3650 Days

Eleanor is ten.  On 20 November, 2006 somewhere after 1am she arrived red and lustily howling at the world.  Her first act in my arms was to loosen her bowels.  It was love at first sight.

Her present today is her own room; one more thing in that series of steps  to becoming an independent person: having your own territory.  That series of steps that seems – when you are young – like it has an end, a final destination where you know exactly who you are, but as you get older seems more like a process without an end.

In November 2006 I was in Term Four of my first year of teaching.  The students I taught that year are 23 to 28 years old now.  And I am 43.  And Eleanor is 10.

In a sleight of hand that Rosamund hasn’t noticed, if Eleanor gets her own room it means that Rosamund does too: by default.  I’m not sure that she really wants one.  She’s six, and has spent six years sleeping in the same room as her big sister.  I reflected on that fact as I put them to bed last night in the same room for the last time.  Of course there will be times when they share a room again, but not in the same way.

I hate last nights.  I can remember my last night before leaving New Zealand to go to Japan.  It was like being on death row.  Sleep is impossible and although time goes slowly from 1am until dawn, it never goes slowly enough.  The mind is rarely concentrated enough to notice the darkness gradually lighten on the wall by the edge of the curtain.  As I lay in Eleanor and Rosamund’s room last night I thought about that night, some time in the future, when Eleanor would be leaving home.

Someone like Richard would tell me something like: “don’t worry, they’ll be back!” and he would be right.  Like he would be right that you never stop worrying.

I don’t remember much about being ten myself, about 1983.  My mother threw a good party and did a fine line in good cakes.  It’s useful for me to think back on being ten because I’m glad I’m not ten anymore.  I’m glad I left Scots and went to Kapiti, and met a different bunch of people, I’m glad I got into the guitar, and went to uni, met Cathy, went to Japan, and wound up a teacher, married, with two daughters.  Because I am prone to melancholy it is important for me to remember that and keep the balance right.

Each year is the opportunity for the accumulation of more layers of yourself, and with friends and family there is the sweet, tart of seeing that process in others too.  Eleanor has been one of my greatest teachers.

Happy birthday, Eleanor.

Accepting the result

And so we come to the election day itself: the results stacking up state by state and rolling across from the east as the night closes in on the west coast.  A lot of attention has been focused on what Trump has said and not said about accepting the result, but not much about what happens if he actually wins.  If he actually wins then it is equally incumbent upon the Democrats and the left to accept the result.  In fact, Hillary Clinton needs the classiest, most gracious concession speech ever written on standby.  If Clinton loses this there will be many, many people who voted for her, and people around the world, who will not only be unhappy, but will not want to accept the result.

If the process is fair, then accepting the result is one of the things you have to learn when you grow up.  I’m not going to pretend that I am good at this.  I brood over how things should have gone for a long time after the event.  So, yes, it’s hard, but if you want to live in a democracy and not an autocracy then you must accept the result.  Not doing that, in a democracy, is saying: “even though more people want option A they should be forced to accept option B because I prefer option B”.  Which means you’re either daft or arrogant.

I listened to Eboo Patel talk last week and he said three things that I think are on point here.  He said, firstly, that he realised that the support for Trump has made him realise he knew nothing about huge swathes of America.  He thought about how he would feel if someone came to him and his community of peers and said about his stock and trade: “sorry, but the whole public speaking, NGO facilitation, internet-savvy industry thing is no longer needed.  It’s over.”  Which, for the manufacturing sector across America is exactly what has happened.  How do feel when your certainty, income and dignity is stripped forever, for you and your kids?

He also said that building societies that are tolerant is hard.  It’s not about enjoying a shared lunch at school and swapping falafels for samosas, and that it is much more about tolerating things you don’t like or agree with.  That it was about accepting that you will disagree with a person about some things, but still be able to work with them on other things.  Which is something I have slowly learned to do when I teach: to try and nuance the heroes and villains of history.  It is very easy to condemn someone wholesale for some act they did, or a set of values they held, but people are not just one belief or one action.  Go easy on the tar and feathers.

Finally, he quoted someone else who said: “most truly intelligent people secretly believe both sides in any debate”.  I’ve come to realise that this is right.  Take the abortion debate.  For a long time I’ve been very Pro-Choice, and I still am, but I have come to acknowledge that, yes, we are talking about human life, and that human life is a very important thing.  Sometimes I think that some Pro-Choice arguments forget or dismiss that fact.  Women choosing abortion don’t, but people debating it as an abstract can and that is not healthy, and it doesn’t acknowledge what might be a genuine concern on the part of your Pro-Life opponent.

