Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

A little farewell

March 5, 2018

Dear reader, it is time to say goodbye. Family adventures call, as does the feeling that this season of life is done. I’ll get to my final words soon, but first, let me thank you for the interest, the letters of support, the Facebook messages and personal emails (how did you find me?!).

I also want to thank the team at the Waikato Times for supporting me these last five years, especially Deborah Sloan, who defended me with fervor from the letter writers whether she agreed with me or not. Editor Jonathan MacKenzie needs a rather large nod for agreeing to take me on in the first place.

Now for those final words: the deeper I dig into different issues, the more I find they all run, like rivers to the ocean, into the very same subject.

You see, every issue that we as New Zealanders debate is done on the basis of certain assumptions. Whether we argue about euthanasia, same-sex marriage, sexism, the New Zealand flag or anything else, we are arguing about values.

We assume that those values, like individual freedom or the social good, actually exist.

But the more you stare at these issues, week in and week out, the more you find yourself asking one simple question; “says who?” (I’m not the only one asking. The faithless philosopher Jurgen Habermas is now earnestly asking the same question, and he is joined by a host of other secular thinkers).

It is a simple question, but it really, really matters.

After all, if we can’t point to some solid reason why all human beings have inherent rights, for example, then we are in rather a vulnerable position when someone comes along and disagrees.

It’s no good trying to say the most popular values of the day should win. Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and a host of other big names from history are enough evidence to show that what is popular is not always the same thing as what is good or right for a society. Sometimes what is unpopular is the very thing worth fighting for.

Those who think what’s best for a society can be determined through survival of the fittest must first explain why the survival of our species even matters.

Surely, I hear you say, the best values for a society can be determined by research and evidence? Unfortunately we come unstuck there too. After all, finding a “solution” to a social problem depends on the solution that we think good, fair and right… so we end up back at values before we have even started.

The very simple fact of the matter is that our arguments all boil down to yelling “I’m right” very loudly at each other and hoping we will win, without ever being able to say exactly why we deserve to win.

Unless, as Habermas points out, we turn our minds to seeking whether those values are based in something or someone more permanent, more powerful, more persuasive than puny old us. Something or someone ultimately true, at the bottom of everything, or beginning of everything, depending on your viewpoint. Someone worthy of answering the question “says who?” with the words “I do”.

Someone like God.

So it is that week after week I have found myself with surprise at the feet of a familiar and beloved Heavenly Father, encountering not some ultimate truth or final argument, but rather a person. A person too big to fit into any one side of an argument, and quite determined not to most of the time.

Because, in the end, it’s not about which side of the argument we start on. It’s about whether we dig deep enough to find Him.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

A matter of the mind (altering substances)

July 12, 2017

If there is one social issue that I don’t understand, it is the drug debate. I have tried desperately to take a side, to pick a team, but there is one little problem getting in my way.

It all keeps coming across as a sad little comedy.

I know the issues around recreational drugs are serious. I’ve read, and read, and read. I’ve read definitions, and experts, and arguments and counter-arguments.

But none of them quite get to the heart of the issue. None of them dig right down and ask the fundamental questions about what is going on, the questions I want answered. None of them, for example, seem to wonder at why we feel such a desperate need for drugs – desperate enough to fight for a law change – in the first place.

I’ll come clean. I’m one of the 25 per cent who never have tried cannabis. I have had my chances, thanks to flatmates, friends and neighbours. But I never felt the need. To be brutally honest, I was already happy, already having fun without help, so to waste money on mind-altering drugs seemed pointless.

And that’s what gets me. Why do so many people seem to feel such a pull towards pot? Why do so many seem to really want weed?

It’s this same mentality that shocks so many of our European visitors when it comes to alcohol. We don’t seem to be able to celebrate anything in this country – birthdays, weddings, someone’s life or even the weekend – without getting wasted.

I’ve seen my share of it. In High School my mates were vomiting or lying comatose on couches by 10pm at night as our German exchange students looked on in horror. Every weekend at University was a drinking binge, and I would watched it unfold in all its grotesque glory. The jumping out of second story windows, the sobbing about boys, and the unrelenting, incoherent rants were in equal part hilarious and deeply, desperately tragic.

Once I got into the workforce things weren’t much better. There were just the complications about what to do with kids when planning a bender, and how to deal with your boss after they had seen you wasted. That, and handling the hang-over, of course.

And that brings me back to my question again. What makes mind-altering substances such a necessity in this country? Is it social anxiety? Curiosity? Depression? Boredom? Existential crises? The question, I freely admit, has pounded all the more urgently in my head because I read The Herald’s haunting series on youth suicide in New Zealand this week.

And yes, I know what you are thinking. I have had all these conversations before: How could I understand the debate if I haven’t tried drugs? After all, it’s just a bit of fun! And by the way, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it..

