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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28 Dec 2020 – Looking For The Shiny Bits In Dark Places

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 28.12.20


Back at the start of this ridiculous year, I wrote a new show and debuted it at a festival in February in the glorious Hamilton Gardens. “2020 Vision”, I called it – as a nod to the year and also because it contained my predictions of the big issues. It was a preposterously grandiose title meant mostly as joke. But there was a lot in the show about new beginnings (personal and universal) and hope for global action on climate change, with a couple of amusing lines about the threat of a new pandemic that would probably turn out to be nothing very much at all. 

The sun shone. Allan, the stage manager, could not have been kinder or more welcoming. People arranged themselves on white plastic chairs and someone told me later that, throughout the hour, Tūī – my favourite of all my favourite birds – sat still and quiet in the trees behind the stage almost as though they’d bought tickets. Afterwards, I explored the gardens with friends who had come along, and we shared a drink and some stories on the lawn. What a terrific year this was going to be if this was any indication.

It wasn’t. Ha! This year has not been terrific for anyone much except maybe vaccine researchers and conspiracy theorists, both of whom have had plenty to be going on with. Heaven help you if you’re a working mother (note: all mothers are working mothers), or you own an international airline, or work in hospo, entertainment, or tourism. Hugs and thanks if you’re a supermarket worker or in healthcare or anywhere on the frontlines of dealing with this virus. Warmest thoughts to those separated from family, and to those still recovering from the long effects of Covid. Special love to the families of the twenty-five people here who have died.

If 2020 was a person, I’d want to spit in its eye. Okay, no spitting, but I’d want to shove it out the door and suggest we never speak of it again. But also (and forgive me if this sounds contradictory) as an anxious person who is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, I’ve learned from my experience of quite a few other years that it helps me to take a breath and look for the shiny bits in dark places. I consciously make lists of things to be thankful for, otherwise I’d never get out of bed.

In no particular order, here are some things I liked very much in 2020: swimming before breakfast with my granddaughter on her birthday, finding the filter on my Zoom app so I don’t have to wear makeup for meetings, learning how to make paella, discovering a new (to me) Dolly Parton song and singing it, nailing how to wear a mask without my glasses fogging, working out that I prefer a vodka martini to one with gin, and also noticing I sleep better when I go to bed sober.

If I cast my mind back, I can see that my life is different from the way it was a year ago and in some ways (though not all) it is possibly better. I survived the existential angst about “Who am I if I don’t produce anything” when I couldn’t work (I’m a māmā, nana, partner and friend), and also survived the very real financial stress. (Thank you, Government Wage Subsidy.) Those months of no work cleared the decks in a way, and I’ve been mostly able to put things back thoughtfully, keeping space for friends, riding my bike and going for walks. I also recognise that I am greatly privileged to be able to do this – I’m older and have fewer people dependent on me now, and all kinds of things make my life easier than other people’s so my job is to be grateful and to pay it forward.

I constructed a questionnaire to get me started on my list – feel free to use it. If you happen to find yourself in the middle of a lazy afternoon, roll these ideas around in your head and see what you come up with.

Your Best Meal, Best Moment, Favourite Person, Best Purchase, Most Moving Musical Experience, Favourite View, Happiest Surprise, Favourite Show, Most Spectacular Sunset, Favourite Book, Best Movie, Finest Gift (Given and Received), Greatest Achievement, Funniest Story and The Nicest Thing Someone Said To You This Year.

You may have more than one answer to any given question. Excellent. Just write them all down. It may make you feel more kindly disposed to 2020, and less inclined to slap its silly face or give it angry space in your head. Hug it, thank it, say goodbye. This “unprecedented” year will never darken your doors again. Turn around and greet 2021. And keep that questionnaire handy.



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20 Dec In Praise of Backpackers

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 21.12.20


Thirty years ago, when I was learning to do live comedy, my two friends and I would load up Margaret’s car on a Friday afternoon with wigs and props, and tootle round the corner to Kong’s, a backpackers hostel with a tiny bar in Queenstown. There would have been rehearsals during the week, squeezed in between Mike’s shifts as a restaurant dishwasher and my daytime gig on local radio, and Margaret’s other rehearsals with the bands she sang with all over town.

