Writing

03 May For Mother’s Day 2021

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly  3.5.21

 

We’ve always said in our family that gifts don’t matter on Mother’s Day. And yet, as I write this, I am looking at the coffee mug my daughter decorated for me some 25 years ago, now living permanently on my desk and filled with pens. It features a house and some stick figures and has been signed by the artist. It might not be the first thing I’d grab in a fire, but it would be close. 

Still, our family’s general attitude towards Mother’s Day has been more poo-poo than ra-ra. This goes back over a century, almost as old as the day itself. West Virginian Anna Jarvis trademarked “Mother’s Day” in 1912,  intending it to be an annual homage to mums but, according to legend, spent the rest of her life railing against its rapid commercialisation. If you thought buying a card and posting it constituted honouring your mother, Ms Jarvis had some quite sharp things to say to you.

They would have been more or less as sharp as my great-grandmother’s thoughts on the subject. Lieutenant Edith Rogers (Salvation Army rather than infantry) strongly believed proper maternal respect should take up more than one day a year, and best involved regular involvement, and the spending of time, not money. She was unlikely to be impressed by some neighbour’s errant son who, in the normal run of things, failed to darken his mother’s door if she were poorly, but turned up with a flourish and some flowers on Mother’s Day and expected a pat a on the back.

Great-grandma also deeply lamented the rise of this imported American “Mother’s Day” at the expense of the much older Christian tradition of “Mothering Sunday”, that little pause in the austerity of Lent when families gathered together and mothers were given thanks.

So yes, traditionally, not much fuss was meant to be made of Mother’s Day in our family, especially not in terms of buying gifts. In the last couple of decades, my mother, my daughter and I settled on a new tradition of spending the evening together at a show. Which is a fancy way of saying that I was usually booked to perform at some Mother’s Day event or other, and I would nab them both tickets so they could come along, too.

Some of these events have entered into family lore. The complexities of the mother/daughter relationship can be a rich source of comedy material and, after some onstage story about my kid, I announced she was in the room – at which point she stood up, took a bow and enjoyed a round of applause. All three of us were giddy with it after. A few short years later, in her snippy teen period, she grudgingly agreed to come to the show but asked that I not tell any stories about her. Fair call. Afterwards, I asked if she’d enjoyed the night and she shrugged. “It was all right,” she said, “but you didn’t talk about me…”

One recent year when my mother had begun to be unwell, I told her I’d been asked to present at a writer’s event on Mother’s Day in another town, but perhaps she would prefer I stayed? “But you must go!” she insisted. Mother’s Day, Schmother’s Day! She would much rather picture me at a festival, talking about books – this was the thing that would bring her pleasure. But when I phoned her from a city a long way away, she sounded sad, and told me of all the fun things her friends had been doing with their children that day. I had made a terrible mistake, I realised, and flowers when I got back on Monday weren’t going to make up for it.

Most years, though, we got it just right.  But I also know the day can be a tricky one for various reasons. Tricky for those who can’t be with their mother right now because of Covid-19 restrictions. Or for sole mothers who don’t have another adult parent who helps the kids to make a fuss of them. For people who have difficult relationships within their families. For people who might have hoped to be mothers but haven’t managed that. And for people who are having their first Mother’s Day without a mother to celebrate. I hope all of you find a way to feel love, and show love, on Sunday.

I will, as is tradition, be off doing a show somewhere on the actual day. And also, as is tradition, we will make sure there are lots of opportunities on the other 364 days to say all the mushy things and give all the help. And I will probably, just for old time’s sake, tell a couple of stories about my now grown-up kid. If she’s okay with that. I’ll ask her first.

 

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03 May “Chef Wants To Know What You Would Like for Breakfast”

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 26.4.21

 

Someone from the luxury resort was on the phone to our room. They’d worked out we were up now because smoke was curling out of the chimney of our chalet across the courtyard. Midwinter in Queenstown, you need to light the fire as soon as you throw off the duck feather duvet and slide out of the thousand thread count sheets. “Chef would like to know what you would like for breakfast.”

This was many years ago, when I was booked to perform at Winter Festival. Part of the package was to be hosted by a sponsor – we were paid less in cash, and more in kind. Which is how we found ourselves at the same lodge Bill Clinton had stayed at on a visit to our shores. The kind of place where, if you were of a mind, you could ask them to rustle up a helicopter to take you skiing somewhere quiet. Possibly shoot a deer and have chef turn it into venison steaks for a private dinner served in the wine cellar if that was your mood. 

I hadn’t seen a menu in our room, and asked where I should be looking. I was assured there was no specific list of breakfast options – just tell chef what you fancy and the kitchen will be happy to oblige. This, I realised, was what it was like to be rich. You didn’t just choose from available options, you told people what you wanted and they would make it their business to find it for you.

I should have been delighted by all this. Instead, the idea of imagining a breakfast out of thin air left me bewildered and a touch anxious. What would you like to have for breakfast when you can have anything in the world? Do you go hog wild (possibly organic hog, raised on the eastern side of a hill and served extra crispy) or ask for the ordinary thing that starts your ordinary day? Should I be who I am, or who I would like to be in another different life?

