Writing

17 Jul Vaccine Envy

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 26.7.21

 

Here’s a thing we couldn’t have imagined in our pre-Covid lives – “vaccine envy”. Who saw this coming? Jealous of the neighbour’s new ride-on-mower, sure, I get that – I want one and I’ve barely got a lawn. Or a tinge green-eyed about someone’s holiday photos or first prize in the raffle drawer. In these moments I think we all allow ourselves a tiny moment of “Really happy for you, but what about me?”

And there are higher stakes involved in getting the vaccination call up. Not to downplay the joy you can get from a ride-on-mower, but that’s more of a labour-saver than life-saver. Once the travel bubble opened with Australia, a bunch of us felt our anxiety levels rise at the increased opportunity for that tricky virus to sneak across our border, especially if our health was vulnerable. It had been easy to look like we were waiting patiently when the virus wasn’t running loose in the community, but we’ve seen how fast your luck can change, and it started feeling urgent.

With a whole nation waiting for their turn, vaccine envy is running hot now at the school gate and in the office kitchen, and everywhere on social media. Some version of, “How come you’ve been vaccinated but I haven’t yet? How did you pull that off?!”

I had moments of “vaccine envy” myself. I’d hear about someone who lived with a border worker or nurse, or (rarely) had been in the right place at the right time and had been invited to use their arm to mop up a leftover shot. Happy for them, right? But just a small case of the what-about-mes.

I’ve been very open about being in the early weeks of Group 3 vaccinations. I figure it’s useful for anyone who might be vaccine-hesitant to hear positive experiences. It has not, however, brought joy to all.

“This absolutely 100 per cent ticks me right off,” someone wrote to my husband and me on Facebook, though she didn’t say “ticks” but a word that sounds a bit like it. I felt her frustration as she explained she was an essential worker during lockdown who’d kept the supermarket shelves packed so the rest of us could buy toilet paper and bread. “Yet we get placed at the bottom of the vaccination pile… BELOW comedians?”

I mean, honestly, she makes two fair points. One is that, while we celebrated essential workers during Level 4, we may have forgotten the risks they took for us then. One way to say thank you could be to protect them sooner rather than later. And second – quite right – no one should be jumping the queue because they tell jokes in pubs.

In reality the 1.7million people in Group 3 currently being vaccinated are in that category because of either age or underlying health conditions. It’s going to take a while to get through them all, and a 60 year old with a heart condition might get called up before an 83 year old, for example – which might look weird to you, depending on which one of those people you know personally.

I keep reminding myself that many diseases and disabilities are invisible and that, while you might know one thing about someone, you might not know all the things. And I keep hoping the lady from Facebook gets her shots soon.

 

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17 Jul DIY Holidays

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 19.7.21

 

With few options for nipping off to sunnier climes in these Covid Times, we’re using our travel money for things closer to home. People who track consumer spending say we’re out there snapping up new appliances and remodelling our bathrooms instead.

Which is all well and good, but that new washer/dryer combo isn’t going to make you feel like you’ve spent a week drinking cocktails by a pool, and there’s only so many times you can put photos of your matching kettle and toaster on Facebook.

So if you are missing your annual winter getaway to somewhere sunny, I may have come up with a sparkling idea for a DIY holiday. It’s all a bit Number 8 Wire, but we’ve always been the kind of folk who admire just giving something a go.

I suggest that, if we can’t take a tropical holiday, we take our tropical holiday attitude to the office. Not just the attitude, but also the apparel. I dare you to turn up at the office this week in togs and a sarong and ask workmates to smear your back with sunscreen at regular intervals. Of course, you will need to have a chat with HR or whoever is in charge of the thermostat before you take your puffer jacket off, so a touch of forward planning will be required.

Then get your whole team in on the “day at the beach” mood by setting up two lifesaving flags and then insist people work between them. Any colleagues who remain outside the flags can be rescued with an inner tube and have CPR performed on them. Keep HR in the loop by phoning them at regular intervals to ask them what the UV index is on your floor today and when it will be high tide.

If that’s all a bit giddy for your workplace, you can keep it on the downlow. Whip off your shoes, roll up your pants and place a container of sand under your desk. Or, if you’re the kind of person who prefers to “go bush”, then “take bush” to the office. Dress for the walking track and carry scroggin at all times. Engage people in conversation about their pot plants. “Is this a native? When does it bloom? Can you eat these?” Climb on top of your desk and take panoramic photos of the remarkable office vista.

