Sunday, 25 November 2007

The Volunteer

When you’re white, middle-aged, middle-class and live in Grey Lynn and that’s most people in Grey Lynn these days you are likely to find the idea of becoming a volunteer exciting at least once in your life. Either you’ve read too many ethical living books and you feel the need to connect with your local community, or you’ve read too many Nigel Latta books and feel the need to rock up to your overworked local social workers and offer to help out.
The only problem when you’re white, middle-aged, middle class and live in Grey Lynn is that the actual act of volunteering will never be taken seriously. You see yourself rocking up exuding waves of charitable urges, dressed down in your non threatening third-best jeans, fair trade converse replica shoes and hand knitted cardie, and the thought bubble above the receptionist’s head reads loud and clear “Is SPQR closed today?” They explain to you that they would love someone to come in and patronise the needy, but sitting in on family conferences and working miracles with abused children in the window between the gym and your massage was not something volunteers were used for. You need a degree to perform miracles. Then you see the look on their face. It’s a tolerant expression which attempts to hide the sure knowledge that you will turn up enthusiastically for at least a week before the bach, that month in Europe and lunch get in the way. “Oh and by the way – we’re the charity. Not you.”
I’ve been determined to volunteer for some time now and for all the right reasons. Such as that my garden is begging me to stop weeding it obsessively five times a day, there are only so many books I can read in a week and then there is the ethical connecting with your local community thing. And apparently it’s a really good thing to do for your head, karma and sense of purpose. Over one million New Zealanders do it, so there has to be something in it, even if I think the definition of volunteer they used to get that figure included sending positive thoughts to the All Blacks.
Disturbingly some people like it too much. The Department of Corrections has recently had to address the problem of “volunteer groupies” by limiting their helpers to 20 hours a week. I guess there’s just something so damn attractive about stepping out of your white middle class life and sitting across from a really bad man covered in tattoos for half your week teaching him how to read. .
My problem, apart from the fact that I’ll get the look by the receptionist, is that I don’t know what I want to do. My husband suggested my idea of volunteering is being the one who gets the paper from the letter box in the morning. Although he did say that if there was a shortage of people to take old drunks out to lunch. I’d be in my element.
So I spent the day on the net and discovered a whole new world of opportunity. I could volunteer abroad and work with children in Ghana, Vietnam or Romania. Or I could help protect turtles in Costa Rica. The Fire Service needs people, as does the museum, and then I found the website for all volunteer hopefuls. where I found 359 possible positions in my area. The Ellerslie Flower show needs a lot of people to do some mail outs, although I’m not sure why I would volunteer for a privately owned business. Sylvia Park Mall needs Christmas gift wrappers for charity, and I could help out at indoor bowls where I would ‘mix with bowlers: chat and assist as needed and have fun. Group meets each Monday night from 7 to 8:15 pm.” Which sounds awfully like bowling.
.I quite like the idea of caring for a children’s play ground, raking leaves and such like (North Shore). And welcoming visitors in the arrivals hall of the airport would be nice, as would welcoming people at the Auckland Zoo.
And then I found it. Under the list of the type of volunteering I wanted to do I clicked on "Befriending." I’m tossing up between visiting a lady in a rest home in Epsom who is very disabled but can hold a good conversation and doesn’t have many visitors or reading a newspaper to a resident over morning tea at an Aged Care facility on week days.
My husband says he’ll be a befriender too, but we mustn’t tell our parents. They’ll get jealous.

