02 Oct On Refugees, Poisoned Skittles and Sport

From “Your Weekend” magazine 1.10.16

Wife-and-husband social commentators Michele A’Court & Jeremy Elwood write a weekly column. This week, Jeremy goes first…


Early this week, a baseball pitcher named Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident off the coast of Miami, Florida. He was originally from Cuba, and defected to the US at the age of 15 on his fourth try, having been caught and imprisoned on the previous three. On that fourth attempt, he dove into the water to rescue a fellow passenger who had been swept overboard, only to discover it was his own mother. He wasn’t a great baseball player as a kid, but he loved the game, so he trained hard and by the time he finished high school, the Miami Marlins were willing to take a gamble and draft him.


It worked out pretty well.


He was voted rookie of the year in 2013, and this year was on track to finish the season as one of the top pitchers in Major League Baseball.


He was 24 years old.


It’s an incredible story with a tragic ending, and if you’re a sports fan, or just a human being with a heart, I encourage you to Google his name and read more about it.


It also comes on the heels of Donald Trump Junior proving that being a xenophobic douchebag can be hereditary. I don’t encourage you to Google his tweet comparing Syrian refugees to a bowl of poisoned Skittles, as it was so inane that it doesn’t deserve any more attention than it has already had, but if you need to get a frame of reference, go ahead.


Ok, done? Need a minute to wash your eyes?


What these two stories illustrate to me is the gap between what people fear immigrants will bring to a country and the potential of what they might bring. Those who fear that a few hundred (or even a few thousand, unlikely as that may sound given the reluctance of our politicians to allow a halfway respectable quota in) refugees coming to New Zealand will somehow take over “our” culture, religion or dress sense – you know, like the British did – are not only out of touch with reality, but also blind to more positive possibilities.


What if one of those refugees is our next great cricketer? Or writer? Or scientist? Or baseball player? (We do play it here, quite well too.)


And if they aren’t, you know what? That’s ok too. They might just be your next mechanic, or hairdresser, or Uber driver. They might be your neighbour, your colleague, or your friend, or you may never meet them, they may have no impact on your life whatsoever.


But by allowing them to come here, we would be making an immeasurable difference to theirs, and that’s a gamble I’m willing to make.


From Michele A’Court…


There are a lot of things I like about sharing a house with someone who was born in a different country from me, who has different interests and passions, and who introduces me to pockets of culture I might have otherwise missed.


Baseball, for one. During long, grim New Zealand winters, North America’s favourite summer game plays on our television. This is a game-a-day sport, not a once-a-week fixture. I’ll catch the odd innings as I pass through the living room on my way from office to kitchen, occasionally abandoning work altogether to watch big moments like my baseball hero, the Angels’ Albert Pujols, hit yet another record-breaking home run.


But it’s in dealing with life events that baseball most impresses me. The Miami Marlins’ press conference announcing the death of Jose Fernandez was a snapshot of what America – otherwise characterised by a Presidential campaign fuelled with hate, anger and stupidity – looks like at its best.


The Marlins are a multi-cultural team – African-American, Latino, white. Players and management spoke in Spanish and English. Everyone talked about being a family. Few families look as ethnically diverse as this, but family isn’t about ethnicity – it’s about living, working and playing together, right? There’s the family we are born into, and then there’s the one we make.


Marlins President David Samson said of Jose: “The magnanimity of his personality transcended culture, religion and race… He was a model for Cuban Americans and for all people who need to work harder than most to have freedom… He would say to me, ‘You were born into freedom, you don’t understand freedom really.’”


That, Samson said, was the gift Fernandez had given them. The kid from Cuba who had made them understand America better. Which is so often what refugees do.


I understand the fear that someone like Donald Trump Jnr is tapping into with his “bowl of Skittles” metaphor. But people aren’t candies and I’m heartened that, in NZ, two recent polls reveal most Kiwis believe we should invite more refugees here, that our current 1,120 a year is not enough.