This was during my very lean years – raising a kid, scratching out a living, working hard to make ends meet, only just managing it at various points. No financial safety net, sleepless nights, all of that palaver. The kind of poor where you counted every slice of bread, and wept if something was broken or spilt or wasted because you couldn’t see how those things could be replenished. The kind of poor that makes you edgy and short-tempered, and saying something like, “Never mind, we’ll get another one” would be speaking a foreign language.

So I spent those days at the luxury lodge wondering about two things. One was this: What if this package deal only covers the room, and a bill will presented when we leave for the chef’s breakfasts and delicious dinners? How the heck am I going to pay for that? And the other was: Now that I’ve seen how it works, I’m not sure if I’d be good at being rich.

Because we assume that we would be, right? We daydream about what it would be like to not worry about bills, to live easily and comfortably – or even extravagantly. Part of it, too, is that we imagine how generous we could be – the money we’d give away, the help we could give, the time we could spend on things and people other than work and worry.

But would I really know what to do with more money than I needed? Maybe what happens is you start to imagine you need things that match your money. Like helicopters and venison, and places to stay that nightly cost more than the average month’s rent.

I thought about that trip again recently when I had the family to stay. I can happily clarify two things now – first (everyone relax) the deal had indeed been all-inclusive and there was no list of extras to pay for when we finally checked out. (We should have said yes to the helicopter.) And second, my idea of what “rich” is has shifted somewhat.

Here is what it means to me now: no one in my house goes hungry, ever. We have adventures, buy school and also party shoes, stop for ice cream pretty much whenever we want. Sure, there is a little bit of mental maths going on (when is the power bill due again?) and also a line to be observed between “I’d love you to have this” and “Let’s not be greedy”.

I feel rich because I own books I haven’t read yet, and enough clothes to get dressed for a week without doing the laundry, and because now and then I can afford something exciting to look forward to.

And we are rich if we know that, worst case scenario, we have friends who would rally round; and that – boot on the other foot – we could afford to take a friend in and cheerfully give them houseroom if they needed it.

 

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28 Apr Q&A for Viva

1 The blurb for your Comedy Festival show, in some way, mentions being a woman/the feminist perspective/gender identity/a celebration of being female or working with other females…  And yet, in the past, female comedians have suggested it’s not helpful to differentiate the sexes in comedy. So, what’s your take on that conundrum: in 2021, why should we be talking about these differences? And what is it about the female sense of humour that is unique?

It’s not really much of a conundrum. Women have been (and regularly still are) underrepresented in comedy. Even in 2021 you would be hard-pressed to find any line-up show or TV comedy show that isn’t heavy on the blokes. Historically, the attitude has been that there are “comedians” (assumed to be men) and then there are “female comedians” (assumed to be a special variety, along with jugglers and magicians). So we resist being separated as “comediennes” or “female comedians” and also work hard to close that gap by taking up equal space. Often, that means creating our own spaces. I adore producing shows that give all the space to women and non-binary performers – it is one of the few times we get to work with each other, hang out in the greenroom, see each other’s work. I will stop doing that when other producers consistently book a line-up show that has five women and two men (rather than the other way round) without it needing to be a special ladies’ day.

I’m not sure there is anything unique about the female sense of humour in the same way I don’t think there is a uniquely “Kiwi” humour. You can see this clearly when there are a lot of women in one show – a huge variety of voices, experiences, styles, attitudes. But there is a good chance that, from moment to moment, the way a woman experiences the world will particularly resonate with the women who make up at least half of the average comedy audience.

 

2 Tell us what we can expect from your Comedy Festival show this year.

Rage. I am inviting women and non-binary people to come share their anger. “Feminist Rage Night” was born a couple of years ago at the Verb Festival in Wellington and it has been a glorious celebration, so now I’m bringing it to Auckland. In the same way women were told we weren’t supposed to be funny, women are often told we are not supposed to be angry. “Pissed off with the patriarchy? Have a massage! Buy a lipstick!” Yeah, nah. Here’s a space to take your rage for a romp as a communal experience. Expect poems, rants and songs from furious feminists.

 

3 The comedy world has always seemed like a bit of a boys’ club. How true has that been in your experience – in the past, and now? What’s behind the changes you’ve seen? What still needs to change?

I was lucky that I started doing stand-up around the same time (early 1990s) that the genre first arrived in New Zealand, so I didn’t need to ask permission from anyone to join in. I was also lucky that, by and large, those first comedians were terrifically good sorts, so the greenroom was largely supportive and safe. It is also true that, as the industry grew, some boys have liked to think of it as a boys’ club, and we work hard to disabuse them of this ridiculous idea.

There are particular challenges women deal with – we don’t live in a world where it is safe for a woman to move around at night, we might have issues with child care, there are fewer slots available to women, we work in environments like bars where predators can feel emboldened, and there are still too many men who confuse a workplace with a real world Tinder app. It is not a standard workplace with an HR representative or a Health & Safety policy (though the industry has one of those now).

