14 Apr Funny As. The Story of New Zealand Comedy – Foreword

In 2019, TVNZ screened a remarkable series on the history of New Zealand comedy. Paul Horan (the genius behind the documentary) and writer & journalist Philip Matthews produced a beautiful and comprehensive book as a companion to the series, and I was invited to write the Foreword. 




It’s February 2019, and we’ve just pulled into Reefton. The nice woman at the motel gives us our keys and says, hang on, she almost forgot, Daisy left this for you. There’s a plate of whitebait fritters – still warm – nestled between slices of white bread, and another plate with ginger crunch, caramel slice and banana cake. These are the signs that tell you tonight is going to be a good show. Because all you ever need is for someone to be pleased that you turned up.


This was show number twelve of our stand-up comedy tour of twenty-seven towns – most of them small like Reefton (population 1,206 at last count), with a few cities like Whāngārei and Whanganui thrown in. Jeremy Elwood and I had taken to the road with Arts On Tour because, even though we’ve been living together for nineteen years, our jobs as comedians and writers mean we barely get to see each other in the normal run of things. So touring can be our way of hanging out together – just us, in a car, with our manager and friend Richard Carrington, and some of the best scenery you can find anywhere in the world, plus – in the South Island at least – daily access to cheese rolls.


We play tiny theatres, school and community halls, the odd pub and – in this instance – the Reefton Club, where, if you want an alcoholic beverage, you have to sign in. Our audiences range in age from high school student to superannuitant. In Geraldine, the organisers were the local kindergarten committee, and in Ōpōtiki it was the community’s librarians. In Putaruru, the town’s fire siren went off and I stopped the show to make sure the local volunteer fire brigade chief sitting down the front wasn’t holding the keys to the truck.


The first time I played Putaruru, it was 1992 and I was heavily pregnant with my daughter. I’m a grandmother now. I still tour like this for the company, and because I love whitebait fritter sandwiches and being in a room where someone might have the keys to the fire truck, and for the joy of playing tiny theatres lovingly cared for by their people.


Daisy has been bringing shows like ours to Reefton for more years than anyone can remember. But she remembers I was here with other comedians in 2009 – Justine Smith and Irene Pink. Now she mentions it, I recall we’d been anxious that night because the front row was largely made up of women who looked like our nanas, and we weren’t sure how warmly they would embrace the kind of comedy we’d usually do at a Queen Street comedy club. I suggested we imagine that, rather than being someone’s nana, they were actually retired West Coast sex workers and therefore likely to be up for any kind of nonsense. Reaching back, I seem to recall that at least one of them was so delighted with us, instead of applauding at the end, she banged her walking stick up and down with tremendous vigour. Pretty sure she was sitting at Daisy’s table on this return visit.


It is an extraordinary thing if you let yourself think about it. Not just the madness of walking into a room full of people you’ve never met and hoping to find the things that will make them laugh. But also that on this tour, here were two city people telling their stories about gun control, pay equity, gender equality and whale strandings to a bunch of complete strangers living quite different lives in very different places, and making them laugh together, at the same time, for the same reasons. And knowing at every single second of the forty-five minutes you are standing on stage in front of them if it is working, if that joke has landed, if the idea you have in your head has made it all the way to theirs, and how it makes them feel.


Comedy is, I think, the most direct relationship between performer and audience. There is no one standing between you and them – no scriptwriter, no director, no prop, no costume, no gatekeeper . . . Every time they laugh, it’s like you just shared a secret with each other. And then it’s gone, and you look for the next secret you can share.


Live comedy mostly exists in a single moment in time – in that split second between punchline and laughter. Ask a happy punter the day after a live show which gag they liked best, or what the show was ‘about’, and it’s a rare person who can re-create any moments, unless they were taking notes. Which would be weird. Each morning when you drive out of one town and head to the next, you understand you’re not leaving anything tangible behind (apart from the odd phone charger or some cheese past its best). There’s nothing anyone can point to and say, ‘See that? There was a comedy show there just before.’


