Would you trust this man?

I was amused to read that Tinder and other dating apps intend to make it possible for users to get ‘verified data’ (i.e., run background checks) on their romantic prospects. The available data will include any arrests, convictions, restraining orders, harassment, and evidence of violent crimes. For an, as yet, unspecified fee, this will “empower users with information” so they can protect themselves. 

I was amused to read that Tinder and other dating apps intend to make it possible for users to get ‘verified data’ (i.e., run background checks) on their romantic prospects. The available data will include any arrests, convictions, restraining orders, harassment, and evidence of violent crimes. For an, as yet, unspecified fee, this will “empower users with information” so they can protect themselves. 

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?. After all, an unbelievable number of people are on the receiving end of gender-based violence — about one in four women and one in nine men have experienced it at some point in their lives. And I understand that platforms like Tinder have been slow to act on complaints about abuse by people listed on their site. 

The big problem with certified data as far is that it’s not unknown for someone without any ‘previous’ to be saddled with the rap sheet of someone possessing a similar name or some other matching data. Mistaken identity can see some people lose out on potential jobs, houses, and now possibly love through no fault of their own. Employers are not allowed to ask about stuff like this in interviews in the interests of fairness. Certainly, there is the option to request a police check, but the usual starting point is to give the candidate a chance to tell their own story. 

I have often wondered if we shouldn’t approach relationships with the pragmatism and rigour employers take in screening prospective employees. Over the years, I’ve employed a fair number of people and I’ve made my share of poor choices — no system is failsafe. But I’ve tried to stack the odds through running a thorough selection process and by checking references. 

Writing letters of reference for former employees is something of a dying art. Some still want them, but they’re a potential minefield. On the one hand, you can be prosecuted by the new employer if you over-represent the person’s capabilities. On the other, you have to risk the ire of departing employee if they disagree with your summing up of their performance. Hence the blandly handy and non-committal Certificate of Employment. This bald statement of job title and time served, possibly including an invitation to call for more information, gets you off the hook. It’s all you are legally obliged to provide if there are reasons you don’t want to do more.

In the employment context, seeking and providing character references is a big part of the deal and acceptable on both sides of the negotiation. For candidates, protection lies in the fact that it’s up to them whose names they give as referees — you’d hope they’d pick fans. But even the most enthusiastic fan cannot always defend their idol across the spectrum of topics that might come up. I’ve become good at reading or listening between the lines. It’s easy to hear the slight hesitations before they answer difficult questions and to spot the careful phrasing to avoid being untruthful where there is cause for concern. Frankly, I’ve been amazed at times what people have been prepared to tell me.

The last reference check I gave had its challenges. It was for someone I mostly rated very highly and liked, but aspects of their attitude and approach were quite tricky to manage. When asked, I gave a measured response that made it clear I had reservations in this one particular area but then stressed I didn’t think it would prevent them from succeeding in the intended role. You don’t want to limit the prospects of someone you broadly feel is a good thing, but the issues had caused a few problems in my business, and I don’t think it’s fair to a potential new boss to gloss over stuff like that. I take the approach of raving (in a good way) where I can and keep the negatives short and as sweet as I can make them, honestly. 

Coming back to Tinder et al., consider how differently we would view the dating game if people took up reference checks from one or more former partners before they ever agreed to a date. What would your exes say about you?  More to the point, what, if asked, would you say about them? 

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

Re Barlow Brinksman

Barlow and I cohabited for nearly a decade, during which time he held the role of my Life Partner, a job title for which he ultimately proved unfit as the life bit didn’t work out.

Despite his excellent qualifications for the role — alpha male status, top job in industry, large asset base, physique holding up well for age, brooding raptoresque looks and impressive intellect — he somehow never entirely fulfilled his potential. Barlow is not a team player, being over-competitive and doesn’t like sharing other than with his children to whom he’s obsessively attached.