Plus, it is worth remembering, in the interest of perspective, that the people who threaten us aren’t always from somewhere else. After watching the Marlins’ press conference, I watched our local news. Wellington Lions rugby player Losi Filipo was let off charges for assaulting two men and two women because of the effect a conviction would have on his rugby career.


If I was Trump, I might ask, “If I had a bowl of thugs and I told you some of them might play rugby really well, would you let them all off without conviction?” Apparently, the answer this week was yes.


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18 Sep Too Many Chiefs (not enough women)

First published in “Your Weekend” Saturday 17 September 2016

Murdoch - Chiefs

By Michele A’Court…

After more than a month of the Chiefs making headlines, what have we learnt?

On the one hand, this: That as a society, we don’t respect women who work as strippers. The women we care about (our daughters, sisters, mothers and partners) aren’t strippers, so we can’t empathise with women who are. We assume that women who do this job aren’t honest or trustworthy, or deserving of workplace safety.

Note: this does not apply to male strippers. They’re fun and non-threatening, and they might have other jobs like being a steel worker or Channing Tatum and are just having a bit of fun. It doesn’t define them – it’s probably a hobby.

That men fuelled by alcohol and bro-ness and exposed to nudity are like locomotives – once they’ve built up a head of steam, you can’t expect them to stop. They don’t have brakes. Apparently, they go to their lizard brain and can no longer be expected to tell right from wrong. They will forget you are someone’s daughter, sister, mother or partner.

But on the other hand, we should also learn this: A large number of us will not put up with this any longer.

From here on, no-one can reasonably claim you need hindsight to know that internal investigations are insufficient. Particularly if you are a group that prides itself on having a team culture where you all look out for each other and have each other’s back.

And that if you are investigating these kind of allegations, the first person you should talk to is the person making those allegations. She shouldn’t be the last.

That “consent” means one of the people can ask for whatever it is to stop at any time. Consent is specific to every moment. You – the whole big group of you – are going to have to listen to someone who might be small, young, or even naked and do as she says.

That in some instances, going to the police is not the only valid way to seek redress. Louise Nicholas’s story taught us that – an internal police investigation got exactly nowhere for years. It was the 4th Estate (a newspaper reporter) that eventually brought justice. It is not unreasonable now to think of the 5th Estate (social media) as an appropriate channel to bring this to public attention.

And that if Louise Nicholas offers to help you with the investigation, you should say yes. Several weeks ago.

And also, that if you are the Minister for Women it is your job to have an opinion on the way women are treated and viewed by society. If you can’t comment on the way private organisations treat women, you can’t talk about the wage gap or the need for women on private company boards either. In which case, I don’t know what you are for.


By Jeremy Elwood…


Since the events of the Chief’s Moronic Monday, and the subsequent wet squib of an inquiry, much of the media focus has been, understandably, on whether this incident is indicative of a deeper problem within New Zealand’s rugby culture.

It’s an obvious target, being something that most Kiwis are familiar with, regardless of their own interest in the sport.

I’ve never liked rugby. I find it a tedious sport to watch, I was rubbish at playing it, and yes, I have a number of bad memories of the “culture”, from school days onwards. So whilst I welcome any critique of it, I also have to admit that the kind of behaviour currently in the spotlight, and the responses to it, is hardly limited to the players and fans of my least favourite sport.

It seems that any time a group of men get together around alcohol and women, the potential to act like animals raises its ugly head. I know, I know, it’s Not All Men. I can admit that without joining in with that petulant cry from blokes who feel like somehow calling out the men who do act this way is an attack on our entire gender.

I see it regularly in my own job. Stag parties, corporate social clubs, birthday groups; we get all of these and more at comedy clubs all the time. Most of them are great, just having a laugh and a good time, but every now and again you get the ones where a mob mentality has taken over and “boys being boys” is on the edge of turning into “grown men being barbarians.” They heckle, they shout abuse (particularly to female comedians), and, more than likely, their next stop after they’ve ruined a comedy night is to go ruin one at a strip club.