Or go exotic and pretend you’re in Nouvelle Caledonie – communicate with co-workers using only a French phrasebook. Call up Accounts and ask to have your wages deposited in Euros. Then later in the week, pretend you’re on a stop-over in Bali and barter with colleagues for the stuff in their workspace. “I’ll give you 40 baht for that chair. Okay, 45 if you throw in the pants. And how much for the family photos?”

And then bring it all back home near the end of the week with a Kiwi barbie. Wear a novelty apron and shout stuff like, “Hey Bob, how do you like ‘em?” while flipping sausages and chops on the fancy gas burner you bought with the money you didn’t spend on going away. I’m not sure this is “the best of both worlds” but it’s worth a shot when the world is shut. Besides, we’ve never wanted to build our own version of Disneyland – we’re pretty sweet with an annual A&P show featuring wood chopping and a tiny train – so I think this might work for us.

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12 Jul Reflection On My 50s

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 12.7.21

 

A writerly friend and I were having lunch – one of those long-overdue catch-ups after not managing to cross paths for a while. There is a book she wants to write – and I hope she does because I want to read it – and I told her about my super top secret project (I tell everyone) that I am sure will be brilliant but I can never find the time to get it started. Fewer lunches and gas-bagging about it would probably help.

I mentioned that I write this piece here each week and she said, “Oh, yes, your advice column” and I choked a little on my tea. My life feels too much of a shambles for me to be offering wisdom to strangers. Honestly, if you had seen me this morning trying to scrub something unidentifiable off my kitchen sink using two types of cleaners and muttering, “I have no idea what this even is!” to no-one in particular, you would steer well clear of any life advice I tried to give.

What I often write down, though, is what I’d like to tell an earlier version of me. The stuff I would have found useful to know in advance and possibly didn’t need to work out the hard way.

Think of it like I’ve just run an obstacle course and – though I’m no athlete – I can tell you which bits I found tricky, where you might want to save your energy, and how deep and mud-sucky the water hazard is once you’re in it.

So this week, as I leave my 50s behind, I’ve been making a loose list of the things I wish I’d known when they started. It has been a glorious decade – definitely my favourite so far – full of milestones and red letter days and plenty to write home about. If I had a chance to have lunch with 50 year old me, this is what I’d tell her.

This is the decade when you will feel most like yourself. You get to be in the world not just as someone’s mother, or someone’s daughter or wife, but also as the person you have grown into. You get a little more time in your day to work out who she is, what she wants, and what she can create. You’re one of the lucky ones who finds menopause works like a boost of energy, and you are delighted to be past the point where you care if you are attractive to strangers – which coincides neatly with the moment when much of the world finds you invisible. No one is shouting at you from a building site which leaves you blessedly free to go about your day.

You are still, though, someone’s mother, daughter and wife and there will be moments in the decade where you are caring for a teenager and, simultaneously, ageing parents while also tending to your primary relationship. Not going to lie, it can be a bit of a squeeze. Ultimately, it is an honour to be needed and be useful. One word of advice – in amongst the doctor and hospital appointments for everybody else, don’t forget your own check-ups. It rarely turns out that ignoring things makes them go away.

But not every niggle is a nightmare. You will be amazed how, with the right attention and effort, something like a wonky knee can be entirely cured, not just “managed”. Don’t buy into that nonsense that your body is inevitably falling apart and there is nothing you can do about it. Ride a bike, get yourself some funky reading glasses, and don’t be too ready to describe yourself in negative terms. You’re middle-aged, not dead, you glorious thing. Plenty of party left in you yet.

Remember what your grandmother said about always keeping a clean, nicely ironed handkerchief handy because big things will happen and there will be all kinds of tears. This is the decade I lost both my parents, and also welcomed both my grandchildren. These things happen in different decades for other people – older, younger – so just know that these events change you. Make space for other people who experience them sooner or later than you do. There are few things as big as these. Allow their grief, and take a moment to look at the photos they want to show you. One day you will be bursting to show them yours.