I have arrived to work and been a) barred from the greenroom by a bouncer because a woman couldn’t be a comedian, b) once I’ve talked my way into the greenroom been asked, “Whose girlfriend are you?” and c) asked if I was the stripper. (Not recently, I have to say – most strippers have retired by this age.) There are places I haven’t been, jobs I haven’t done, there’s work I haven’t been offered, and dangerous situations I’ve had to escape. Most women in any industry will say the same thing.

I am heartened that women, who have always arrived in the comedy industry in equal numbers to men but often left quickly, now stay. We support each other, create work for each other, and we have reached some kind of critical mass. God bless Millennials and their self-belief – we’ve raised our daughters well. These young women brook no shit. I am glad I stuck around to see it. I love performing now even more than I did and that has a lot to do with seeing people who look like me on stage and in the audience.

 

4 What are your thoughts on mining ‘women’s issues’ (periods, hormones, etc) for laughs?

Wonderful! All comedians talk about their lives, right? I am having a fine old time talking about menopause now that it is part of my life. Show me a man who could bleed out of his penis for five days a month and not mention it on stage. (Hat tip to Margaret Cho for that observation.) Comedy has always done a fine job of demystifying, of normalising the things we don’t talk about enough. ‘Women’s issues’ are issues. Let’s have a chat.

 

5 Does a ‘woke’ audience help or hinder the laughs? ie is there more or less freedom to make jokes (without worrying you’re going to offend someone)?

My favourite audiences are the ones who won’t put up with racist, homophobic or sexist nonsense, or cheap gags at the expensive of the least powerful. Good comedy has always (since the time of the royal court jester, if not before) punched up to the king, not down. I never set out to offend (because, yawn) and take great care not to when I am invited into someone else’s space like a corporate event. But part of any creative person’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, so…

 

6 What is the role of comedy in 2021 – is it more important, less important than before? Does it have a job to do that isn’t just making people laugh, and if so, what is it?

Comedy certainly matters more to me now than ever. When we went into Level 4 Lockdown last March, I didn’t know if we would ever be able to perform live again, or if people would ever feel comfortable about gathering in large groups. That sounds dramatic now, but it was a genuine fear then, and our overseas friends in the industry are still living with this. And then I didn’t know who I would be if I didn’t get to do this, so there was oodles of existential angst. I still feel enormous gratitude every time I walk on stage that this thing is possible again. We are all slightly different from our pre-Covid selves, and it is glorious to be together and talk about it, and feel it. Comedy has always been about creating moments of shared consciousness and, after being locked away from each other, we need this even more. We are one of the only countries in the world that gets to have a comedy festival this year. How lucky are we?! It would be rude not to take advantage of this.

 

7 What made you laugh today?

Walking into the kitchen and seeing my grandson’s handprints all over the door of the dishwasher after a visit from both my mokopuna at the weekend. I thought about wiping them off but, nah. Crazy old nana.

 

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18 Apr On My Propensity for Smacking Myself In the Head

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 19.4.21

 

The other night in an underground city carpark, I put on quite a show. Not the kind of show I had just done in the comedy club up the road – that had gone far more to plan and involved very little slapstick. Also, that had been stand-up. This was entirely fall-down. 

There was a sizeable audience for both events, though. I’d finished work to a decent crowd around the same time the Auckland Philharmonia had knocked off next door, so the city’s carpark was abuzz with classical music lovers now queuing up to pay for their parking and happily chatting. By all accounts, Michael Houston was superb and the Rachmaninov had been invigorating. You could tell there would be no early nights in these people’s houses.

I chatted with strangers about our nights the way you do in long, slow moving queues, then skipped towards my car, possibly a bit full of myself and my own good times. And suddenly fell flat on my face on what I can only assume was a particularly slippery bit of concrete.

Keys and handbags and open palms make quite a clatter in underground carparks. Still, not quite loud enough to drown out a dozen or so people sharply drawing in their breath. An older lady came to help and asked me how I felt, meaning my scraped knees and red hands. “A bit silly, to be honest,” I told her. That clarified, and my stuff put back in my handbag, she told me she couldn’t find her car or the husband who was waiting in it, and we agreed we were both having quite a time, and wished each other all the best.

In the usual run of things, I’m not someone who trips or spills or knocks things over. I can catch a ball and throw a dart, and I’m not the wedding guest people keep away from a three-tiered cake because “you know what she’s like”. But I am capable – suddenly, out of the blue – of smacking myself in the head with all manner of things in inexplicable ways.

This is not (I’ve googled it) because of anything underlying and sinister. I just get a rare and sudden onset of clumsiness when I’m tired or distracted. It doesn’t happen often enough to worry me, which also means when it does happen, it’s quite a shock. “I am totally not the kind of person who falls over in a carpark,” I am able to think as I fall over in a carpark.