This is nothing new. Testosterone plus booze plus sexual frustration plus encouragement from your mates has been a recipe for disaster for centuries. But that doesn’t mean we should let it slide. Brushing it off in the sober light of day as a bit of harmless fun, or even hinting that any woman caught up in the midst of it has in any way encouraged it is a symptom of something far darker than the actions of a few idiots. It’s suggesting that a person’s worth, and right to safety, is predicated on their job, dress sense or gender.

It’s fantastic that this story is refusing to go away. The fact that the Rugby Union were unable to brush this aside is a step forward. There are many more steps to take, though, by people throughout our society who can no longer hide behind a “culture”, rugby or otherwise.


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03 Sep Going Out On Your Own Terms – from “Your Weekend”

Jeremy and I watched the Tragically Hip’s last ever concert – the choice they made about how to end their artistic career after lead singer, Gord Downie, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It made both of us muse about the choices we do (and don’t) get to make about how we end things. This piece was written with huge respect to Downie, and also to Lecretia Seales who fought for the right to end her life on her own terms. http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/83577259/jeremy-elwood–michele-acourt-going-out-on-your-own-terms

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16 Feb Why ‘Free Education’ Should Be Free

First published in the Press 3.2.16


Gather round current students and graduates – take a break from fretting over your (on average) $20,000 student debt which will hang around your neck for the next nine years – and let me tell you a story.


Because we might have been a bunch of feral, pinko-leftie student hippies in the early 1980s, but we were more than a little prescient about the ultimate cost of the introduction of student loans. I recall protesting about it when the idea was, much like you then, just a twinkle in someone’s eye.


In the olden days, students got what was pretty close to a literally free “free education”. Bursaries earned at high school covered our annual polytech and student fees, plus we received (I’m pretty sure I have the numbers right) a living allowance of $36 a week.


Which may not sound princely, but room and board at a student hostel came to $28 a week, and Fairhall River Claret was $4 a bottle. So with a part-time job and summer work – often via tax-payer funded community schemes – you could afford to splash out on course books and an occasional muesli bar.


The wonder of it all was that, at the end of your certificate or diploma or degree, there was no tab to be paid. You were free and clear. There were choices and possibilities. The world was your metaphorical oyster. Which seemed entirely logical – that had been the whole point of investing several years of your young life in this whole higher education malarkey.


So without a bill being handed to me at graduation, I can’t tell you what my education cost in dollar terms. Nor can I tell you what my education has been worth to me in dollar terms. I have no idea if anyone has paid me more than they would have if I didn’t have a couple of bits of paper framed on my mother’s wall. It’s never really come up.


But I can tell you that one of my bits of paper taught me how to read – critically, and with pleasure – and the other taught me how to write. Both of them taught me how to think and ask questions, and feel a sense of civic and community responsibility. I can also live for long periods on variations of cheese on toast and I’ve seen how you can make a bong out of an apple.


I am telling you this because I want you to know that there was a time when you only had to have brains to engage in tertiary study, not money; when the idea of being 23 and $20,000 in debt was not ok; when the general consensus was that all taxpayers would pay for the best brains to get as much education as they could stuff into them because we’d all benefit from having well-educated people in the neighbourhood; when education was a way out of poverty, not into it.


And I want you to know that it would not be unreasonable to ask for that again.

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16 Feb Being Poor

When this piece was first published in the Press (23.12.15) people described it as me “getting my rage on”. They meant that in a good way. I’m pleased I did. By way of context, there were two incidents in the week prior involving the NZ Prime Minister – he dismissed a report on Child Poverty; and in the same week participated in a joke about rape (bending down for soap in the showers) on commercial radio.


Bloody poor people, am I right? With their drugs and their inability to budget properly and their lack of initiative.


Last week a report from the Children’s Commission revealed nearly one-third of Kiwi kids are living in poverty. Our Prime Minister says that’s partly because their parents are too whacked out on drugs to get a job. “Go ask any employer… they’ll tell you, if they drug test people, some of those people that they are testing they cannot hire because that’s the issue.”