Learn to say “no” faster to things that don’t bring you joy – I can barely remember examples now because, as hard as they were to turn down at the time, they ended up entirely forgettable. And your favourite things from this decade will be the result of saying “yes”. Yes to offers of work, to requests for your help, to invitations to travel, to joining communities and spending time with friends.

And I’m turning around to say “yes” to this next decade, which might be my favourite yet.

 

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30 Jun On the Joy of Finding Something That Was Lost

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 5.7.21

 

One of my favourite dinner party games is the one where everyone reveals a secret dream career. This is how we once found out my father would have liked to have been an architect, which explained the extraordinarily complex designs of the chook houses he’d made over the years.

You can change your secret dream career as often as you like. One of my picks is to be a file clerk in a Lost & Found office. It marries two of my passions – alphabetising (you should see my book shelves) and imagining the histories of inanimate objects. I can create complex backstories for vintage clothes (the birthday party!) and second hand ornaments (the wedding gift from the mad aunt!) so I reckon I’d have a field day with the flotsam found in the back of a cab.

Car companies report plenty of the obvious stuff left behind – the phone, keys or wallet you take out of your bag and leave on the seat in the dark, incorrectly assuming when you exit that you’ve put it back. Easily done. And we can cut some slack to musicians who, late at night after work (and after after-work drinks) might forget they put the bongos in the boot when usually they’d go in the back of Bruce’s van.

Harder to imagine, though, why you might have been in a taxi with an orthodontic plate that wasn’t in your mouth at all times, or how you didn’t miss your prosthetic leg as you clambered out (true stories). And more challenging explanations are required for leaving behind the kind of thing that was probably the central reason for the trip, as opposed to something you just happened to have on you at the time. How could you make a journey with any of the following items from an actual Lost & Found inventory: a garden chair, a dish of macaroni cheese, a large portrait of Kate Middleton, a raw chicken and a large bag of salt, or a crystal chandelier – and not have that thing top of mind once you reach your destination?

Losing things – even a raw chicken – is a ghastly feeling. That hollow feeling in your stomach, the panicked retracing of steps, the inevitable conclusion that in this instance you have been, to yourself and to others, a disappointment. It seems such a waste – you didn’t use it up or wear it out, or even break it. Instead, you simply failed to keep it safe. Often there is little consolation that someone will find it and either return it to you, or appreciate it as you did because they don’t know its story.

But crikey – break out the champagne and dance around in a circle – the joy of finding something that was lost is… I don’t know the exact maths but it is certainly bigger than the happiness you get from not losing it in the first place. This would be the very cool thing about my imaginary job in the Lost & Found department. Not just the making up of stories about abandoned royal portraits or discarded chandeliers, but the opportunity to reunite people and things. Or at least solve the mystery and put things back in their rightful place.

In my mother’s last few months when she was living in hospital care – and apropos of nothing – Donna suddenly described an earring that had been lost long before. “One of my good garnets, not the other pair, they’re still in the box.” Indeed, the ordinary garnet studs were easily found when I went home to look, plus one rather lovely one, looking lonely.

She was, she said, pretty sure the good ones had been on the bookshelf in her living room by her armchair – the shelf that had her favourite books handy, like The Oxford Guide To English Usage and her J.C. Sturm poetry. She must have taken them off one evening before bed and left them there. She suspected one of them had dropped down and found its way somehow underneath the built-in shelves. If I took out all the books and lifted the wood, I might find it there. Not now, she said, there were other, better things to be done. Later. She had no need of it, but she would like to think the pair of warm red stones set in a crown of gold would one day be reunited.

And there was a lot do to and, after she died, even the thought of the earring got lost for a time. But one day, her voice reminded me to “go and have a little look”, just to see. I pulled out all the books, felt around the carpet and the back of the shelf, then lifted the whole long plank of wood away from the frame. And there it was, just as she’d imagined. In a year of loss, it was a joy to find it.

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21 Jun Vaccinated

An edited version of this was published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 28.6.21

 

In March last year, a much more brazen version of Current Me was banging on to a workmate about how relaxed I felt about all this Covid-19 stuff. I was young-ish (not 90), had a great immune system, hadn’t caught a virus in years. I could see how it might worry other people but, honestly, I wasn’t that bothered.

