very successful balance between astute social observation which Michele is so good at; intellectual enquiry and analysis; but also it’s just full of warm, fuzzy stories… This is a book of happy endings… It’s smart, it’s really lovely, it’s sweet, it’s kind…”
https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2018640092/nz-books-review-how-we-met-by-michele-a-court

 

Christchurch City Libraries: “How We Met is a collection of glorious, real-life stories from Kiwi couples, but it’s also a reflection on relationships in general – the common and also totally unique experiences, difficult and glorious, of living life with your ‘one in particular’…  Accessible and relatable…  Many of these stories are so intimate, so personal, so full of ‘in-jokes’ and ‘you had to be there’ moments, that it would be easy for the reader to feel a little removed from the action. But Michele tells them in such a comfortable way – I could tell because, as I was reading, I was finding something on nearly every page that I wanted to read aloud to my partner.”
https://my.christchurchcitylibraries.com/blogs/post/how-we-met-the-ways-great-love-begins-by-michele-acourt/

 

Narrative Muse: “Reading a chapter of How We Met is like eating a bowl of your favorite ice cream – an indulgent treat with a heavy sprinkle of laughs.”
http://narrativemuse.co/books/how-we-met

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23 Mar “How We Met” – in bookstores now!

How We Met -Front Cover

My second book, “How We Met – the ways great love begins” is in bookstores from Monday 26 March. It started as an idea in July 2015 when I was out for dinner with friends and asked them the question everyone gets around to asking eventually: “So how did you two meet?” Ian and Clare told a great story about falling down a hole in a kebab shop, and I said something like, “Someone should write a book full of those stories.” And they all looked at me, and I thought about it for a minute, and said, “Ok, I will.” And here we are.

Almost three years later (after interviewing 42 couples, a neuroscientist and a relationship expert) it is ready for you to stick in your eyes. Funny, sexy, rude, ellaborate, surprising, outrageous and simple tales – woven together around my theory that we need great yarns to weave our lives together, and also that when we go back and remember how we fell in love, we fall in love again.

I will be taking the book to writers’ festivals all over New Zealand this year: Auckland, Tauranga, Masterton, Christchurch and Nelson – keep an eye on my “Dates” page for details.

 

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23 Mar Why Women Don’t Speak Up

First published in Your Weekend 10 March 2018 [See below for online link]

 

It’s quite hard being a lady-person. You can’t tell whether people want you to speak up, or shut up.

 

When news broke in February over alleged shenanigans at Russell McVeagh, one of the questions regularly asked was, “Why don’t women speak up sooner about sexual harassment and assault?”

 

So I posed that question on social media, and offered my own list of things said to me or to people I know when they’ve raised an issue in the workplace. Responses that range from “It didn’t happen”, to “it might have happened but you’re wrong to be bothered by it,” to “it definitely happened and that’s the way things are”.

 

And then I invited people to add their own examples of being diminished and dismissed when they’ve raised the issue. The responses came quickly, and they resonated with many. Broadly, they represented deflection (“Is everything ok at home?”), guilt-tripping (“Think of his family”), thinly veiled threats (“Are you sure you want to take this forward? This won’t help your career”), and the horrifying, “We thought he’d stopped doing that”.

 

So yes, one of the reasons women don’t speak up is that, when they do, they’re actively shushed in a multitude of ways. But that’s not the only thing that happens.

 

We are also told we’re speaking up The Wrong Way. When #MeToo went viral last October, women the world over (New Zealand included) shared their stories, often with no names used. “Too vague!” they were told. “Name and shame!” Yet when names were included in the avalanche of stories, women were accused of being too specific, conducting “social media witch-hunts” via “online lynch mobs”.

 

Or we tell our stories at The Wrong Time. Too soon, and it is morning-after regret. Years later, when we are older and braver, we are either vengeful or jumping on bandwagons.

 

And we tell our stories to The Wrong People. If it’s a crime, we must call the police, and commit to a legal process which can be as harmful as the harassment or assault itself. And if it’s not a crime, we should either suck it up, or report it to HR – in which case, see handy lines for diminishing and dismissing above.

 

When news arrived last week that investigative journalists want to hear New Zealand women’s #metoo stories, you’d think people might have been keen to support gathering that kind of data. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, right?