Which is why I am so pleased you are holding this book in your hands. Not because it has jokes in it (there are probably some jokes in it) but because it maps where comedy has been in New Zealand. My own road started with theatre, then children’s TV, then sketch and character comedy, stand-up and storytelling. Other people’s roads wind their way through music, radio, cartoons and plays. Regardless of the route any of us have taken, this book records the moments when an idea has made the journey from one mind to another at the speed of laughter. ‘See there? That’s where comedy has been, and look where it might be going next.’


The week after we finished our tour of twenty-seven towns, I headed to WOMAD in New Plymouth. New Zealand’s version of the World of Music and Dance festival now includes a ‘World of Words’ – novelists, non-fiction writers, poets and comedians talking about or performing their work. My plane landed on Friday 15 March at noon, a hundred minutes before the massacre at two Christchurch mosques. The Prime Minister was on our flight. She held an extraordinary press conference at our hotel, then left for Wellington and then Christchurch.


You have to be somewhere when the worst thing happens, and WOMAD was a good and kind place to be – its kaupapa of inclusion and its celebration of diversity is the opposite of what that atrocity represents. My show was on Sunday night, one of the last performances in the programme. You wonder if you can do it, or should do it. And then you remember that that’s exactly your job – to bring levity in a time of gravity. Hundreds of people pack themselves tightly onto the lawn in front the stage, and you talk about the thing, and how you are feeling, and then you find the stories that make them laugh.


Just before the show starts, someone drops by backstage and brings fresh peaches and whole walnuts, and kind words. That’s how you know it’s going to be a great show. Because all you ever need is for someone to be pleased you turned up.

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14 Apr An Unforgettable Summer – Paihia 1979

This piece was commissioned by Stuff and published 30 December 2019


It is the early days of 1979 and my mother and I are in Paihia. We are on the deck of a rented holiday house, a bucket of shucked oysters sitting between us, fetching them out with forks and squirting them with lemons. The oysters taste of sea and sunshine, and we are curious to know how many we can eat before we don’t want any more. Eventually, decorum makes us put the plastic tub – the size of a large paint tin – back in the fridge for a bit. Good manners always won out over greed with my mother – I would have hoovered the lot. It still occurs to me on a daily basis that I should be more like her.


As we sit slurping oysters in the hot, hot sun I am thinking, in that dramatic way 17-year-olds think, that I am between two lives. High school is done, and when this holiday is over I will leave the home I was born in and move to Wellington to study – a soft landing with my older brother already there, but still.


Now, of course, I realise that my mother was also between two lives – her nest is about to be emptied, and twenty years of dedicated mothering are reaching an end. Decades later, she would tell me that after she and my father dropped me off at my student hostel, she cried all the way home to Levin. But there’s not a whiff of that during these glorious days up north. Just us (my Dad has sailed off on a fishing trip) and our books, and wandering down to the sea where she sits or paddles a bit and watches me swim.


We’d bought the oysters down there on the beach from a local fisher. We’d also stopped by the bottle store for a cask of something that proclaimed itself “Dry White Wine” and didn’t bother with further details, which is how wine worked in 1970s New Zealand. Sitting in the sun with my mother, drinking wine, was evidence of the adult life I was heading towards. That I was sitting in the sun with my mother rather than on a road trip with a bunch of wild teenagers up to all kinds of nonsense was evidence of the childhood I hadn’t quite let go.


Paihia was new to us. Every summer, our little family would pile into the car and drive to a rented house somewhere, but this was the furthest north we’d ever been. These beaches were a revelation – I didn’t know you were allowed to have so many colours in one place, right by the water. At home, Waitārere was iron sand and tussock, shades of brown and grey. A grand spot for digging up toheroa, certainly, and for gliding on skimming boards and crashing head first into roiling dark waves – but this “up north” aesthetic of grassy lawns down to the shoreline and magnificent Pohutukawa trees leaning over the water – green, gold, red, blue – seemed to me … Exotic.