Mostly, I find these moments amusing and endearing. I mean, we’re supposed to worry that grazed knees – perfectly acceptable in small children – mean something else when we’re grownups. We’re waiting in trepidation for the day a fall becomes A Fall with a capital F and leads to hip replacements and assisted living.

Rather, I suspect these moments serve to remind us we’re not as grownup as we think we are. A sign, not of decline, but that the world is still a place we can’t take for granted and needs our attention.

So this is a shout out to the occasionally klutzy doofuses amongst us. We know who we are. And like the nice lady who tried to cheer me up by telling me she’d forgotten the location of her husband, let me lift your spirits with my most ridiculous moment of gawkiness.

One of my favourite jobs is recording voice overs for radio and TV commercials. It’s one of the few times when I really feel like I know what I’m doing – I’ve been doing this for years, and I love it.

It’s one of the few jobs where someone like me is on an equal footing. You’re not on the back foot because of your gender, or age, or appearance. It feels like there is no glass ceiling with voice work. It’s all about skill, and what you can make your voice do.

On this particular day, it was a demo for new client – a kind of lightly paid audition that might lead to a regular job. There was a cluster of new people to meet and try to impress. And they were impressed with my first take, and got excited about seeing what else I could do.

Can you do it so we can hear your smile? Yes, I can. Now like it’s a warm secret? Absolutely. Can you make us feel the colour green? Sure thing. Give us something that sounds like corduroy? Not a problem.

Amazing, they said, this would be a regular gig. I thanked them, picked up my umbrella and… smacked myself in the head with it. Quite hard. I have no idea how. I could not recreate this. Recovered (oh, how we laughed) I turned to go… And walked straight into a glass door.

Turns out it’s not just the glass ceiling you have to worry about. I did not get the job.

 

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09 Apr What, this old thing?

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 12.4.21

 

Around the time my high school friends were spending their pocket money on Levis and Bata Bullets, I was scouring our town’s first “Opportunity Shop” for old ladies’ castoffs. There was an orange tweed blazer and pleated camel skirt, and a pair of extremely nana-shoes (so nana, my actual nana had some just like it) which I took to with shoe paint and turned bright pink.

Desperation had started it. Wages from my weekend job at the local dairy didn’t stretch to store-bought jeans so I was stuck with the perfectly serviceable but also uncool “elastic-waist denim trouser” scenario my mother whipped up on the Singer at home.

Immediately, my op-shop budget unleashed op-shop tastes. I couldn’t say if there even was a rack of pre-loved jeans to rifle through – too distracted was I by polyester blouses with pussycat bows (wish I still had those) and Silverdale twinsets in pastel shades (same).

It gave me a sense of independence and power that, even with very little in my wallet, I could probably buy one thing that took my eye. Low-risk spending which meant I could also afford to experiment, make mistakes, and donate the yellowed petticoat or felt hat back to the store if it turned out this wasn’t my thing.

Later, there was an elderly fur coat that doubled as a bedspread for Aro Valley winters as well as frivolous ensembles like the yellow polka dot two-piece with peplum waist I was still wearing in photographs taken ten years later. Once, I found a dollar note in the pocket of something I’d brought home which essentially (good housekeeping) made the whole purchase free.

I have favourite towns and cities to visit based not only on access to cheese rolls but because of their charity shops or their fancy sister, the vintage store. You can justify something a bit spendy on the basis that, in its first go-round of retail, that designer-you’ve-heard-of jacket would have cost six times more.

An avid handwasher and mender, I suspect on some level I’ve occasionally bought a nana-cardigan because I am convinced I can get that stain out, replace those buttons from the jar I keep, freshen it and soften it and reshape it the way it deserves to be presented to the world. I’ve also been known to audibly catch my breath when finding The Perfect Thing waiting patiently just for me on a crowded rack – the way a hunter might feel about spotting a stag in dense bush, but heaps kinder and no-one dies.

Buying second-hand because you’re on a budget is something you will never stop doing while you’re on that budget, but there are other vital reasons for supporting recycled clothing stores. Since the tariffs came off imported manufacturing in the 1980s, we’ve been able to buy cheaper clothes – which means we’ve bought more by volume, and then kept them half as long. And then we chuck 75 per cent of it pretty quickly into our landfills. Textiles sent to Wellington’s Southern Landfill doubled in the last 10 years, and it’s estimated that 25 per cent of them were perfectly fine clothes that could have been recycled or reused.

Even earlier in the process, according to the United Nations the fashion industry creates about ten per cent of the global CO2 emissions – that’s more than aviation and shipping combined.

So I’m delighted when I hear about savvy young women setting goals for themselves to not buy anything “new” for a year or more, instead hunting down cool stuff in stores that fund charities, or swapping amongst their circle of friends, or developing relationships with the delightful people – kind volunteers as well as passionate professionals – who make recycled clothing their business.

I love it that finding new-to-you clothes that make you feel good can be done with an eye to caring for the planet by being conscious about what you bring into your home – less stuff, and of the best quality you can afford, then wearing it for as long as it lasts – or gifting it to someone who will get fresh joy out of it. Plus doing what you can to support ethical manufacturers who source sustainable textiles and pay their workers properly.

