Northern Advocate Column

The toilet, can we move on from him and hers?

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I’m writing this next to a toilet. Well, it’s on the other side of the wall to the booth seat I usually take up in my favourite café. The wall is solid, and there’s enough conversation hum and kitchen clunking to drown out any embarrassing noises. I don’t even hear the toilet flush.

It’s a single toilet. There’s no separate mens and womens. There’s no area to wait around in, you exit the café through the mandatory two doors and you’re in the bathroom. People come and go, without any fuss. It’s the most normal of things.

Toilets, however, have gotten political in New Zealand of late, thanks to proposed amendments to the rather dull sounding Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act. The changes being considered by Parliament would see adults over 18 able to “self identify” their gender, such that a transgender woman would be a woman before the law and have legal entitlement to spaces regarded as women only. These include Women’s Refuge, pool changing rooms, prisons, and of course toilets.

One of the issues for transgender people is the situation arising when there’s only mens and womens toilets available, which should they use? Both choices can lead to difficult, embarrassing or confrontational situations. Transgender people would like legal recognition that it is their right to use the toilet of the gender they identify as. Understandable.

There has, though, been opposition to “self-identification” on social media and in opinion columns, most notably Rachel Stewart in the NZ Herald (28 Nov 2018). They’ve been criticised by transgender people and other supporters of the law change. The debate has got ugly on social media in particular. 

Opponents of the bill, have expressed concern that spaces currently restricted to biological women could be compromised by a still biological man who identifies as a woman. They cite Women’s Refuge as an example of space that should remain the preserve of biological women only.

Women’s changing rooms at a pool or a gym have also been much discussed as spaces which should not be available to transgender woman who are still biologically male (not having had a sex change operation).

How widespread these concerns are is hard to judge. Many people probably aren’t aware of the debate. But if “self-identification” is accepted by Parliament — which on balance I support — then there’s going to be situations arising that will need to be talked through and negotiated publicly, with understanding required from both sides.

As for toilets, might it be time to continue a quiet revolution in public toileting and make them all unisex anyway? Unisex toilets have become much more common in public spaces, as well as in many cafes, restaurants and bars. Changes to local bylaws have made this possible. This means no urinals (which nobody misses) and visible waiting areas outside cubicles or simply a direct through-door access to the toilet. Designed well, no one is made to feel unsafe in a concealed space. 

Whatever your thoughts on gender self-identification, let’s at least agree that toilets should be a human-centric public facility, used by women, men, children, nappy changing mothers and fathers, gay, straight, transgender and non-gendered. The toilet in my favourite café caters for everyone, and there’s not a problem.

Perhaps, for toilets at least, we can forget the labelling and all go about our business quietly reflecting on the universalism of our most basic bodily functions.

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Northern Advocate Column

Trending this century…

mini-iron-bucket-500x500In the wake of what’s hip and hot for 2019, it might be worth taking a somewhat longer view. How about the next 81 years? Here are some predictions for what will be trending this century: 

The bucket. Not the flimsy plastic ones, but those big galvanised steel ones that used to be essential on the farm. You can use one to transport garden debris to the compost bin, and compost to the garden; collect water from a downpipe or leaking guttering; transport food scraps to chickens or pigs. You can even pee in one (dilute with water for a nutrient boost for the garden). Buy one of these family heirlooms now before they’re selling for hundreds of dollars. 

Our own two feet. With petrol prices destined to rise, it’ll become common sense to swap the hours we work each week paying for a car and petrol for walking instead. We might be surprised how far we can go and how fit we’ll get. And as walking trends, so will roadside accommodation make its comeback. Medieval Christians used to go on pilgrimages on foot across Europe to see holy relics, like Christ’s foreskin or Saint Anthony’s tongue. They needed places to stay at the end of a day’s walking. This was big business. In New Zealand, we’ll probably want to walk to the beach, the closest thing to a pilgrimage for most of us. Forget freedom camping, then, freedom walking will be trending this century. 

Fruit and nut trees. Perennial agriculture that grows food for a local population is probably the best thing we can do to mitigate the effects of climate change and achieve a sustainable food growing culture in the twilight of the fossil fuel era. If done right, food-producing trees can be planted quite densely. Their foliage, root system and decaying leaf matter retains water in the land. With all the tree crops, ladders will also be trending well. 

