What is reasonable risk? This mum on why I leave my kids home alone

12 Oct

Has our obsession with keeping kids safe destroyed something beautiful and valuable in their lives – and in ours? Lily Richards considers some new research that suggests unattended children are often in far less danger than many parents think. Originally written for The Spinoff.co.nz 2017

home alone

Sometimes my partner and I leave our children alone at home whilst we walk down to the supermarket which is about 10 minutes from our house, they are 7 and 4 years old respectively. We live in one of the safest suburbs in Auckland, we leave a mobile phone with them so they can call if they need us and yes, part of me feels sick about it, but I also suspect I shouldn’t and here’s why.

An American study released last week No Child Left Alone discovered that the moral outrage parents incur when they leave their children unattended is, very often, disproportionate to the actual risks their children face.

I remember growing up on the side of Mt Victoria in Auckland’s North Shore – I’d come home from school at 9 years old, stuff a heated burrito in my mouth and head up the mountain. For hours I’d be totally alone, wandering the nearer side of the cone, 10 minutes from home but completely out of sight and totally not within earshot. In today’s climate, my parents would be crucified for such lax judgement, hearing about my after school freedoms they would imagine my gruesome perverted death in a hundred different guises. But are they right to do so?
Is the pervasive fear many parents feel for their children actually founded? Well consider cars for a second, children are more likely to die in car accidents than they are as the victims of abduction, yet no one crusades for cars as no-kid-zones. In New Zealand children are probably more likely to die inside their homes rather than as a result of straying from them, and yet, I feel confident in saying most parents we fraternize with would not condone us leaving our kids home alone so we can walk to the supermarket.

Why? Research points to a wonky conscience. Morality has shifted in the last decade to favour the ever watchful parent and essentially criminalise the alternative, which I can’t think of a neutral adjective for as they all seem to be pejoratives: ‘lax’ ‘irresponsible’ ‘inattentive’ ‘careless’.

The researchers behind No Child Left Alone tested this theory, that perceived risk was linked to moral judgement, by undertaking a series of experiments where participants were asked to rate the level of risk for children in various scenarios.
For example, in one scenario a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool, underground parking garage. In another, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a coffee shop, one block away from her parent’s location.
To test the moral element of the experiment the reasons the child was left unattended varied, they ranged from parents having to go to work, or being injured, to volunteering, relaxing and meeting a lover.

Not surprisingly the perception of risk to the child escalated when the participants (over 1,300 of them) found the parents to be acting immorally.
The researchers summed up their findings thusly: “People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.”

So where does this leave us? In New Zealand (according to the NZ Police) young children must never be left alone in a house or vehicle – they require constant supervision – and it is illegal to leave a child under the age of 14 years without reasonable provision for their care.
What’s your definition of reasonable? Mine is locked inside a house with a mobile phone in case they need to call for help or request more rice crackers. The reason this shifting morality and the eventual reprisals it brings to bear on parents interests me is that I remember the rush of freedom I felt as a kid when I was alone and I think that’s pretty much under attack.
Not alone in my room within the norms and regulations of my overlords (read: parents), but truly alone, on my own terms, in the wild (of Mt Victoria).
Some of the stuff I did defies explanation, probably because I wasn’t being watched and didn’t have to explain myself. I rolled fresh grass into papers I’d bought from the dairy across the road when I was 10 and tried to light them. I pretended I was being interviewed by Oprah and conducted both her side of the interview and mine. I spoke to fairies and pretended I was a single parent constantly angry at my recalcitrant ex-husband for letting the kids down. Shit got real. And shit got weird. And I was able to go wherever my freaky brain took me and I honestly think I can partially credit those experiences for my ability to have ideas, to be brave and creative and think unusual things. To add to this there is the cult of noise and control and accountability that sucks life from all good things – a school of thought has risen to promote silence as a balm. Silence is the kind of space you naturally slip into when you’re alone.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we boot our kids out the front door and wish them the best  – but I do think there ought to be less judgement and more rational analyses when we think about the kind of risks we’re willing to expose our children to. Are they terminal risks? Or, after some level-heading non-emotional thought, are they the kinds of risks that have a 1 in 100 (or 1000) chance of going wrong but otherwise would really blow the kids hair back?