“It’s so exotic here,” I say to my mother between sips of cask wine and stabs at oysters and she doesn’t correct me because she knows that by “exotic” I mean “sophisticated” and “different and more glamorous than you get at home”. The wrong word entirely to describe native trees and coastline, but she decides – for both our sakes, I guess – that this holiday is not an English lesson. She smiles and agrees it is just lovely, darling.


A year ago she said, “They tell me I might have one last good summer”. We did our best to make it so. Picnics outdoors at the nursing home. One day, a friend from her book club brought oysters. My brother and I took her for ice creams on the beach we loved for its Pohutukawa and stretches of lawn. She left us in June, before the winter got too hard.


I don’t remember how many days we had in Paihia in 1979 (when each day is similarly perfect, they are hard to count) and I also don’t remember making any kind of effort to imprint an image in my memory of my mother that summer, but it is there. A yellow sun lounger, a classic bathing suit (when my mother wore them, they weren’t “togs”), her Lady Tea Planter’s Hat (a straw version of a pith helmet which would have looked ridiculous on anyone except her, though even so it was a close run thing), a book on her lap (always), and a long, thin cigar-coloured cigarette in an elegant hand (a brand which other people kept for special occasions but favoured by my mother then for everyday use). That same hand would reach out – not too often – for the white wine on the table between us, and she would sigh, and stretch, and settle back in. Long days with nothing to do, just be. This was my mother, between two lives, happy.


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14 Apr On Storming Out of a Florist Shop

First published in Your Weekend 6.7.19


I stormed out of a florist shop last week. That’s a weird place to storm out of – all those soft fragrances and cheerful colours, and me turning on my angry heels and stomping out the door. I wouldn’t recommend it. It feels about as ineffectual as ending a call on a mobile phone with a vicious stab of one finger.


I had explained I was looking for table decorations for the cocktail party we’re holding for my mother’s end-of-life celebration.


Here’s the thing with me right now. Almost all of the time I function really well – host shows, get the washing on, and fill out forms for notifications of death with a level of sang froid  that makes me wonder if I’m doing grief wrong. I’ll even set aside time for a good cry and… nothing happens.


And then at other times, like on the phone to WINZ to cancel her Super, my voice strangles and my face screws up. Grief is a wet stray dog who turns up uninvited and shakes itself all over your neat composure.


Which was the state I was heading into with the two florists when grief turned to rage. Picture The Simpsons’ Patty and Selma (honestly, they were  dead ringers) ticking off a list of the many reasons my request was ridiculous, offering half-hearted solutions, quoting a price that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an invoice for a royal wedding, and ultimately suggesting I buy some of their jars and shove some flowers in myself.


To be fair, my dial is set to eleven most days. I’ve been told I’m less fun than usual. Voices have been raised and someone has been slamming doors. It’s all a bit messy and bears little relation to the sentiments on sympathy cards.


When I’m out in the world I feel like there’s a sign over my head saying, “Grieving”. A friend sent me a message saying they’d seen me at an airport and I looked like I needed a hug. Though anyone who didn’t know me might think I just look terse. Maybe that’s what Patty and Selma read.


I appreciate none of this makes me special. People die every day – 151,600 in fact. I googled it. That’s the kind of thing I do now. It’s like the whole population of Tauranga disappearing on a daily basis. Which makes my experience both unremarkable, but also worth a mention. There are a lot of people like me at airports and in florist shops.


I found another florist. They’re going to find my mother’s favourite mauve roses and arrange them prettily in bottles and deliver them to the party so I don’t need to think about that detail on the day. I suspect someone in that shop knows what this is like.


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14 Apr Donna A’Court – 23 April 1934 to 11 June 2019

This column was published in “Your Weekend” on 22.6.19


More than almost anything else, my mother loved words. Reading them, saying them, using them correctly. Donna kept The Oxford Guide to English Usage beside her armchair like a theologian might keep a Bible Concordance in easy reach.


She would have made a fierce subeditor for any publication. Countless times over the years, I have printed a piece of writing and walked it round to her place – her flat is downstairs from us – and made green tea while she looked it over. “That’s lovely, darling, but if you’re going to use the Oxford comma here, you will need to use it there, too. Otherwise, very good.”