But I could say the same right back.

Is it really that hard to conceive of enjoying life without some sort of mind-altering substance frequently at hand? If so, doesn’t that tell us enough about the real problem?

That’s what I mean about cannabis. Whether or not we get to do drugs seems so ludicrously irrelevant a question to ask when we haven’t stopped to wonder why we might want to.

What, when we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, with every opportunity spread out before us (relatively speaking), makes us feel like we must have marijuana?

After all, when you really get to thinking about it the happiest people in the world surely aren’t the ones free to do drugs, but those who don’t feel the need to in the first place.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

Step off the sidelines

June 17, 2017

The euthanasia debate is back on and if there is one thing we can’t afford to do, it is to sit on the sidelines.

What I mean by that, of course, is wriggling out of the debate by saying “oh, I’m not sure what I would do personally, but I guess if others wanna do it it’s up to them”.

I have heard that line probably more than any other in the discussions I’ve had about euthanasia. Many of us feel a bit icky about the idea, and yet think that we have no right to interfere if others want to be euthanased.

It’s their choice, after all, isn’t it? And who are we to get in between another human being and what they want?

Aside from the fact that it defeats the point of a democratic society, there is another problem to deal with.

We interfere with individual freedom all the time. And we do it because we believe that individual freedom has to be balanced against a thing called the “social good”, which means “what is best for the rest of us”.

We do not give individuals the freedom to take anything they see and happen to like. We call that stealing and it is a crime. We do not give individuals the freedom to have sex with whoever they would like, whenever they would like. We call that rape, or incest, or abuse depending on the situation. And they are crimes.

And at present we do not give anyone the right to kill, or help to kill, someone. We call that murder. And it is a crime.

Any change to murder laws, and you and I ought to be on high alert. We ought to be looking very carefully at what is changing, and why.

We ought to be looking at what has happened overseas, we ought to especially be looking at the risks involved, but most of all we ought to be looking at who loses out with such laws. After all, for every social change we make there are people who benefit and people who are harmed.

In this case, harm means murder. And that is very serious because once we are dead, we cannot come back.

So if euthanasia laws do result in some people being harmed, saying that we personally feel a bit unsure but we’re happy to let others do what they please is a little like saying we’re not sure about slavery laws, but we’re happy to let others do as they please.

It is unethical, because our silence creates victims.

On the other hand, if your reading makes you certain such laws are what is best for our society, why would you want to stay silent? Surely, we should all speak up for what is good, right and best for all of us.

It is no secret I believe that euthanasia laws absolutely will create victims. That is to say, based on the evidence from overseas, safeguards like consent, age restrictions and illness restrictions will gradually be eroded. And of course, a law without safeguards is by definition not safe.

That matters to me because I have a vested interest in the future. I have a little boy whom these laws will affect in one way or another. And that is the point. We are all connected, and our actions do impact other people, as much as we like to imagine that they don’t.

So we can all keep pretending ethics are personal opinion, but the fact remains that the victims of bad laws are real.

That alone should be enough to convince us that the sidelines are not an option in a debate about death.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

 

Drowning in debt?

June 13, 2017

I’m starting to wonder if the word we are worrying about things in the wrong order.

Thanks to President Donald Trump, we all seem to have the jitters about voters, and their tendency to elect politicians on the basis of a shallow promises or personality, rather than a detailed analysis of policy.

What we are much less worried about is our children, and what they are being taught at school. But it seems to me that if we worry about the kids most, we might not have to worry about the voters.

Let me give you an example. Financial literacy. Try to say it without yawning. Then take a look at how many children come out of school knowing about balancing a budget, financial management, savings or investments. According to Dr Pushpa Wood of the Financial Health Check, most kids don’t kreally have a clue.

But ask a kid about capitalism’s many apparent failings and you will get a barrage of brilliant information because analysing that stuff is part of the Social Studies curriculum.

Our priorities are a problem. You only need to look at our $36 billion credit card spend last year -almost two thirds of which incurred interest – to see that.

The problem looks much worse once you put skin on it. Once you talk, like I have, to a man who was on the verge of suicide because of his debts. Or the couple whose marriage was about to fall apart because of money mismanagement. Or the family struggling to feed their kids because they hadn’t been taught to tweak some very basic things. All of them, thankfully, were rescued by a budgeting agency.

Yes, mums and dads ought to be passing on good money habits. But even then, isn’t it in the national interest to raise citizens who have healthy money habits, just as much as it is in all of our interest for them to have healthy physical habits?

Just imagine a country where citizens saved for their retirements, invested responsibly so that they had capital available if, say, they lost their job suddenly, and ensured they had a budget that took into account all the ups and downs of life. So much more of the tax take could be thrown at other problems.