When my partner and I first started dating, we walked. That was our thing. We did it everywhere. We did it during parties. We did it early in the morning. We did it to get places and to have fun. We were walkers. Then we had kids and realised that their tiny legs and finite energy complimented by endless whinging meant that we could no longer do the thing we loved.

We accepted this, we waited, I grew fatter but that’s neither here nor there. Fitness and thinness wasn’t the reason we walked, we walked because it’s ancient and magic and it gets you talking. We walked because no one interrupts you when you’re walking, in such an unfixed way you are unavailable. And every now and then we decide the risk is worth it to feel that magic again, we give the eldest a mobile and lock them inside and we walk down to the supermarket and talk widely, uninterrupted. And what about the kids you ask? They call us about 7 times in 10 minutes to tell us what the other one is doing or if they said something funny, or to inform us that they saw a bird or ate an old biscuit they found under the couch. In other words they use that freedom to be themselves and then relish in sharing these moments with us.

Sited:
NZ Police.
Thomas, A.J., Stanford, P.K. & Sarnecka, B.W., (2016). No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children. Collabra. 2(1), p.10. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.33
Original article here: https://thespinoff.co.nz/parenting/19-11-2016/what-is-reasonable-risk-one-mum-on-why-she-leaves-her-kids-home-alone/

 

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That Time I Interviewed Noel Fielding

19 Oct

noel

Very few men are as comfortable in a dress as Noel Fielding.

His sketch for the charitable initiative Comic Relief, where he danced “Kate Bush” to Wuthering Heights in her iconic red dress roused a giddy audience into near delirium, not to mention his fellow comedians who looked on in envy, awe and awkwardness.
Fielding has been the obsession of the British tabloids since 2004 when he and Julian Barrett converted their stand-up gig The Mighty Boosh to the small screen. A predominance of sequins, frequent cross-dressing and a tendency to slip into a psychedelic matrix instead of ordinary time projected Fielding into a vortex of fame.
“I mean I guess in England they probably think I’m some psychedelic sort of surreal character who lives in a Forest in a magic boot and rides a unicorn whilst taking drugs”.
Sadly he goes on to dispel the possibility that unicorns are real by adding “but I’m not really like the character they portray.”

On the phone he’s gracious and rambling, a rainbow of words come tumbling down the line and it’s hard to imagine he ever sleeps or eats or stops at all – a creative Niagara Falls. Though highly imaginative he’s also surprisingly succinct and the reductionist Peter Pan trope people assume of him fails to make sense of someone so in control of his own creativity. He’s bravely hewed a niche, like Monty Python before him, where absurdity is legion and yet he’s considerate of his audience’s limitations:

“I try and get the audience onside with charm and skill before I totally freak them out. I always want to bring the audience on a journey really… the analogy I make is you’re on the boat and everyone’s on the shore and you’ve got to get them onto the boat and take them on a journey and sometimes half the people get on, sometimes everyone gets on and you have a brilliant trip, and then sometimes only a few get on and everyone else sort of throws stuff at you from the beach.”

Getting on the boat requires a willingness to suspend worn patterns of thinking but what else is art for if not to press us into different shapes than we were before?

CODA- this was originally written for and then almost entirely rejected by Metro Magazine (a few tiny fragments of my original writing remained). After accepting the haphazard preference of editors (to be fair, they had made me rewrite it once and made it much better as a result) I figured I’d put the whole thing out there, including more quotes, for people to read. I love Fielding, and the chance to speak with him was a great excitement and privilege.

Cat Fisting with Donald

11 Oct

A book review of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance and a look at the great (poor) whites of America.

all-lives

As  Trump complains about his microphone and Clinton throws facts as shade, the regular world of poor white Americans keeps turning.

It’s a strange place, once the home of the American Dream (America’s capitalisation, not mine) but when water hit the metal and everything turned to rust the people languished as much as the materials that once allowed them to prosper.

No one really likes to put themselves squarely in these people’s camp –  their stereotyping is brutal – poorly educated, they’re missing numerous teeth, they fall pregnant too young and once born they’re terrible parents to their kids. They fight loudly, swear continually and shove their fists down the throats of catfish in lieu of bait. But the Hillbillies are rising up by their miserable millions in support of a candidate who is noxious and by most measures ill suited to their needs. And the upper class liberals and relative ‘norms’ of the world are really flummoxed as to why.