Sure, that’s not backed up by stuff like facts. Figures released last year suggest very few beneficiaries are taking drugs. Of about 8000 beneficiaries sent for job drug tests, only 22 tested positive or refused to take the tests.


But I dunno. I watched the news on Monday and there was a story about Auckland City Mission giving out food parcels. Last week they were visited by 3,000 people. One third of them have never been to a food bank before. They start queuing as early as 1.30am. Someone writes a number on their hands in felt pen and then they wait for up to five hours for food they can’t afford to buy.


Lazy, right? Standing around all day. And they’re up that early because of the P. And that look in their eyes as they wait? That’s not sadness and desperation and embarrassment. Stoned.


And where does the Children’s Commission get off calling it “child” poverty? It’s like they’re only focused on children, like that’s their area of responsibility. Those 300,000 kids belong to someone. Someone who clearly doesn’t know enough about budgeting to turn the $80 left over each week after rent and bills into 21 nutritious meals for four people. What they need isn’t affordable housing or better pay. They need maths. If they could work out how to divide $80 by 84 meals, they’d be fine.


And look, if it’s not the drugs, it’ll be the flat screen TVs and smokes. Though, you know, if you can’t take a holiday at a bach in Maui, you’d probably want to watch a bit of tele on something you got for no deposit, interest free for 3 years, and roll yourself a fag.


Because some drugs are ok. Lots of people with money use them. But the good drugs, like a quality pinot or the party stuff the nice kids use for a bit of fun at the school ball.


Besides, the Prime Minister points out, when they say “poverty”, it’s not poverty Dehli-style. He means the city, not pastrami on rye. Over there, they’re living on a dollar a day. Which actually, in Dehli, goes a comparatively long way.


But like he says, some of the criteria are pretty subjective – like whether you can afford Christmas presents. Christmas presents are a luxury item. We can’t all expect to get them. Though if anyone’s thinking of getting a little something for the Prime Minister, go for your life. Maybe a pay rise of $13,500. Or soap-on-rope so he doesn’t have to bend down in the shower.

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16 Feb What We Tell Our Sons

First published in the Press 11.11.15


When my daughter was a teenager, each time she and her friends left our house, frocked up for a party, I’d call down the stairs, “Have fun! Be safe! Count your drinks! And remember, you can always phone me!”


I had promised her, made it clear many times, that no matter the time, no matter where she was or what state she was in, I would come if she called. Once, she did call. I drove across town in my pyjamas. We were pleased to see each other. We saved interrogation and explanation for the next day.


I was grateful for mobile phones. I couldn’t always reach her (they never answer) but I knew she could always reach me.


When I was a teenager and bad things happened, we would sometimes wish we had some kind of evidence – a photo, a message trail – to prove something untoward had occurred. So it wouldn’t only be your word against his. The risk of it turning into he-said-she-said usually meant no-one said anything at all. Imagine, we would sometimes think, if there could have been a picture?


Today, there are pictures. Except instead of acting as evidence of a crime, the picture is the crime. Something bad happens, it is photographed, and posted on social media. Where it remains forever.


Once again, this weekend, we’re hearing of a group of young men who are holding a competition where the girl is the prey. The winning boy is the one who gets the most young girls drunk, dangles his genitalia over their faces, takes pictures, and posts them on Facebook.


Police have used their discretion to not prosecute these boys for sexual misconduct or assault, and have let them off with a warning. It is, police have said before, hard to win a case when the victim can’t effectively give evidence because she was barely conscious.


Another thing that is hard is to do is to find anyone this week who agrees with the police. School principals, counsellors who treat adolescents with sexually harmful behaviours, and rape prevention educators are asking for criminal charges to be laid in this case, and they recommend mandatory treatment.


Teenage boys, they say, don’t have the developmental maturity or empathy to understand the consequences of their actions. They need the lesson, or they won’t stop.


What drives them? Our children are getting their sexual cues from pornography. The porn they have access to is explicit. Possibly more explicit than their parents have ever seen.