And yes, for those of you wondering, there are lots of little programmes trying to claw their way into a few weeks of curriculum to give kids the gift of practical knowledge, but often that teachers feel about as excited by the words “financial literacy” as you and I do.

Besides that, teachers might find the topic of money management extremely uncomfortable, especially if they’ve never been taught themselves. So why should they pick it up if it is only an optional bit of curriculum?

And that brings us back to what we worry about.

Theory is great, but it is not going to help the child sitting in school today learn how to manage a mortgage tomorrow. Nor will it help that child to start thinking about long-term savings, investments or, for that matter, having a “giving” budget so that they can donate to worthy causes. For the kids who don’t see healthy money habits at home, it means there is almost no chance of ever learning these things.

And, of course, if we don’t worry about kids learning all these things at school, why should we expect voters to care about details like the nation’s debt levels, or whether a government can balance a budget, or how to go about investing in national infrastructure?

If all of these things are left completely beyond our comprehension, there really is only the shallow to vote on. We really are stuck with deciding the future of our nation on political promises or power of personality.

 This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

Bullied into acting against her beliefs?

May 30, 2017

I don’t have much patience for bullies. Especially when they turn on an 80-year-old lady.

And last week they did, as it happens. But remarkably, we seem to have gotten the victim and the bullies mixed up, because in this instance we appear to have made the victim feel afraid. By the way, it all has to do with the news that luxury wedding venue Stoneridge Estate lifted its ban on same-sex marriage.

How it got labelled a ban is a mystery. After all, according to the owner it was just a statement in the contract for couples saying that, due to her convictions, the woman with a lifetime lease over the chapel preferred same-sex marriages not be held there.

Besides that, a ban would be illegal. There is no protection, you see, for hired spaces deemed sacred by any religious group from having to hold marriage ceremonies that contravene their beliefs.

But back to the story about our bullies. A couple of weekends ago, everything changed. According to the article, a couple who inquired about the chapel recently were “put-out” by the request. Days later, the media contacted Stoneridge Estate to ask about their same-sex marriage “policy” at the chapel. The next thing you know, owner Wayne Gore announced that he had talked to his mother and the request would be removed from the contract.

At first glance, it seems clear cut. Victimised couple, bullying religious bigot, right?

Except, at second glance, it all looks painfully like a betrothed couple decided to use the media to hurt someone who had offended them. To hurt someone whose request they were well within their rights to ignore, and whose chapel they could have hired no matter their sexual orientation.

Because the couple weren’t the ones made to feel afraid, apparently. Instead, it looks remarkably like our wealthy businessman was worried. Worried, perhaps, about what damage an accusation like this might do to his business. We get hints of this, of course, in the fact that one phone call from the media was enough to send him off for a chat with his mother, and to return announcing that she would renege her a request based on deeply held convictions.

And that, presumably, means an 80-year-old lady who had built a little chapel as the expression of her faith felt she was completely and utterly unable to operate it according to that faith.

By the way, the chapel was, according to our 80-year-old lady, “a gift given to her by God”. It meant the world to her, because her faith had helped her through a life-threatening illness, and a terrible car accident, you see.

Despite not being able to kneel, thanks to having had two legs broken in the accident, she managed to see the little chapel through to completion in 2004. And while her son owned the rest of the estate, she maintained a lifetime lease over the building because of how special it was to her.

In a beautiful display of respect and tolerance, her request had been upheld without complaint by more than 100 same-sex couples who had been married elsewhere on the estate.

All of which makes you wonder who the real victim and who the real bullies were, like I say. Were the victims the couple able to get married at hundreds and hundreds of venues around New Zealand, but asked to respect the convictions of an old lady at one? Or was the victim an old lady with only one chapel – one sacred place that really meant something to her – and who was forced to act against her beliefs?

It seems pretty obvious to me.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

The real heros

May 20, 2017

I don’t know how farmers do it.

Survive, I mean. They have 500 cows and 120 hectares to keep an eye on, but I can’t even keep one child and a few square metres of house safe.

In fact, with Worksafe’s ever-elongating fingers on the search for some new crime, I’m not sure how mothering is an allowed activity under New Zealand law anymore, let alone farming.

This hit me as I was dashing from my toddler’s bedroom – where I had just changed a nappy full of yellow “waste product” – to the kitchen, where I was in the tormented throes of attempting my first Feijoa chutney.

I was too late for the chutney. The time it had taken to dispose of the waste product meant the food product was mildly burned. As I was stirring it and wondering how I could convince my future guests it was intentional, I remembered that I hadn’t cleaned my hands.

