Sunday, June 16, 2019

For Emily (a not so quiet passion)

Just got around to watching the 2016 dramatisation of Emily Dickinson's life, A Quiet Passion, by screenwriter and director Terence Davies and thought it might be apt to come out of my blog hibernation to write a few words about it, Seeing as Emily herself lived in a kind of hibernation. In part this was due to the times she lived in, times when women's words were only allowed so far through the golden gate by the bearded gatekeepers who doubled as the gate-builders, those with hammer and nail in hand failed to fully grasp the main difference between sword and pen, namely that the male advantage is lost with the latter.

Sticks and stones may hurt her bones, and did, but her words would not be silenced and shut out for ever. Her words did not rust or warp, as the nails and pales of the gate did. And so through 'the gate' to immortality those words took her and with her us, the women writers who followed her, quiet and not so quiet, indeed less and less quiet, if in her shadow still and always. But it is a warm and welcoming shadow. 

The poem I wrote last night was kind of written in her honour, though she would probably turn in her grave to hear it, so I don't presume it is for her exactly. In fact I wrote it in bed wrestling with wakefulness in the wake of watching her story portrayed with startling intensity by former 'Sex And The City' star Cynthia Nixon, a role for which she was nominated for Best Actress, and a story that made me feel, more than I had done before, that Emily, whose collection of poems I have only just last year begun to read with any close study, was a kindred spirit indeed.

So as her bright light and long shadow grows on me, a developing influence that along with lack of sleep probably shows through in this poem, I say cheers Emily Dickinson, a not so quiet passion.

A not so quiet passion

In the black and white night
the shadows come out
to shout
the colour of  time
hangs about
grazing the mind
warm and cold mingles
double, not singles
in the black and white night
cruel can be kind

Monday, April 1, 2019

11 years ago today

April Fool's Day 2008 was the final submission day for my PhD in political studies, a date I found a little ominous at the time.

But it has proven quite apt, in fact, because even though the subject matter of my thesis was about as far from funny or foolish as you can get (violence, gender injustice) last year, ten years on, I found myself making good use of the old PhiD by mocking the stigma attached to it for those of us who fail to make proper use of it, as I have failed, in my Auckland Fringe stand-up comedy show: 'The Egg and Sperm Race' for the purpose of making people laugh, which people duly did. And laughter is the best medicine, so doctor I was and am indeed.

They say nothing is wasted and I think this outcome proves this true as well as anything could, even if the ten-year research and writing period leading up to that 2008 Fool's Day was time-consuming, terrible and tortuous for me and all other members of my family and several (former) friends too, and even if it now looks as if my comedy career is also all but over for the foreseeable.

But they also say there is no fool like an old fool, and I'm starting to see what that means, and that means that I am still learning, learning about some other letters as well as P, H and D, which means my brain continues to function and grow, which is a good thing, probably. My husband might have a different point of view; he doesn't call me doctor indeed (though sometimes Nurse).

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Mosque magic

It felt right somehow that we were stuck in traffic for over an hour making our way in to our local city-side mosque (the country's oldest mosque, Ponsonby's Al-Masjid Al-Jamie, opened in 1979), a place the existence of which we had just learnt of earlier that day when it was reported that it and other other mosques in our city (Auckland) would be opening their doors for people of all faiths to pay their respects and show their solidarity with the Muslim community of Aotearoa New Zealand in the wake of the slaughter of fifty Muslim people, men, women, and children, whilst in prayer at their mosques in Christchurch the previous Friday. 

There was an armed police presence beyond the flowers and words of love and solidarity that gave me a jolt of unfamiliarity bordering on fear as we walked in through the double gates, having been greeted at the gate by a young Muslim man who told us 'thank you for coming' with a smile that was also disarming for its openness and warmth. We had been asked to dress 'modestly' whilst attending the mosque, though a head scarf for the women was not required, and I had chosen not to wear a scarf, after some considerable deliberation. Now, seeing that every other apparently non Muslim women, except one, later on I saw one more, had chosen instead to wear the scarf I felt my choice consistent with my faith in the ongoing fight for female freedom and equality was questionable in that moment when the purpose of our visit to the mosque was solidarity with Muslims and the scarf, worn so poignantly and I think rightly by our prime minister Jacinda Ardern when she spoke in the wake of the killings to Muslim people in Christchurch, has become one of the most public symbols of solidarity. 