I couldn’t fault his commitment in some areas — he demonstrated an enthusiastic, somewhat obsessive approach to the more physical aspects of the job. I also couldn’t complain about his earning power, although what was his remained his. Barlow was always punctual and could be highly sociable when he felt like it. He communicates exceptionally well on some levels; I never had any difficulty understanding his basic needs, but he has trouble expressing himself on a more profound emotional level. While he carried out complex duties with competence and on time, he could not be relied upon when the opera season coincided with Super Fifteen Rugby’s later stages.

He is entirely capable of working without supervision but rarely uses his initiative at essential times like birthdays and Christmas. His alpha-male status also makes him something of a bully, and he doesn’t take it well if he doesn’t get his way.

In my opinion, despite his many fine qualities, he has changed partners too often during his career and is unlikely to settle in any Life Partnership position permanently.  Moreover, he left me without serving out an acceptable notice period. In my opinion, it would take a massive mental shift for him to embrace the qualities required in this demanding role: commitment, sharing, nurturing, listening and compromising.

While I would possibly recommend him to anyone looking for an Associate Partner or perhaps a Transitional Person, I would have to say pass if you’re looking for your forever person, and I would not personally re-instate him if hell were freezing over.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me should you require further information.

Yours faithfully etc.

If the above were a letter of reference for a potential employee, it would likely be severely career limiting. But what if it were from a previous partner of a person that you’ve already started to fall for?

Realistically, the concept of romantic reference checks doesn’t have legs, entertaining though I find it. I doubt it would make people behave any differently during relationships and going back to previous partners for a reference would likely dredge up any residual biases or bitterness, which tend to distort the good things. It’s true; some couples manage to maintain close ties after their romantic relationship is no more, and perhaps those types would be good referees? Perhaps not. If you’re the person who left, generally, that is because your partner has had some behaviours or values that you don’t share or find difficult and providing a candid reference would bring these out. If you’ve been unceremoniously dumped, your feelings toward that person are likely to be skewed negative. 

In any case, a person that is a disaster for me really could be The One for you. There are always two sides to any story, and what I perceive to be the truth – or “my truth” as it has become — can be very different to what an ex sees. It’s pretty subjective, and a reference from me would likely be pretty meaningless. So, I’d pick that most people wouldn’t bother to take up emotional references even if they were available or pay any attention to them if they were. 

After all, what would their last partner know? Once you start to get romantically involved, common sense, discernment, and logic exit stage left with the speed of a caged bird set free. Few of us have no skeletons of any sort in our closets. Mostly, they’re pretty anodyne, but they’re the sort of thing you’d like to fess up to once a degree of intimacy has been built, not in a fact-checking exercise before you’ve begun. For the would-be-dater, the internet and social media already provide extensive opportunities to ‘stalk’ people for insight into who they are. But what does it tell us? It’s not as if anyone’s going to advertise that the pinnacle of success in their life to date has been to be banged up for beating the living crap out of their partner. 

As a species, we do play fast and loose and take enormous risks with our hearts. Perhaps Tinder’s proposed screening service will provide some basic safety protections, so its users don’t end up on the receiving end of some psycho’s crazy mind. Whether or not they do, it still won’t protect people from the heartbreak of knowing love don’t live here anymore.

An inconvenient wheeze

“Will it kill me?” I ask, fed up with the obfuscation that’s going on, staring him straight in the eye.

“Er … no,“ he replies, eyes focused, consultant-like, into the space above my head. 

Yay, I’m not in danger of carking it any time soon. At least, not from this. Great news, even though I do wish the man would volunteer some information instead of me having to drag it out of him like a mother trying to understand how their teenager’s school day went. Nodding to the squadron of pigs primed for take-off on the grass outside the window, I persevere with the list of questions I’ve prepared in advance.

“Will it get worse as I get older?” 

“No evidence that it will. You need to get flu jabs and stay away from people with colds,” is the best he can do after a lengthy contemplation of the inside of his eyelids. Interestingly, no mention of Covid implications. Well, I guess there’s no community outbreak currently, so I’ll give him a pass on that.

Silence descends on the room after this burst of conversational brio, and we stare at each-others’ shoes like a pair of accountants at a party, wondering who’s going to be brave enough to speak first.