Make America Great Again – Trump’s campaign slogan might offer some clues.

Since the publication of Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance has given numerous interviews, resulting in thousands of white-people-need-our-help-too lightbulb moments, in which he simply points out that their major “issue” is in having been forgotten. Once they were the backbone of industrialised America, up and down the Appalachian trail. Families moved to where the metal was and made good lives out of it – owned plenty of American made cars and their own homes. You don’t have to be a poor white American to know how unlikely similar successes are these days but in the hills and hollers of Jackson the loss of these opportunities rubs pretty bad.

In the current climate of black lives matter, poor white Americans are putting up signs proclaiming that all lives matter, a pretty equanimous turn implying there’s nothing meritorious about your skin colour. Poor is poor. Drug addled is drug addled and ignored by your government means it’s time for a change.
You might wonder why Vance is writing about such an unpopular breed who’ve rarely been given air (excluding a few notables such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) to share their politically incorrect and inconvenient truths. Vance is not some researcher imbedded in these communities, he was born and raised and broken and nearly fell through all the cracks in Jackson and then later Middletown Ohio.

These are his people and he proudly claims them as such. This affable Yale Law graduate who, it can’t be ignored, has moved to a State with more teeth per mouth, still shares their blood and cares about their plight.
Vance tells his own story as a way of analogising the greater misfortune of the Appalachian people.

It’s a harrowing tale of his sister and he trying to survive their unstable mom, a woman who forfeit her nursing gig after imbibing huge doses of prescription pain killers and skating through ER on rollerblades high as the proverbial. A mom who eventually turned to Heroin. A mom who never shook her childhood of instability, alcoholism and rage to recover a sanctuary for herself or her kids.

There is more interest in poor whites now as they’re viewed as the bowsprit of a social change attempting to dredge from the murky waters of debt and offshore manufacturing a promise of something simple, wholesome and neat. Trimmed with a picket fence and including an Electrolux.

Trump offers hope here not because any of his election promises really deliver answers to the deeply riven issues that affect these people but because he’s loud and abrasive and he’s actually saying something. Vance’s grandmother (Mamaw – pronounced mam aw) once told him not to be like ‘all these stupid fuckers who act like the pack is stacked against them’ and regularly referred to him as a ‘shit head’ which kind of comes off as a term of endearment when you hear her quoted on other topics. Point being, this is a culture of straight talkers who, once upon a time, got shit done. Trump not only talks a big game, he’s completely comfortable declaiming the USA as the greatest country on earth, and these folks, who once upon a time were invited to be an integral part of that huge impossible appellation, feel at home with someone like him.

Maybe he won’t make things better but he’ll sure as shit shake some trees.

If you’re struggling with the possibility of a Trump presidency and wondering who exactly would want such an outcome then read this book. You’ll be less surprised by the statistics than in the empathy Vance brings to bear upon those reduced to numbers. Underneath all the bad judgements, terrible choices, disastrous relationships and fearful child raising are underfunded, hurting, forgotten people who have lost their voice and who are afraid for their future, their kids, their country and their kin.

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Something To Marvel At

23 May
'The Killer Went Postal' what the NY Times named their review of Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips

‘The Killer Went Postal’ what the NY Times named their review of Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips

I imagined working for a publishing house would mean doubling my energies in the book industry but this has turned out to be untrue.  Since starting work running the social media for a publishing house I’ve found myself in a weird kind of heaven – it’s definitely heaven because there are plenty of books – but, I guess like ‘real heaven’, I’m morally obliged to only read (believe in) one variety of book.
I’m overdramatising here, the breadth of my reading is not being scrutinised, it simply ends up being that I read more of the books published by the company I work for because they’re readily available.

Which basically means I’ve become lazy.

And perhaps I would forever have stayed a mono-publisher-reader if it wasn’t for the generosity of a friend. This friend has gently influenced my reading habits (and in turn my life) since I met her more than 6 years ago. Maybe twice my age she has used her wisdom generously and taken simple pleasure in sharing with me some writers she has known forever.  When taken together these suggestions represent a culture, a community. They also represented a massive sea change in what and how I read, in who I was as a reader, and in part a huge chunk of my success as a reviewer. Because prior to this education, I hadn’t found my voice yet or my eyes – my pageeyes – now though it is my first instinct to hunt down the unpretentious, the tragic and the American.
This friend has given me a place where I belong by introducing me to writers who speak either in terms I can nod at or in voices I can marvel at.