It is not about me indeed and I did not intend for my bare head to be a political statement at all and hoped it would not be seen as that or make anyone uncomfortable - I certainly dressed modestly in every other respect. I just felt I could not consistently wear a scarf and hoped that my bare-headed attendance at the mosque, humble in every other way, and sincere in my solidarity with the suffering of the Muslim people of Aotearoa and outrage at what was done to them and their faith by a man of my race and country of origin, might show its sincerity all the more. In hindsight that was probably presumptuous, and standing out with my bear head was probably drawing too much attention to myself, though for me wearing the scarf felt more conspicuous and a little gratuitous, even culturally inappropriate on some level too. But it was not about my feelings, it was about the feelings of others, those who were inviting me into their place of worship in the wake of terrible violence done to them and their community because of their faith. That was what I should have considered more.

There is much to be learnt from this violent act of racism and anti-Muslim aggression, not least for those of us who take it upon ourselves to try and teach others and fight for what we believe is right, as I have done for much of my adult life, if on a very small scale, and visiting a mosque for the first time last night, being warmly welcomed by several Muslim people serving us tea and snacks, inviting us to join them in prayer, has taught me that as individuals we are small indeed, as factions we are divisive, but as one people fighting with kindness for each other, for peace, for tolerance and togetherness, we are powerful and strong. As-salamu alaykum, peace be upon you and us.   

Tuesday, March 5, 2019


It's a funny word 'comeback', isn't it? Perhaps not for everyone. I think it might sound funny to my ears because they still ring with Rose in Titanic calling 'come back!' so pleadingly and pathetically for the life-boat to pick her up before she freezes to death. Of course that was two words not one. But still. In my head they're similar enough. But they worked rather better for Rose that night than they did for me this Sunday night just gone when I attempted my comedy comeback...

In hindsight I probably made too much of the comeback concept, after having had only ten months off stand-up, if following a fairly big and traumatising brouhaha between me and the comedy boss and associated people. Have I mentioned the details of that here? I can't quite recall. But it was messy and life-changing for me, having waited so long to start stand-up and doing pretty well at it up until then.

'So this is my big comedy comeback' I said to kick off my Sunday night set at the small trendy inner-city bar with corner stage, 'well, medium sized', I added after a pause. That got a faint laugh from the FOUR people in the audience, one of them my husband, and whichever of the other comedians performing that night who bothered to watch from the shadows at the back of the room. I couldn't tell how many of them there were.

I was the only female on the line-up apart from the emcee - Mexican, cute, young and bubbly - and courteously sat through all of the other comedians' fairly samey young male comedy about dicks and dope. My all-new (not young) set about tree masturbation and horse clitorises was probably not quite so samey and seemed to throw and or exhaust the patience of the tiny audience, though they didn't respond much better if better at all to the dudes and emcee. Comedy really does need a crowd.

But my husband said heading home that my material was too absurdist and 'brainy' for a pub audience, not that the three people with him constituted an audience exactly. But he reckons I'll have to 'dumb it down' next time, and shorten it too. What me, long-winded? Noooooooo.................

We'll see, if there is a next time. The guy who runs these gigs and who coaxed me back to stand-up - which took some coaxing as I was (and am still) pretty battered and bruised by that brouhaha - didn't show up, as he had said he would and as he invariably does. He texted forty-minutes in to say he wasn't feeling well but might come in later. He didn't. And I didn't get his text till I got home (forgot my phone as usual), when I replied 'you didn't miss much.' But when he got back to that to say they 'usually have a good crowd' I couldn't help telling him that his presence there (he's a very well known local comedian) probably makes the difference. He hasn't replied to that comment, possibly assuming it came with some blame, which I guess it did, but only a little. If you're sick you're sick and there is a bug going round. The thought that that 'bug' might be me and that the fallout from the brouhaha was responsible for keeping other comedy people and friends and possibly even him away, I am trying not to entertain, though there is some strange comfort in it. At least I might matter, if in all the wrong ways.

If I do have another comeback after this, I think I might have to dumb down (or is it dumb up?) my outfit too. Not quite sure what I was going for there, I changed my mind to my dance shorts (cut off long pants) and tights (red) at the last minute for reasons not entirely clear to me. I heard an old and wacky comedian recently comment that when he dressed smartly the audience were more willing to accept his wackiness and laugh at it rather than cringe with worry that they were listening to the sad ramblings of a madman. I think I might have to take a leaf out of that guy's book, I'm sure people's tolerance of wackiness (and scruffiness) in women is even less than it is for the unfairer sex.   