What is it about medical consultants? They may be brilliant in their fields, but the ones I’ve experienced share a startling inability to communicate on any level that could remotely be called human. 

Many people believe that our stresses and emotional issues manifest in physical ways. I tend to agree with this as I’ve had minor respiratory problems for as long as I remember. My breathing kit is like a litmus test of my emotional equilibrium. When I get stressed, my voice gets all husky and breathless — think Marlyn Monroe singing happy birthday to JFK — and I get mild symptoms of a cold. As it’s always been short-lived, I’ve never really thought too much about it.  

At some point a couple of years ago, it stopped being an occasional thing. I reached some sort of tipping point where I’m coughing a lot — a worrying amount. The first year of joined-up-coughing, it stops for the summer. The second-year, it doesn’t. I’m not over-concerned as many people in New Zealand have coughs bestowed by our high pollen count from all the horticulture and similar. By mid-2019, it’s bad enough that I figure a visit to my GP is in order. Having put me through some rudimentary tests, she fobbed me off – somewhat predictably — with antihistamines. Pointless waste of time. Cough, cough, cough. Time passes, I box on. It’s my new norm. I just assume I’m stuck with it. 

By August last year, I’m notably worse and wheezing has long since entered the frame. So, I go back to see said GP, who finally accepts something is wrong, and I’m in front of a respiratory specialist faster than you can say Chronic Constructive Pulmonary Disease. The speed is courtesy of my eye-wateringly expensive private health care policy, which I’m deeply grateful I have kept going when handed the bill. It turns out, and this will likely surprise no-one — it certainly didn’t surprise me – that I have severe Asthma. However, this diagnosis was off the back of a lot of tests, and I was seriously relieved it wasn’t something much worse.

Just as an aside, try being a severe Asthmatic in the time of Covid — talk about an inconvenient wheeze. Convincing scared people that you’ve been hacking your lungs up since long before Covid-19 was even a blob on a laboratory microscope is tricky. They don’t tend to hang around long enough to appreciate the finer points of a dry cough (Covid) versus a wheezy damp one (Asthma). Forget social distancing; we’re talking crossing the street, making the sign of the ‘evil eye’ in their scramble to put as much distance as possible between them and you. And believe me, you do not want to have a coughing fit in the supermarket queue. The one benefit of coughing as if you have a 60-a-day fag habit? People stay the Hell away from you so are out of range of any ‘aerosols’ they might otherwise generously share.

But back to our action-packed story.

“I think the meds are making me worse,” I say somewhat confrontationally.

This elicits no response if you ignore the facial tick that’s starting to manifest.

“So, what happens if I stop taking them?”

“Why don’t you stop until they’ve cleared your system and then start again to see if there is any difference?” he says after another interminable silence.

This seems like quite a good wheeze if you’ll forgive the pun.

“How long will that take?”

“Couple of months.”

And that pretty much wraps it up. I sense we’re in the throes of a break-up. By this time, we have seen quite a bit of each other, and I have become accustomed to his face like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Leaving for the final time, I feel a little aggrieved that he’s just booting me out into the wide world without even the safety net of a six-month callback. Doesn’t he care? Haven’t we gone to Hell and back together? This little pity party lasts as long as it takes to get out of the building. Then I think, “So what? I’ve been on my own before. I can do it. Anyway, who wants to go on stuffing their system with pharmaceuticals when there are other fun options like hypnotherapy to explore?”

Of course, I’m exaggerating in the interests of a good story, and I do my specialist a disservice. He tried hard. As we worked our way through the tools in his toolbox searching for a panacea, he visibly deflated as each failed to be The One. I think he saw me as the proverbial riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that he was a bit peeved not to be able to solve. Damn it, why wasn’t I responding to the pharmacopoeia of Symbicort Turbohalers et al. on offer? I was pretty peeved myself. For a person whose favourite activities include singing and bushwalking, I’d hoped for better. Cough, cough, cough. Wheeze, wheeze, wheeze.