Donna made the occasional appearance in these columns. “Don’t write about me too often,” she’d say, “or they’ll think you are short of ideas.” It was an elegant modesty typical of her. As is the neat file she kept of those particular pieces.


Donna died last week, and she is the only idea in my head. She died exactly as she wanted to – peacefully, with me sitting beside her. I moved into her room in the nursing home for her last five days. She had often said she wasn’t afraid of dying, but she was afraid of pain, and it was my job to keep things smooth for her. The sentence I am most proud of creating, ever, was in the wee small hours of her last day when I called for the nurse and told him, “This is the shape her body makes when she is in pain – Midazolam, please.”


The great gift that death brings those left behind is other people’s kindness. Donna was admired and respected and adored – her book club, the libraries committee, her yoga pals, school friends who have known her since she was six – so they tell my brother and me wonderful things about her. That she was elegant, and gracious, and wickedly funny. Our friends who knew her less, or not at all, also find kind words to say. Everyone gets the chance to be their best selves.


She has planned a cocktail party to celebrate her life – Donna’s Launch, she calls it – and I am writing her eulogy for someone else to read. Together, my mother and I made a list of the things she is proud of, the things that have brought her joy, and the people she has loved. The lists are long. I am already heartbroken that I won’t be able to print it and take it round to her door so she can check if infinitives have been unnecessarily split.


We had a long time to prepare for this, and all the words were said and heard but, even so, “bereft” is the word that floats untethered in my head.

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25 Jul On Being An Aucklander At Large

A long time ago (December 2010) I wrote this little thing for Metro about being an Aucklander who spends a lot of time travelling outside of Auckland. Eight years later, I’m still an Aucklander on the move, and I feel like saying it all again. Enjoy.


If you’re heading south of the Bombays or north of Orewa this summer, gird your loins, brothers and sisters. They hate us out there. We are vegetarians at a butchers’ barbecue; we are Muslims entering Ground Zero; we are single and childless at a Plunket morning tea.

To non-Aucklanders, Aucklanders are to be pitied and/or despised for wilfully making a bad life-choice. We live in a city that is responsible for everything that is wrong with the nation. We steal their best lamb, their electricity and their tax dollars, and still can’t organise a piss up on a waterfront.

I didn’t really think of myself as an Aucklander until I started dealing with this kind of crap. I moved here 18 years ago for work opportunities and because, as a pregnant woman living in Queenstown, I didn’t fancy driving to Invercargill during labour because the hospital round the corner didn’t allow first-time-mothers. I had visions of giving birth on the side of the road, assisted by a Lumsden farmer (or a vet if he had time to call one) who figured he knew what he was doing because it couldn’t be that different from delivering a breached calf.

But I’ve come to think of myself as “an Aucklander” in the same way people learn to identify as “feminist” – I can’t stand the casual bigotry anymore so I’ve picked a corner.

Here’s the conversation I have every time I go out of town. Sometimes the name is different but the sentiment is always the same.


Non-Aucklander:     Where are you from?

Aucklander:              Auckland.

N-A:                            Poor you.

A:                                Why?

N-A:                            It’s shit.

A:                                Have you been there?

N-A:                            Nah, but my mate Kevin has and he says it’s shit.


So here is an open letter to Kevin. Feel free to quote from it if you’re out of Auckland this summer.


Dear Kevin,

I am sorry that you think Auckland is shit. You must have gone to the wrong part. It is quite big but I guess it is possible that you managed to miss all the good stuff if you were teleported to an industrial estate and stood very still for your whole visit.

You do make some valid points about its shit-ness. It is true that our traffic system is a disaster. However, after a bit of a wait you end up somewhere interesting with something going on. It’s pretty rare for the whole place to be closed. It is certainly no more frustrating than trying to get from Alexandra to Riverton in the snow.

Also, please note that I don’t actually live in the traffic. I live on the edge of a bush reserve. There are tui and kereru in my garden. Sometimes I catch a boat to work. If I’m driving home, I often stop at the beach and sit under a pohutukawa tree and stare at a volcano. I find this peaceful.