 

Instead, “women telling their stories” was equated with “dobbing in pervs”. Seriously, I can’t think of another issue – leaky homes, EQC claims, hospital waiting lists – where recording personal experiences would be characterised as rumour, innuendo, hearsay, and gossip. You have to wonder what people are afraid of.
https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/life/102137750/jeremy-elwood-and-michele-acourt-the-real-reasons-women-dont-speak-up

 

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18 Jul Benefits

It’s Election time, which means it’s Beneficiary-Bashing Season. Here’s a little thing I wrote last time round, which seems worth saying again right now. Particularly the bit about how people imagine living on a benefit might be just like your life is now without the bother of going to work.  It was originally published in the Press on 9 April 2014.

 

I have nothing against people who live on money provided by taxpayers doing a bit of overseas travel. By which I mean I’m not totally against this visit from William, Kate and George.

 

That doesn’t mean I’ll be out waving a flag any time soon, and I can think of a bunch of other things I’d rather we spent the estimated $1million on. But it’s nice to see new mothers getting out of the house, and for families to share experiences.

 

I’m even more enthusiastic about other beneficiaries travelling. Like my friend, a single parent who took her son to Melbourne during school holidays to visit his 87 year old grandfather. Not something she could afford herself – the wider family paid the airfare – and she continued to job-seek via the internet while she was away.

 

It still took her six months to recover financially from the other costs. And despite having notified WINZ prior to the trip, her benefit was stopped and there was a lag –and frantic phone calls – before it was restarted.

 

But making sure her son knows his family and sees something of the world is, she believes, part of being a good parent.

 

That’s probably not the scenario we are supposed to imagine. Fair enough. You come home from work, your feet hurt, the guy in the next cubicle has been a dick and your boss is a fool, and there’s Paula Bennett on the news saying everyone on the dole is off to the Gold Coast.

 

We can be quick to get all hot and fizzy, imagining the delights of life on the dole. “Getting paid to do nothing.” Your life as it is now but without the bother of going to work. An endless annual leave.

 

Because we confuse “unemployment” with our “I don’t have to go to work” fantasy. You picture yourself in your home as it is now, with all your stuff, hanging out with your friends. A bit of a lie in and some time to yourself. Maybe you’d have to tighten your belt but, crikey, you’d finally have time to put in that garden and grow your own groceries, and get really get serious about doing your own renovations.

 

What we don’t factor in is the hopelessness of real poverty. The humiliation of not having a job title. Knowing that every advertisement on TV is not aimed at you. Getting cross with the kids because you live in daily terror that what you do have will get broken, or lost, or worn out, or used up and you can’t see a time when they – the plates or the raincoat or the peanut butter – can be replaced.

 

Being scared of winter because you worry about how much keeping warm will take out of what you have for food. And not even being able to imagine a time when things will be better.

 

At which point the idea of the cousins chipping in for a cheap airfare sounds like the kind of gift you’re no longer too proud to turn down. Please, enjoy your flight.

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23 May “Here, let me help. Start by imagining your penis is bleeding…”

Published by the Spinoff, 27 April 2017

Following that Waikato Times column about blokes suffering from women’s periods (comprehensively rebutted here) Michele A’Court generously proffers some empathy advice for men.

 

Hey Tom O’Connor, I think you’re doing “empathy” wrong. You’re doing that thing where, instead of imagining what it is like to experience something, you just describe what it is like for you to know someone who experiences that thing.

And yes, that’s a convoluted sentence (you might need to read it twice) but that’s because what you are doing is unnecessarily convoluted. Men do this a lot with lady stuff. Like when a woman is treated badly, you ask each other to imagine how you would feel if she was your daughter, or your wife, or your sister, and how that would make you feel. When really, the most powerful way to empathise is to imagine if the thing – the rape, or the harassment or whatever – actually happened to you. “How would you feel if a team of rugby players at a social event touched your genitals without your consent, Tom?” Feel the difference there, buddy?

You say you experience menstrual pain because you live with people who experience menstrual pain, and their pain affects you – that whole 23-days-a-kitten, 5-days-a-tiger scenario you have to deal with. (To be honest, based on this, I’m not entirely sure you’ve met a woman, but let’s not get stuck on that or any of the other batshit-crazy ideas you managed to pound quite hard into a few column inches.)

Let’s do what you didn’t do and see if we can find a way that a man might actually be able to empathise with a woman who menstruates. The very best way would be to imagine yourself a woman, but I appreciate we might want to take baby-steps with this.

