February 2022

28 Feb What Not To Say

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 7.3.22


You know how it is – you’ve had a hard week and what you’d most like to do is slip into something with an elasticated waistband and binge some small screen trash. But there’s a thing you’ve promised to go to and it will probably be lovely once you get there.

So you make the effort, do magic with under-eye concealer and dress like you’re totally up for this so that, by the time you arrive in your favourite frock and sexy shoes, you’re starting to believe your own hype.

Until someone, head tilted, concerned of face, says, “You okay? You look tired.” Oof. You feel it now. Deflated. Rug pulled out from under. All that concealer is just dragging your eyes miserably, inexorably, down towards your ridiculous shoes.

“You look tired” is one of those things we should never say, unless it’s to a small child we are encouraging to go to bed. In all other circumstances, it is a cruel observation, an appalling conversation starter, and a self-fulfilling prophesy. I’m pretty sure you could say, “You look tired” to a woman who had just returned from an invigorating 3-day retreat and she would visibly slump with sudden exhaustion.

There are other “Things We Shouldn’t Say” to each other – and I know this because I asked a bunch of friends and acquaintances to share their pet conversational peeves.

They fall into categories: things that sound like compliments but aren’t (compli-nots, if you will); unsolicited advice (“Calm down, love”); questions you shouldn’t ask, (“When is your baby due?” which gets asked of people who aren’t pregnant more often than you’d think); and daft platitudes that are the opposite of helpful, (“Cheer up, it might never happen!” when actually, take a breath mate, it just has, hence my face).

Each category gets a page of its own in coming weeks, along with a crowdsourced list of beautiful things we absolutely should say to each other – random compliments for courage and skill and also great pants, which are what we all want more of.

But this week, the compli-nots! The backhanders, which too often are to do with age or weight. “You were beautiful when you were young!” and “You would have been quite something in your day!” both have the structure of a compliment but feel like a dagger to your shrivelled old heart.

“You’re looking well,” is, we all know, code for, “You’ve chunked up”, or the new-to-me rural expression, “You’ve been in a good paddock, haven’t you?”. Moo.

Then round the other way, we have weight loss conflated with attractiveness – the classic, “You look great, have you lost weight?” which is not only wildly judgemental, but also more than one person has discovered the reason for weight loss was dire illness. So let’s just not talk about each other’s size.

Including “You’re shorter than I expected” which I get a lot. Depending on my mood, I’ll go with either, “It’s been a shock for me, too” or “You’re less charming than I’d hoped”. Whichever way I go, the dialogue stalls.

Worse, I get, “I don’t usually like female comedians, but I like you,” – again, it left their brain as a compliment but arrived as an insult to all the women I work with and adore. Though if I say this I’ll get, “Calm down, love.”

Finally, no compliment on appearance – your stunning hair, your beautiful face, your divine outfit – should be followed by, “I barely recognised you!” Ouch.


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21 Feb Remembering How Cars (and Vaccines) Work

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 28.2.22


Back the 1970s when I was a kid, pretty much everyone drove manual cars. My mother’s green Morris Minor had a wobbly gear stick about a yard long and, with no synchromesh left in Gertie’s gear box, you had to double declutch on your way out of fourth back down to third.

Honestly, I can explain what this means – that you push in the clutch, flick her into neutral, release the clutch, pump the accelerator, push the clutch down again and shift into third – but I don’t think it’s going to help. You either know how to double declutch or you’re under 50, and you can’t be both.

There was only one car I rode in as a kid that was an automatic. Mrs P. had survived childhood polio but one of her legs had never recovered so managing a clutch as well as the accelerator and brake would have been impossible. Mrs P and my mother took turns driving us kids to dance classes, and I thought her car was cool, but not the reason for needing it.

We all knew about polio – about iron lungs and people our parents’ age who had been sick like Mrs P or who had siblings who’d died. We also knew it was unlikely we would ever get polio because they’d made a vaccine and we’d all been given it, and that felt pretty great.

We also talked about vaccines because my mother had a story about almost dying as a child from diphtheria. Diphtheria (my mother was always careful to pronounce it properly as “diff-theria”, not “dip”) had been a common cause of death in children when my mother was at primary school, but by the 1970s almost no one had heard of it – we’d been vaccinated against it as babies and then again as children.

At high school in the mid-1970s, everyone in my year waited in a line outside the assembly hall with our sleeves rolled up to get jabbed in the arm with the tuberculosis vaccine. We knew from English class that TB was the lung disease that killed Katherine Mansfield at the age of 34, plus our neighbour had had it, so I was very much into getting that vaccine, too.

Vaccinating every kid against TB stopped in the 1990s because it became so uncommon, though at-risk groups are still offered it for free.

Kids born today continue to be vaccinated against polio and diphtheria, as well as a raft of other diseases – measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, hepatitis B, meningitis, Rotavirus – which stay uncommon because we keep vaccinating against them.

A couple of weeks ago, my 8-year-old granddaughter had her first Covid vaccination. Her 4-year-old brother is too young for that yet but, on the same day at the same time in the same clinic, he got his latest shots for whooping cough, tetanus, polio and diphtheria. My mother and Mrs P would be pleased.

These are repeats of his vaccinations at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months – and there have been others too. In all the brouhaha right now, I think we forget how vaccines are administered, that it’s not one-and-done – we space them, we boost them, we tweak for new strains.

At age 65, I’ll be due for my next round of tetanus, whooping cough and – yes, mother! – diphtheria vaccinations. Not exactly looking forward to it, but still grateful that when I drive an automatic car, it’s out of choice, not necessity.