We called ourselves “Triple M Productions” which was a pretty fancy title for three mates who would sling together a stage made from old beer pallets we’d salvaged from the alley behind the bar, but we adopted a professional ethos long before any of us were being properly paid. We sold tickets, did songs and character sketches, and I began to have a crack at what would eventually be stand-up comedy once I let go of those wigs and props. I only remember snippets from our weekly shows which is probably just as well – the impression I would do on stage of one of Queenstown’s more colourful restaurateurs makes me blush now at its brazenness, but it was an audience favourite so it kept turning up on the set list.

You only get good at comedy by doing it, over and over. Fixing, refining, losing the bits followed by silence, building on the parts that deliver laughs. In a small town (which Queenstown was then) backpackers were an ideal audience, constantly refreshing themselves so that every Friday you had new ears for your revamped show.

Three decades later, pre-Covid, young visitors travelling on a budget continue to be a valuable audience for creative workers. Back when the borders were open, there were nights at our Auckland comedy club when a comic would ask “Where are you from, mate?” and discover the room was a veritable United Nations, filled with walk-ins from hostels on Queen Street. They gave you an opportunity to test how “international” your jokes might be; you gave them a taste of local culture delivered in the local accent, and a relatively cheap night out.

I’m not sure how you quantify the contribution backpackers make to our creative industries as an audience (though you could measure my gratitude especially in those early days as “heaps”) but you can calculate their contribution to our pre-Covid tourism earnings at around $1.5 billion a year. Sure, they spend less per day than their parents might, but they stay longer, pick fruit, wait tables, pay tax and do a lot of free marketing on social media. Some of them will come back in a couple of decades to eat at the restaurants they used to wash dishes at, and go Heli skiing from the luxury lodge they might have once cleaned. They are, in fiscal terms, an investment.

So it has been jarring to listen to many people, from the Tourism Minister to a nice lady from Golden Bay on my radio just now, talking about backpackers – at best, living on nothing but instant noodles and, at worst, doing unspeakable things on our lawns and in our waterways. The notion is that we should use this moment while our borders are closed to rethink who we might want as visitors, and redesign ourselves as a premium destination for high-value tourists only.

I’m all for re-invention, and for taking unique opportunities like this to reset how we do things – we’ve all been doing a bit of that this year. I’m also a fan of us making the most of what we have to offer – like, why sell raw wool when the real money is in high end wool products? And yes, maybe some of our tourism offerings have been a bit naff, relying on buses turning up with captive audiences to watch Barry shear an old ewe and sorry but the gift shop is closed on Mondays.

But the idea of turning our back on backpackers and focusing only on the wealthiest tourists once the borders reopen feels as un-Kiwi as, crikey, a black-tie barbecue. Visitors come here for our relaxed openness and lack of stuck-up-ness as much as our pristine-looking wilderness or 5-star hotels and boutique vineyards. Also, it seems weird to make our big selling point the kind of activity most of us can’t afford. Feels like inviting someone round for backyard pétanque when we’ve never actually played it ourselves.

Who we want here – and what we want to offer them – should be a reflection of the best of who we are, and what makes us special. And that’s guardians of our natural resources, and kind and generous hosts. If we focus on being those things, once the borders are open again, the right value visitors will come.


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12 Dec Party On

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 14.12.20


Last week at one of those fancy annual get-togethers various industries do at this time of year, I saw a writer I admire very much. We don’t know each other that well, but we’ve been bumping into each other for decades in rooms like this, and I read his stuff and watch it on the telly, and he’s just generally brilliant and New Zealand is very lucky to have him. 

We grabbed each other for a hug (it was a huggy kind of party) and asked each other (as we’ve always done) how we were, and simultaneously rolled our eyes (as we all do now) at the madness that is 2020. There will be particularities to our lives, of course, but fundamentally we all know what this has been like – universally weird and terrifying, but also unifying and, by crikey, aren’t we lucky when you take a global look around.

That middle six months, I told him, had been pretty munted but now, “It’s like normal life again, just with more gratitude.” That’s very good, he said, have you written that down? I told him I hadn’t yet, I’d just put it that way for the very first time, but I probably would, since he’d liked it. And here we are.