'It's a bit like Louis C.K.'s comeback, only I don't like to use the term "comeback" in his case....don't want to encourage him' I also dared to say last night. It got another faint laugh. But I don't think I'll be able to re-use it; you can probably only comeback once.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Pussy Riot (Auckland)

Pussy Riot founding member Maria Alyokhina, imprisoned for her anti-Putin and patriarchal church-state protest
So I took my daughter to Pussy Riot in Auckland last night and it was an experience and a riot alright but we had to work for our riot (and our 'pussy'; there were a couple of blokes added to the line-up of five, in my view two too many).

First of all our tickets bought online were invalid, thanks to a scam run by someone called 'Dada King' and the booking agent Viagogo, though we thought we were booking through Auckland Fringe. And second, the female punk rock band from Wellington (forgot their name) who were on before Pussy were SO loud and ranting I had to rush out and buy ear plugs, well in fact the guy at the bar took pity on me and gave me a set for free. But still.

There is a common thread here I know, I am too old for this shit! The Dada King's of this world see people like me coming and people ranting at insanely high volume, girl, boy or other, is not anymore my idea of a fun night out, though the wild vibe was some fun with the bright orange, I don't look square at all, plugs in. And Dada won't see me twice! No sir. With our bank's help we are working to get our money back from Dada and Viagogo, who facilitated his (apparently he is a he, no surprises there) shameless thievery. I'm embarrassed to say how much he took us for, but hopefully we can get it back and he can go to hell with all the other false (and real life thieving) kings. We were not the only Riot fans he scammed either. There was a whole queue of us, and not all of them 'old' either.

But the show, despite these slight obstacles, was still worth going to (with freshly minted legitimate tickets) on a wet humid Friday night, standing room only, especially to see the principal Pussy and founding member, Maria Alyokhinawho was sentenced to almost two years in a Siberian prison for her efforts to challenge the corrupt patriarchal administrations of church and state under Putin. She makes for a compelling front-woman providing the main narration of the story they told with surtitles and video taken of their church-based protest and political aftermath that is drawn from her memoir.

I think they might have had their day though, Pussy Riot, and been co-opted a bit by the wider cause of fighting against church and state and political imprisonment -- they showed footage of a whole bunch of blokes, old and young, apparently former political prisoners now released; there's obviously a lot of that still going on in Russia -- at the expense of the feminist fight against the actual man that Pussy Riot was, or at least seemed to be, originally focused on, even if that apparently wider protest against corruption in high places is no doubt worth rioting about too.

It's just that we've had so many riots about that, indeed Russia practically specialises in them. And the extent to which what has happened to Pussy Riot is yet another case of feminist activists being sacrificed and partly silenced for the so called 'greater' good and purpose of serving one or other fight for power and justice between men, then I can't help thinking it is a bit of a sad sign and day for women of the world.

But let's hope this is not the essence of the situation and that Pussy Riot can still symbolise for women around the world the power and importance of our voice to stand up against corrupt men and the women who continue to put up with and defend this gender hierarchy and ignore the inevitable corruption that results from having too many men at the top.

Pussy Riot reclaimed the p-word from a term of female sexual objectification and demeaning used by men to a term of empowerment and solidarity for politically woke women. That is a great thing. Let's remember that and make sure that the riot doesn't become louder than the PUSSY. Riot on!


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Loving Levy

Deborah Levy's second memoir The Cost of Living saved my sanity in Sydney over Christmas last year when our sons... well, let's just say there was a midnight visit from a man and woman in blue. It is too close to the blood bone to say any more than that now. Even this probably says too much. With my boys (now young men) I feel increasingly it is better I say nothing at all. I am trying.

It was a very emotionally expensive time, a time when the cost of family and motherhood especially rose steeply in my eyes and I felt I might fail to rally the emotional funds necessary to pay for it all. I had brought Levy's slim book (a pre-Christmas gift from my husband) with me to read -- if I had time, between all the festive family fun I had planned and organised from a great distance of time and place before this watershed moment. Badminton was going to be involved in these festivities, the best value family sport because nobody cares if they don't win and any number can play, even an odd number -- as we are. And a shuttlecock has no sharp edges and moves in such a playful way too, sometimes getting stuck in the strings before you realise it and give the thing that isn't there a great hopeful thwack with your racket. Ha, ha! What a great, easy laugh that never failed, or never did fail. There would be no badminton this festive season; there would be no boys in fact after the first night (22nd). And it was going to take more than a stuck shuttlecock to save us.