On my bookshelves, in amongst a sea of spines with the same logo etched into em’ comes this hard-covered patch of deckle-edged,  beautifully designed American verses, with titles that take you places and make you feel things: Plague of Doves, Return to Earth, The Maytrees, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter… And in one way or another they were all put there by her.

I received a package recently with two of the most exquisite tomes inside it and I knew instantly who they were from. Firstly I sat them down on the table and photographed them (see below). Then I sat them on the shelf, facing outwards, and looked at them a while. Maybe 2 or 3 days. After that I decided I’d try reading one: Quiet Dell.

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The name of the latest Jayne Anne Phillips fits right in with all the others in my collection: Quiet Dell: a novel. Somehow American’s have the deepest sense of place: they can get right to the mud on the boots of a man, straight down to the salt in their skin and the burnished hills that surround them. Quiet Dell made me think of something sinister hidden in a prairie and I was not wrong. The cover is a sepia image of some kind of 1930’s fray – a graveyard perhaps a protest, digging – aren’t those shovels in the mid-ground? Closer examination shows that Phillips has turned her extremely bleak eye to the true-life crime of a one Harry Powers who famously killed multiple women after luring them with promises of security and prosperity by means of pen-paling his way into their confidences. Phillips’ grandmother took her daughter, Phillips’ mother, to see the garage where Powers committed the murders and stored the remains. This then is a personal story and Phillips has done her best to create a sense of haunting so as to convey the very deep pain his victims felt and the unfairness of it all. She writes like these savage and psychopathic wrongs were done to her kin. As a variety of feminism you could say they were. These women were desperate to feel worthy again – in their time widowed middle aged women were essentially facile, useless, left to perish (if lucky) with kind family or friends. More often alone and with no finances or chance of salvation they’d sort of end up in a living rot. Powers offered them safe passage, promised them absolution – but he delivered the opposite.

Harry Powers

Harry Powers

In modern terms it would be like some swindler luring middle aged women with the promise of smooth skin  the waistline of a twenty year old and bottomless fame. Except that’s all about vanity, in 1930’s America it was about life or death and the difference between keeping your children alive and educated or sick and trapped in poverty. The motivation for these women is clear; Powers’ less so. Through the creation of a female journalist, Emma Thornhill, Phillips views the crimes – firstly from the vantage of a woman and her, quite remarkable, children. Asta Eicher is a widowed mother of three, from a once privileged background her funds run terribly low and she eventually seeks solace in a man who promises old world respect and care of her and her children. The beginning of the book is particularly haunting as Phillips practices her extreme talents to great effect: the reader finds themselves in the Eicher household the Christmas before they’re killed. Trees are decorated. Plays are performed. The unique wonder of these children is properly established. What could have been laboured isn’t- the deaths are dealt with by absence and intimation which is to say, respect. There is no need to read the detailed demise of children at the hands of a practiced psychopath. There is no need for that. What is needed is retribution.

Crowds gather on Aug. 30, 1931, at the site of the Quiet Dell murders. Evidence of the killings was found in and around murderer Harry Powers' garage (center).

Crowds gather on Aug. 30, 1931, at the site of the Quiet Dell murders. Evidence of the killings was found in and around murderer Harry Powers’ garage (center).

Although this story captured me from beginning to end it has received criticism for its positivity- I suspect that she has done for this story what we all do for our children: she has made it good when there was little good in it. Powers was nonredeemable and his handiwork devastating. Instead of getting mired in this without pause Phillips has created a savior in Thornhill and Thornhill continues to act as a counterpoint to every horrible thing we discover Powers to have done. Where he kills children, she adopts them. Where he destroys the possibility of love later in life she finds and flourishes in a romantic tableau almost too saccharine to believe. Where he kicks a dog, she picks it up and feeds it, houses it, loves it. I can see how this could be perceived as excessively sweet by the more jaded critics who define quality in relation to misery. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that took creative license to make the world a nicer place rather than just dug into the depths of a common despair. I praise Phillips for this. I don’t think it will win her any awards but it will live inside my head as another world where good balances evil and light really does lurk at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

As for my friend she stopped reading a while ago – too many changes in her life perhaps, I’m not qualified to know, but I do know that if you’re lucky enough to have a friend like her your own inner world will never stop, will never be dull.
I intend to catalogue a series of reviews/essays about the books which she has given me, I’m going to create a category called #Dell – for this title and for another reason perhaps only she will notice.

