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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28 Feb Millennial forgoes smashed avocado and buys 47 houses in 47 days!

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 1.3.21

 

The problem with success stories is they can make the rest of us look like failures. I mean, I know that’s not the point. The point, in theory, is they will inspire us, dare us to dream and also give us hot tips for mapping our very own road to victory.

And I appreciate there is something very thin-lipped and ungracious about refusing to celebrate someone else’s triumphs, but there are also times when trumpeting the success of one person invites us to ignore the very real struggle of many others.

“Millennial forgoes smashed avocado and buys 47 houses in 47 days!” the headline (or some other version of it) will tell us breathlessly, carrying with it a strong implication that, if only you young people stopped wasting money on café brunches, “you can buy 47 houses, too!” 

There’s a little bit of hope in that kind of story, then, but also a fair dash of judgement. The reason you, Young Person, can’t buy a home isn’t because house prices are inflated by property investors snapping up all the available stock using equity from the houses they already own and consequently increasing demand for a woefully limited supply which raises prices and therefore shuts you out of the market (no, really, tell me more about how the economy works, snore) it is because – and isn’t this more fun to read – you young people have been eating the wrong thing for breakfast.

When you’re in the midst of a housing crisis, these “man bites dog” stories – the ones that flip the narrative around from an everyday tale of “dog bites man” – capture our attention. Fascinating to read, right? “This is unexpected! Tell me more! Also, how can I get in on this action? What can I learn?”

And so the one who has done the thing most others can’t will have much to tell you about beating the odds within the system as it stands. It will be about having a positive mind-set, goal-setting, discipline, hard work and sacrifice. You will probably need to get up at dawn and maybe run a triathlon in your spare time and drink a kale smoothie, but mostly it will be about really wanting something because when you want your goal that much, they say, things just fall into place.

Which is not a helpful thing to hear if you’re someone who really wants something but things haven’t fallen into place. It makes me think of the t-shirt I didn’t buy for my daughter many years ago which would have had her chest emblazoned with, “If you can dream it, you can do it”. I would have preferred one that said: “You can’t be it if you don’t dream it, absolutely, that is the first step, but even so there is no guarantee because life is more complex than that.” Admittedly, that’s not at all catchy and too long to fit on an eight-year-old’s chest. Accurate, though.

Often, in the “outlier success” story, there will be some important context that is missing. Alongside all the positive mind-set and goal setting and self-sacrifice, you will also need (if you’re a parent) someone to share the childminding load, have sufficient disposable income to create savings (subtracting avocado won’t be enough), and look like the kind of person a bank manager is willing to take a risk on. Your advice will not be universally useful to someone who is not like you, and who faces other challenges.

I’ve often thought that the best people to take budget advice from are women who are single parents and work three jobs and still manage (heaven knows how) to get by week to week, as opposed to someone who starts each week with a full pantry and an income that exceeds their basic expenses. There is real skill in surviving on minimum wage.

The problem is that when we celebrate an outlier – someone who succeeds against the odds within a system that’s not working for most people – we end up erasing the experience of most people. It’s too easy at that point to blame the ones who didn’t buy 47 houses in 47 days for just lacking discipline or being afraid of hard work and not… wanting it enough. And then we don’t take the moment we need to think, hey, maybe the whole system is a bit screwy and perhaps we should look at changing that?

The stories I most want to hear are from people who are doing everything right but still can’t achieve the goals they have set for themselves. Because if we look harder at that, we can see what we need to do to help get more of us there. And honestly, it has nothing to do with what anyone is eating for breakfast.

 

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22 Feb Business or Pleasure? (It’s a trap!)

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 22.2.21

“Is it work or pleasure?” This is one of those standard how-is-your-day questions you get asked when checking in for a flight or at a hotel. Sometimes it will make you grin as you weigh things up in your mind – sure, this is a business trip but you’re going to squeeze in some super-fun me-time here and there. But sometimes it’s a family holiday and you’ll look at the kids, one of whom has just been carsick on a particularly curly bit of road and sigh heavily as you realise being “away” is just like being at home, but with fewer laundry facilities. Pleasure was the plan, but this feels a lot like work. 