And it’s true – I am grateful every time we are allowed out of the house and we get to do things in large groups. Not just for work, but for social things like this – and I haven’t always felt that way. I’m fine at an event if I have a job to do but, like all secret introverts, I am an anxious guest. If I’m the MC or the entertainer, there’s a script, but just turning up for a party involves a hell of a lot of improvisation, and myriad opportunities for screwing it up.

Given that we are up to our shapewear-encased thighs in office parties and end of year work dos, and right on the cusp of Christmas family gatherings, it’s a good time to be honest about how anxiety-inducing this can be, and what we can do to turn the dial down a notch or two.

Let’s start with the premise that parties are supposed to be fun, so anytime you are making choices about how to approach it, run it through that filter. Wear a floor-length, sleeveless, backless shimmering gown if that’s your jam and makes you sparkle like a movie star, but if a posh frock leaves you heavy-limbed like an awkward toddler playing dress-ups, find another way.

About 30 years ago, I was invited to a glamorous birthday party for which the other young women had had something made by their family dressmaker. Pictures had been cut from magazines and fittings had been scheduled. Unaccustomed and overwhelmed, I’d been offered a ball gown that belonged to a very chic workmate’s very chic daughter. It had apparently been a triumph when she wore it, but it is hard to describe how hideous this many-tiered midnight-blue full-length lace gown looked on me, who was not her daughter. Picture an unfortunate cross between one of those tulle toilet roll covers with a doll’s head sticking out the top and an overly-compact Christmas tree. But it had felt wrong to reject it (rude!) so I wore it anyway. I could read the unmistakeable horror in my friends’ eyes. I stood in a very dark corner for a bit and clomped home early. I am still frightened of tiered lace.

My preference now is to wear something that makes me laugh, and pair it with comfortable shoes because there are enough challenges without being distracted by the notion that the balls of your feet are on fire. Challenges like remembering people’s names – particularly in that triangle of terror where you are talking with someone and a third person arrives, and you are Person A and it is your job to introduce Person C to Person B who is clearly known to you.

Once – and this is true – I introduced my mother to a new arrival, after a long pause, as “Mrs A’Court” because her first name had suddenly and terminally escaped me. My mother, always better at social niceties, leapt in with a charming smile and said, “Please, no need to be formal, call me Donna” and I was saved. But not really.

Donna’s advice is still the best advice for all the social anxieties about being too loud, or not fun enough, or not finding the right words. No one, she always said, is paying nearly as much attention to you as you are – relax.

And the best moments at a party – aside from the obvious which is long, hilarious confidential chats in the Ladies? Honestly, it’s just when someone seems really pleased to see you. So do that for them, too.


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10 Dec Christmas is Crackers

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 7.12.20


In a year when you have to take your certainty where you can find it, I find myself inordinately excited at the prospect of Christmas. We have a plan, and I like it a lot – tootling south to join family and friends for a couple of days. I will be a guest, not a host – a rarity for me in the last 25 years – though I will be joyfully contributing my signature Christmas dish. So picture us, if you will, driving down with an enormous bowl of cherry-sherry trifle strapped in with a seatbelt on the backseat of the car. Let us pray for no sudden stops on State Highway 2 this Christmas Eve.

So much has gone wrong this year – holidays cancelled, work lost, expectations upended – I find myself less pressured about making things turn out “right”. I used to fuss and fret about getting the gift shopping done in reasonable time (and tried not to give withering looks to people who told me they’d finished wrapping all theirs in November) and got hot and bothered over menu choices and co-ordinating the cooking times for the steamed asparagus and the glazing of the ham while also keeping glasses topped up and saying the right kind of ooh and ah as people opened their presents.

On more than one Boxing Day I found the Christmas Crackers, unopened, under the spare bed where I’d stashed them a week before and unearthed the really good wine on a shelf in the linen cupboard sometime around New Year. Actually, that last one was pretty tremendous – there’s something extra fizzy about the champagne you open after everyone else has gone home.