I really don’t like March 2020 Me. Quite annoying. Though in my defence, this was only a week after New Zealand’s first reported case, and we were yet to contemplate our first lockdown – or even picture what a lockdown was. News from elsewhere was troubling, but news from elsewhere often is, and we knew little about infection and death rates, and nothing of Long Covid.

A witness for the prosecution would note, however, that the real reason for my confidence (bordering on hubris) was that I had the Best Ever Overseas Holiday booked and paid for after a year of careful planning (cue gods laughing) and I didn’t want anything to stop me getting on that plane. I was ready to take my chances (I can hardly bear to type these words) on a six week trip to America.

Furthest I’ve been since then is Dunedin. Loved it. I mean, it’s no New Orleans Jazz Festival or Disneyworld, sure, but you know… cheese rolls and comedy gigs. There is no way now I would get on an international flight – bubble or no bubble – until I am fully vaccinated. I’ve become increasingly anxious about going to work in rooms filled with hundreds of people, some of whom have been travelling across the Tasman.

So I am massively relieved to have had my first vaccine shot and be halfway there. I am lucky (let’s call it “lucky” in this context) to have been diagnosed, since my hubris of last year, with a health condition that plonks me firmly in Group 3 for New Zealand’s vaccination programme. There are 1.7 million of us who have a dodgy heart or lungs, or cancer or other disease, or a disability, or are pregnant, plus it includes everyone over 65. 

Each DHB is handling the vaccine invitations for their region. Some appear to have a better system than others which is causing a fair amount of frustration. Where I live they offer a phone number to call if you haven’t heard from them yet, but in other districts there has been little communication. It’s this uncertainty that makes you crazy – we want them to have a clear plan, and to see where we fit in it.

So there is criticism of our vaccine rollout (and of every vaccine rollout worldwide) with many here saying it needed to be centralised rather than DHB-led. Hard to argue with given DHBs themselves will be scrapped this time next year in favour of a new public health agency under the Ministry of Health, alongside the Māori Health Authority.

I’m not a doctor (I’m not even a project manager) but while I was attempting to nail down dates for my two vaccinations, it occurred to me that a primary health provider like my GP clinic might have the best information about who needed their jabs first and fast. They’re pretty terrific at calling you in for your flu jab, and I suspect that ultimately, as we keep needing an annual Covid-19 vaccination, pairing these up on a patient schedule might not be the worst idea I’ve ever had. If you’re reading this in your doctor’s waiting room (will we get the magazines back soon?) mention it to her or him and see what they reckon.

My arm was sore (briefly) after that first shot, but my anxious shoulders have dropped back into place. There at the sharp end of vaccinations (deliberate use of “sharp”, yes) it was all calm and efficiency and compassion. In our neighbourhood, they’ve taken over an empty Warehouse store, and it is the greatest bargain going. I had an official appointment but my Close Household Contact (aka my husband) was allowed to join me. “Tell them Dave says he can be a ‘drop in’,” said kindly Dave, who was sorting the queue at the door.

He did the same for the woman ahead of us accompanying her elderly father. “Are you ok standing for a while, or can we get you a wheelchair?” Dave asked, but was assured the dad would be all right leaning on his stick. Dave walked the pair to the first available sign-in desk and left instructions for them to be fast-tracked through the process to keep stick-leaning time to the absolute minimum.

We passed through (I counted) seven pairs of kind and solicitous hands over the next 40 minutes – including the 20 minutes sitting quietly being observed for any reactions. I couldn’t help noticing the layout was similar to a queue for a Disney ride. If they’d piped in a bit of jazz, it would have been perfect.

 

 

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21 Jun Mean Girls (and other patriarchal nonsense)

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 21.6.21

 

There was a moment of panic shortly before my daughter left home (this was many years ago) when I realised there were a million things I wanted her to know, but hadn’t yet got around to telling her. The solution then, as far as I could imagine it, was that I needed to place her head gently on the kitchen table, put a funnel in her ear, and pour all kinds of ideas and advice into her brain so she would Be Ready For the World.

Crazy, right? But it is a natural instinct to want to impart wisdom, to at least attempt to “put an old head on young shoulders” – a favourite phrase of my great-uncle Frank, who was given to a) offering advice but also b) doubting it would do anyone any good. Pretty sure he would be delighted that I remember many of his pearls of wisdom, filed away in that part of your brain where you put things “for future reference”. I think of him each time I am asked to go visit a school and try to say wise or useful things to young students, like recently in Hawkes Bay.