The other part of this story is to take care with what goes out of your house, too. Charity stores report spending thousands of dollars on sending torn, dirty, unsellable clothing to landfill – which isn’t helping anyone, let alone our carbon emissions. There’s a woman I admire who packages up her pre-loved clothes like gifts – reused gift bags or wrapping paper – so that the people they end up with feel like they’re getting a present, and that they deserve good things.

Eventually, we might get to a point where someone admires our outfit and we say, “What, this old thing? I’ve had it for years!” and that’s something we genuinely feel proud of.

 

 

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05 Apr Thanks, F*@#ing Covid.

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 5.4.21

 

I’ve been thinking about those little German weather houses shaped like an Alpine chalet that people used to have on their walls. Depending on the weather, either a woman (when it’s sunny and dry) or a man (rainy and damp) pops out of their side-by-side doors to let you know if it is a good day for pegging out the washing or, conversely, if you need to take your brolly with you to the shops. 

I want to say there was one at my great-aunt Ruth’s, but memory is unreliable. It may have been at another relative’s house entirely. Because when I picture it now, there was a lot going on already in Ruth’s front hallway and I find it hard to imagine why she – a woman of taste – would have added a decorative weather house to her already bountiful furnishings.

Because I am certain about other things in Ruth’s front hall. There was a telephone which sat on the kind of table we referred to then as “a telephone table” and beside it was a seat – more padded than a dining chair, less sumptuous than the kind for the living room – on which she could sit for long, comfortable conversations with whoever phoned. Room for an ashtray and teacup, or an evening gin. Having a particular place in your house for making and taking phone calls seems outlandish now. Still, back then, when the phone rang, at least you knew where to find it.

I am absolutely certain that above Ruth’s telephone table there was a cuckoo clock that had belonged to her mother. When my brother and I came to stay, great-grandma’s clock would be wound up so we could hear it cuckoo at 15 minute intervals. Once the novelty had worn off (an hour or so would do it) our great-uncle would fiddle with its workings to keep the bird quiet and still.

Maybe I’ve turned the cuckoo clock into a weather house in some part of my brain, which will be the part that has been wishing for something like that – an outward sign to tell me when the pressure is going up or down.

You know how it is – you get so caught up in Getting Stuff Done you don’t notice rain clouds until it’s too late to get the sheets in. Could’ve looked out the window but honestly a chap in lederhosen popping out his door would have helped. A weather house for your stress levels, helping you assess what sort of day it is.

This most recent Alert Level change – my city at Level 3, the rest of Aotearoa at Level 2 – was a tough one. Tougher than the Valentine’s Day short, sharp “stay home, save lives” the week before. I can tell you that now in a retrospect, but I couldn’t see it at the time.

I’m a massive fan of doing things for the collective good. I would have assiduously kept my blackout curtains closed during the Blitz, and I will be lining up for a Covid-19 vaccine when it’s my turn – not just because of my own underlying health issues, but because with more of us vaccinated, all of us will do well.

So you put on the bravest face you can find, right? Plus you don’t want to sound all wah-wah sad-face about your personal circumstances. Other people are doing it tough – often tougher – and we need to keep each other’s spirits up.

But at some point – and people in Canterbury will know this better than anyone – there are cracks in your resilient front, and pretending you are okay when you’re not starts to feel like you’re pretending to be someone else.

I noticed my hands were permanently clenched, that on more than one morning I had a cry in the shower, and that my memory – not just about weather houses – was unreliable.

A work friend told me she liked something I’d written a year ago, just now published. I had no memory of writing it. I’ve read it now, and it sounds like me but I don’t remember working on it in 2020’s Level 4. She says, yes, and she’s never sure what day it is. Sometimes the year escapes her, and she laughs, “Thank you, Covid!”

Other casualties of Covid: I keep a paper diary and I am using a lot of Twink. (Paper tape, actually – never say I don’t move with the times.) I look at bookings for work which used to make me (a freelancer, self-employed) feel secure about the future, but now I think, Really? Will that happen? Diary, I am not sure I believe you.

My brain has behaved like this – living on the edge of tears, the inability to focus or record memories or to imagine the future and trust plans – before, and I realise this presents a bit like grief. For which my best advice is to be gentle with yourself. The little man has popped out of the weather house and there will be rain. Grab your coat.

 

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30 Mar On crop-tops, man-buns, modesty and school uniforms

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 29.3.21

 

Given I am about to share my sartorial advice, a little heads-up seems in order because I’ve just looked down to see what I am wearing.

Currently: my Level 3 Lockdown leggings under a pair of shorts I bought without trying them on whose label said they would fit me but whose actual dimensions suggest they could fit two of me (which I didn’t return because the voluminous-ness of them provides my husband and I with much mirth, plus I like to eat so it’s good to have things to grow into) and a washed-out t-shirt I acquired decades ago as a handy declarative for protest marches which forthrightly states, “I’m against it” – just like that, but in capital letters.

So this piece is not being written by a fashionista. Grab a pinch of salt and read on.

At various points throughout each school year, there will be news stories covering the apparent lack of coverage on the bodies of students in the student body. These will be the stories about girls. There will be other stories with hair-raising headlines about afros, cornrows and man-buns (which, in case you’re confused – and why wouldn’t you be – are just buns like ballerinas and nanas wear but for some reason get a special name when people who aren’t women wear them). These will be the stories about boys.

Both these types of stories make me roll my eyes so hard I almost tip backwards (so it’s lucky I’ve got my active wear on) but there are some attitudes involved that are worth having a chat about.

First, let me say I’m a fan of school uniforms and not at all opposed to dress codes. Parameters are good and having a set daily outfit can be equalising and democratic. If you’ve got a school uniform that is reasonably priced, suited to the local climate and sufficiently unisex to make everyone, regardless of gender, feel comfortable about how they’re being asked to present themselves to the world, fill your (regulation) boots. The fewer decisions to be made before you leave the house, the better, I say.

Second, schools can be good at listening and evolving. Back when I was at high school (post slate-and-pencil, pre-computer) a bunch of us lobbied for long trousers to be a winter option for girls (and junior boys) because tiny polyester tartan skirts (and shorts) are a stupid idea when you live in a place with heavy July frosts. Our principal could see the point of that, so uniform options were widened.

But once you’ve got your kids wearing the same clothes as each other, it seems a reasonable idea to allow people to also express their individuality. Much of adolescence is about working out who you are in the world. What are you like? What do you like? How are you different from Oliver or Olivia? Which things matter to you about your culture or ethnicity or values? We talk a lot now in corporate environments about “bringing your whole self to work”. We’re going to be better at that as adults if we start learning about it in our teens.

So as long as a boy’s hair isn’t a health risk (I am attempting to imagine this) or stops him seeing or hearing what’s going on the classroom, I fail to see any problem with how he arranges it on his head. Perhaps if school authorities object to a hairdo, the owner of said hairdo could be given an opportunity to argue their case before a jury of their peers – make it a teaching moment and a chance to speak up.

But the perennial issue for girls, it seems, is “modesty”. Already this year a senior mufti-wearing high school student has been told that the clothes she wears (crop-tops, thin-strapped singlets) were saying too much about who she might be (or could be assumed to be) and that this would “distract” her male teachers and boys. As though the sight of a shoulder might stop you being able to cope with calculus. 

Here’s another teaching moment: if you want to know how a woman feels towards you, ask her – not her clothes. I spent a lot of my parenting years wishing that my daughter would put more clothes on. My mother wished the same about me. I expect my daughter will have the same thoughts about my granddaughter before too long.

Every generation has two sartorial aims – to not dress like their mothers, and to dress like each other. It says everything about fashion, and nothing about behaviour or character.

Eventually, they will do what we all do – design our own “uniform” for daily life to streamline the business of getting out of the house on time. A little bit of fashion maybe, a dollop of personal expression and increasing nods to comfort and practicality. Which is how I ended up here in my Lockdown leggings and balloon-like shorts, not fretting about what young women wear because eventually they’ll all get cold and put their cardies on.

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22 Mar On Dirty Books & Dog-Eared Pages

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 22.3.21

 

My mother had an older friend who shocked everybody once by stating firmly that she rarely used our town’s public library because she didn’t like “dirty books”.

What Mrs M. meant wasn’t clear at first – this was in 1972 when a fair bit of chatter over the teacups was about lewd publications. “The Little Red School Book” and “Down Under the Plum Trees” – two books controversial in their time for openly discussing sex, sexuality and drugs – were an especially hot topic in living rooms near us because both were published in New Zealand by Alister Taylor who had family in our neighbourhood and would occasionally drop by. Small towns can be both shocked and thrilled to be connected – however tenuously – with things a touch cosmopolitan and risqué.

So the idea that our library might actually be brimming with “dirty books” gave everyone pause. Was it? Had we simply not noticed? Were we looking in the wrong sections? Should my mother be cancelling Friday afternoon family trips to stock up on weekend novels for her and young adult books for us?

Turns out, Mrs M. wasn’t referring to literary content. She was talking about how grubby a book might get after being read by many members of the public, who may or may not have washed their hands first, or spilt their dinner on various pages, or dropped the thing in the bath. The thought of unknowingly touching a book previously dipped in human soup was too much for her. There was a shelf near the checkout counter of “new books”, just arrived, and these were the ones she would read.

As hilarious as my mother found this (not expressed at the time, manners please) we still had firm family rules about how a book should be treated. It was less about catching anything off previous readers, and more about treating things with care so you could pass them on to others unspoilt.

And also, I guess, because of reverence for books. I think of the books in our house as members of our family, impossible to give away if they have been loved. A thought like that has to come from somewhere, and I blame my mother. Scribbling on books, leaving them out in the garden, turning down corners instead of using a bookmark – these were all crimes. Babies round here get a free pass in terms of chewing board books essentially made for this purpose, but a toddler with a crayon? No chocolate pudding for you. 