At that point little man squawked, and I saw that he had climbed up my step ladder and was listing perilously to one side in an admirable, but fearless, attempt to reach the light switch. He got it, and the kitchen went dark, but not too dark for me to see him look sideways at me and grin. “No,” he said sternly, telling himself off before I could get the chance.

I put him over near the actual toys, not the light switch toys, but he insisted on coming back into the kitchen and clinging desperately to my legs while the chutney boiled and bubbled inches from his innocent blonde head.

I remembered, again, that I hadn’t washed my hands and plonked little man on the counter next to me while I finally scrubbed them.

But, of course, by this stage I was acutely aware that the imaginary Worksafe officer in my mind was shaking his head disapprovingly, and had been for quite a while.

“Hands washed after dealing with faecal matter? No. Hands cleaned before dealing with food product? No. All reasonable precautions taken to prevent injury when dealing with heights? No. All reasonable precautions taken to prevent injuries around mercilessly hot, lava-like substances? No.”

I sighed, as my imaginary Worksafe officer told me that he would have to remove the toddler from my care and close down my mothering business because, quite simply, I was breaking too many laws.

Little man, thankfully, was still on the bench when I emerged from my conversation with the officer inside my head.

Just to soothe my fears, I decided to look up mothering on Worksafe’s website when little man went to sleep. I knew there were guidelines for farmers, but surely not for mothering, I thought.

I was wrong. So I perused the offending document, and discovered that faecal matter was indeed a risk for pregnant or new mothers. Not only that, my own child was a risk because he exposed me to it.

My guilt, I confess, was beginning to turn to confusion as I tried to work out who the real victim in our household was. Little man, or me?

That was when I began to wonder who the real victims were on our farms. Cows, or farmers? And how does a farmers toilet train 500 “ladies” while extracting a food product at the same time?

Come to think of it, how does he survive the endless distractions that must be caused when 500 little calves get added into the mix? That’s not even mentioning the electric fences and moving machinery.

And the red tape! If I couldn’t follow all the guidelines for my one child, how could a farmer follow all the guidelines for 500 cows, which would no doubt be 500 times worse?

Truly, I thought, farmers are the real heroes.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

Happy Mother’s Day!

May 14, 2017

Being a mum is hard work. Not all hard work, I should say. There are the smiles and the giggles and the little cuddles while you are dancing to jazz on a weekday morning.

But in between those moments there are the bits of porridge to scrape off the walls and out of your bathrobe, the meltdowns over nicely cooked family meals you had been planning all day, the buckets of soaking clothes stained with carrot plucked early from the garden and the sleepless nights managing a fever.

That’s why, commercialised though it may be, I love Mother’s Day. It is not just the chance for breakfast in bed. It’s not just the card with lovely words, or the lunch we might get taken out to. It’s the time the celebration gives us to step back and remember that what we do more than just wash clothes, clean faces and deal with poo-splosions.

We are shaping lives. And in the day-to-day grind it is difficult to remember that we are doing something so important.

Nevertheless, amidst all the ordinary daily tasks a mum does, something quite extraordinary is happening, according to psychologists. In fact, they reckon that just by saying “nearly there, just wait” to a screeching child impatient for their dinner, us mums are changing the future.

We know that because the latest research on the mum-bub bond takes us further into the universe of human relationships than we have ever gone before.

For instance, Washington University School of Medicine researchers found that attentive, caring mums were linked to physical changes in a child’s brain, (a larger hippocampus for those wanting a bit more detail), specifically, the area of the brain associated with learning, memory and dealing with stress.

Epigenetics, the study of how environment might impact on the expression of our genes, has now found that healthy, happy mother-child relationships play a role in the prevention of disease. Childhood trauma, however, is linked to an increased risk of autoimmune disease.

Behaviourally, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that mums who meet their babies needs and gave them plenty of love were more likely to have kids with healthy adult relationships.

All of this builds on the foundation first laid in 1960s when attachment theory became a thing, and psychologists started started realising the child-parent relationship mattered rather a lot.

Fortunately, when the researchers talk about healthy relationships between mum and bubs, they don’t mean anything particularly special. They simply mean mums who notice their children are cold and put on an extra layer, smell the nappy and change it, keep little tummies full and who give cuddles to a crying child.

We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to provide endless developmental games and we don’t have even have to be full of energy. We just have to love in that ordinary, every-day way that most mums love.

And somehow, out of that ordinary, imperfect, exhausted love comes something powerful enough to shape little lives far into the future.

So to all of us; the solo mums and the foster mums, the adoptive mums and the traditional mums, yes it is hard work.

Yes, there are a lot of angry moments, scary moments, and exhausted moments and financially tight moments.

Yes, it feels like there’s always something we’re not doing well enough.

But the truth of the matter is what all the books say. In the end your kisses, your cuddles and your love matter most.

Happy Mother’s Day.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz