February 2021

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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