Woodford House has a wonderful mentoring programme for its students. Local women with all kinds of business and life skills spend time with the senior girls – listening, asking and answering questions, sharing their stories. They invited me along to talk about “kindness” – about positive energy beating negative – and it was a joy to spend time with them.

The stories it made me think of from my own life (and who knows which bits of it stuck, but you can only hope that something got filed away) were to do with the worst bits of life advice I was ever given. The first was when I would have been maybe 12 years old, and sad about some girlish spat in my friend group, and someone’s mother had said something along the lines of, “Girls are so mean to other girls – honestly, no one will ever be as mean to you as your girlfriends are.” It felt wrong even when I heard it then, and any time I’ve heard it since. Also, everything in my life has proved the opposite.

Looking back over the decades now, I can tell you that every tough moment in my life has been survived through the friendship and kindness of my women friends. Heartbreaks, parenting challenges, career slumps, family stresses, personal and professional disasters – none of it has been fixed by a white knight galloping in on a steed. The cavalry riding to the rescue has always been a loyal bunch of ladies armed with wise words and snacks.

It is crazy how often women are pitted against each other. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on something that started at the very beginning of my comedy career – early 1990s – when a producer told me in the van on our way to a series of gigs up north that it was a pity really that I’d never make a career out of it because, although I was good, there was only room in New Zealand for one female comedian and it wouldn’t be me because there was one other woman and she was younger and prettier and “the whole package”, so she would take that spot.

I took two things from that conversation – one good, one bad. The good thing was that it lit a fire under me to carve out my own place in the industry, and to stick around. The bad thing is that it encouraged me to think of the other woman as a competitor, and drove a wedge between us. It’s a wedge that lasted for a long time – even after I’d worked out there was actually plenty of room for all of us, and that my favourite way of performing was alongside other women.

It is useful to work out who benefits most from pitting women against women. My observation is that what it mostly does is create more space for men to fill. Tell women there is only room for one of them in a line-up of seven and leave them to compete for that, and you can quietly get on with filling the rest of the spots with six men. Look around the place and you can see how that works – not just in comedy shows, but on boards, in management, in politics and in all kinds of leadership roles.

But happy endings. It is one of the joys of my life that, thirty years later, it’s not just me who is still around, but so is the other woman I was told was my nemesis. There was an honest conversation a long time ago and I count her as one of firmest friends. She is amazing, and I adore her and love any chance we get to work together.

No idea where that producer is now, though. He didn’t stick around.

 

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06 Jun Some of these are questions I can’t answer…

First published in the NZ Womans Weekly 14.6.21

 

A handful of years ago, I was sitting in a hairdresser’s chair when she asked me a question I felt wasn’t mine to answer. We were new to each other but – as is the way of things, I’ve noticed when someone is touching your head – you start telling each other intimate stories quite early in the relationship.

She was pregnant with her first child, and I was delighted for her. She asked if I had children and I said (excited to have an excuse to reach for the photos on my phone), “Not only a daughter, but a granddaughter!”

After the correct amount of “ooh” and “ahh” she asked, “Would you like more grandchildren?” I was stumped by the question, and internally did one of those cartoon-dog bewildered head shakes with a “Whaaat?” sound effect. This seemed like a thing I should not have an opinion on.

I am all for parents planning their families, and I appreciate mums and dads might have a specific dream for one or two or more little darlings, but envisioning myself with a certain number of grandkids was not something that had ever occurred to me. It wasn’t like it was a goal I could work on with planning and effort – this was entirely out of my hands.

“I’ll take whatever I’m given,” I told her – and now, a few years later, I am delighted to have been given two.

We live in a time when we are all supposed to have opinions on everything. Be ready at all times to express our stance on anything from vaccination to the use of te reo, and some general thoughts on cycle ways or veganism, and how to solve the housing crisis.

Partly, it’s the format of social media which doesn’t just deliver news and information, but constantly asks us to respond emotionally to it by clicking a button, or reply in the comments with our personal thoughts. Not entirely new – we’ve long had letters-to-the editor and political polls, and town hall meetings or gatherings around the village pump.