The trouble was, his toolbox was limited to the range of available medications, and there was no thought to try and identify the underlying causes or discuss this as an alternative to consider. These days, medication is generally the treatment of first resort, whatever the condition. Many things can trigger Asthma, but I do not doubt that mine resulted from a layering of traumatic events over several years, which caused no end of stress and sleepless nights. Then came a pandemic which didn’t exactly diminish the anxiety levels. 

Even though the medical outcome was disappointing — I badly wanted a quick, easy fix — I also didn’t want to be on large doses of inhaled whatever for the rest of my life and I stopped. Three weeks later, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know, I’m still here and none the worse for wear. If anything, I’m a bit better. The whole episode has helped me think differently about many things that I probably wouldn’t have if the meds had worked. As a result, I’m feeling happier and more in control, hopefully building a virtuous circle of improving lung function. 

Whatever happens from here, my pesky, inconvenient wheeze might just get me bumped up the Covid jabbing-order. Whether this is a silver lining, depends on where you sit on vaccines. I’ll take the win.

The surprising seductiveness of slow

I nearly wrote a letter last weekend. What? Yes … an honest to God, old fashioned paper-based communication intended for distribution by snail. In the event, I didn’t. The digital habits of a fair chunk of my lifetime got in the way and I sent an email instead.

The impulse was triggered by reading that a lot of teenagers, missing their mates during the lockdown, re-discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written notes. In the isolation of their homes, apparently many found letters to be more intimate and emotionally connecting than texting, ‘social’ media posting and similar. Thinking about it unlocked the ghost of letters past that’s clearly still lurking inside me, and the memory of how much I used to enjoy getting mail. This chain reaction concluded in my close encounter with a blank page. 

The article transported me back to the heart-lifting discovery of a hand-written letter nestling seductively in one’s letterbox. Then the ritual of finding the right place to read it; a, secluded place under a tree. curled up in a big squishy chair in front of a roaring fire, or even a sweet scented, candlelit bath. The setting depended on the relationship with the sender — family, friend, lover, admirer — and the season. There was always that gorgeous moment of holding back, of prolonging the anticipation before finally ripping into the letter. Often there would be a quick scan of the contents for anything scary or sensational, before settling into a leisurely read through.

Good letters take time to craft. The best are intimate and personal. From soul to soul. As the words gather momentum they open avenues to the unburdening of our hopes and fears, loves and hates, joys and sorrows and the feeling of connection as we share the minutiae of our days. There’s something about the flow of a pen over paper that is missing altogether from keyboard bashing. Lacking a delete button, there was a need for precision and coherence of thought. Although the growing pile of screwed up paper as errors or uncertain confidences were cast aside spoke volumes on that score. There was an almost hedonistic pleasure in the first the first stroke of a fountain pen on a blank sheet of high quality paper. Or the challenge of writing in tiny letters to pack as much as possible onto those impossibly small pre-paid airmail letters that you folded up and licked the stuck tabes which stuck it all together. You were lucky if you managed to do this without acquiring a paper cut on your tongue. ‘Nanny state’ would probably have something to say about that these days.

Sorry planet — I know how wasteful and unnecessary this feels now in this device-laden era where resources are diminishing as fast as pack ice in the Arctic and the tyranny of air miles is never far from our minds. But email just doesn’t hack it as a substitute for a neatly tied bundle of letters from a loved one or a box full of the most memorable greetings cards. I still have swags of each. Even if you print emails, they just don’t have the same bang for buck. 

I’m a bit worn out by life in the ‘fast lane’. Living through the lockdown has seemingly awakened a sleeping dragon in many of us — the surprising seductiveness of slow. A nostalgia for bygone pleasures: the allure of a trip to a library; being literally lost in a good book; sitting down with friends and family over a leisurely and carefully crafted meal rather than shovelling in some hastily acquired takeaway or dashboard dining option. Most of all, there’s all too little of the ultimate luxury; reflective time, something that is considered to be essential to our health and wellbeing.

This morning, I woke up with the poem Leisure by W H Davies rattling around in my head. Although I learned this ‘by heart’ at primary school, it’s meaning pretty much passed me by as a ten-year-old, but it resonates strongly now. I’m sure my teacher would have been highly gratified! The poem was published in 1911. In the opening lines, the poet asks, “What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” What indeed! The thrust of the poem is that the hectic pace of modern life has a detrimental effect on the human spirit because there’s no time to appreciate the glory of the natural world around us. (Read Poem).