Thankfully (possibly for all concerned) I am not in charge this year. But there has also been a shift in my idea of what really matters at Christmas. Feel free to try this yourself because it worked for me. Think back to last Christmas and what you got for gifts. I remember that they were all delightful, but I couldn’t provide a detailed list. About the only Christmas gift I vividly recall was the blue bike I got when I was six years old. Dad wired blocks to the pedals so my legs could reach them, which possibly helped imprint the memory. But what I got five years ago? Ten? No idea.

This doesn’t mean the gifts weren’t fabulous – they always are. But once you’re not six, they tend not to be the thing you recall.

Now think back to what you ate last Christmas Day. That’s easier if you have a tradition – we did roast chicken in the middle of a hot summer’s day when my grandmother was alive because that was her favourite, then shifted to hot ham and cold salads in the years after because that was my mother’s. But the exact menu? Couldn’t tell you – aside from the year Dad decided to barbecue mussels but I failed to put the baby potatoes on to boil in time, so the mussels ended up like rubber and the spuds had a certain crunch. Fiascos are memorable, but it’s hard to recall the faultless Christmas lunch.

And now, try to remember who was there with you for Christmas last year. And the one before that. And twenty years ago… I can give you a full and detailed list of the people who came to Christmas at ours every single time. Or the ones we’ve spent in other places – with my brother in Wellington, or my parents-in-law in Melbourne, or that wonderful one in Hawkes Bay when my kid and I and the rest of my family were treated to a magical time with our incredible friends and their extended whanau, some of whom had travelled all the way from England.

So I have no trouble remembering the people I’ve spent Christmas with – which suggests to me that this is really what the celebration is about. Sharing the day with people you love, or are related to – and isn’t it fabulous when those people are one and the same.

Here’s a special shout-out to anyone for whom this Christmas will involve an empty chair. We have had three now without my dad, and last year was our first without my mother. Grief is a tricky thing and will sneak up behind you and wallop you at some point, triggered by nothing in particular. So it can be useful to lay some ground rules in advance. Tell everyone you might need to slip away on your own for a minute, and that this will be okay. Maybe ask people not to raise the absence until you do, or agree to a pre-arranged moment that works for you all. And then go get the crackers from under the spare bed and share them with the fine people who are there, and make some new memories.


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30 Nov We Really Should Dance More

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 30.11.20)


We really should dance more. Not necessarily in the one-two-cha-cha-cha way with neat choreography and spandex. I’m talking about that thing where you kick your shoes off, toss your hair back and spin with your arms outstretched, unfettered joy sparking from your fingertips.

Too much? Appreciate it’s not very Kiwi to whoop and holler when good things happen. Settle down, mate, no need to make a fuss. Except that there are some really terrific reasons for celebrating every win, big or small. And it doesn’t have to be dancing – you are also allowed cake or whatever your personal go-to is for revelling in a triumph or a job well done.

It has been fascinating over past weeks as the results of US and New Zealand elections have rolled in, and those who have expressed delight in them online and in real world conversations have been told to shush up a bit, think of the work ahead, not assume the path will be easy, and been immediately reminded of the flaws of various personalities and their policies.

British journalist Jonathan Freedland describes this as our tendency to “search for the defeat contained in the victory”. We warn each other about the next dire thing, remind ourselves that this success (whatever it is) is not the end of the story. There are – gird yourselves, sisters and brothers – more horrors awaiting us.

All of which is no doubt true but it feels… deflating. Is there a sadder sentence than, “Yes, but…”? Everyone needs a moment to breathe out. We might know, too, that people who celebrate each small win do something very useful – they build resilience to keep going. Talk to anyone who has faced a major challenge with their health, a job, a relationship or some kind of natural disaster and they will tell you that an essential ingredient to having enough puff to reach their big goal is about setting smaller goals along the way, and then doing some version of a little dance as you achieve each one.

This is why we have invented birthdays – one day a year for each of us where we invite everyone to say, Hoorah!, You made it through another year! Look at you, you beautiful thing (for you are beautiful on this, your special day) and we will celebrate your achievement of making it one more time around the sun!

Imagine how discouraging it would be if you blew out the candles and, instead of “Many happy returns!” everyone shouted, “Look out! Odds on, the next year is will be dreadful… If you even survive.” Bollocks to that. I don’t care if you’re 103 – you deserve the gift of the thought of another great year that ends in another fabulous party.

This is also why we invented anniversaries, particularly of the wedding variety. On an appointed day in our annual calendar we take a moment to remember why we got together in the first place, and take a moment to find those first feelings again, rekindling the flames of early passion. Settle down, mate. But, yes, park the kids up with grandparents and gaze into each other’s eyes for a bit, and stop thinking about next week and whose turn it is to put the bins out and flea the cat.

Similarly, Casual Friday at the office works best when it does not contain a trace of the coming Monday. Anyone who spends Friday drinks reminding co-workers of next week’s deadlines should be immediately reported to HR, or sent out to buy chips.

When your child is bursting with joy at mastering the scooter, don’t tell her this will mean nothing in terms of her ability to ride a bike. Give her a round of applause and let her feel how great it is to become adept at a thing, and she will find her own hunger for trying the next one.

Celebrating each win is also how we find each other. Every heaving, sweaty, crowded dancefloor has its beginnings in one or two brave souls who could not sit still any longer, tossing aside their reticence and snatching up their confidence on the off chance a few others might feel the same way and they won’t be left hanging for too long. When you tell people what delights you, you give them permission to share their joy, too. This is how we find our dance partners, and our tribe.

So let’s allow ourselves moments of unfettered glee – the dancing in the streets is not a distraction, it is the essential thing that grows our resilience to keep going with all the other less dancey stuff that happens next. Feel free to take yourself for a wild spin.






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18 Nov Tempting Fate

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 23.11.20

We can be slow to learn some of life’s simplest lessons. That whole “not tempting fate” thing is a class I have failed time and time again. 

There was that Christmas Eve several years ago, for example, when the whole family had gathered at my place. I always find the preparation for Christmas crazy stressful (who doesn’t?) coming as it does during the busiest time of my work year. So all the big things – late night gigs, shopping, food preparation, making up the spare beds, end-of-year paperwork – gallop along beside each other as the immoveable Christmas Day deadline looms.

I had expected to be still wrapping gifts and assembling trifle till midnight but somehow at 5pm everything was done. At which point I said in a much too loud voice to our houseful of guests and also the Fates that I was Ready For Christmas. Boom! The phone rang and it was my father’s doctor saying his test results had arrived and we needed to admit him immediately to hospital. At almost the same moment, my little niece ran face-first into our glass door and smashed it – just the door, thank goodness, not her face, and I don’t know how that worked but there was much relief amid the general confusion that we were only whisking one of us off to the admissions department.

So Dad spent Christmas in hospital while we tried to find a glazier, and everyone googled “concussion, signs of” while checking the size of the egg-shaped bump on my niece’s head. Note to self: do not tempt the Fates with your over-confidence.

But I keep forgetting. So much so that if I ever say definitively that I have something all sorted, my husband gives me a look. He should have been there last week with the look when I announced to no-one in particular (except the Fates, obviously) that I hadn’t been sick all year. Nothing – not a bug, not the flu, not even a cold, I remarked. Lockdown, I figured, plus a flu shot, plus careful handwashing and a lot of staying home and much less contact with large groups of people during winter, and doubtless the masks. Wonderful, I said, and maybe this is one of the upsides – we’ve adopted protocols that take better care of ourselves and each other.

Boom! I sneezed, and my eyes started streaming. Classic hay fever, and just the time of year for it when the broom and the flax pollen always drives me crazy. I knocked back the antihistamines I keep handy for just this purpose and soldiered on.

But it’s different now, right? You sneeze and feel you need to explain this is not The Plague. Your health is everyone’s health in Covid times. You can’t catch hay fever, but… is that what it is? I don’t know about you, but one of the thoughts that keeps me awake at night is the possibility of having a cluster named after me. Rationally, I know there should be no shame in it – this is, as we know, a very tricky virus and so long as you do the right things with testing and tracking and tracing and going hard and early, no one would think less of you for it, but…

Certain it was hay fever (achoo!) but also worried I’d worry other people, I diligently wore my mask in public places. Being one of the few in a mask at our supermarket takes a moment to settle into – will they think I’m paranoid? Neurotic? Plague-filled? But I swear people went out of their way to smile sympathetically as I went out of my way to say out of their way. It was as though they figured I had a reason for not wanting to breathe on them, and we all knew it wasn’t them, it was me. I am grateful we don’t have that American cultural divide that places masks on the side of stealing our freedoms. Here, covering your mouth when you’re sneezy is just good manners.