 

 

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

1 Oct

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EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY: A Life of David Foster Wallace
By D.T. Max

I’ve been totally flawed trying to come up with a way to enter this piece, grappling to come up with even a vaguely all right introduction. I feel slightly less a complete failure as I can see the meta narrative at work: my only real criticism of D.T. Max was his beginning, basically a 4th form essay opener, a rejoinder so simplistic and cop-outish (sic) even a 4th form teacher would have asked for more:
 “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.”
 
Right?
But why I’m sympathetic to this palsy start, and see it as a reoccurring issue, is that after reading (and in Max’s case researching) DFW and in doing so reading much of his actual writing; personal letters, essays, commencement speech fragments, witticisms and such, one can become totally mute as a writer in response to such an incredible talent.

Part of what’s hard with writing about DFW is the tenacity and brilliance of the subject matter, he played around with structure, language, obfuscation and translucency his entire career: “If words are all we have as world and god, we must treat them with care and rigor: we must worship.” Known originally as a postmodernist shit-kicker with his thesis-come-published-novel The Broom of the System for which he was lauded and criticized as being (too) derivative of Pynchon et al he took postmodernism to the next level. Broom includes an ode to Wittgenstein, a critique of Heidegger and a go at a semi-plotless plot that frustrates with the intention of pushing the reader to less passive heights (something he would extend in his opus Infinite Jest). On the back of Broom’s marginal success he wrote short story collections and some non-fiction essays, finessing his aptitude for brilliant titles (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Girl With the Curious Hair, Consider the Lobster) and ultimately Infinite Jest originally subtitled A Failed Entertainment which was a nod to the meta narrative of Wallace critiquing passive entertainment as dangerously gluttonous and apathetic. Through all these publications he played grammar at its own game, driving copy editors mental by reediting their cuts of his ingenuous yet correct usage.
My point is that DFW had a style so unique, so thoughtful and multifaceted that when you read about him you expect that same brilliance to infuse the biographising (sic) otherwise it’s a little like hearing a terrible covers band and having to go home and put on the originals to make yourself feel better. Max I think realized this and devised a plan: try super hard to make linear a life of chaotic ups and downs. He devises a chronology to DFW and sticks to it, unrelentingly, which can make for some boring notations but overall was probably the safest way to go.
This structured approach hits its stride about midway through when Max feels safe enough inside his design and relents a little, becoming more poetic with his own voice and less a slave to every piece of information he recovered. Max’s tone cleverly mimics the pattern of his subject: his attitude towards DFW is like a friendship unfolding, or maybe the observance of a sibling. What begins as slightly passive aggressive during DFW’s more egocentric phase (i.e in relating DFW’s correspondence with a friend where he mentions he turned down a tenured position Max writes “or so he wrote to Peterson, though the school has no record of it and it seems unlikely”) evolves into gentle concern during DFW’s break downs, admiration after the publication of Infinite Jest, and ultimately a sense of sad resignation towards the end of his days. Max never met Wallace, he’s a stranger to the writer, but he did manage to gain extraordinary cooperation from publishers, editors, girlfriends and friends – everyone from Nadell (his agent for his entire career) to novelist Jonathan Franzen and artist Karen Green, his wife and widow.
How this unfolds then is both a forgone conclusion and a lifting of the veil, much of DFW’s writing has been dissected and intellectualized but much of his private life remained private, his struggle with pot and alcohol was coded into fiction with AA support groups appearing as church groups, his depression was explored by his characters, his love life a garrulous selfish beast cowering in corners throughout his work. Max unearths all of these intimacies with a gentle and purposeful hand. What coalesces is a flourish of trouble and brilliance and, at the end, the biography of a writer trying to align himself with the moral compass of authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky:

What seems most important is that Dostoevsky…changed {from} a typically vain and trendy young writer – a very talented writer, true, but one whose basic concerns were for his own literary glory – into a person who believed deeply in moral/spiritual values.”