But the more we’ve become able to control things about our lives, the more we’ve been encouraged to have an opinion on how other people plan theirs. Which seems – particularly in relation to the creation of new human beings – possibly not the best approach.

I was thinking about this recently when a friend who is around my daughter’s age told me she is not sure if she wants children at all, and what did I think about that? She knows her parents would love to become grandparents, but she is not convinced that’s the right motivation for having a baby. And like a lot of socially aware young people, she is not certain she wants to bring a new human into a world that is suffering from the effects of climate change and is generally (you know, take a look around) a planet with a lot of problems.

I told her the things I know. That some of the happiest people I know don’t have children, and some of them do – it is possible to live a wonderful life either way. That grandparenting is an extraordinary joy – if you ask me describe my feelings for my mokopuna, I will tell you it is like someone took my heart and gave it arms and legs and let it run around the world marvelling at things. But also, being given that experience is not my call. It is an incredible gift, and I am grateful, but it is not something anyone should explicitly ask for.

Whichever way anyone goes, families are complex and life is messy, and the best thing we can do is embrace it and grab every moment of joy.

A couple of days after that conversation (which ended without any advice being offered except maybe we should both have another glass of wine) I was at our local mall and unexpectedly – “Whaaat?!” – bumped into my granddaughter. She lives in another city, but was there with her father and his new partner who are visiting from Australia.

I had occasionally wondered how I would feel if this happened – to see my grandchild (who I think of so often as belonging to me in a cartoon seagull “Mine, mine, mine!” way) out with another part of her family which I am not so connected to. Would it be weird to see someone who is so much a part of my life busy being part of someone else’s?

It was, in fact, the most wonderful thing that happened to me all week. Huge hugs and squeals from her, and then seeing how happy she was, and so comfortable about belonging to many families. Just like those other moments when our whānau gathers with parents, step-parents, step- and half-siblings (though we don’t bother acknowledging the fractions) and everyone feels they are meant to be there.

Sometimes it is best not to ask for things, and then enjoy whatever happens next.

 

 

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06 Jun On Meeting Your Heroes

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly  7.6.21

 

Back in 2004, mid comedy tour, we were sitting in our hotel’s bar enjoying what was either a late lunch or an early dinner. I’ve never known what to call this meal – Linner? Dunch? – that you dive into in the hope you will be neither too full nor faint with hunger when you walk on stage at show time.

“That guy over there,” I said quietly to my husband and our tour manager, “looks a lot like Billy Connolly.” Both of them turned to see who I meant, and then Jeremy turned back to me. “Yeah, that’s because it is.”

I interrupted Billy’s pot of tea to tell him we were local comedians on tour, we loved his work, and – unlikely, but rude not to offer – if he wanted to see our show that night in Queenstown, he’d be very welcome, then headed back to our table. Seconds later, he had joined us with a “May I? We’re family! All comedians share the same DNA!” and then spent the best part of an hour regaling us with stories of life on the road, and making the connections between who we’d all worked with over the years.

He is as wonderful – funny and kind – as you hope he would be. Eventually, he muttered something about not wanting to take up too much of our time and returned to his own table while we all tried to look less beside ourselves with excitement than we felt.

The “I once met Billy Connolly” story is one I tell every chance I get. And I’ve noticed there’s always a moment at the beginning when the listener is waiting with bated breath to hear if he was the person we imagine (funny and kind) and then tremendous relief that the answer is yes. We want our heroes to stay our heroes, to be as fine as the person we’ve held in our mind. There is something terribly deflating about meeting (or hearing from someone who has met) a person you’ve long admired and discovering they’re a bit of a knob. It’s like you’ve been tricked.

It is a high risk business, meeting your heroes. You also want them to know what they have meant to you, but without babbling and gushing and coming off like a crazy person. You have fancied that you are already friends and the last thing you want to do is fall out with them at the very moment you finally meet. 

Multiply that anxiety by seven for me when, last month, I chaired a session at the Auckland Writers Festival starring a baker’s half-dozen of New Zealand’s honoured authors. Patricia Grace, Dame Fiona Kidman, Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt, C.K. Stead, Brian Turner and Vincent O’Sullivan. They were – phew! – at least as wonderful as I’d hoped – articulate, patient and kind.