That work/pleasure combo, I’ve realised, works best when “pleasure” is the surprise side dish to a business main course rather than the other way round. I am inordinately lucky that I sometimes get booked to go entertain a bunch of strangers somewhere and discover my accommodation is a sweet little cottage with a rose garden, a claw foot bath and some homemade jam in the fridge and there are moments when you can pretend this is a holiday.

On the other hand, my top bowels-turn-to-water moments include being a guest at what I thought was an off-the-clock social event until someone loudly suggested, “You’d probably love to get up a do a bit of your comedy, eh?” and the rest of the party agreed this would be just the thing. (This has happened more than once.) It’s not that I don’t love my job, but I tend not to pack my work-brain in my evening bag. Suddenly, I’m picturing Admiral Akbar in “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi”, moments after Billy Dee Williams asks why the Empire has its shield up if they didn’t know they were coming. “It’s a trap!”

It’s the not knowing upfront if this is business or pleasure – that’s where the trap lies. It happens to all of us – that phone call you get when someone asks, “What are you doing on Saturday night?” and you hesitate because experience tells you this could go either way. Are they about to invite you to dinner? Or… ask you to babysit while they go out for one? Once they know you’re free, you could be stuck with three kids under five and the Disney channel rather than relaxing on someone’s deck with a glass of Chablis and jazz. If it’s the former, best you can do is mutter something along the lines of, “Damn, I’ve properly checked my diary now and, so sorry, I can see now that I’m down that night to worm the cat.” No one believes you, but at least you don’t have to go. Probably ever.

You will have your own version of the “suddenly at work” trap, depending on your day job. “What do you do? A doctor, you say! Here, have a look at my lesion.” “Hey, you’re a builder – we’re thinking of putting on a second storey – would you call this a weight-bearing wall, mate?” Or “A psychiatrist? Let me tell you about my mother. Honestly, I think you will find this fascinating!” but you’re pretty sure you won’t.

I’ve done it myself. Briefly (and that could be my fault) my daughter had a boyfriend who was an electrician and shortly after, “Nice to meet you,” I found myself suggesting he might like to have a quick look at the dimmer switch in our living room. Too late, I saw the light go out in his eyes.

This is not to say that we won’t cheerfully offer our particular work skills for free from time to time. An accountant might agree to be on the Board of Trustees at their kids’ school as Treasurer, and your local romance novelist might take on the role of Secretary because of their remarkable touch typing skills and flair for language. (“The motion was passed with enthusiastic acclamation. Bev wept with uncontainable joy. Her ripe bosom heaved.”)

Some of my favourite gigs are the ones I do for love. If I were rich, I’d make donations (cash is often the most useful contribution you can make to a cause) but since I am not on the Rich List (and possible wouldn’t even make the Comfortable List if anyone drew one up) the thing I can most usefully donate is my labour.

We have a grand tradition in this country of the Working Bee – friends and neighbours turning up with tools and enthusiasm to get something done. That, along with ladies-a-plate, has made this country pretty great and nurtured our sense of community – everyone chipping in according to their skills. “Bring your tabbouleh, Marge is bringing her pav’!” is a delightful dinner invitation.

All I’m suggesting is that it’s best not assume that everyone’s work is always their pleasure. And keep a weather eye out for those traps. 

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13 Feb Valentine’s Day

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 15.2.21

 

My favourite thing to do on Valentine’s Day is to park up somewhere near a florist’s shop and watch men emerge clutching bouquets of flowers – red roses if they’re traditionalists and can afford the inflated-for-a-day prices, but honestly, I am equally delighted at the sight of a bloke with a fistful of orange gerberas. 

Men should carry flowers more often – it makes them madly attractive. They look like someone you’d want to know and could talk to easily. There they are, making a romantic gesture while also making themselves a little bit vulnerable, and we like that. The only thing sexier than a man carrying flowers is a man doing the vacuuming. We really don’t tell them that enough.

So it is always uplifting to see romance being embraced for the day by the literal man in the street. We have tended in this country to characterise ourselves as “not as romantic” as other cultures. Think of the French, for example, banging on about being enchanted to meet you and those kissy-kissy hands.

Sure, the feelings are there, but round these parts the words often catch. I remember as a child watching my mother waft into the living room one evening on the way to a formal event, swathed in purple chiffon and floating on a cloud of Chanel No. 5. She’d had her hair done, painted her nails, and taken even more than the usual meticulous care of her makeup. My brother and I sat with our mouths open, and our mother’s mother – there to babysit – beamed with pride. Our father’s eyes sparkled and he grinned… and then pulled himself together and muttered a deliberately peremptory, “You’ll do.” It was like someone seeing Niagara Falls and describing it as “some water”.

Scratch our surface, though, and we are more romantic than we admit. Not long ago, I spent many months talking to couples about how they met, and how they manage to weave their lives together. (Not just because I’m nosy – it was for a book.) Asked if they “do romance”, most of the couples awkwardly said no. But asked if they take a moment to celebrate this thing they have together, all of them – every couple – said yes. Wedding anniversaries (if there was a wedding) and also “getting together” anniversaries – the first day, or the first night, or the moment they decided to be each other’s One In Particular.

It seems like you need a circle on a calendar, a moment to think about where you began, what brought you together, and what it was about the two of you that made you want to do this thing, side by side. Because otherwise life is about business meetings – who’s dropping off the kids, and picking up the groceries, and did you call the plumber and has anyone seen my keys.

Romance, of course, is not just about roses and chocolates, and things from a catalogue tied up with bows. It can also be about someone keeping the oil topped up your car, or making sure your favourite beer sticks are in the fridge, or taking the bins out without being asked. Small gestures that say, “I’m thinking of you, and it is my pleasure to make your life nicer.”

So if Valentine’s Day slips by because you were too tied up in relationship admin, or even if you’ve diagnosed yourself with an allergy to compulsory hearts-and-flowers, I’d still advise giving it a go. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to be less suspicious of romance, and throw ourselves into a bit of handholding, possibly even some kissing (steady on) and the odd long gaze into the other person’s eyes.

And of course, you can be your own Valentine any time you want. I highly recommend this – and not just to those who are single. Though special hearts-and-flowers if Valentine’s Day is a slightly salty reminder that you’re doing life solo but would prefer not to. Either way, I’m a fan of buying yourself flowers for no particular reason any old time you fancy it and can afford it. I’ve also occasionally bought myself a piece of jewellery and pretended it was a gift for someone and let the nice lady in the shop stick a bow on it.

Oh, and here’s another thing as delightful as watching a man carry flowers – a man being given flowers by someone who adores him. It seems crazy that there’s a gift men give but hardly ever receive themselves. Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking a bouquet of roses (or sunflowers or freesias) is a gendered gift. He’s got a nose, right? Give him something that pleases it, and brightens up his world.

 

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06 Feb On the dumb stuff people say about Te Reo Māori

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 8.2.21

 

One of life’s many delights is that, no matter your age, you keep learning new things. It thrills me that my brain still has room, for example, to fit new words into its filing system. When I’m reading and I find a word that tickles or intrigues, I like to jot it down, and wait for an opportunity to put it in a sentence. Current favourites are “farrago” (meaning “a medley or hotchpotch”) and “emetic” – something that causes vomiting.

Imagine my joy, then, when I heard fresh complaints from some grey corners of public discourse about the growing use of te reo Māori by broadcasters, public figures and national institutions and found myself thinking, “Auē! What an emetic farrago of arguments.” Tick and tick.

It is true that in recent years there has been a growing embrace of te reo – it’s one of the things returning Kiwis notice about us now, that you will hear Māori words and phrases in formal and informal settings from our parliament to school events to sports games to news broadcasts to boarding a plane. 

Some would have it that this is some great conspiracy – an imposition from on high, possibly in a memo, forcing those with public voices to ram a non-English language down our collective throat. (Not so, according to those who have chosen to embrace it and been given the room to do that.) Or that there is something silly and inauthentic about finding Māori words for things that did not exist before Europeans arrived – like “irirangi” for “radio”. (Forgetting, of course, that given the radio hadn’t been invented when Europeans first arrived in Aotearoa, our early settlers would not have had a word for “radio” either. Also ignoring that “irirangi” means “spirit voice” and is a deliciously apt word for the sound that fills your room from people who are not physically there.)

It is also argued that using te reo instead of English – referring to New Zealand as Aotearoa, for example – signifies a rejection of European culture and that, if you are not tangata whenua, this other language will not resonate with you.

And yet it does for so many Pākehā. My first attempt at learning te reo in 1980 was a revelation. It wasn’t successful academically – which is part of why it was valuable to me. I wanted to learn the language that belonged uniquely here because I felt that understanding it would unlock some things about my country – the meaning of place names for starters, and also understanding its history and appreciating cultural practices.

It was really hard. All of it – almost every word then – was new to me. (You didn’t hear Māori on the radio back then.) Most of the other students had some experience of te reo that they brought from home, and could practice it there. I was starting from zero, and couldn’t take it home and ask my family. It made me deeply aware that the success I’d had in the (then) usual subjects like English literature owed a lot to being brought up surrounded by people who could support me in my studies because they knew the things I was learning. I did well in the classes I took that reflected my background, and did much less well (barely passed) in a subject outside my experience. It was an insight into privilege and advantage. You set out to learn a language and discover other lessons along the way.

I still don’t know enough and I’m still too close to the beginning of my journey, but I treasure each little step. There are kids in my wider whānau who learn Māori before they learn English. I am often in awe of a three year old.

I get it that being surrounded by a language you don’t understand is scary at times – think of arriving in a different country and the anxiety of not being able to communicate even simple things. Which is why we make the effort to learn at least a few phrases to ensure we can greet someone, ask for food, find the right place, and say thank you. It seems a small ask to do that, too, in the country we live in with the people who were here before us – particularly given the extraordinary patience and generosity of Māori to help us learn.

One last argument: that no one overseas knows where “Aotearoa” is. (To be honest, a lot of people don’t know where “New Zealand” is either.) But re-branding works if you do it right. Plus picture us at the Olympics when they announce the teams’ entrance in alphabetical order (or when you’re scrolling down a list of countries looking for yours). There you are, one of the first out of the blocks after Antigua and before Argentina. And well ahead of Australia. Tino pai.

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02 Feb A Great Big Bag of Love

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 1.2.21

 

I don’t know what your idea of the perfect partner is, but there is a woman in Russia who has married a briefcase and I can kind of see her point.

The story, reported in recent weeks by several reputable sources, tells of Rain Gordon, a 24-year-old nursery school teacher in Moscow who has taken as her husband a shiny, silver metallic case who she calls Gideon. 

It is one of those stories that pops up in the lighter corners of the internet. I like to fossick about in these places as a diversion from front page headlines about the plague and government insurrection. It is tremendously cheering.

According to the reports, there was a wedding and everything, attended by Rain’s family and presided over by a friend. (I am valiantly resisting the urge to imagine the groom’s wedding party included a pair of elderly suitcases and a young wallet or two.) Rain says that when she first saw Gideon in a hardware store five years ago she found him irresistible and took him home. They have, she says, long philosophical discussions (I’m guessing he really opens up to her) and love spending their evenings together.

Okay, so there is a bit to unpack here. (Sorry, not sorry.) Rain is an animist – one of those people who believe even inanimate objects have a soul. And to be fair, we all do a bit of that. When we are kids, our toys have names and we often assign them personalities and voices, and imagine them – as in “gift” them – emotions and thoughts. We might even do that into adulthood – hands up if there’s a favourite teddy at your place that you still like to keep safe and warm.

So you can see where this might start, right? And then as a teenager, Rain says her first love – the thing that filled her with those burgeoning adolescent feelings of passion – was a shopping mall. (I hear you, Rain. I’ve felt hot and bothered at the odd retail outlet more than once.) Initially, she kept this to herself because she knew it would make her sound weird, and people would disapprove.

But if you’re a nursery school teacher and your day is filled with Thomas the Tank Engine or talking dinosaurs or bananas who wear pyjamas, perhaps it’s not a massive leap to think a sparkling briefcase might be called Gideon, and be handy to have around, and the sight of him might truly make your heart skip a beat. Honestly, I get it. I’ve bought shoes that I’ve taken home, unboxed and literally hugged with something that feels a lot like passion, if not love.

Also in Rain’s defence, they were together for five years before they got hitched (Latched? Clasped to each other?) so no-one was rushing into anything, plus Gideon is not a worn leather satchel so it is an age-appropriate relationship. She knows how to get him to open up (how many of us can say that about our life partner?) and he has space to hold her hopes and dreams, and keep them secure, and generally has a handle on things. Plus they’d travel well together.

We shouldn’t be too quick to judge other people’s relationship choices, especially since our own idea of the ideal partner changes over the years. Heck, it even changes throughout the day. I’m willing to bet that even Mrs Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson occasionally looks at her husband and thinks, I wish I’d married a suitcase… A suitcase would close its lid when it chews. (Note: I have no actual idea if The Rock chews with his mouth open, nor am I sure how long it would take for that to become irritating, if ever.)

We can all catch ourselves fantasising about the life we don’t live. There are moments when I’m watching some kind of police procedural on TV, and a suspect is asked where they were last night, (I was at home all evening, Detective), and can anyone verify that, (No, I live alone with cats), and I think, ooh, that sounds peaceful, I bet she gets a lot of reading done and her ironing is up to date.

But then we remember all the reasons we adore living with our partners, including (though not limited to) having someone to scratch the unreachable part of our back, dealing with remnants of the rat the cat brought in just before dawn, and providing an alibi if there did in fact happen to be a murder in the village.

So I’m not saying you’d be wrong to choose luggage over an actual person, or that your choices should be based on the off-chance you will ever need a corroborating witness. I’m just saying we should remain open to all options because the business of choosing who someone wants to spend their life with is not an open and shut case.

 

 

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25 Jan “Darling, you don’t have to talk ALL the time” and other things we say to children.

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 25.1.21

 

Schools and early childhood centres are so close to re-opening, you can probably smell the freedom from here. This is not because we don’t love our kids, or don’t love having them around. It’s just… ooh, a bit of quiet between breakfast and dinner would be terrific wouldn’t it?

The best description I’ve ever heard of what it’s like to be a parent is that it feels like part of your heart is now living outside your body. So there’s that visceral drive to protect them, wrap them up, keep them safe and close. But also, they’re loud and messy and outrageously bossy, plus expensive and needy, and they climb all over you and nick your sandwich when you’re not looking, and it is so hard to find a moment to complete a thought process you will occasionally resort to locking yourself in the loo for a bit of Me Time. 

It all came flooding back to me this summer when, for a week, I had my seven-year-old granddaughter to stay. We had a terrific time and I loved every second of it – even though in some of those seconds I would catch myself gently suggesting to her, “Darling, you don’t have to talk all the time”. I’m pretty sure I might have said this on occasion to her mother when she was little, too. Certainly, I can clearly recall that my mother had reason to say something very much like it to me. “You go on,” she would say (sweetly, but you could tell what she was feeling) “like the clatter end of goose’s rump”. I can’t help you with a literal translation of this phrase, but it was accepted family code for making an incessant noise.

All this “come closer so I can bury my nose in your hair” happening alongside a deep wish that they would please be in another room so I can Get Something Done is perfectly normal. Once you are a parent, you can never experience one emotion at a time. The trick is finding the balance – which is why we invented grandparents and aunts and uncles, and sleepovers at friends’ houses. Sure, some of it is about socialising our kids and encouraging independence, but also it’s just so we don’t go mad.

I read a piece recently that quoted a parenting expert who opined that you don’t need a break from your baby in the first two years – an idea that made me snort-laugh the green tea I was drinking in the short lull between cooking breakfast pancakes and scraping breakfast pancakes off the furniture. I’m not an expert on anything, but I’m pretty sure no-one should do any kind of thing round the clock for two years without regular breaks and the chance to be other versions of themselves, no matter how much they love being that thing. I love being a mother, and a writer, and a performer, and a partner, and I wouldn’t survive if I could only be one of those things 24/7. It was being happy and fulfilled in my work that made it more likely I would come home and be a present and engaged parent. Plus, it paid the bills. And being a parent gave me things to say when I went out in the world, and taught me all kinds of things about patience and empathy and negotiation and care.

Every parent feels that tension between the need to be at home, and the need to provide a home – again, there are only moments when any of us feel we’ve got the balance right. What we need less of is being told we’re doing our parenting wrong, and being judged for the choices we make. What we need more of is actual hands-on help – from our partners, from wider family and friends, and from government and businesses – and more real choices. Better access to affordable childcare, and workplaces that understand most of us will be parents as well as employees. And fewer kids and their families living in poverty, which offers no choice at all.

We had many moments to treasure, my granddaughter and I. Sunshine and beach swims and the zoo. Movies on wet days – one at a theatre where they have couches and blankets, and where we were the only two there. It was, we agreed, like we lived in a huge house with a massive television, and she could wriggle about and give her usual running commentary on the action without disturbing any strangers.

And then she was gone – back to her mother and brother, and the peace was extraordinary, measured in the absence of noise and endless questions and things being knocked over and demands for food that was not fruit or vegetables. And I simultaneously revel in the quiet and cannot wait for her to come back.

 

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19 Jan Hurry up and relax! It’s the holidays!

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 18.1.21

The title for these two pages is “Watercooler Chat” because I hope that, now and then, you will find something here to talk about in whatever your version of a break-room is. But right now I hope you are a long way from the usual run of things, enjoying a summer break from your daily routine.

I like to picture you (I don’t think this is creepy) languid and liquid of limb, lazing about with a magazine (this one, obviously) and maybe a cocktail or cool soda with cucumber and mint, sporting a stylish sunhat and freshly painted toenails, making the place look good.

I appreciate some of you, though, will be working through, staffing the places we need to keep open year round. Hospitals, restaurants, call centres, shops. In which case I hope you get a decent break before too long, maybe next month when everyone’s kids are back at school and the weather is more certain about itself anyway.

Or maybe you don’t go to a separate workplace and you are raising new humans fulltime, and this “holiday” nonsense feels like it doesn’t apply. I remember as a new mother 27 years ago getting to my first Friday and thinking, thank goodness it’s the weekend, before realising I wouldn’t get “a weekend off” for a couple of decades. I promise you, it’s lovely when you get here. Your knees are a bit stiff and you can never find your glasses but, other than that, empty-nesting can be its own much-awaited reward.

However you are doing January, I hope by now you are into the swing of things. I have a theory that holidays are only ever one-third as long as they should be – we spend the first third getting into the right frame of mind to enjoy them, and then spend the last third worrying that very soon we are going back to work. There is an element of “Hurry up and relax!” at the beginning, and then “Tense up! It’s almost over!” near the end.

I’ve found some ways to switch gears. Try disconnecting from the usual stuff that occupies your attention and drags your focus out of the present. Quit watching the news for a day or three – chances are nothing is happening and the journalists who caught the short straw for summer coverage are desperately filling bulletins with cats up trees and shark sightings. You don’t need to know about any of this unless the sharks start getting stuck in nearby trees.

And it is easy to get the feeling from social media that the sun is brighter and the cocktails bigger wherever other people are. Likely, this is nonsense and they’re using some kind of camera filter, plus something ghastly is probably happening just out of frame – so don’t torture yourself with Other People’s Lives.

Go to bed when you’re tired, not when the TV show finishes, and get up when you wake up (or the kids do) but not with an alarm. Hide all the clocks. And the mirrors. Dress the way it feels good from the inside, not looks good from the outside. I suggest togs and a sarong on the off chance there will be a swim.

Distract yourself with the new – throw yourself off a bridge and scare yourself (nothing like it for shifting your mind-set) or visit places you always recommend to visitors to your town but have never been yourself. And if that’s too adventurous, just try a new breakfast cereal and give the start of your day a fresh flavour. Stop reading about Trump. Make your world smaller – be interested in what happens in your house, your garden, your bit of beach. It’s slower where you are, and it is yours.

But also, don’t expect it to be idyllic. As much as we all look forward to a summer break, it is weird being thrust together with people you usually say goodbye to at 8am and catch up with at the end of the day during the breaks between Netflix episodes. Sometimes you don’t know how busy you’ve been till you stop being busy, and then you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. Plus you’ve suddenly got time to mention how much you don’t like wet towels left on the bathroom floor. So there may be tears, tantrums, nagging, sulks, and fights to deal with. Plus whatever the kids get up to.