Second-hand. You’ll know that second-hand is already trending if you frequent charity shops, got to garage sales or buy on Trade Me. Getting over the need to buy things new saves money. Many of us are already sold on this low-spend strategy for the good life, but as it gets more expensive to bring quality stuff into the country what’s here already will need to go around further. Second-hand markets in every town and suburb will likely appear and thrive. 

A spiritual text. It’s said that every home used to have a Bible, and then a lot of empty bookshelf space. The Bible was the go-to reading material, you dipped back into it again and again. In these days of information overload, with an infinite variety of things you could read, this century will see more people wanting special books they return to for comfort and wisdom. The Bible, the Koran, the complete works of J. K. Rowling, might suffice for some, but a mash-up of ecological science, practical food growing tips and accumulated philosophical wisdom is what a 21st-century secularist like myself needs. It would need to have as much poetry and story-telling power as the Bible to satisfy a spiritual thirst. Someone just needs to write it. 

Doing nothing. As one of my spiritual mentors, John Lennon, once put it: “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round, I really love to watch them roll.” He was referring to the merry-go-round in Central Park, New York, that he loved to sit and watch. Call it meditating, call it taking time out, call it mindfulness, but doing very little while taking in with all our senses the world around us is sometimes all we need. And if we stop and look we might see that there’s beauty and wonder in a well-made bucket sitting under an apple tree. 

 

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Northern Advocate Column

Jacinda Ardern and Theresa May chat at No.10

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When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met British Prime Minister Theresa May at No.10. Here’s what they might have said…

Theresa May: Welcome. Good to see you. How’s the baby? Loved that thing you did at the United Nations. Brilliant.

Jacinda Ardern: Thank you. Neve’s great. She’s at home this trip.

May: Lovely. So what brings you to London?

Ardern: Ah… well… to see you…  And then to Davos for the World Economic Forum. I’m speaking about climate change.

May: That’s right, you’re big on climate change. Good for you. Is that why you wanted to see me?

Ardern: Um… no… it’s because we’d like to negotiate a free trade agreement.

May: Who would?

Ardern: New Zealand.

May: Oh… you know things are very hectic at the moment with this Brexit mess.

Ardern: A free trade deal with us would be something positive.

May: Might be easier to negotiate I suppose. What’s the size of your economy?

Ardern: Around $270 billion NZ dollars. 

May: Did you know the size of the German economy is $5 trillion? And that’s in US dollars. Curses to Cameron and his referendum. Bloody democracy! What a disaster… 

Ardern: What we’d like is to secure better market access for our dairy, lamb, wine and…

May: Oh, yes, I love your sauvignon blancs. Been hitting them hard lately actually. But what’s in it for us?

Ardern: We could make exceptions to our ban on foreigners buying land and houses. And holidays, we love hosting British tourists. We could make it easier for you to come to New Zealand. No airport taxes…

May: Mmm… it’s a long way to New Zealand… aren’t we going to be burning up lots of jet fuel, I thought you wanted to reduce carbon emissions?

Ardern: Well, yes.

May: Come to think of it, we have our own farmers and the French make some pretty good wine. They’re a lot closer to us.

Ardern: I know, I know… but it’s what I have to say… Everywhere I go, it’s will you take our dairy products, our meat, our trees, come and visit our beautiful country… I feel like a fraud sometimes.

May: There, there, it’s tough being the leader of a country. I didn’t vote for Brexit, yet here I am. I’m sure you’re doing good work. Tell us more about your trip to Davos.

Ardern: It’s a bit of coup, really. I’m on the climate change panel with Al Gore. And David Attenborough, we love him in New Zealand!   

May: Sounds delightful. I can’t go, unfortunately, this damn Brexit thing again.

Anyway, would chat more, but I’ve got a meeting with the Russian ambassador next. We might need a trade deal with them, they’ve got lots of oil and gas you know. 

Hey, we should do our next meeting by video hook-up. Then you could stay in New Zealand and not use all that jet fuel. Wouldn’t that be great?

Ardern: Ah… yeah… but face-to-face is so much better don’t you think?

May: Just a thought, it’s so confusing sometimes, this climate change thing, I never know what we should be doing. Do you follow Trump on Twitter? God, he’s a laugh. Wish I could get away with some of the stuff he says.

Ardern: No, I don’t follow him. My deputy prime minister usually keeps me updated though.

Thanks for your time Prime Minister. 

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Northern Advocate Column

The philosophy of walking

Philosophy_of_Walking_cover_1.png250x342.881944444Alas, we can’t all run as fast as Beauden Barrett (or Owen Franks either probably). Many of us have declined the option to run at all, not since the dark-remembered days of cross country at school.