Image by Anthony Ellison

Monday, 19 November 2007

The Return of the Leggings

Sometimes there is one pressing subject which just won’t go away no matter how many lunches you attend. For the past month only one topic of conversation has been nagging my friends and me over our bottle or two of Vouvray at midday, even extending late into the evening on the phone and into the next day’s emails. I would like to say our concern was focused on the threat to free speech, rare white whales, and how to make a Molotov cocktail, but when it comes to the lunch ladies it’s all about footless tights, or leggings.
“How old is too old?” was the first question which needed solving. As women who wore them the first time around, in the late 80s, we have fond memories of slipping on a pair of leggings with a big baggy fluoro T-shirt and dancing around the lounge to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. We also loved the lycra numbers to team with our leotards at the Les Mills Jazzercise classes as we high kicked it to It’s Raining Men. And it took me years to let go of my stirrup leggings which made me look like a cross between a show jumper and a ski jumper, which I rather liked in that jolly hockey sticks way I could never really pull off. It was fun, it was easy, it was when we had slim legs and not a dimple in sight.
The thing about leggings is they are one of those nightmare hybrids fashion often challenges us with, just to see if we’ll go there. They aren’t tights, nor are they trousers. They aren’t bicycle shorts, nor are they skinny leg pants. They’re, well, tights with the bottoms cut off and I have a nagging feeling they were invented for amputees. I can just see the Fashion Gods hooting their socks off as they shout: “fashion victim” down at us mere mortals.
“But they’re a great insurance for when you wear shorts and short jersey dresses,” someone suggested. The thought being that a layer of black lycra will hide the inch of flab which has planted itself on our thighs since we were in our 20s. Which seemed like a good theory until we realised that it all came to a nasty end at our cankles (when your calf blends into your ankle) and our wrinkly old chicken’s feet revealed themselves in all their puffy, ageing glory. We surmised that there was a high chance we would look like a brood of chickens dressed up as superheroes.
Then I attended a presentation designed to tell older women how to look after themselves and discovered to my horror that the only thing older women seemed to be doing en masse was wearing leggings. It wasn’t a brood of chickens it was a whole shed full of them squeezed into every superhero outfit you could imagine. I reported back.
“What about just ¾ ones then?” came the ladies’ response.
My friend bought some. She was going to give it a go. She looks as good as she did in the 80s so we decided she could be the first.
“So have you worn them yet?” I inquired a week later.
“Yes…” she said with just enough of a pause to indicate she was only telling me half the truth.
“Outside?” I persevered.
“Well no, but gosh they’re comfortable,” she responded.
At another lunch there were some ¾ leggings and my friend and I made inquiries of their wearers. Did they think this was a look better suited to the young? we inquired rudely.
“God no, why should they have all the fun!” was the response.
Spoken like a true feminist thinker. Why should we care about what we look like at our age, we have the right to do and wear what we like and they’re just so damn comfy.
In the end I handed over the casting vote to the most stylish people in my universe, my children. I appreciated their diplomacy, while wondering where they got it with a mother like me, and listened carefully. Their findings are that older women should stick to proper black tights with feet in them but if I was determined to restore an item of clothing from my past the 70s maxi dress is probably a safe bet.
I have one, and I’ve worn it, but not outside.

Sunday, 11 November 2007


It is a universal truth that for every action there will be a reaction. You throw a ball and it will hit the ground, or a window or a person’s head. You stick up for something and you will get a law changed, be ridiculed, shamed or totally ignored. Pretty soon we work out which person we will be. The person who acts, the person who reacts or the person who lives under the radar, dog paddling in increasingly smaller circles determined to never make a ripple in the pond of life.
Louise Nicholas acted. She put herself out there in an attempt to stop some policemen raping more women. Her case against police officers Clint Rickards, Brad Shipton, and Bob Schollum was one of the 94 per cent of rape case reported to the police that failed to achieve a conviction. The police reacted by protecting each other and portraying Louise as a slut. Meanwhile the rest of us dog paddled around our lives and read the court case reports eagerly
I’m not sure whether Tame Iti acted out there in the Urerweras or why he acted, but I know the police reacted and hauled out anti-terror legislation to do so. Meanwhile the rest of us dog paddled and tut tutted about terror in the bush.
And that’s about it for this country, because we’re no longer a great nation of activists. Somewhere along the way we have forgotten the watersider's strikes, the Springbok tour, the Vietnam War, the nuclear disarmament, the bra-burning. We have lost the will to act when we see systems failing us, children dying from abuse, a government taxing us into a groaning surplus, heritage buildings being razed to make way for shonky developments you wouldn’t let your dog live in, that sort of thing. Did we become too frightened to stick our head above the precipice and save the beautiful old building down the road? Did we discover that life is just so much easier dog paddling around in circles putting up with it all?
I think we did. And in doing so we gave way to the reactors in our society, or,
as I like to call them, bullies. These people call talkback from the safety of their homes and pull out the oft-used tools of hatred: racism, sexism and class. Much easier to fire off anonymous letters, create whispering campaigns, shut doors and glower at the world. And as Louis Nicholas has proved, even some of our boys in blue are bullies.
No wonder we are now battling a bullying epidemic in our schools. For years we have wrung our hands and sighed at the way our teenagers binge drink, without once looking at ourselves as the role models for that behaviour. Now we send our kids off to school with the instructions to “stick up for yourself” against the bully, without once looking at our supposed community leaders, the police and our politicians, thanks to Tau and Trevor, for the examples our children are being given.
I’ve had a bully for 25 years now and I know how hard it can be to “stick up for yourself.’ I’m an unusual person to bully, having a tendency to be a bit of a tough nut, but my bully likes a challenge and at times he’s been so successful I’ve wanted to crawl under the floorboards of my house and never come out. I’ve craved the anonymity and the soothing waters of the ripple-less pond, but you just can’t do the dog paddle when hostility and hatred towards you are brewing out there in various whispering campaigns. When you realise that in the village where you live, the bully will always be around the corner waiting for you and even your children, you have to stand up and make it go away.
Louise Nicholas did it. After many years of rape and abuse by police she took them to court. She lost the case, but she gained Dame Margaret Bazley and the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct, and former cop John Dewar is in jail guilty of attempting to obstruct or defeat the course of justice.
And it is not lost on me that Louise is a woman, because Kiwi women have always been good at leading the way.
We should be grateful that she acted. That despite the reactors and the dog paddlers, this woman has shown us that a life led free of the bully, even if it takes 20 years and putting your face on every newspaper in the country, is because, in the words of that cosmetic campaign. You’re worth it.