So we need to be explicit with them. When our sons are leaving the house for a party, we should call down the stairs: “Have fun! Be safe! Don’t dangle your genitalia over anyone’s face! In fact, don’t do anything at all without her consent! And remember, to give consent, she must be conscious!”


And we should tell them that if it feels like something bad is about to happen, the only appropriate thing to do with their phone is use it to call us to come pick them up.

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09 Nov Words Men Shouldn’t Say

First published in the Press 26.8.15


Last week, Martin Van Beynan tossed a hissy-cat amongst the pigeons when he argued there were words – specifically the sweary ones – that women shouldn’t say.


The response was a fairly universal “Get f***ed” from women and linguists, with a side note of “yawn”. On reflection, I’d have been prepared to make a deal: Men could have exclusive use of all the swear words if women could have exclusive use of all the rest. Let’s call that Option A.


It’s not the first time a man has told women how to talk. Public records show people have been criticising women’s voices – the timbre, the tone, the words chosen – ever since we tossed off our corsets in the 1870s, drew a deep breath and started expressing opinions. It is likely this kind of gendered nonsense was happening even before records began – some caveman with a deep “ugh” probably bemoaned the higher pitched “ugh” of cavewomen in an effort to maintain monopoly of fireside discourse.


But I was curious to know what would happen if we turned the question around, so I visited my online water-cooler on Sunday afternoon and asked women which words they thought men shouldn’t use.


In general terms it goes like this: men don’t like it when we use words that don’t fit their prescribed image of who we should be – as in the “unladylike” swearing-like-a-sailor; whereas women don’t like it when men use words that remark on our failure to fit that prescribed image. (We are “strident”, for example, when they’d prefer us to be passive.) Women also don’t like it when men use words that diminish our status. (“Girl” if we are a grown human.)


Here, then, is a handy list of words men shouldn’t say.


NOUNS: Sweetie, dear, love, honey, chick (when in a business meeting). Also bitch, pussy, girly, ladies, girls (unless referring to actual children), slag, ho, prossy, nag, slut.


ADJECTIVES: Crazy, insane, mental, stuck-up, shrill, hysterical, uptight, bossy, strident, bitchy, nubile.


PHRASES: You’re overreacting. What are you on about? Calm down. (Especially when used all together in the same breath.) Also: “You’re being emotional”, and “You’re being sensitive.”


SENTENCES THAT BEGIN: “I’m not… But…”.  “Women are naturally” and then includes shrill, strident or bitchy. A sentence also should not begin “Look…” or especially, “Well, actually…” when the tone is condescension rather than a disagreement between equals. Same goes for, “In my experience…”


Men should also never begin a sentence with: “I consider myself a feminist, but…” Nor end a sentence with “for a girl” or “like a girl”.


PHRASES MEN SHOULD AVOID: “Biological fact”, “That time of the month?”, “Not all men”, or “She’ll have the salad.” And no-one should ever tell a woman she needs to smile.


I realise this is a comprehensive list. It would take a fair amount of effort to filter these words and phrases out of your casual social interaction. Arguably more effort than it takes to not say the F-word. In fact, it might involve a whole shift in attitude and require some self-examination – what we might have called “consciousness raising” back in the 1970s. If that turns out to be too hard, we could always go back to Option A.

– Michele A’Court

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09 Nov What I Know So Far

First published in the Press 8.7.15

It’s my birthday this week. Sometimes birthdays arrive with a dark cloud of “I’m running out of time!” angst but I’m thrilled to say this one hasn’t. I googled this year’s age – 54. Apparently, if I was living in many parts of Africa, this would make me the oldest person in my village. According to NZ government stats, I might make it to 89. I can’t tell you if I’m comforted or daunted.

By way of distraction, I’ve made a little list of some of the things I know so far.

That you can feel the most at home in places you don’t actually come from. A sense of belonging the first time you visit a new city – for me, New Orleans; or when you first meet strangers with whom you share some unique experience; or you’re surrounded by a family you’re not actually related to by blood yourself – my daughter’s whanau.