The morning I woke up hot and with a sore throat, our household drove to our local Covid testing station and let the nice lady put a stick in our noses, and then cancelled plans and stayed home to wait for the text. Negative. Just a cold, and largely gone when the message arrived less than 24 hours later. Happy, though, to be safe, not sorry.

We talked, my husband and I, about how this might be another upside to Covid times. That before, with a cold, I would have swallowed some pills and soldiered on, putting work and family commitments before my health, feeling the weight of responsibility to get the job done more keenly that the need to get well and – more significantly – protect other people from me. He is welcome, next time I’m feeling a bit off but start putting on a brave face, to give me that look again.


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12 Nov Weighty Issues

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 16 November 2020

Actually, I’ll tell you what, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to achieve and maintain a healthy weight ever since obesity became a topic of conversation near the end of the election campaign. So grab yourself some frozen vegetables out of the freezer and do something with them, and then let’s have a little chat.

New Zealand is listed by the OECD as the third fattest country in the world, with 31% of Kiwis regarded as obese. Aotearoa sits behind only Mexico (32%) and the United States (38%). Two in three Pasifika (66%) and half of Māori (48%) are obese. So collectively we have a problem – which already suggests that we might need to look collectively for the causes and find solutions.

I’ll start with my own experience of weight loss and gain. Like a lot of women, my weight has fluctuated over the years – weight “loss” is something that happens when I work really hard at it, weight “gain” is something that seems to happen by stealth. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything differently – unaware that I’m either eating more or exercising less – but suddenly my pants feel tight and someone will say, “You’re looking well” which is code for, “You’re chunkier than you were last time I saw you”.

But I am old enough now to be able to look back and spot the patterns. I have been at my lightest during those months and years when I’ve been able to focus on me, and take great care with food by spending time on it, and also money. There was a patch there after my daughter left home and before I was daily involved in caring for my parents when I achieved and maintained exactly the weight recommended for a women of my height. It took effort, focus and cash.

On the other side of the bathroom scales, I have been at my heaviest when I’ve been broke and busy – time poor plus actually poor – and in a situation that demanded I put my own needs last. “Busy” meant I had little time to plan meals or prepare them from scratch. Exhausted, and dearly wanting a nap or an early night or a sleep-in but unable to arrange my life that way, I’d reach for fast and easy fuel. And when I was poor? That fuel was high-calorie cheap stuff – bread, baked beans and sod all kale – nothing that involved long preparation or cooking time. Get some food in to me, race off to the next task. Anyone on a tight budget knows that healthy food costs more and the quick high carb/salt/sugar options are constantly on two-for-one specials. If you’ve been broke all your life, then win Lotto, you will suddenly notice there are better options on the shelves for people with fatter wallets.

The suggestion that obesity is a “personal choice” is about as nuanced and therefore useful as suggesting that poverty itself is a personal choice – when in fact how much you earn is very much down to a range of factors, including the big ones of gender, age and race, and other contributors like physical and mental health, disability and medications.

I often look at slim, fit women and assume, wow, you are lucky enough to spend time on yourself. You have been able to arrange your life to go to a gym or Pilates and pick up some fresh fruit and veg on the way home in your car. There are times when, no matter how much I have wanted to, I could not arrange that. I remember someone saying to me once that, if I really wanted to join a gym, I would miraculously find the time. I probably don’t need to tell you that the “someone” was a man with a nine-to-five job and no kids.

And then I look at plump women and assume, you are probably very busy taking care of a lot of people – so much so that you have little time to even think about what you might like to do for yourself. I bet you do a lot of kind things for other people, and maybe even make it possible for them to still fit into the pants they wore last summer. You’re a good egg.

Both of which assumptions may well be wildly incorrect. A much wiser person has pointed out that the so-called “plump” woman I am assuming has no time for herself may very well be spending hours at the gym eating fruit, and the “slim” person could be a chain-smoking couch potato. We make a mistake when we associate “thinness” with health. And while, for me, weighing less might be about taking time for myself, for someone else it might be the opposite – self-care will involve taking medications that might lead to weight gain. You can’t read anything at all about a person from the shape of their silhouette.