Willian Henry Davies was a Welsh poet and writer who grew up in a highly dysfunctional (though not poor), family. He dropped out and spent a significant part of his early life as a homeless drifter on both sides of the Atlantic”. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908, is about Davies’ life in the US between 1893 and 1899. Apparently, he crossed the Atlantic at least seven times during this period, working his passage on cattle ships, then travelling through many of the states, sometimes begging, sometimes taking seasonal work, often spending any savings on drinking binges with fellow travellers. They didn’t teach us this in school by the way — we might have paid more attention if we’d know a bit more about his colourful life. It would likely have seemed pretty romantic to the impressionable kids we were. Davies became one of the most popular poets of his time by drawing on his observations about life’s hardships, the ways in which the human condition is reflected in nature, his tramping adventures and the characters he met. 

It has to be said, I lust after ‘slow’ until I remember what life was like without the convenience of Google as an information source. without which Mr. Davies would have remained an enigma to me. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t go back to the pre-internet/digital era. There’s just too much that is genuinely better about now. But I do hope that we can hold on to some of the specialness of slow as we move on through this pandemic. To have time to see and enjoy the moment, to revel in our lives and in nature and the endless possibilities on offer. To take the time to share our dreams and disappointments with loved ones by whatever means are to hand, snail or otherwise. To have the luxury to simply stand and stare and understand how infinitely precious it all is … and how easily lost.

Laugh kookaburra, laugh

I love Australia. OK, so I don’t love everything about the place. Notably, I don’t love its political landscape and some of its harsher worldviews and policies. But then again, that could be said for a lot of places these days. In my book, they also have one of the worst national anthems. It’s hard to imagine the heart beating faster singing Advance Australia Fair, but each to their own — and it seems to work for the locals if the expressions on the faces of their sports teams while it’s performed are anything to go by. As anthem’s go, it’s hard to beat the line, “Our home is girt by sea”. But then I guess that was the sort of drivel churned out back in the day when such things were written. At least it only runs to one verse unlike many others including my own homeland’s “God Save” with its six verses of out-dated empirical triumphalism.

Anyway, back to ‘Stralia. It has an energy and feel all of its own. If you haven’t been there yet, add it to your bucket list. What? Australia’s borders are closed? When they re-open you’ll need to mortgage your house to fly anywhere? You might get flight-shamed anyway, so what’s the point? OK, so you may not be able to go there any time soon but you can always binge watch David Attenborough’s back catalogue which is full of advanced Australia flora and fauna. No reason why bucket list activities can’t go online like everything else these days.

I reckon I must have been a ‘twitcher’ in a previous life because I get so much joy from watching birds. One highlight of my various Outback Oddysey’s was staying in a remote camp about 500kms east of Darwin that boasted a resident pair of kookaburra’s. I’d never seen one before. This ‘laughing’ kingfisher has become a household name, not only through Girl Guide campfire round — Kukarburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree — but also as the stock sound effect used to represent the Australian bush, especially in older movies. Unlike many kingfishers, they’re not closely associated with water and rarely eat fish, although they have been known to snack on stolen goldfish from garden ponds. Treats like mice, snakes, insects, small reptiles, even the chicks of other birds are more to their carnivorous liking.

The last time I was in Oz was at the beginning of this year in late January when I went sailing with some friends in Pittwater, a tidal estuary just north of Sydney. When I arrived in Sydney at the start of the trip, the impact of the bushfires that had been blazing through the summer was everywhere. In the ash coating many cars, the smell in the air and the haze hanging over the city. Even out on the water the acrid tang of smoke was palpable in places, and we sailed past a new fire ignited by a dramatic overnight electric storm. It felt voyeuristic to be so close to the beginning of another fire outbreak… and yet, we couldn’t tear our eyes away.