Finishing Every Love Story… I had a similar problem as with beginning it; I found myself wanting more. Initially I wanted more from Max’s approach but this time it was the longing that comes after a blunt drop off, confronting a cul-de-sac where a highway should have been. It is the drifting sadness of a suicide, the sense that so much more was to come; in many ways a typical DFW ending, summarily it stops and you’re left to imagine what might have been.

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By the end, abrupt or not, Max manages to piece together the sad and fascinating portrait of a giant, vastly courageous intellect. A disheveled philosopher, who always had the brains but who, in his last few years, really started working on the heart. There’s a small redemption here too, that although the depression resulting from a change in medication was ultimately too terrifying to survive, DFW still managed to achieve an important milestone in his life, not old age sure, but certainly the beginnings of wisdom.

 

Note: Works I have read by DFW.

Broom of the System
Selected essays from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
The first ¼ of Infinite Jest
Incarnations of Burned Children
Published in Esquire

Books I own, but haven’t yet read, of DFW’s:

The last ¾’s  of Infinite Jest
The remaining essays from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
The Pale King

Image credit: Esquire Magazine & Wall Piece with 200 Letters // Mikko Kuorinki at Kiasma Museum in Helsinki.

An unbelievably distasteful betrayal that takes an awfully long time.

10 Dec

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A faded rock star, a talented geneticist, an embittered tabloid king and a scientist all walk into a novel. Just joking. Though actually they are all a part of this sprawling tale about modern morality the story isn’t quite as comical as this setup suggests. With his newest novel Meek, the author most notably of The People’s Republic of Love has contributed to the collection of contemporary writing about how sodden and debased modern life currently is. In, if not quite the same league then easily the same category of books as Visit From the Goon Squad & Freedom, Meek’s latest offering is one of dilemma wrapped in practical romance and all tied up with notions of death, love and immortality.

Richard Sheppard, the lead singer of The Lazygods, is a married man with two children and a successful reality TV show yet the opening sequence sees him cheating on his wife with a 15 year old girl. Things spiral out from here creating agonising situations for both Richard and perversely for his scientist sister Bec who has developed a vaccine for one strand of malaria and whom Richard loves and respects but fails to protect.  Richard’s relationship with his sister is a bit like watching a python eating a goat: an unbelievably distasteful betrayal that takes an awfully long time.

Taken in turns both sharp and meandering the story progresses from Richard’s initial transgression into the lives of those around him; Meek deals with Richard brilliantly, he’s so completely self obsessed and so totally and quite often humorously unaware of any greater moral context that he’s always forgiving himself and damaging others. Richard’s actions set the ball rolling and the 500 odd page book then settles in exploring the lives of those around him who will inevitably be impacted however abstractly by his lack of moral fiber and called to question their own.

Dealing blows along the way to tabloid journalism, Meek himself a celebrated journalist for many years, has created a pointed tribute to the likes of Piers Morgan with his character Val, the head of a Daily Mail type endeavor who loses his mind and takes to the internet with his own version of god and censorship: The Moral Foundation. The initiative seeks to unearth and publicise all manner of tawdry behavour among the ruling famous and it destroys the mental health of those within its ranks. Always waiting for the call, waiting to be cast in the light of their very worst transgressions, Richard and others are slowly pushed to breaking point. It’s here, when the characters have the most to lose, that Meek really showcases what it takes to have backbone and what is looks like to be spineless.

Phillip Pullman describes the book as a ‘moral thriller’ and it’s an apt description, certainly a page turner, tightly composed and vastly cast and considered, The Heart Broke In is something of a modern fable with large scale commentary and minute beautiful observations.