It is also true that we lock our doors here. I don’t find this difficult – just a quarter turn, anti-clockwise. And you’re right, I don’t leave my car keys in the ignition – I put them in my handbag. With a bit of practice, this becomes pretty automatic. It doesn’t ruin my day.

Yes, we have some Asians. And Muslims. And it’s a “bit dark” in South Auckland as you so quaintly put it. We find all this interesting because it reminds us of the places we have visited overseas. No, okay, not the Gold Coast. Other places.

When I visit my butcher, he doesn’t tell me I’ve already had lamb twice this week and I should have chicken. Also, if I’m out doing things after 9.30pm (imagine it, Kev) and I get hungry, I can buy something to eat.

I’m sure that (insert name of Kevin’s town/city here) is a great place to bring up kids. You can tell because they end up so curious about the world and all its possibilities, they move to Auckland first chance they get.

Yours sincerely…



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18 Jun In Memory of Eurydice Dixon

Last week Eurydice Dixon, a young Melbourne woman, was raped and murdered while walking home from work at a comedy club. Part of the police response has been to advise women to make sure they have “situational awareness” and “be aware of their own personal security”.  They are talking to the wrong people. Women are already constantly vigilant. The people who need to change their behaviour are the men who rape and murder.


Here’s a piece I wrote for the Christchurch Press in August 2014:

For the last two weeks I’ve been banging on a bit about a woman’s right to be safe in our neighbourhoods, and the madness of blaming victims of sexual assault. It’s something I care about, what with being a lady and knowing lots of other lady-people and so forth.


In fact, I’d suggest all women think about this at a conscious or unconscious level every day. So just in case anyone thinks, in this current discussion we’re having on rape culture, that women are running around half-dressed and half-cut with nary a thought to their personal safety, let’s take a moment to think about what all women do every day to keep themselves safe.


Here’s a tiny story. Last Thursday I spent part of a sunny afternoon looking for an appropriate car park. There were several spaces tucked down an Auckland side street in walking distance from where I needed to be. But I knew without thinking about it hard that this wasn’t a road I could confidently walk down seven hours later when my gig finished. Too quiet, too dark, too isolated.


Instead, I spent a long time searching for a space on the main thoroughfare under a streetlight, outside something that would be still be open at 10pm.


It is a small thing, but it is daily, this constant vigilance. It becomes automatic and unconscious but, if you press us, then yes, all women can think of places we don’t go, bus stops we don’t wait at, trips we don’t take, events and opportunities we miss, jobs we don’t do and careers we don’t pursue.


We lock our cars when we get in them as well as when we get out, and walk with keys between our fingers. We dress, not just for style and comfort, but at times also for the ability to run. Second nature. It becomes part of who we are.


This is daily, tangible evidence of what people refer to as “rape culture” – the idea that sexual violence is linked to the culture of a society in which the prevailing attitudes and practices normalise, excuse and tolerate violence against women.


Not all men are comfortable with that phrase. Innocent people don’t like to be labelled or blamed. We get that. And of course, not all men are rapists. Though it is a woman’s job to assume that all men are, until proven otherwise. “What do you mean you were on that street? In that park? In that bar? Did you not assume that every man there would be a rapist?”


And yes, men must be vigilant, too. There are bad places where they might be robbed or punched. But these are perhaps not as ubiquitous as the places where bad things happen to women. And a man is not encouraged to think of every stranger as brutal thief.


But women are required to imagine that all men might do them harm and take the appropriate measures. And none of this is doing any of us any good.


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25 May 50 Years On from the Wahine Disaster

First published in “Your Weekend” 14 April 2018

It is remarkable how deeply some memories are etched. Maybe it’s the first ones that leave the strongest mark. This week, I was in my car listening to old radio reports from the Wahine Disaster, and had to stop to find a paper bag to breathe into.


Everything sounded entirely familiar, though I don’t think I’d heard those voices in the fifty years since. Broadcasters’ professionalism barely masking the horror of what was unfolding, urgency seeping through the commentary. “The Wahine is rolling frightfully in the heavy swell in the harbour. Its list increases and then it goes back, but it never reaches perpendicular again.” It might have been the first time I’d heard grown men sound afraid.