One day, our intrepid crew of seven moored at a spectacular and remote waterside restaurant for lunch. Among our fellow diners were three pairs of kookaburras — the restaurant staff had been feeding them. It was a heart-warming sight at a time when the full implications of the ecological and wildlife disaster that had been unfolding were becoming apparent. We were charmed and privileged by their company. At about the same time a haunting photo of a kukaburra overlooking a fire-devasted wasteland featured prominently in the media and burnt itself on our retinas. It was a stark reminder of how fast the sands of time are running out.

The bush fires were declared contained in mid-February and over in early March. More than one-fifth of the country’s eucalypt forests were burned at un-calculable cost to the ecosystems they support. I was heartened to read recently that the burnt trees are beginning to show signs of recovery with small leafy branches sprouting from the blackened trunks. Apparently eucalypts sprout tufts of “emergency foliage” after wildfire while their leaves re-grow. This provides a boost of photosynthesis until their canopy leaves grow back. They need this break in order to fully recover. But, as fires become more frequent, it’s thought even fire-adapted tree species won’t get the break they need.  The merry merry king of the bush must be struggling to find something to laugh about in these times.

The irony of that holiday was that it happened as the threat of coronavirus was casting its shadow around the world. At that point, the global nature of the virus was still only conjecture — we’d seen the impact on Wuhan and it was beginning to hit Europe — it wasn’t certain we would be affected. Looking back, that time BC seems like some strange parallel universe. We all knew there were ‘issues’, but many of us started the year with the optimism born of all the increased activism in 2019.

It felt like 2020 was going to be THE year when things finally changed. Australia burning, awful though it was, highlighted a lot of inconvenient and unavoidable truths. Who could have been un-moved by the harrowing, post-apocalyptic scenes of people being evacuated from fire encircled beaches and the dreadful toll on the animal population and the ecosystem.

On the last day of the trip, we had a leisurely lunch before we all went our separate ways. More out a sense of curiosity than anything else, we started googling what the powers of the Directors General of Health in NZ and Aus were in the event coronavirus  decided to pay the Southern Hemisphere a visit. Draconian was the answer, as we were about to find out when both countries went into lockdown a few weeks later.

In five short months, so much has changed. But through it all, a common thread has been our human capacity to be resilient, create, innovate and adapt to even the most challenging of circumstances. The sheer scale and quality of creativity we saw during lockdown was a testament to this. Tying the two threads of this story together, I was delighted recently by the coverage of a 15-foot-tall sculpture of a kookaburra created by Farvardin Daliri (see header image).

I’m sure you saw the video of it being towed round ‘hood’ in Brisbane, cackling away thanks to an embedded sounds system. The video went viral, and was picked up by newsrooms around the world. It seems, Daliri had started the project during the Christmas break, but was stymied by the scale. Lockdown gave him time and the motivation to complete it as a way of cheering people up.

28oz-kookaburra-1-superJumbo-v2

The kookaburra installation was intended for an arts festival, the Townsville Cultural Fest. It’s one of a series of grand scale art. Other works include a 15-foot-tall koala, a 200-foot-long carpet snake and a 33-foot-long crocodile. “When something is big, it imposes itself on you. It becomes undeniable,” Daliri has said about his creations.

I guess, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Australian bush fires last summer or the coronavirus. They have truly imposed themselves on us and it must be becoming undeniable to even the most recidivist deniers that a lot of things in our world are broken. If we could use the creativity and innovative thinking we pulled out of our collective hats and apply this to the problems, how hard could it be?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do the Covid Shuffle?

“Did you have a good lockdown?” the wags are all asking since we moved back to Level 1. As if it really was a war. Maybe it was? Thinking about it, if it was a war, it’s still very much alive on many fronts. The phantom menace we’re ‘fighting’ — the pesky Coronavirus — still stalks the earth.