The Impolitic Version of What Became the Post: Bad Parenting

21 Oct

I have always had a problem with performance art; a deep abiding problem that seems to come from somewhere inside my chest, like phlegm or about-to-be-coughed-up blood, it irks and bothers me and insists on making me feel uneasy. Yes. I’m aware that this is a judgmental stance that will cause me to come face to face with people wearing one heel spewing milk telling me it’s all about masculine/feminine perception. A long time ago I rewrote some of my basic encoding that was set on ‘I like this therefore it’s good – opposite also applies’ with a more humanistic approach – I trained myself to see all (static) art as something made with love, energy and intention, all worthy of praise, even if the end product wasn’t exactly the bronze plated spikey ball I wanted in my office. Each to their own. I trained myself (and this was purely at the sweet behest of my partner who’d tired of my overbearing meanness in the face of art that displeased me) to err away from language like ‘overblown’ and ‘poorly conceived’ and instead replace these terms with, well not ones of endearment, at least utterances that bespoke of the time and energy that had gone into the work – they instead became ‘unique’ ‘inspired’ and ‘particular.’ Sadly the same level of enlightenment could not be found for performance art. Where I can look at a painting and find its merit peaceably in a gallery I, for instance, found it impossible to watch a bunch of AUT students parade around on broken heels spurting bottles of broken milk on a looped track they must have walked for hours and think ‘well that’s particular, that’s unique and inspired’.

Which is silly cause if anything’s unique it was that white washed parade of strange. But here’s the kicker; static art lets me decide how I feel about it. I can be mean I can be nice, it’s my choice. Then I go home and the piece of art stays hanging on the wall. Performance art uses you in the making of itself and I find that unavoidably irritating; and although this is the ‘beauty’ of the form, the very nature of its subliminal message, that art is greater than self, always comes off to me as a lie. That the artist is actually saying that they are more important than you because they are instruments of the art and you are just the mechanism by which it proceeds. You may hate the art and scoff; that’s part of the art. You might walk out of a room whilst a film is playing; that’s the film making you leave. You might all laugh like we did at our student teacher in high school who showed a bunch of 15 year old’s a film he’d made of cutlery painfully stilted and pointlessly (apparently) dropping onto the floor of a stage. And even though his feelings were undoubtedly hurt by our taunting and ridicule I’m certain he put all those tears into a latter piece of performance art  and not instead back on himself to ask ‘is this just silly?’

Might it be that a bigger issue here is one of editing, of constraint and purpose? Where are the limits in performance art? If they aren’t immediately available to the viewer, if the point doesn’t ever have to be clearly received, then does the artist still know what it is or are they bluffing? It reminds me of a line in the Union Atlantic where a history teacher is vigorously punishing her student for limply defending his point of view by saying ‘it was just an opinion’ to which she memorably responds:

“No!…that’s precisely what it isn’t! That’s precisely what’s become so endemic. That cheap, mindless relativism. You’re all awash in it. Of course it’s a pluralist society. So we’re modest. In the big things: religion, metaphysics. We’re non-absolutists. That’s secularism. That’s maturity. That’s what the zealots can’t abide. But this business of opinions. As if the world had no discernible qualities.”

There is the possibility that my neivity is the issue and not the ‘art’, that I’m like a conservative Catholic hating on gays because I’ve never known any, they’ve never become humanised. The fear of the unknown. In the same vein maybe my lack of theoretical investigation into performance art it is what causes me to hate it so. Ignorance fostering prejudice. Whilst I cannot claim to be thoroughly schooled in the matter I have been subjected to it, shown it and asked to partake in it. In fact, for something that instinctively rubs me the wrong way, I’ve had an awful lot to do with performance art.

My first encounter was when I was 15 years old, as I’ve just mentioned, but the whole thing was more warped and misjudged than that initial description so forgive me here a further digression. I went to a massively multi-ethnic high school in Auckland’s eastern suburbs with something like 56 different ethnicities represented and many of these people hailed from the various Islands of the Pacific. One term we had a rash of student teachers; one of these was a gentleman whose name escapes me, likely because I never bothered to learn it, who sat in on and eventually taught, a solo lesson in our media studies class. This student teacher was ebullient beyond measure, so undaunted by the lackluster response his dandy teaching caused that he was actually foolish enough to suggest that, after we’d finished watching Brave Heart for something like the 12th time, we should section out the last 10 minutes of class, on his last day with us, to watch some footage of his most recent performance art installation. We were a bunch of 15 year olds. His installation consisted of a stage lit with one bright light and an audience seated watching, the light hit a circle on the center of the white stage floor and after a minute of pure illumination there fell from an obscured hole in the ceiling a fork. A minute or so later, another fork, then another, then another, then an avalanche of forks. And then, a spoon.