There is no government edict on How To Treat A Book, so we write the rules ourselves. Part of growing up is learning that different families have different rules for this and other things. I was shocked when my mother informed me (and she knew I’d be shocked, this was her goal) that an otherwise respected member of our community quietly wrote her initials on the inside back cover of library books so she’d know if she’d read them before. Shocked that someone who would heartily disapprove of graffiti or any kind of civic defacement would do that to public property, and also a little shaken that you’d get to a point in life where you might read the same book twice accidentally. (I am older now, and – sigh – I get it.)

There was a wild time in my teens when I went to bible study (bless me) and we were instructed to use a fluorescent highlighter to mark quotes we wanted to return to which was, to me, a heady mix of piety and sacrilege. There was the second hand student text I bought, discovering too late that the previous owner had written copious notes in red ink in the margins, and I spent a semester bewildered by their analysis and second-guessing my own.

But suddenly, I am rewriting my rules. In an RNZ interview, Kim Hill (and you can’t doubt Kim’s love of books or respect for literature) talked to writer Douglas Stuart about his Booker prize-winning “Shuggie Bain”. About five minutes in, she says this: “There are many parts of the book that I’ve turned the page down on… One of them is a description of Shuggie’s mother who has passed out from the drink…”

She passed out? I fairly fell off my chair. Turned down the corners?! Can we do this? Has my assiduous use of the bookmark all these years been for nought? Making notes on a slip of paper tucked into the back been a wasted effort? Well, yes, now I think about it, it has – for the books I own, not the books I borrow, of course. Far be it from me to tell the next reader when to turn the light out, or which bit might be worth another look.

But in the privacy of my own home now, you will find me here, turning down corners, sans regrets, except that I didn’t do this sooner. And wondering what other rules I can toss aside.

 

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14 Mar Lessons We Can Learn From Lemurs

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 15.3.21

 

If you asked me to draw up a list of the nicest things that have happened to me, somewhere on that list it would say, “Having my ear sniffed by a lemur”.

This was at Wellington Zoo in the early 1990s – a chilly day, making some kind of TV nonsense. I can’t remember the show or why it involved a ring-tailed lemur, but it was one of those times when working in television felt properly privileged, almost as fancy as people who don’t work in TV might think it is. That it opened doors that would have stayed closed if you’d picked some other sort of job.

I see now on their website that Wellington Zoo offers these kinds of close encounters to all-comers for a fee, which is fabulously democratic of them. I honestly recommend saving up your pocket money for an up-close-and-personal with a meerkat or giraffe, but particularly with a lemur. Bang for your buck, right there. 

He sat on my shoulder (not something you can arrange, I imagine, with a giraffe) and ate (dried fruit? fresh grapes?) carefully from my fingers. Which was already delightful, but the magic was when, for a time, he found me more interesting than the treats and gently nuzzled his nose into my hair for long enough for me to feel his quick, soft breathe on my ear and little dabs of nose. I can feel it and hear it now. Like sniffing a baby’s head except in this scenario I was the baby being sniffed.

You know what I mean, I’m sure, about the flood of warmth you get when animals pay you a bit of attention and you imagine somehow that your existence has been approved. Dogs are easy, cats are hard, lemurs feel like a proper achievement. On a rough day you might think, remember that lemur? That lemur really liked you. You must be alright.

I can spot the word “lemur” in print now from fifty paces in much the same way I can spot “New Zealand” in an overseas newspaper – that particular arrangement of letters leaping out from the page. Which is how I stumbled across a story about Cheyenne, a red-bellied lemur in North Carolina who, at age 32, has had a rich life and maybe something to tell us about what matters in the end.

Lemurs, like humans, favour monogamous relationships – or regard them as aspirational, anyway. So far, so human. In the wild, red-bellied lemurs like Cheyenne form tight, long-term bonds with their mates, rarely moving more than 10 metres from each other. (Potentially claustrophobic but stay with me.) Other species such as crowned or ring-tailed lemurs are less strict about the monogamy, but still prefer a small tight group of friends and lovers. None of them like to spend much time alone. A little bit “hippie commune” then, or “what really happens in the suburbs”.

Cheyenne’s first partner at the Duke Lemur Centre was another red-bellied monogamist. But when he died, Cheyenne hooked up with Geb, a similarly mature crowned lemur. Geb had recently been dumped by his younger partner, Aria, who had left him for an even younger lemur with whom she could make babies, and haven’t we heard that story a thousand times. Cheyenne and Geb, both too old for breeding, nevertheless spent many years in a happy platonic relationship until Geb passed away a couple of years ago.

Now, Cheyenne lives with Chloris. Chloris is a 32-year-old ring-tailed lemur with cataracts and a touch of arthritis. The two old girls spend their days hanging out, grooming each other, and cuddling up for naps. It’s a pairing that has nothing to do with sex (both of them are post-reproductive) and everything to do with comfort, companionship, and having someone to snuggle at night.