Image by Anthony Ellison

Sunday, 4 November 2007

"Put Upon"

There comes a stage in most women’s lives when we find ourselves at the centre of such extreme responsibility and dependability that we feel Put Upon. From where we are standing the earth would simply refuse to turn on its axis if we weren’t there to give it that much needed push. No one, it seems can do anything without our help. From finding the only pair of jeans someone can possibly ever wear to rescuing the pot of yoghurt from the back of the fridge someone absolutely must have for breakfast. Everyone wants you at the same time for a million reasons and before you know it you begin to use the Put Upon language you vaguely remember your own mother using once upon a time.
“I don’t know why I bother!” is the phrase for those times when you have tidied the kitchen and returned minutes later to find it in disarray.
“Do I have to do everything?” is for those times when there’s no milk, My Sky crashes and you’re the only one who knows how to fix it and no one seems able to identify parsley in the garden when you need it for dinner.
“What did your last slave die of?” is mainly for those times when you really don’t want to get up off the couch during Coro St.
In reality we all know that we are never really indispensable. We create the Put Upon rod for our own back by failing to teach other people in the family how to fix things, turn things on and identify plant life. And if we’re honest most weeks of caring and nurturing pass unnoticed but occasionally this particular week is Put Upon week and our family wonders out loud if it’s a full moon again so soon.
During one of my Put Upon weeks I’ve glared at a glass of water resenting its apparent neediness. I’ve sworn at a novel feeling it was deliberately taking too damn long to finish being read. I’ve resented my books being put on my bookshelf, somehow segregated from the other main bookshelf. I’ve “I don’t know why I bother”-ed over the fact no one said “yum dinner Mum” within two seconds of it being placed in front of them. And rather than simply swear out loud at Leighton Smith’s callers I’ve actually thrown a tea towel at the radio.
But the secret is to get over it. Hot baths, glasses of wine, time alone in the garden and an early night are usually sufficient to shift a Put Upon. Because if we don’t shift it then we risk becoming a Permanently Put Upon. This is the woman whose life has become such a chore that she ages prematurely, never walks but stomps and whose every utterance is preceded by a sigh.
So occasionally, a slight dose of the Permanently Put Upon requires drastic action. One simply has to disappear for a few weeks under the guise of writing a novel to get some Put Upon free time, leaving the husband and children, dog and cats to fend for themselves. I ate whole grains and strawberries, didn’t answer the phone and typed furiously on the laptop with my view of the sea. And then I was Put Upon by one of my rowdier characters who decided she absolutely had to be Russian. No amount of persuasion would have her be a Parisian or a Hamiltonian, both places I can write about confidently. So I had to find a library and books about Russia before I decided to let her cool off in her St Petersburg Summer Palace while I popped home for a night of peace and quiet.
“We might have to take the dog to the vet,” said my husband when he picked me up from the ferry with his trademark irritating calmness that always kicks in when everything is collapsing. “She hasn’t eaten for two days and my computer crashed this morning so you’ll have to find the receipt because I’m sure it’s under warranty and Pearl’s finger is swollen.”
Within half an hour of walking back into my house the dog was eating, the computer had leapt back into life and I have no idea if the finger was any better but Pearl was smiling.
“You’re a miracle,” I expected my husband to announce like a TV husband on the commercials.
But he wasn’t about to admit that things work better with me around.
“I just feel so put upon,” he announced. And stomped off to the gym.