I do not have to tell you the response this ‘piece’ received. I cannot recall how he justified this to us or begin to recall how he explained that it was art. Later in my life I developed an overblown ability to infuse nothingness with what sounds like theory, it’s a skill a lot of us learn at university in order to make word count. If memory serves though this man did not blow smoke from his arse, he blew it from his heart. He and others I’ve since met, truly believe that a calculated and contrived performance can result in art. I’m not dismissing this, who am I to do so? No one, that’s who. But what I am is a reader and so when I stumbled on Kevin Wilson’s newest book The Family Fang – a novel about two performance artists, Camille and Caleb Fang, who get married (around 35 times and film each one then run it as an exhibition in a gallery) and have children then subsequently use these children to create art, I thought; this I have to read.

Wilson has written something pretty strange, it’s just crooked enough to be interesting and new but the narrative relies on some really basic plot ideas like the thrill of  a chase and the promise of the unknown, he involves fame and L.A and plays around with failing writers (a writers favourite topic). But more than this, Wilson explores the line between artistic endeavour and personal responsibility. The Fangs began, for Wilson, as a way of exploring parenthood. He and his wife had just had their first child and were finding life hard, lacking in sleep Wilson began to think of all the ways that a parent can screw up a child, and like casting a warding off spell he decided to create some parents who were going to do more damage to their children that the Wilson’s would ever inflict on theirs. A transference if you will. The Fangs believe that children kill art. They’re probably right. Children tend to kill most things by way of suppression, exhaustion and a fraying of previously alert minds. But for most of us parenthood refunds as much if not considerably more than it takes, for the Fangs they decide to take payment immediately by melding their children into their art. Wilson basically shapes my entire argument against performance art; namely that it is intentionally isolationist and somewhat selfish. When you come face to face with a painting, you either like it, you don’t or you’re indifferent. In any case that response is yours, given to you benevolently by the painter to do as you wish; they have their interpretation you have yours, both are entitled to keep their own. With performance art the viewer is used to create the art then eaten up by it – your response is never privately your own, it’s grist for the mill of the art and the artist.

Wilson showcases this kind of specific perverse selfinterestedness (sic) via the Fangs two children, particularly their emotionally disastrous childhood during which they’re forsaken on the alter of fanatical artistic integrity. At one point the children, both between 8 and 14 years old, are taken on holiday, a performance is planned for the journey, they are not told what it will be. They board a plane and have to pretend to be traveling alone, their parents having adopted aliases and are seated together, on the flight to their destination Caleb stands, hijacks the onboard microphone and gushily proposes to Camille, who says yes. On the return journey the same act is played out except this time Camille says no and the entire plane is subjected to an awkwardness that seeps into the rayon covered seats, gets in their clothes and follows them home. The Fangs disrupt situations in order to manipulate people into emotionally responding in order to use that to make an abstract point that has no direct bearing or use for the people involved. They believe that art, in all situations, and only art as they define it, is more important than anything else; more truthful and trustworthy, more worthy than even their own children.

This book  tackles the hard to grasp wank of performance art, that intangible nothingness that is somehow more irritating than the offhanded response of ‘my 6 year old could have painted that’ you’re sometimes tempted to utter when staring down a modernist painting. The Family Fang walks straight into the minefield of conceptual theory based artistic practice and strips it bare to reveal the human cost of using other people in the process of defining your own self-important view of the world. In many ways Wilson uses performance art as a crazy abstraction to house his commentary about parenting; parents aren’t ever this bad or this funny, I mean parents aren’t usually performance artists. But at the same time he’s cutting a knife into the fat of selfish parenting he’s also making a pretty accurate analysis of art as contrived spectacle. There’s a line in the book when Camille is trying to explain to her children why she pushed them under the bus, why they made art out of themselves instead of parents, and she says ‘I remember how much I loved the aftermath, the confusion on everyone’s faces but ours. We were the only ones in the whole world who knew what was happening.’ I get that, it’s so human, to want to be god. But it’s another thing to act on that by contriving yourself as a godhead and calling it art.