So give yourself credit if you haven’t entirely lost the plot during this season of familial over-familiarity. You will be released back to the office soon enough. Pour yourself another soda, tip that sunhat forward and pretend you’re taking a nap. In a moment, you might be. And you know what? Exuding calm and peace like that? You make your bit of the world look good.

 

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30 Dec A New Year (Peow Peow)

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 4.1.21

After careful thought, I have decided that my New Year’s Resolution for 2021 is to make the diary in my NZ Covid Tracer app look like something I’d be proud to have Dr Ashley Bloomfield read out to the nation at a 1pm briefing.

To be clear, this does not mean I want there to be any community transmission of this stupid virus or that I would like a cluster named after me. Horrific idea. I mean that having a thrilling record of places I’ve been is symbolic of the kind of lifestyle I aspire to.

This is the great thing about each New Year – it invites us to pause for a moment, take a breath and consider the sort of person you would like to grow into, and the type of life you would most like to lead. Hence the annual making of resolutions – fresh resolve to do things differently as our planet makes its next orbit around the sun.

I’ve never liked the negative resolutions that are about stopping things (eating chocolate, swearing) but I can embrace positive resolutions about doing more of something (eating vegetables, saying “Stop it, I don’t like it” with practiced force). And it seems very in keeping with the 2021 vibe to track my “Things I’d Like To Do More” progress with an actual tracker on my phone.

I’ve developed real affection for the little yellow-and-white-striped icon on my home screen, its symbolic gender-fluid person in the centre with arrows shooting out in a burst like a superhero. I imagine a cartoonish “peow peow” each time I see those arrows but I stop short of making the noise out loud – most of the time, at least.

I love learning a new skill, and I’m pretty darn proud of my ability to tap that icon with my thumb, hold the screen in one hand up to a QR code while nonchalantly looking elsewhere and waiting for the gentle buzz that lets me know a visit has been formally recorded. It’s how an old sailor must feel when they skilfully tether a boat using a complex knot while gazing off towards the horizon, or maybe how an actor in a western feels as they blow the gun smoke off the tip of a pistol, then spin it and replace it in the holster in one smooth move. Peow peow.

As a record of my whereabouts, the “My Diary” tab proves to be more reliable than my memory which increasingly has only vague settings like “not that long ago” and “just the other day”. It is also more specific than my actual diary which contains information about what I had planned to do (as opposed to what I did) and is even more specific than my bank statement which has plenty to say about what I bought (ooh, Christmas) but not where I just window-shopped.

Recently (and that’s the only time frame my brain can give me) I used my NZ Covid Tracer to confirm that I went to the supermarket on the Wednesday (not Tuesday) which meant I could safely deduce on Friday that the leftovers in the fridge were still good. Excellent backup to a sniff test which is generally unreliable for something that contains prawns, chorizo and quite a lot of spice.

There are people, of course, who suspect this is all about the government, or deep state, or someone in a basement beneath a pizza parlour or something, wanting to track my movements. I figure if Facebook, my bank and my phone’s GPS constantly know where I am, the Ministry of Health might as well get in on the action. Plus I admire the specificity and accessibility of the information we are sharing between us – I can’t phone the bank, for example, to check if my paella is off.

The challenge I’ve set myself for 2021 is to ensure that this diary is a fun read. From time to time I’ve scrolled through it to see how the land has lain, and felt deflated. Supermarket, supermarket, vet, supermarket, gas station, supermarket… That’s no way to live. But then there will be a flurry of entries that make me smile fondly – a restaurant, an airport, a bookstore, an art gallery, a theatre, a ferry crossing… That’s more like it. Or a whole clutch of check-ins to some idyllic little town like Akaroa, or from the road on the way to visit grandchildren.

It’s not that I want Dr Bloomfield to ever find himself in the position of narrating the basic plot-points of my life to the whole of Aotearoa. Though if he had to, I’d like him to have a good story to share. Really, dear diary, this is just for me. Here’s to a remarkable 2021 where we make our own stories a pleasure to read.

 

 

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