Rather than the huff and bluster of running, most of us prefer the elegant art of walking, with perhaps a little polite panting if we walk up a hill. There’s a philosophy to it, too, according to Frédéric Gros, whose book, A Philosophy of Walking (2014), was a bestseller in France.

Taking a cue from the ideas developed fully in his book, here, in truncated form, are some possibilities for thinking philosophically about walking. They might inspire you to walk more or think more about walking.

Walking is not a sport. No rules, no competition, no training or extraordinary ability, just one step after another; anyone can do it.

Freedom. Walking is freedom from all the transactions of life. The longer you walk, the longer you escape. Directionless, or with a specific goal, you are free until you arrive or return to where you started. Walking to work is not work.

Nothing to it. A beach traversed from point to point is pointless, for walking’s sake only. Nothing is made or earned from walking.

Simple joys. Walking is the joy of breathing and a gentle breeze on your face. The greatest pleasure, a clear winter sky, or tiny flowers observed in a crack of concrete.

Silence. Walking silences the chatter. You can’t read the newspaper when you’re walking, or even your phone, really. You must pause to send a text or scroll your newsfeed. Walking can be used to edit your life; reducing the noise.

Inspiration. A problem pondered indoors is a problem solved after a good walk; our unconscious minds doing the work while we walk.

Slowness. The sages of history have all taught it: slow down. Walking is slow, you don’t get anywhere fast. No spending of time, or saving it, but being in time, savouring it. A day walking is a long day, you’ll live longer walking.

Together. Walking with another person is social. Your speed must adjust, you feel compelled to talk, to listen. Walking, however, makes the silences comfortable.

Alone. Walking alone you find your own rhythm, your hidden self that no one else knows. Walking alone you possess the world, with other people you share it. Both are necessary.

Repetition. You can repeat your route, walk the same path over and over. It’s always changing though; you notice the different light, the changing seasons. Walking the same path balances our desire for novelty, for the new; there’s serenity in the familiar.

Peace. Walking takes away the need to justify yourself to yourself; the physical rhythm of your limbs moving overrides the anxious monologue in your head. Walking empties the trash.

Monotonous. Waking is monotonous, but it’s not boring. “Boredom,” says Gros “is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind.” The activity of walking pulls the mind out of its lethargy. If you’re bored, walk somewhere. You can’t be bored walking, like you can be bored in a car—have you noticed this?

Prison. Being stationary, cooped-up, can make us tetchy, our minds roaming in our heads; too conscious. When we imprison people for crimes, we take away their ability to walk freely. Perhaps if we want to rehabilitate we should make them take long walks, back to society.

Afterwards. Walking long and far, through town, on a track through the bush, along a sandy coast, eventually tires. Your walk comes to an end. What follows is contentment, a pleasant weariness, a satisfaction that comes from having moved.

Gravity. You never escape gravity when you walk, one foot is always on the ground. You are of the earth when you walk. Running or jumping tries to defy gravity; it can be done for a brief moment only. For all its drama, its observable wonder, like a bird flying, it’s not our place to run and jump for long. As we age walking is all we do, until we don’t walk anymore.

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Northern Advocate Column

Anthony Bourdain: artistry, doubt and dead octopus

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Stone dead, half-frozen octopus dropped from a small fishing boat into the waters off the coast of Sicily. Plummeting to their second deaths, with all the metaphorical weight of a dead albatross. All for one man, who’s snorkelling below, filmed by an attendant camera crew. 

In the wetsuit, Anthony Bourdain, writer, ex-cook and maker of original, funny, dozen-thoughts-per-minute television. He’s in Sicily for season two of Parts Unknown (2013). He’s meant to be catching this ocean delicacy for real, not being fed them from above like an aquarium-caged sea mammal. The local restaurant owner orchestrating the sham obvious didn’t get the memo that for Anthony Bourdain authenticity is everything.

Underwater, with a snorkel in his mouth, Bourdain, the charismatic, natural communicator is unable to say a word. The anger he’s feeling cannot be expressed in a series of trademark expletives. Just the silence of the pathetic deceit reigning down on him. He’s powerless to stop the bullshit.

It’s through the narration added afterwards in the editing studio that Bourdain gets to speak the horror of what he experienced. “I’m no marine biologist,” he deadpans, “but I know dead octopus when I see one… Strangely, everyone else pretends to believe the hideous sham unfolding before our eyes, doing their best to ignore the blindingly obvious.”

As octopi thud lifelessly onto the seafloor, he continues the despairing monologue: “I’ve never had a nervous breakdown before, but I tell you from the bottom of my heart, something fell apart down there, and it took a long, long time after the end of this damn episode to recover.”

This wasn’t just a tragic-comic scene, a good story for his television show, it was an existential crisis of monsters-from-the-deep proportions. The look on his face back on shore said it all.

Faith in humanity was at stake. Faith in himself. It’s like those falling dead octopus are Bourdain’s own burdens, mistakes and regrets, piling on top of humanity’s greater follies, from gluttonous overfishing to run-of-the-mill everyday media fakery. And here he was complicit in it all. That’s one hell of a guilt load. So Bourdain gets blindly and sourly drunk on gin cocktails. It’s his birthday.

This story, both painfully real and artfully presented for fist-punching dramatic effect, is what Bourdain could crystalise in a few minutes of TV. There are countless scenes from No Reservations and Parts Unknown that make you laugh out loud and want to cry at the same time. Have you doubting our very worth as a species one minute, then making you believe eating grilled sardines at a bistro with good company is the greatest joy possible. 

As a cook, Bourdain might not have been an artiste, but as a maker of hour-long television, he was in my mind an artist. The flawed, witty, passionate man that he presented to us on screen was like a fresh oyster off the rocks compared to the bland fast-food celebrities we’re so often forced to consume. I was a fan.

From this distance his suicide is unfathomable, an act lacking any easy explanation. We’re left with a big tidal pool of doubt. 

Which is the feeling you often got watching his shows filmed in places like Beirut, Jerusalem, Libya, Detroit, Moscow or the Congo. In his later shows, when he was more serious about what he was doing, Bourdain never gave easy answers to the world’s problems and conflicts. He didn’t have them, and he didn’t pretend to have them. Like all good sceptics, he put the onus on us to figure it all out. 

In a recent interview, he said: “I don’t like comfortable conclusions. Life’s not like that. I’d rather leave people hanging even with a lingering doubt or a feeling of being unsettled.” And yet his brutal honesty, natural empathy for ordinary people, and unwavering internationalism was itself a kind of answer. It must be part of the reason so many people around the world have voiced their sadness at his passing.

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Music, Northern Advocate Column

All hail Prince Tui Teka!

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All hail Prince Tui Teka! I never knew. Listening to the big man sing ‘Heed the Call,’ the title track of the recently released compilation of Aotearoa soul, funk and disco tracks (1973-83) was a musical revelation. It’s a sublime, drum-heavy soul track, that stands up alongside anything by Al Green, Curtis Mayfield or Solomon Burke. 

While it’s the effortless crooning of Prince Tui Teka that lifts the song, the dynamic rhythm section and backing vocals supplied by The Yandall Sisters are equally essential. It was a surprise to find out the song was initially recorded by Kenny Rodgers and his band The First Edition. Written by bandmate Kin Vassy. The Prince Tui Teka version is, I think, superior, but it shows what a strange melting pot music can be.

The original song had the background of the Civil Rights movement in America and is a plea for racial understanding and peace through the secular gospel of music. “Have you been sleeping/The sermon’s in the music,” Tui Teka drawls before The Yandall Sisters come in with: “The man standing next to you/ He must surely be your brother/ So brother, please, heed the call.” You realise listening to the message of this song, that soul, funk and disco were being embraced by Māori performers at the same time as the Land March (1975) and the Bastion Point occupation (1977-78).

And while the 1970s are often portrayed as dark economic and social times, there was close to full-employment, the union movement was strong, and houses were affordable. In politics, music, and every other part of life, Māori were putting their “good foot” forward. There was a confidence that needed a soundtrack. It’s English that’s used, and American musical forms are the vehicle, but it’s to Māori working in South Auckland factories, in government department offices, in freezing works around the country, who Prince Tui Teka is singing to.

But not only to them, because if there was one factor that drove the music scene in New Zealand at the time, it was that pubs were king. Māori or Pākehā, if you were looking for a good and rowdy time after a week of wage-slavery, and music was your thing, then it was to pubs like The Gluepot in Ponsonby that you went. The equivalent venues existed in Whangārei and around the North.