It’s still hard to take in. It’s as if a fictitious dystopian future has jumped off the page.Life BC seems to have happened in some parallel universe … far, far away. “Unprecedented” they say. Unprecedented, ‘they’ say a lot. It’s le mot du pandemic. The top cliché of our coronavirus times. In these times, our vocabulary has extended — flatten the curve, epidemiology, self-isolation, social distancing and bubble love. ‘Quarantinis’ replaced martinis for the fashionable set, and the WFM brigade came out of lockdown Zoomed-out, near Zombies reeling from Zoomchosis. You know the drill? All that pacing up and down the living room, head shaking purposelessly from side to side, unfocused eyes looking inward to some analogue paradise of yore.

Coronavirus pushed us to a locked-down standstill. A global pause. Emergency workers diced with death, the rest of us dug in at home and were forced to deal with whatever daily reality home represented. We got creative and entertained each other in profound and emotionally charged ways. We laughed We cried. We grieved. We rejoiced. We lost our jobs. We worried about our jobs. Our businesses. We valued things we didn’t before. We applauded new heroes. We teared-up as plucky, indomitable Major Tom shuffled his Zimmer-framed way back and forward across his garden earning staggering amounts for the British National Health Service. Those of us who could, counted our blessings.

We did the COVID Shuffle. That excruciating manoeuvre as you step off the pavement to maintain the requisite distance from an approaching person or bubble, whilst simultaneously smiling like the Cheshire Cat and offering hearty greetings to avoid causing offence. Also, to have a precious moment of human connection.

It’s a bleak time for the party animals in our midst — “introverts, your extrovert friends need your help” was one of the more entertaining and ironic truths coming through from the meme land. Life in the time of Lockdown was also something of a bonfire of the vanities. What’s the point blinging-up a storm to sit at home? Actually, I did smear a bit of make-up around most days — Zoom has a certain motivating quality on that score. Occasionally ditched the leggings for a skirt, or even a dress.

But hey, we succeeded. We flattened the pesky curve. For an intoxicating number of consecutive days, no cases at all — existing, new or prospective. “FOR NOW!” said our Prime Minister, another hero of the moment. Jacindamania isn’t only a New Zealand phenomenon. I know Aussies who’ve asked her to invade and spare them from the bigoted, climate denying MAN they’re lumbered with. How right she was as we now three new cases delivered to our doorstep by returning residents. This was always likely and wouldn’t be too troublesome if the border quarantine procedures hadn’t turned out to be a monster cockup. Jacinda and her plucky little team of five mission are now royally pissed at whatever ‘them’ was responsible. We’ve all eaten our greens and done what we’ve been told at … er … unprecedented cost. Why should other people be allowed to break curfew, even on compassionate grounds? Hey, ho, it is what is.

So, on reflection, it has been a sort of is a war. For more than two months, we sequestered ourselves in our home shelters while the Coronavirus sent its silent but deadly aerosols into our communities and ravaged our economy. Many of us wondered what will be left when the dust settles. For now, we Kiwis have won a battle, but the war itself rages on around the world and the breakout this week shows how easily we could get sucked back in. But it’s not just the pandemic. As we navel-gazed our way through the Lockdown fog, pondering the meaning of life the universe and everything, for even the most fervent deniers, it was hard to ignore the inconvenient truth that our planet and our lives are globally and intimately linked. And that our certainties can be upended in a heartbeat. We now understand in a visceral and undeniable way that there are bigger and deadlier risks on the horizon if we don’t dramatically shift our values, and how we live, spend and consume.

Countries are struggling to meet their sustainability commitments. People are worried — time is not our friend. It’s as if the Coronavirus has swept the lid off a contemporary Pandora’s Box and out has poured the sickness, death and other evils which have blighted the world while we watch the horror unfold with horror and incredulity in real-time on our devices. The gap between the super-rich and everyone else yawns like a gaping chasm that can’t be bridged. Extreme weather events get more extreme. It seems as if we’re fiddling while the Outback burns.

We make pacts with our higher powers that the future will be better. That sustainability won’t be thrown out with the bathwater. We talk about “the new normal” as if it’s a point in time we are waiting to arrive at. But there’s no pre-ordination involved. The new normal is a blank canvas waiting for our artist’s brush. The only question is what do we paint? Will it be a beautiful harmonious landscape? A primal scream? A world where no-one is left behind? I’m putting my money on the latter.