I was six years old, nearly seven, and kept home from school, sick. Our family doctor made a house call (there’s a measure of time) with his hat and his leather bag. “That doesn’t sound good,” he said, tilting his head towards the radiogram where I lay listening under an eiderdown. My favourite spot – usually “Listen With Mother” or the Sunday Request Session or Danny Kaye records. Now it was bringing a different kind of story into our house.


Sixty miles from Wellington, the same storm was at our windows which was scary enough. You could imagine being in the harbour with no eiderdown and no mother, and no doctor come to make you better.


It might have been the first time I learned to make personal connections to a news story. One of the women on the boat was travelling to visit my aunt in Wellington. For many hours, they couldn’t find her little boy and thought him lost. Imagine the joy when they found him. My mother says she could never make sense of it when he died just a few years later from something else. Did he escape death then only to be caught again? Or were those extra years a special gift?


Everyone knew someone, felt something. It would happen again – Erebus, Cave Creek, Pike River, the Christchurch quake – but that was my first experience of the world listing, and never quite reaching perpendicular again.


But also, it’s when I fell in love with real life storytelling – with radio first; then photography (that picture of the Wahine lying on its side in the newspaper delivered to our letterbox the next day – even bigger and sadder than I had made it in my head). And when I also fell in love with stories of real life heroes, and the way disasters – even near misses – make us feel connected, less alone.


Which is what this last week has been – a celebration not only of courage, but of doing things for each other even when you’re afraid.


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23 Mar Why Women Don’t Speak Up

First published in Your Weekend 10 March 2018 [See below for online link]


It’s quite hard being a lady-person. You can’t tell whether people want you to speak up, or shut up.


When news broke in February over alleged shenanigans at Russell McVeagh, one of the questions regularly asked was, “Why don’t women speak up sooner about sexual harassment and assault?”


So I posed that question on social media, and offered my own list of things said to me or to people I know when they’ve raised an issue in the workplace. Responses that range from “It didn’t happen”, to “it might have happened but you’re wrong to be bothered by it,” to “it definitely happened and that’s the way things are”.


And then I invited people to add their own examples of being diminished and dismissed when they’ve raised the issue. The responses came quickly, and they resonated with many. Broadly, they represented deflection (“Is everything ok at home?”), guilt-tripping (“Think of his family”), thinly veiled threats (“Are you sure you want to take this forward? This won’t help your career”), and the horrifying, “We thought he’d stopped doing that”.


So yes, one of the reasons women don’t speak up is that, when they do, they’re actively shushed in a multitude of ways. But that’s not the only thing that happens.


We are also told we’re speaking up The Wrong Way. When #MeToo went viral last October, women the world over (New Zealand included) shared their stories, often with no names used. “Too vague!” they were told. “Name and shame!” Yet when names were included in the avalanche of stories, women were accused of being too specific, conducting “social media witch-hunts” via “online lynch mobs”.


Or we tell our stories at The Wrong Time. Too soon, and it is morning-after regret. Years later, when we are older and braver, we are either vengeful or jumping on bandwagons.


And we tell our stories to The Wrong People. If it’s a crime, we must call the police, and commit to a legal process which can be as harmful as the harassment or assault itself. And if it’s not a crime, we should either suck it up, or report it to HR – in which case, see handy lines for diminishing and dismissing above.


When news arrived last week that investigative journalists want to hear New Zealand women’s #metoo stories, you’d think people might have been keen to support gathering that kind of data. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, right?


Instead, “women telling their stories” was equated with “dobbing in pervs”. Seriously, I can’t think of another issue – leaky homes, EQC claims, hospital waiting lists – where recording personal experiences would be characterised as rumour, innuendo, hearsay, and gossip. You have to wonder what people are afraid of.


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18 Jul Benefits

It’s Election time, which means it’s Beneficiary-Bashing Season. Here’s a little thing I wrote last time round, which seems worth saying again right now. Particularly the bit about how people imagine living on a benefit might be just like your life is now without the bother of going to work.  It was originally published in the Press on 9 April 2014.