It made me incredibly aware of this imaginary relationship we have with the people who have brought us so much over the years – solace, wisdom, insight and entertainment. There are poems by Albert Wendt that I’ve been able to recite since I was at high school, images from Grace and Ihimaera’s fiction that occasionally pop into my head, unbidden, and women from Kidman’s novels and short stories who seem so real to me I can confuse them with family. All seven writers have a played a role in various chapters of my life – first as a student, then later as someone who reads for pleasure.

Some part of you wants to impress them with how they have impressed you. You want to demonstrate that you know things about their work – maybe not enough to go on Mastermind with them as your specialist subject because, come on, that’s going too far and also sounds creepy – but they’ve been such a part of your life, it feels like they should know.

Instead, what you do is try to put them at ease (everyone is always nervous about every public appearance, it’s just that some people fake composure better than others) and let them know where the water is and what to expect of the event because that is in actual fact what you’re here for.

Anyone who knows me could hear the quaver in my voice when I introduced them on stage – and I know this is true because the people who know me told me so afterwards. I believe there are moments in your life when you are both very present as the person you are now, but also the person you were once, before things like this happened to you. That Sunday evening, I was both a middle-aged woman standing on stage at the Kiwi Te Kanawa theatre interviewing a group of writers, and also a twelve year old girl reading their books in her bedroom and wondering how her life would turn out.

 

 

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29 May Rage

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 31.5.21

 

This month, I have been conducting a social experiment – inviting women to come along to a show and get on stage to express their rage.

It is a wild idea that started a couple of years at the capital city’s literary festival, Verb Wellington, and has become one of my favourite things to do. Turns out that being angry is tremendously good for the soul.

This isn’t something I might have expected. Of all the emotions, anger is the one I’ve been least good at. I feel it, for sure, but I have been terrible at expressing it. But I’m getting better. Look.

Injustice, rudeness, threats, insults – any kind of attack up close to me or mine – and my “fight” mode will engage. But instantly (and quite annoyingly for someone who is designed to fight with words, not fists) my throat constricts so my voice sounds like a strangled kitten, and the fury that wants to present itself as a bold and dramatic volcanic eruption is squeezed out through my eyes, drop by tiny drop, as sad widdle tears. Which is, in and of itself, enraging.

I know that I am not alone in this. Women and girls are often discouraged from expressing anger, lest we be seen as hysterical, stroppy, feisty, or – horror of horrors – “unladylike”. Our other emotions are acceptable in polite company – joy, obviously, and a fair level of excitement, though also melancholy, bewilderment, loneliness, a touch of envy – there is a full palate available with which to paint expressions of our feelings. But anger, we’ve learned, is to be avoided. Look like you are heading in that direction and it is likely someone will suggest you settle down.

This has fascinated me ever since I interviewed UK writer and comedian, Robert Webb, about his 2017 memoir, “How Not To Be A Boy” in which he posits that men and boys are socialised to express all their emotions as anger. Sad, lonely, hurt, confused, jealous – no matter what they feel – the only acceptable way to show it is by shouting or punching a wall, or worse. Even congratulations or camaraderie is a slap on the back or a whack on the arm. So men, he argued, are only allowed anger. And women don’t get that one, but can help themselves to the rest.

Yet anger is a useful tool for change. It lets people know where our lines are drawn, and stops the progress of things that will harm us. A self-defence instructor told me to take fear and turn it into anger – fear is passive, anger is active, and that’s what you need to dive into and harness, to fight back with power.

Often, women are encouraged to distract ourselves from our rage by soothing ourselves with a bit of self-care. Exhausted by, and mad about, the lack of pay equity or accessible childcare? Maybe what you need is a massage or long bath! And yes, massages and long baths are awesome. But it’s not going to change the world, just your mood. Kate Shepherd and Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia didn’t win us the right to vote in 1893 by popping out for a pedicure – they got angry and organised and did a fair bit of shouting.

So what does it look and sound like when a room full of women take their rage for a romp? People of a range of ages (from their twenties to their sixties) talked about what makes them angry – being dismissed, put in boxes, harassed, harmed, belittled – and about anger itself.

We had poems, and songs, and angry rants, and some things that sounded like comedy but had a hard edge and a twist in the tail. There were cheers of recognition, moments when you could hear a pin drop, the occasional gulp and – because we can’t help ourselves – belly laughs and thunderous applause.