Crises serve up latitude to break moulds. To change the status quo. Shock allows for more shock. We’ve been through so much, what’s a little more if it turns this moment to benefit? As New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel put it, Right now, in the midst of a series of cascading, intersecting crises (racial and economic inequality, climate change, mass unemployment, a pandemic) what’s possible feels more of an open-question than any other moment in recent times.”

My sudden addiction to The Chase during Lockdown, did kick up a useful piece of trivia. Pandora’s Box didn’t only contain all the bad stuff. It also held Hope and we need Hope to soar around the world and work its magic. With hope loose in the world, I’m backing us humans to open our minds to the possible and make all the sacrifice mean something.

May we not live in interesting times

I’m sure you know the expression “may you live in interesting times”. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the Chinese Curse’. On the surface, it seems to be a positive wish, it’s typically used ironically with the “interesting” bit referring to moments when there is disorder and conflict rather than peace and stability. I should point out here that the cultural appropriation appears to be … er … not cultural … as there is apparently no known equivalent translation in Chinese.

Anyway, I’d say we’re certainly living in interesting times. In fact, you could likely put up an argument these are the most interesting times ever. In the proverbial sense, it doesn’t get much more interesting than the prospect of cataclysmic climate change that we’re facing, not to mention the seismic shifts going on in politics around the world.

In this sense, my last couple of months could also be described as “interesting”. I’ve been to three conferences focussed on sustainability and social justice issues, joined 40,000 others who marched to our Parliament building in Wellington’s Climate Strike, learned a useful new word,  Zweckpessimismus, and sung in a big production of Carl Orff’s immortal and highly bawdy Carmina Burana. You might struggle to see the connections, but ‘bear with’ …

With the exception of singing Carmina, which was tremendous, the common denominator linking the other threads was how easy it would be to get cynical and lose hope in the face of all the issues. For sure, the various conferences dished up some inspiring instances of people who clearly give a lot of damns doing amazing things, they also underscored a few home truths. While a lot of it was stuff I already knew, such as the awful state of our oceans with all that plastic choking the life out of everything in them and the shame of places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s still shocking to listen to researchers who’ve seen these horrors up close and personal and measured the impact. I knew it was bad, but the scale is staggering. And that’s just the oceans!

I was a bit depressed at the end of this run of events, wondering if it really is possible for us to get the lid back on the Pandora’s Box we’ve opened. Wondering why so many people are still in denial that it actually exists, let alone has been opened? Then I came across the concept of Zweckpessimismus which helped me understand why so many of us seem transfixed like  deer in the headlights, unable to pull their heads out of the sand.

Zweckpessimismus is one of those complicated German compounds which translates as something like pessimism on purpose. In other words, the attitude of expecting the worst in order to feel relief when the worst doesn’t happen. This is undoubtedly one way of coping in a very uncertain world, but it seems like the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that we should avoid like the plague.  Surely, we should be going hard out for the opposite — what can go right will go right?

Zweckpessimists, with their doomsday thinking are actually dangerous in these super-intersting times when we need hope and optimism above everything else. While it might be a wonderful feeling when you have expected the worst and it doesn’t happen, it is pushing out a form of negative energy that infects others with alarm and fear. Instead, let’s pool all the good vibes we can call forth to create an unstoppable wave of positivity to inspire our Simian ingenuity and creativity to find solutions. Perhaps then, the tipping point we seem to be reaching, will skew in the direction of a world we would like to see. Let’s opt for uninteresting times and be bored in perpetuity by the serenity of global peace and ecological abundance rather than the dystopian alternative that is the other option.

Coming back to performing Carmina Burana. It was a true celebration of what people can achieve in harmony.  Without blowing my own trumpet (both puns intended), it was a great night. Close to 2,000 people — audience and all the performers — left the concert on a high. This high — a palpable energy buzzing around the auditorium connecting us all — stayed with me long after the strains of the music were done. I hope that is true for others who were there. If we could always feel this way, how amazing would our lives be? Imagine the transformation that would follow if every Zweckpessimist out there expected the best instead of the worst. Someone should coin a word for that!