I have nothing against people who live on money provided by taxpayers doing a bit of overseas travel. By which I mean I’m not totally against this visit from William, Kate and George.


That doesn’t mean I’ll be out waving a flag any time soon, and I can think of a bunch of other things I’d rather we spent the estimated $1million on. But it’s nice to see new mothers getting out of the house, and for families to share experiences.


I’m even more enthusiastic about other beneficiaries travelling. Like my friend, a single parent who took her son to Melbourne during school holidays to visit his 87 year old grandfather. Not something she could afford herself – the wider family paid the airfare – and she continued to job-seek via the internet while she was away.


It still took her six months to recover financially from the other costs. And despite having notified WINZ prior to the trip, her benefit was stopped and there was a lag –and frantic phone calls – before it was restarted.


But making sure her son knows his family and sees something of the world is, she believes, part of being a good parent.


That’s probably not the scenario we are supposed to imagine. Fair enough. You come home from work, your feet hurt, the guy in the next cubicle has been a dick and your boss is a fool, and there’s Paula Bennett on the news saying everyone on the dole is off to the Gold Coast.


We can be quick to get all hot and fizzy, imagining the delights of life on the dole. “Getting paid to do nothing.” Your life as it is now but without the bother of going to work. An endless annual leave.


Because we confuse “unemployment” with our “I don’t have to go to work” fantasy. You picture yourself in your home as it is now, with all your stuff, hanging out with your friends. A bit of a lie in and some time to yourself. Maybe you’d have to tighten your belt but, crikey, you’d finally have time to put in that garden and grow your own groceries, and get really get serious about doing your own renovations.


What we don’t factor in is the hopelessness of real poverty. The humiliation of not having a job title. Knowing that every advertisement on TV is not aimed at you. Getting cross with the kids because you live in daily terror that what you do have will get broken, or lost, or worn out, or used up and you can’t see a time when they – the plates or the raincoat or the peanut butter – can be replaced.


Being scared of winter because you worry about how much keeping warm will take out of what you have for food. And not even being able to imagine a time when things will be better.


At which point the idea of the cousins chipping in for a cheap airfare sounds like the kind of gift you’re no longer too proud to turn down. Please, enjoy your flight.

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23 May “Here, let me help. Start by imagining your penis is bleeding…”

Published by the Spinoff, 27 April 2017

Following that Waikato Times column about blokes suffering from women’s periods (comprehensively rebutted here) Michele A’Court generously proffers some empathy advice for men.


Hey Tom O’Connor, I think you’re doing “empathy” wrong. You’re doing that thing where, instead of imagining what it is like to experience something, you just describe what it is like for you to know someone who experiences that thing.

And yes, that’s a convoluted sentence (you might need to read it twice) but that’s because what you are doing is unnecessarily convoluted. Men do this a lot with lady stuff. Like when a woman is treated badly, you ask each other to imagine how you would feel if she was your daughter, or your wife, or your sister, and how that would make you feel. When really, the most powerful way to empathise is to imagine if the thing – the rape, or the harassment or whatever – actually happened to you. “How would you feel if a team of rugby players at a social event touched your genitals without your consent, Tom?” Feel the difference there, buddy?

You say you experience menstrual pain because you live with people who experience menstrual pain, and their pain affects you – that whole 23-days-a-kitten, 5-days-a-tiger scenario you have to deal with. (To be honest, based on this, I’m not entirely sure you’ve met a woman, but let’s not get stuck on that or any of the other batshit-crazy ideas you managed to pound quite hard into a few column inches.)

Let’s do what you didn’t do and see if we can find a way that a man might actually be able to empathise with a woman who menstruates. The very best way would be to imagine yourself a woman, but I appreciate we might want to take baby-steps with this.