The goal for keepers at the Lemur Centre is to match-make geriatric residents so that no lemurs live alone, pairing temperament and physical ability so they can keep each other’s fur fluffy and the loneliness at bay. In the wild, a ring-tailed and a red-bellied lemur wouldn’t interact, but in the retirement wings of a breeding centre, these kinds of conventions don’t matter anymore – certainly not to Cheyenne and Chloris who make themselves into a yin-yang symbol all hours of day.

We wonder sometimes about the kind of place we’d like to live in our autumn years, with more urgency once we start visiting them to see our gran, then our dad, and realise – look out – whose turn it is next. We will want a movie theatre and a bar, we declare, and the same species of people we’ve hung out with before – a retirement village of mad lefties or creatives, and a menu designed by a chef.

What we will really need might have less to do with the facilities (the what) than the quality of the companionship (the who). Personally, I’ll be angling for a place with ready access to cuddles with a lemur.

 

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07 Mar For International Women’s Day 2021

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 8.3.21

 

Hag. Crone. Old trout. This International Women’s Day, these are some of the words I would like – on behalf of women of a certain age – to reclaim.

I mean, some of you might not be up for it. It’s possible not everyone is relaxed about being an old chook. Certainly, we’re supposed to be offended by being reminded of our age – dismissed for being no longer useful in reproductive terms, our attractiveness therefore entirely diminished. The implication being that if we’re post-childbearing potential, what is the point of us?

Yet I find as the years go by there’s even more point in being me. Perhaps it’s because my reproductive system (I won’t go into too much detail here because I don’t know if you’re reading this while eating) was functionally a bit of a disaster and made me regularly unwell to the point where I had everything but one ovary whipped out many years ago. Consequently, the whole menopause thing has been less about grief and more about liberation. So if anyone wants to take a shot at me for being beyond reproductive use, those arrows don’t pierce.

Have a crack they do, though. I don’t know if you’re on Twitter (if not, don’t take this as encouragement to join) but as well as being a useful news source and an opportunity for creating a community of friends, it is also a place where all-comers can leap in and, in 280 characters or less, try to ruin your day.

The modus operandi of attempted day-ruiners (particularly if you’re a woman and the potential ruiner is a man) is to turn the conversation from the issue (let’s say it’s the fight against Covid-19) to the appearance of the woman talking. Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, for example, will say something scientific and then a bloke will observe she has pink hair. The aim is not to continue the discourse, or even introduce fresh ideas, but to shut the conversation down.

Because I don’t have pink hair but I am old, that’s the angle generally taken by people eager to ruin my day. When Auckland went into lockdown in February, I tweeted about the reaction of Valentine’s Day diners in our neighbourhood who, on simultaneously receiving the Emergency Alert between main course and dessert, collectively expressed a resigned but cheerful community spirit that made me think of camaraderie during the Blitz. I didn’t actually mention the Blitz in my Tweet, but a handful of blokes took it as an invitation to hiff a few fire bombs my way.

Ryan (if that is his real name) wanted me to catch Covid and die (turns out it’s his go-to message on the medium) and backed it up with an assurance that I am bound to catch it because my “immunity is ancient” and, further, “no amount of makeup will cover it up”.

Remarkable skill, really, to pivot a conversation from a pandemic to reference a woman’s age (bang) and appearance (boom). Not, however, a unique approach – I’ve been noticing this pattern for years ever since a chap put together a collage of my studio headshots (the like of which you see on NZ Woman’s Weekly pages) with their careful makeup and professional lighting juxtaposed with a candid snap of my everyday face, presented as evidence that I have not come to terms with “being an old hag”.

Mostly I am too busy enjoying being an old hag to register these things. The glorious thing about being this age is you’re not bothered about being this age. Yet it’s as though these men think we might not be aware we are older, so if they point it out we’ll be shocked, shocked I tell you, and terribly hurt. But honestly, I’ve been with me the whole time, on my many long years on this planet. I know how old I am and what I look like. As a friend puts it, you might be shocked by my age/height/weight/hair colour, but I’m not – and I can’t help you with your feelings about it.

We need a name for this invalidation of women for age and other crimes. Some of it happens so swiftly – one minute you’re dismissed for being “too young”, the next you’re “too old”.

We could call it “the Merkel Affect”. Angela Merkel, Germany’s long time Chancellor moved seemingly overnight from “Madchen” (that “girl”) in politics to “Mutti” (Germany’s “mummy”) with no time to pause between and simply be a grown adult woman.

Or it could be the “Sally Field Rule”. In the 1988 movie, “Punchline”, Field played Tom Hanks’ love interest. Six years later in “Forrest Gump” Hollywood decided Field, at age 42, was too old to romance and had her play Hanks’ mother.

So why not embrace the crone, and the freedom and ease it brings us. And on March 8, be ready to respond to all those whiny questions about, “When is it International Men’s Day?” with “November 19, actually… silly old coot.”

 

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