In my case, you know what would have helped me lose (or not gain) a few kilos? Pay equity, affordable and accessible childcare, and a world that was safe for women to go for a walk or run or bike ride after dark. And for so many women, a better division of domestic labour that would offer them time to focus on themselves for a moment. All of which requires changes to the system, and to the way we socialise boys and how we value unpaid care work. 

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10 Nov 700 Guests, No Canapes – on Working From Home

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 9 November 2020


Last week at my place, I hosted an event for 700 women. You’re probably thinking, crikey, that’s a lot of canapés, but – and I think we are all relieved about this – the snack situation was down to individual responsibility. I’m not sure what other people grabbed during breaks – I can only confirm that a couple of times I sent a text to my husband to bring me a cup of green tea if it wasn’t too much trouble. Unspoken was an instruction to leave it near the door so no one would end up in the background of my Zoom screen in their Disney-themed pyjama pants.

This was one of the many gatherings that, in other years, I have MC’d in person but has, in Covid Times, moved online. I do and also don’t miss the planes and hotels. I genuinely do miss looking out at a sea of faces and having random chats in the bathroom with kind and interesting people. But I am also finding the upside to communicating in a virtual world. There was a moment at the start of this day when women started logging on – 45 participants, then 186, then suddenly 600 and climbing – and they were throwing cheerful good mornings! and kia oras! into the live Chat on the side of my screen, and I felt genuinely emotional about making this connection, even if it was by fibre optic cable.

In my less busy moments, I’d scroll through the little squares of faces (microphones on mute but cameras on so we could see each other) and get an idea of how people had arranged themselves. Mostly solo – some at desks, others on sofas or at kitchen tables – but occasionally you’d see a whole conference room of ladies with pens and pads and mugs of hot beverages. It was like walking down a street at night, peering through living room windows with curtains not yet drawn, catching a glimpse of how other people live.

Some upsides, too, when it comes to sharing ideas. It’s a big ask for women to walk up onto a stage, or talk to a room full of strangers with a microphone thrust in their face, but easier to volunteer to unmute your mic and – from the security of your own space – read out the thoughts you’ve just jotted down on your bit of paper. Voices less often heard might be getting more of a turn in this virtual world.

We’re getting used to this new way of working. A survey last month of Australian and Kiwi employees across a broad cross section of industries found nearly two-thirds of us want a range of flexible work options. We stayed home during Lockdown, and we’re not convinced we want to go back to the office.

I was lucky when the world was sent home. No need to improvise – I’ve been working this way for the last 25 years. Aside from the bit where I stand on stage or sit in a TV or radio studio, everything I do happens where I’m sitting now, in my delightfully chaotic home office. My mother, bless her, would refer to it as “the study”, but it is less leather armchair and smoking jacket than this would suggest. Pyjamas mostly, with a good ergonomic chair and all the other necessities – four massive bookcases, a filing cabinet, laptop and other devices in easy reach. And just enough distractions – the cat’s igloo, photos on the walls of places I’ve been, and a cabbage tree on the other side of the window with a bird feeder and plenty of takers.

I don’t have a boss, I just have deadlines, so there is no one to mind if I get stuck on a job and scoot upstairs to put the washing out while I get unstuck. Bosses and workers will have to find new ways to measure what “working” is if you’re not just relying on seeing bums on office seats.

I spare many thoughts for women adjusting to working from home when that home also includes kids too young to read the “Mummy’s Working” sign on the door – if there is a door. Even as a teenager, that sign didn’t stop my daughter texting me from her room to bring her a juice. Which is where, of course, I got the idea for my order of green tea.

In place of watercooler chat, I have social media – mostly for one-on-one conversations but a few group chats that feel like a staff tearoom. I don’t have to sit next to a guy eating egg sandwiches, or a chatty young thing doused in Impulse Body Spray. And if, on a video call, anyone suggests I should “smile more”, I can turn off my camera and make the kind of finger shapes that would otherwise have me marched off to HR for a chat.


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