That my most fondly remembered flights are the ones that didn’t go smoothly – the flight cancelled out of San Francisco in 2013 that gave me a bonus night in San Jose; and the emergency landing out of Melbourne in 2014 – another bonus night in a hotel, and the sense that if I had been going to die in a plane crash, that would have been the moment.

That you can forget all kinds of important things – events, faces, mathematical calculations for circumferences – but you will never forget the smell of wet socks and raincoats and boxes of raisins in a primary school cloakroom.

That although you believe you can’t go to sleep without a glass of wine, you find you sleep better without it. But you’ll take a glass anyway.

That as much as you know you shouldn’t get wound up about the cruel musings of a 25 year old you’ve never met who is given a public voice largely because she’s famous for being the daughter of famous people who make frocks you can’t afford, you will still find yourself waking in the night wondering how the hell any of that happened. Like, any of it.

That there is no grand plan and life is chaos, and we will spend most of our interior lives attempting to construct a narrative to prove to ourselves that this is not true. That is possible to hold two diametrically opposed ideas in your head at once and this explains why you love patting your cat while you listen to birdsong.

That sometimes the best way to be still is to go for a long drive. That there is no “bad” chocolate flavour, but some are better than others.

That the only birthday present you properly remember getting is the blue bike for your sixth birthday which didn’t need training wheels because you could already ride, but your dad wired wooden blocks to the pedals because your legs were too short and the seat couldn’t go any lower.

That it’s never too late to start getting on with someone. And that the best thing anyone can be is kind.

– Michele A’Court

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09 Nov Life’s Book Ends (for Lucretia Seales)

First published in the Press 17.6.15


Working out what is ethically the right thing to do sometimes involves working backwards. You can have an instinctive reaction to what is right or wrong, and then search for the reasoning that explains your instinct.


Like a lot of people, I guess, I’ve been thinking recently about how I want to die. Lucretia Seales gave us all that gift by mounting a legal challenge seeking the right for a doctor to help her die without criminal prosecution. It is fair to say that everyone’s heart broke a little when we heard the news that the courts wouldn’t allow this. She did a remarkable thing in allowing her death to be part of our national conversation, one that we might now be ready for.


The thing is, when we are well, we all want to live forever. But when we are not well – and have no hope of getting better – that urge changes. Then we, and the people who love us, discover continuing to live is not everything, and that dying well counts too.


Perhaps this isn’t a new thing. There are cultures where the tradition has been for people at the end of life to wander off into the snow or the desert when they’ve felt their time has come. Perhaps an expectation that we can go on forever is the new thing.


I’ve felt warmly towards being able to manage a dignified death for years now. I understand the arguments about not playing god, and focusing on palliative care, and the dangers of giving doctors the right to end life rather than always preserve it.


So I’ve wondered why I’ve felt instinctively in favour of euthanasia (ugly word) or “end of life choice”, “assisted suicide” and (better) dying with dignity.


In part it is because I’ve witnessed the other thing – palliative care that doesn’t properly stop the pain, and a final life chapter that doesn’t reflect in any humane way a life otherwise lived with verve and independence and kindness.


But another thought occurred to me over these recent weeks. That maybe we shouldn’t think of death as the opposite of life but instead as a bookend that matches birth. One an entrance, the other an exit. So this conversation we are having is not about life on the one hand and death on the other, but is better described as one about birth and death.


And we do all kinds of things to assist birth. We don’t wait for a god or natural processes to determine when a person begins her or his life. We plan pregnancies, and when pregnancies are complicated, we’ll set a date to make it happen. When births are tricky, we’ll circumvent nature and deliver by caesarean. “This,” we’ll say, “is the day you will enter the world.” So perhaps it is not so hard to understand that a sentient being might be able to say for themselves, “This is the day I will leave the world.” So we have the chance to exit the way we entered – with as little pain and as much dignity as we can all offer each other.

– Michele A’Court

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