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14 Feb Little Treats In The Post

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 21.2.22


Little treats arriving in the post – there’s nothing like it, is there? As a kid, it was such a hopeful tootle down to the letterbox each day in the week before your birthday – and also after, in case some great-aunt or other had almost forgotten but not quite.

There might be a card with a postal note (old timey pretend-money before bitcoin) or actual dollar notes if the sender was up for the bald-faced risk. Even better, there could be an actual parcel – whee! – containing a book, or a game, or something knitted – not the favourite option but still a thrill because of the surprise factor.

Now, as a grown up, it can be tricky to recreate that moment of wonderment, of a mystery revealed, when the parcels arriving at your door were mostly sent to you by you.

Tricky, but not impossible. For starters, there’s the lag between order and delivery. We’ve been embracing online purchasing since lockdowns made it our only option, and courier companies still seem overwhelmed by the volume of deliveries. Which – silver linings – leaves you with enough time to forget what might be arriving on your doorstep next.

Some of our mornings begin with Jeremy shouting, “Are you expecting something?” as a van pulls up at the front door downstairs, and me replying, “I don’t know, probably?” And then the sound of a parcel being thrown at the steps and a van reversing at speed (like I say, they’ve got a lot on) and Jeremy muttering, “Well, I hope it isn’t fragile”.

Sometimes the forgetting is less about the waiting, more about the chardonnay. Even before this pandemic got us window shopping on our phones, a lovely friend would tell me about spending the occasional Friday evening enjoying a wine or three, and browsing stuff from stores she missed back home in England. A few weeks later things would start arriving – not quite remembered but for the most part appreciated and, happily, in her size. Like a whole lot of presents from someone with her exact taste.

Other times you can blame the shopping on the toddler. That’s what happened to a family in New Jersey recently – mum was browsing a website, popping furniture she fancied into the cart so she could go back later and choose maybe one or two things. Except her 22-month-old son was playing with her phone and managed to click “check-out” and, because her credit card was loaded onto the website, the payment automatically went through.

Over the next days and weeks, things started to arrive. Many things, like flower stands and armchairs – NZ$2690 worth of stuff. It was a wild enough story to bring a TV news crew to the house to interview the family. During which the little boy apparently got hold of the reporter’s phone, opened her contacts and sent an email to her mum. This is what happens, they reckon, when you raise a baby during a pandemic and model living so much of your life on your devices.

The store has agreed to let the family return the furniture, and the parents have agreed to put passcodes on their phones. One hopes they will be complicated passcodes, and not something easy for the kid to work out, like his birth date.

Meanwhile, I’ll stick to my new online ordering ways and keep those parcels coming – and continue saving a small fortune on petrol and parking.


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07 Feb Don’t Eat That, I Just Bought It!

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 14.2.22


I don’t know exactly when “stocking up” becomes “hoarding”. Is it three packets of macaroni? Six cans of tuna? Or is it opening the spare bedroom wardrobe to jam in another mega stack of toilet paper and a carton of baked beans?

All I can say for sure is that, right now, my kitchen cupboards look better resourced than they usually do.

In pre-Covid times when life was full of travel, our pantry consisted of a little pasta, a lot of spices, the odd tin of tuna and an impressive range of teas. Dinner ingredients tended to be bought daily, swinging by the greengrocer on the way home from the airport to see what was in season and what was on special at the butcher’s next door.

Now, I look like someone who prepares for things. What we are vaguely preparing for is the possibility we might need to self-isolate for 14 days should we return, at some point, a positive Covid test. Not panic buying – that always feels rude and a bit like stealing from other people who also need things. This is adding a few extras at each trip to the supermarket, and feeling pretty darn lucky my budget lets me do that.

And also grateful about being at the stage of life where we’re not living with teenagers who destroy a pantry like locusts. I am no longer reduced to shouting, “Don’t eat that, I just bought it! It’s there to make the cupboard look good!”

The fun part has been thinking about the food I most like and wouldn’t want to be without. Cereal, it turns out, and coconut milk and the kind of yoghurt you make yourself, and also a particular baked pea snack. Apparently I would cheerfully live on nothing but breakfast and chips.

Though also (and I am ashamed to admit it) if I am at the supermarket and notice a near-empty shelf of something, I will pop one of the last few into my trolley in case this is indicative of a supply chain issue, and these will be the last – what? bags of rice? tins of chilli beans? – we might see for weeks.

Also, soup. I imagine self-isolating me will want soup because that’s what sick people traditionally eat and, while I know how to make a fabulously robust chicken broth from scratch, I might not have the energy to chop ginger and lift out the bones if I’m not well.

I am envious of people with a chest freezer in their garage that they can fill with comfort food for uncomfortable times. Making ourselves feel safe by controlling one small part of a world that is otherwise beyond our control.

I keep thinking of my great aunt Ruth and great uncle Frank who didn’t have a freezer, but who stocked their garage with bottles of pop (luxury!) and also grapefruit marmalade and blackcurrant jam made from fruit grown in the backyard.

My mother, too, bottling apricots and making jam back when it was cheaper than buying it at the supermarket. And then one year, after she’d spent a day or two peeling and chopping and leaning over a hot jam pan with the wooden spoon and pouring it into carefully sterilised jars, the jam didn’t set and she sighed, and started bringing home Rose’s ginger marmalade which it turned out we loved.

I must put that on my list for next time.


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