So… imagine that you are you, Tom. All good? And that for a few days every month, you bleed out of your penis. Sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot. And your testicles (which would have turned into ovaries if you’d been born a lady) are painful. They cramp up like they’re being squeezed in a vice. Not the whole time – it comes in waves. In extreme cases, it hurts so much that you vomit. For a day or two, or more, you might feel feverish and achy all over. You’re not actually ill, but you know… your balls hurt and your penis is bleeding, so…

Of course, it’s different for everyone. For some people, once your penis starts bleeding, it means the worst bit is actually over. There’s the blood to deal with, sure, but hormonal fluctuations that happen in the days beforehand make you feel all kinds of things. Sad, angry, frustrated, confused. And you will try to pinpoint the cause of each of those emotions but you will be unable to – they’re not caused by thoughts or events, they’re caused by your body doing its job.

Over the years (all this starts when you’re about 12-years-old and goes on till you’re about 50) you get good at managing it. You probably suck up about 90 percent of the complex emotional stuff and only express a tiny bit of what’s actually going on for you. You take paracetamol and ibuprofen to deal with the pain in your balls, and experiment with putting wheat bags on them and drinking herbal teas which might help – it’s hard to tell when you’re doubled over and sweating with nausea.

At some point, you might even come to appreciate and embrace the emotional rollercoaster. It’s good to feel things, and to express those emotions. That doesn’t mean you’re crazy – it’s what makes you a man.

And you do your best to be tidy with all the blood coming out of your penis. People don’t like to see the blood on your clothes so you wear special penis-wraps to soak it up. Though on heavy days (and you don’t know when they’ll be – surprise!) you might bleed a bit into your trousers, so you carry a hoodie or jumper even on a hot day just in case you need to tie it round your waist and hide the bloodstain. Your closest mates are really kind about letting you know if you’ve bled through – that’s what mates are for.

Back in your dad’s day, he made his own special penis-wraps out of old sacks in the garage and attached them to a hidden belt with twine. And at the end of each menstrual cycle, your dad would take the bits of old sack down to the river and bang them against the rocks to clean them for the next month. He and Granddad often reminisce about what a bonding experience this was for them – the women would be off doing whatever it was they did, and the men would be swapping yarns and getting that sacking all clean and soft, and they’d talk about the Moon and how He was both kind and cruel, making them bleed so often but then also making it possible for them to become fathers one day and what a joy that is.

But men don’t have time for all this riverside folk-telling now because they have jobs and stuff. And to be honest, no one’s too sad about that because the homemade sack-wrappings were bulky and they chafed and could be a bit smelly and sometimes caused penis infections, and stopped you doing things you wanted to do like ride a bike without wincing or play rugby. You can’t hunker down in a scrum when you’re on the sack.

Happily, times have moved on. Everyone buys disposable penis-wraps at the supermarket in a special section just for men and their sons. Well, almost everyone. They’re pretty pricey and there is real actual evidence of young boys not going to school when their penis is bleeding because they can’t afford the penis-wraps. And other reports of lower-socio-economic men improvising with bits of sack (they’ve heard the old stories) and ending up with inflamed, infected penises and bladder infections that make it painful when they wee, or walk, or sit down.

Even for people who aren’t poor, it can be a bit of a stretch. Imagine being the father of three sons – you’d be spending as much on penis-wraps as you do on petrol! And the penis-wraps aren’t nearly as much fun as going for a long drive. Still, you’ve got no choice.

Bleeding out of your penis isn’t an illness (though it does make you feel very sick on occasion and is recognised by “sick leave” when necessary) but you could argue that not being able to leave the house for five days every month because there’s blood running down your legs is something of a “disability”, yeah?

I’d be really happy for some of my tax dollars to go towards providing penis-wraps to men like you, Tom. It’s not like anyone would abuse the system – they’re not much good for anything else. Sure, some wag at a party might use five to make a whacky glove but that sort of shit is only funny once.

It seems weird, right, that one half of the population has to spend a significant amount of money on a basic need – which, to be fair, benefits all of us in terms of hygiene and health. I’d like us as a community to contribute to that, to level the playing field a bit. I can’t take away the pain in your balls, Tom, or stop the blood pouring out of your penis, but I can ease the financial burden for you and your brothers, and make your life – in this sense at least – a little more like mine.