There were no separate disco clubs, like in cities overseas. If you were a musician interested in the latest funk and disco sounds, your only option was to introduce that sound to a general audience. The underground and the mainstream had to co-exist, had to bang up against each other. Literally according to Alan Perrott, one of the men behind the Heed the Call! compilation. “There were fights in the crowd most times [the bands] played,” says Perrott in an interview with Grant Smithies for the Sunday Star Times. “These were hard-arse bars, and let’s not forget this is New Zealand, with a long tradition of men having to get blind pissed before they have the confidence to dance. Let’s just say there was a fair bit of drama…”

But conflict and controversy have always played their part in getting noticed. And so Mark Williams from Dargaville fronted in tight, chest-bearing jumpsuits, make-up and earrings. It’s his photo in full get-up on the cover of the album. You can just imagine the comments from a heavily largered pub crowd

The new sound did win converts, though. Mark Williams had big hits with ‘Disco Queen’ and ‘A House For Sale’. ‘I Need Your Love’ by Golden Harvest reached number one on the New Zealand charts in 1977. ‘Sweet Inspiration’ by The Yandall Sisters was hugely popular. 

Unfortunately, what we have now was only the tip of the iceberg. Perrott, an obsessive record collector, has lamented the fact that not much of the music played in the bars and pubs was ever recorded. There was no money to be made from entering the studio, the live music scene was where the money was. Heed The Call!, then, is a precious time capsule, a few choice nuggets of feel-good funk rhythms and soulful voices to savour. A taste only of a cultural milieu that’s been and gone.

If you want to escape back to that era, to remember it, or visit for the first time, then this album is essential. Don’t let your preconceptions sway you. For too long, certainly, I’ve neglected names like Dalvanius, Mark Williams, Prince Tui Teka, Tina Cross and The Yandall Sisters.

But for all those named stars, it’s the tough, talented and largely forgotten musicians working the pub circuit the length of the country who are the heroes of this album. One of the best songs is ‘You Can Dance’ by Collision, a band which originated from the forestry town of Tokoroa.

I’m so often in awe of the musical talent and great songs that have come out of this small country. Whakarongo ki te waiata.

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Northern Advocate Column

Obama’s legacy: a missed opportunity

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So Barack Obama has dropped by to play some golf and make a little post-presidency money ($550,000) speaking to 1,000 exclusive guests of the NZ-US Council. He’ll be treated with great deference. John Key, with his I’m-so-lucky-to-play-with-the-big-boys smile, will have nothing but praise for the man. Jacinda Ardern will be fawning too, I’m sure.

And don’t get me wrong, next to Trump, who grows more odious by the day, Obama has a likeability rating comparable to Kermit the Frog. He’s charming, intelligent, seemingly honest, and with great empathetic skill. He has opinions on social issues that wouldn’t get him ostracised at a dinner party in most well-to-do suburbs in New Zealand. If, on the other hand, Trump turned up at a dinner party in Saint Helliers, Karori or Fendalton he would probably cop some heat. Not Obama though.

And yet, if we’re to speak honestly of Obama’s legacy, it’s got to be more than him being the first black president, and that he’s a classy and likeable individual.

He was elected on a wave of optimism, having run a grassroots campaign involving hundreds of thousands of young activists hungry for change. In the first two years of his presidency, the Democrats controlled all the levers of power in America. The Republican Party was in disarray and the Wall Street banking class, following the Global Financial Crisis, feared having their powers curbed. This could have been a pivotal moment in history.

Except Obama didn’t act against Wall Street or put a stop to bankers paying themselves obscene bonuses from the bailout money. Instead, he adopted many policies of austerity that saw living standards fall for Americans of all races. He reneged on his promise to pursue a public health system and instead sided with the insurance and drug companies to rehash the same inequitable system dependant on insurance premiums that many still couldn’t afford.

As Democrat supporters became steadily disillusioned and apathetic, the Tea Party movement, and then Trump, were able to successfully play on people’s fears and anger. Many working-class white Americans who had supported Obama and the Democrats now voted for Trump, willing to believe that he did have their interests at heart. They were deceived of course.  

And now America has become an even scarier place. Trump has empowered every petty racist to think they can express their vile views.

Someone like Trump, or indeed any of the odious figures of history, don’t land in power and create all the evil themselves. So often the seeds are sown by the actions of political figures in the past.  For me, Obama is that guy. He was in a position of power with massive popular support and a desire for change. Yet he chose to steer the ship in the direction of the status quo, that is, around in circles without doing very much at all. 

How different the world today might have been.

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