So… imagine that you are you, Tom. All good? And that for a few days every month, you bleed out of your penis. Sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot. And your testicles (which would have turned into ovaries if you’d been born a lady) are painful. They cramp up like they’re being squeezed in a vice. Not the whole time – it comes in waves. In extreme cases, it hurts so much that you vomit. For a day or two, or more, you might feel feverish and achy all over. You’re not actually ill, but you know… your balls hurt and your penis is bleeding, so…

Of course, it’s different for everyone. For some people, once your penis starts bleeding, it means the worst bit is actually over. There’s the blood to deal with, sure, but hormonal fluctuations that happen in the days beforehand make you feel all kinds of things. Sad, angry, frustrated, confused. And you will try to pinpoint the cause of each of those emotions but you will be unable to – they’re not caused by thoughts or events, they’re caused by your body doing its job.

Over the years (all this starts when you’re about 12-years-old and goes on till you’re about 50) you get good at managing it. You probably suck up about 90 percent of the complex emotional stuff and only express a tiny bit of what’s actually going on for you. You take paracetamol and ibuprofen to deal with the pain in your balls, and experiment with putting wheat bags on them and drinking herbal teas which might help – it’s hard to tell when you’re doubled over and sweating with nausea.

At some point, you might even come to appreciate and embrace the emotional rollercoaster. It’s good to feel things, and to express those emotions. That doesn’t mean you’re crazy – it’s what makes you a man.

And you do your best to be tidy with all the blood coming out of your penis. People don’t like to see the blood on your clothes so you wear special penis-wraps to soak it up. Though on heavy days (and you don’t know when they’ll be – surprise!) you might bleed a bit into your trousers, so you carry a hoodie or jumper even on a hot day just in case you need to tie it round your waist and hide the bloodstain. Your closest mates are really kind about letting you know if you’ve bled through – that’s what mates are for.

Back in your dad’s day, he made his own special penis-wraps out of old sacks in the garage and attached them to a hidden belt with twine. And at the end of each menstrual cycle, your dad would take the bits of old sack down to the river and bang them against the rocks to clean them for the next month. He and Granddad often reminisce about what a bonding experience this was for them – the women would be off doing whatever it was they did, and the men would be swapping yarns and getting that sacking all clean and soft, and they’d talk about the Moon and how He was both kind and cruel, making them bleed so often but then also making it possible for them to become fathers one day and what a joy that is.

But men don’t have time for all this riverside folk-telling now because they have jobs and stuff. And to be honest, no one’s too sad about that because the homemade sack-wrappings were bulky and they chafed and could be a bit smelly and sometimes caused penis infections, and stopped you doing things you wanted to do like ride a bike without wincing or play rugby. You can’t hunker down in a scrum when you’re on the sack.

Happily, times have moved on. Everyone buys disposable penis-wraps at the supermarket in a special section just for men and their sons. Well, almost everyone. They’re pretty pricey and there is real actual evidence of young boys not going to school when their penis is bleeding because they can’t afford the penis-wraps. And other reports of lower-socio-economic men improvising with bits of sack (they’ve heard the old stories) and ending up with inflamed, infected penises and bladder infections that make it painful when they wee, or walk, or sit down.

Even for people who aren’t poor, it can be a bit of a stretch. Imagine being the father of three sons – you’d be spending as much on penis-wraps as you do on petrol! And the penis-wraps aren’t nearly as much fun as going for a long drive. Still, you’ve got no choice.

Bleeding out of your penis isn’t an illness (though it does make you feel very sick on occasion and is recognised by “sick leave” when necessary) but you could argue that not being able to leave the house for five days every month because there’s blood running down your legs is something of a “disability”, yeah?

I’d be really happy for some of my tax dollars to go towards providing penis-wraps to men like you, Tom. It’s not like anyone would abuse the system – they’re not much good for anything else. Sure, some wag at a party might use five to make a whacky glove but that sort of shit is only funny once.

It seems weird, right, that one half of the population has to spend a significant amount of money on a basic need – which, to be fair, benefits all of us in terms of hygiene and health. I’d like us as a community to contribute to that, to level the playing field a bit. I can’t take away the pain in your balls, Tom, or stop the blood pouring out of your penis, but I can ease the financial burden for you and your brothers, and make your life – in this sense at least – a little more like mine.

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