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27 Feb On Grief…

First published in “Your Weekend” 11.2.17

 

Last summer, I heard a man walking in our local bush reserve having a chat with himself. Not in a “railing against an invisible enemy” kind of way – just one of those times when you’re thinking deeply about something so big you forget the rules and unwittingly start speaking your thoughts out loud.

 

He looked stricken when he saw me – embarrassment draped over something sadder. I said soothing things about how we all think out loud sometimes, and what a lovely place this was for it, and then both of us scrambled off in our different directions. I’ve wondered since what it was he was trying to process. What his story was.

 

My father died and we had his funeral on Waitangi weekend. Right now, I could get caught talking to myself in the bush. I have certainly been caught not being able to remember the names of people I know well. And reaching for nouns. I am unable to imagine maps in my head – I can’t drive from one suburb to another without advice. It’s hard to make decisions. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a time when a lot of decisions need to be made.

 

I feel like I need to apologise to anyone who has lost a parent, for only showing them an ordinary amount of sympathy. I thought I understood grief, but this is different. I’ve lost close friends, grandparents, and other significant people. I grieved for a year for a 21 year old cat.

 

But I don’t know how to be in the world without my Dad. I’m sure I’ll find a way but this is new territory. I’ve never had to deal with this before. Almost all of us will.

 

Being a child is our first role, the first person we are in the world. While your parents are there – even when you’ve reached the place where you’re feeding them ice cream on a spoon – you can still escape to being their child, and rest your head on their shoulder.

 

At my father’s funeral, my brother and I found stories that made us children again. The ones I know from when he was a young man make me happy. My brother told a story from our childhood I had forgotten for more than 40 years. It made me laugh harder than you possibly should at a funeral. It was glorious.

 

There is a recording of the service. They do that automatically in case you want it. I couldn’t bear to hear it again. But I will replay it all in my head, and tell the story of all those stories to anyone who wants to hear them. And, for a while at least, possibly mutter to myself during peaceful walks in the bush.

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10 Dec John Key & A Rampaging Goat

Written in the hours after John Key resigns on Monday 5 December 2016, and in honour of a rampaging goat. (First published in YourWeekend 10.12.16)

There’s the odd news story that makes you pull over to the side of the road and gasp.

Four days before John Key resigned as Prime Minister, there was a story about a rampaging goat tasered by police in Oamaru. John Campbell introduced the story at the end of Radio NZ’s Checkpoint with faux breaking news gravitas. After a day of Pike River, Kaikoura and child sexual abuse survivors, for all of us a rampaging goat was almost a cat up a tree.

The interview with local motelier, Paula, was Kiwi storytelling at its best. She sounded like the kind of chick you’d want to have a beer with at a barbecue. Pretty relaxed about it. Painted a vivid picture of a “big hairy goat with big giant horns” initially appearing dead in some flax until Animal Control arrived and chucked it some bread, whereupon it “just bolted” and tore up the neighbourhood and SH 1.

“It was just chaos from then on,” she explained calmly. She managed briefly to lock it in someone’s yard. “I thought, all good, all good” but the goat escaped again. Police arrived and “they were running all over the place and chasing it through the yard”. At some point, Paul says the goat scaled a 6 foot fence. Imagine it! Paula didn’t hang about. “I thought I’d better get back. We’ve got a motel to run.” The pragmatism of a responsible small business owner.

Why did the goat run? We can only speculate. Possibly a wild goat finding itself in metropolitan Oamaru was driven mad by the traffic. Found himself somewhere he didn’t like. Paula says it was a male goat “so he was smelly, he was in breeding season so obviously something pulled him into town…” She and the interviewer laughed gently about the sexual mores of goats. It was a sweet moment.

At the end of the day, things didn’t turn out well for the goat. Tasered and ultimately – Paula put it as kindly as she could – euthanased. Not the way the goat would have wanted to go out.

I thought of the goat when John Key resigned. That Key, at least, was going out the way he wanted to, the guy people still want to have a beer with at a barbecue. Perfect timing from a currency trader who knows when to buy and when to sell. But also a politician whose show reel will feature some bizarre moments with ponytails and soap. And a prime minister who built tremendous political capital but wouldn’t spend it on hard choices like the housing crisis, or Pike River, and who takes that capital out the door with him.

And then I wondered which wild thing is coming into town next.

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