And it was like that time with the self-defence instructor and you could feel the moment where anger feels like power that you will use for something good. Living constantly in that state would be exhausting, but so is endlessly trying to ignore and bury it. One of the kind things we can do is allow each other to safely share our emotions – all of them. Think how good it would feel if you said, “I am angry” and the response was, “I hear you”.

Possibly what impressed me most was how creative it all was. I mean, I’ve always known that a thing that ticks me off is often a good thing to write about – those irritations that, in an oyster, produce a pearl. But I’m still buzzing to think that asking someone to bring out their fury makes a great show. Also, I barely cried at all. I am making progress.

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29 May Airing Your Clean Laundry in Public

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 24.5.21

 

For a woman who owns three tiaras, I am surprisingly fond of staying home and doing the ironing. Honestly, I am looking at my diary right now and as much as I am excited at the prospect of many nights out working in my favourite frocks, I am also looking forward to the respite of an evening at home giving them a good press.

My laundry is one of my favourite rooms in the house. It is painted bright orange – so bright that the nice man I hired to paint it this particular shade of tangerine phoned me twice to make sure I’d written down the right name from the colour chart. When I came home to see it for the first time, he stood in the doorway, apprehensive, and pointed in its general direction with the handle of his brush. “Is this… what you wanted it to look like?” I assured him he had followed my instructions perfectly. I remain delighted.

It’s not just the room that I am fond of, but the whole laundry process. Washing, soaking, stain removal (I have a book purchased long before you could google that sort of thing on the interwebs), and then the drying, folding, ironing, and putting away. When my weather app shows me a forecast of bright sun, I immediately cast about for things I can get out on the line.

Outdoor drying is my favourite. In winter months I might be forced to use the dryer but, for as long as I can, I am all about pegging things out. Good for the environment, good for the power bill, and amazing how a few hours in sunlight can lift the last of the shadow of a stain. In my imagination, sheets and towels and pillowcases absorb sunshine into their fibres and therefore happiness into my home, and I hear my mother’s voice talking about leaving things to be returned to their righteous state “in god’s good air”. 

So every time I read about a Body Corporate banning outdoor clothes drying, I am filled with enough hot rage to fluff up a king size duvet set. The argument seems to be that pegging out your smalls ruins the image and “special character” of a carefully curated community. As though the better places are inhabited by people who don’t wear undies.

I first came across this concept a few years ago while staying with family in Melbourne. The city hadn’t had a drop of rain for something like a year, and it felt so hot and dry I suspected that by the time you’d finished pegging out your sheets they’d be ready to take inside. Yet apartment owners were stuffing everything – polo shirts, chinos and silk camisoles – into tumble dryers, lest they make the place look unkempt.

It struck me then – and I still feel this way – that this was an outrageous waste of a natural resource (sunshine) and money (power bills). Given how much damage we’re doing to our planet, it feels rude to turn down such a kind offer of free drying from the sun and the wind. But there is more to my love of outdoor drying than energy saving, sustainability and fiscal concerns.

There’s also the romance of seeing part of our lives flapping cheerfully in the breeze. The colours, the shapes, the little peek into each of our private lives that a clothesline or balcony rack offers. The joyful discovery that tame neighbours might be sleeping on wild sheets, or that they’ve acknowledged winter now with the winceyette. Or the inspiration that comes when you see a new shade of bath towel and realise it might be time to refresh your own choices.

And think of those vibrant images of apartment dwellers in faraway places, each telling a small story about who lives inside each of those otherwise identical boxes stacked on all sides. Understanding that people might live in homes of the same shape and size but the way they live is very much their own can make you feel braver about being you.

Each time the debate about airing your clean laundry in public hits the headlines (anywhere from Hobsonville to Edinburgh to various American states) someone – usually more than one – will raise the issue of bras and knickers. That they don’t want anyone to see theirs, and would rather not see anyone else’s either.

I am always tempted to throw in a follow-up question regarding how they feel about ankles and décolletage. Because if you spend a lot of time pretending to yourself that no one wears underwear, you probably have some very firm ideas about modesty all round.

My best advice to anyone with a public-facing laundry rack would be to keep a range of options in view – beige nana knickers pegged out alternately with the flimsiest of fluorescent g-strings, just to keep the neighbourhood guessing.

 

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