So after drawing breath the next morning with my husband, who was not spared but blamed for taking my side, I picked up Levy's slim book and it, she, spoke to me of motherhood and womanhood in my time, and time of life, and I felt immediately I could face what I was living, the cost of living my life in and through those terrible moments to find a way back, or forward, to... I don't yet know what or where. But Levy made me believe there would be a what and where.

And yesterday I finished her even slimmer, fantastically titled, first volume of memoir, Things I Don't Want to Know and felt again my breathing ease as the hope of recovery and redemption from the challenges ongoing with my boys (men) returned. This is what a good book, a good author, can do. It is better than badminton indeed.

And it did not matter that I had read her memoirs in the 'wrong' order, the second first, for this one is in part a long essay response to Orwell's 'Why I Write', and a stand-alone piece in that respect, plus one that plays with chronological time anyway.

She writes, she says, to 'speak in my own voice', which she knows is much harder to do than it sounds, harder for a woman, that is. She challenges Orwell's claim that 'sheer egoism' is a necessary quality for a writer, countering that 'even the most arrogant female writer has to work overtime to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.' I know exactly what she means.

Right now, January just done, I am not sure how I will make it all the way forward, and back, to December. Indeed I can't imagine how we will ever achieve another family festive season. But knowing that Levy is writing a third volume makes that imagining a little easier, and gives me the courage to figure out how I might find the words to write and fight my way out of the mire and back into the magic of motherhood. Perhaps it's time to turn down the volume a bit. Take a leaf out of Levy's book.     

Monday, February 4, 2019

Sisters to Saturn, brothers to brioche

It's a brave new world indeed and Netflix's new series 7 Days Out showing the final week of preparations leading up to some of the world's biggest live events (albeit almost all in America) provides an insight into some of this brave newness...

Saturn, image courtesy of NASA's Cassini mission 1998-2018

Or at least the first three episodes do, we baulked at the fourth episode on the Kentucky Derby. But the first three, and especially the second and third episodes, were brilliantly done and offered inspiring insights into our changing world.

The first episode on the top dog show (Westminster, NYC), shows us just how BIG dogs are in our world and that the people who become the biggest dog people are some of the most colourful (crazy and charismatic) people in that world. There is something about dogs indeed, and even though I don't quite get what that something is (my sister is the dog person in our family), I found it fairly compulsive viewing from a social science point of view.

But the second episode on the final week of the 20-year NASA mission to scope out Saturn for new information about the sexiest planet in our solar system, including taking this image and thousands more, was next level inspirational and has deservedly been nominated for an Emmy.

It also provides another revelation (Hidden Figures take two) into the influence of women in space exploration, with a woman being responsible for engineering and building the Cassini probe that would travel a billion or so miles from Earth and through the eye of a space needle to find its desired target and gather the information needed. We always have been good at sewing (She is pictured here hugging the project manager upon the completion of the mission). Oh and the lead scientist on the project (pictured applauding) was a woman too, so it was a regular sewing circle situation, you could say, except it was in space, the final sewing frontier, it seems.

The third episode provided a nice point of contrast with the second on almost every front, being about the re-opening of a grand New York restaurant, voted best restaurant in the world in 2017, after a total restaurant makeover, from the food to the forecourt. It all had to go. It doesn't sound quite as impressive as the Saturn probe, but it almost was, the tension in the final week before re-opening with a full guest list of people prepared to pay not hundreds but thousands for their dinner, almost makes earthly cooking look harder than space sewing.

And more interesting to me indeed was that blokes (cis gender) were at the helm of this event, a team of two men, one in charge of the kitchen, the other the front of house. And so it struck me watching this episode that although the Saturn probe was a little like sewing, it was really more about space exploration, a challenge that has tended to be thought classic men's work, whereas work in the kitchen and dining room has tended to be thought classic women's work, celebrity chefs notwithstanding.

So for me these two events are big indeed in so far as they challenge gender stereotypes and show how well we can do when we think outside of imposed and, for women especially, narrow cultural confines and expectations to allow all people to discover what we are good at and have a passion for.

These funky space-age chef hats, with cunning air vents for head cooling, are enough to show us how far we can go when we stop caring about expectations to look cool and focus on being cool and useful instead, even if the greater purpose of wearing any kind of large white hat in a kitchen remains something of a mystery to me. The universe works in mysterious ways indeed.