Both sides in democracy seem to have become very sore losers.  Both attack the mechanics of the voting system and look for frauds.  Both demand recounts, or new elections, and both call the people who voted for the person or things they do not like or want stupid.  Calling people who voted differently from you stupid is neither helpful or empathetic.  It is also anti-democratic.

Probably all this is for two reasons.  Times are fraught.  Slow and changing economies, refugees, and terrorism put people on edge and put people’s views into sharp relief.  Also, social media makes people more insular, more prone to exist in an echo chamber that confirms only what they believe, guided by algorithms that feed people stories they want to hear.  When an outside event – like an election – contradicts the echo chamber it is one hell of a shock.

Mediawatch did a great piece a few weeks ago comparing the coverage of our local body elections with some scandal in the American election.  As they pointed out, even on the day the local election results came out there was little coverage even though these elections were ones we actually could vote in and would have a very direct impact on our lives.  Most coverage I think was devoted to Trump’s sexual assault comments.  It was at that point I stopped following the US election because I thought it was a very good point.  Here in New Zealand we are not actually involved, and do not have any influence on the elections in the USA.

The result, should it go to Trump, will be – probably – a pretty black period in American history that I suspect won’t end well.  But the job of everybody with those concerns is to get up and get on with it.  Hold power to account.  Protest.  Use the free press as a weapon.  Lobby.  Legislate.  In short, follow the processes of a democratic country.  Shrieking, calling people liars, discrediting entire systems, and calling people stupid does an awful lot of damage.  Sure, elections may sometimes return results you don’t like, but unless you have a better system on hand to replace democracy with let’s just put up with that, and campaign harder next time.

Finally though, I want to say that this looks to me like the victory of a powerful group on a sinking ship.  If democracy can’t figure out a way to enfranchise and empower its non-white voters in increasingly diverse and disenfranchised communities then it will weaken every election cycle.  If it continues to do that, if it continues to be democracy for white people and no one else, then the only way forward will be disintegration, entrenchment, and violence.  Democracy is supposed to be like Maths: a clean and clear formula that delivers a result that reflects the data put into it.  The less it acts like this the more trouble we are in.

Being John-Paul

In 1984 my mother took me to New Caledonia.  I was 11 and it was the first time I had been overseas.  One of the reasons we went to New Caledonia and not another Pacific island was because New Caledonia was French.  For my mother, who had taken French at school and was good at it, and admired many aspects of French culture, this was an important factor.  I grew up understanding that the adjective French meant better.  So French food, French wine or French fashion meant that those things had a certain je ne sais quoi.  It was only when I went to France for the first time in my thirties that I was disabused of many of these ideas.  The first thing I said in Paris was “fuck off”.  Things went downhill from there.

Problematically my name is and is not French: John but not Jean-Paul.  It has always led people astray. It is the job of a name to label something, but we expect the labels and the things themselves to have cultural links; to play the game of connotation. It’s a game my name doesn’t play.  In the 80s and 90s in New Zealand it was a name most New Zealanders couldn’t cope with and when I introduced myself my interlocutors would flip between John and Paul like a computer trying to read a binary 1 or 0 but not both.  I was John to some, and Paul to others, but rarely was I John-Paul to most when I was a kid.

People like to make sense of my name by comparing it to another John-Paul they have heard of.  When I was growing up this was invariably the Pope.  Because of Pope John-Paul II some people assumed I was Catholic, but I wasn’t, and the name John-Paul only became associated with the papacy in 1978: five years after I was born.  When Pope John-Paul II finally died I booked my hot poker in hell by being glad; finally freed of the unwanted association.  At university well-informed or pretentious people associated my name with Satre.  While I was in Japan many Japanese thought of the fashion designer Gaultier and, more elliptically, the Beatles (apologies to George and Ringo).

My name has also, of course, led people to think I am French, or have French ancestry, or speak French. None of those things are true.  It didn’t stop my French teacher in Year 9 constantly calling on me in class for the sheer pleasure it gave her of saying my name, or a lecturer at university asking me to translate a French passage in a book we were reading in front of the tutorial group.  It was tempting to respond to his request for me to translate with a curt “non”, but I just said “ah, sorry…” instead.  I should have been embarrassed I suppose but I just thought he was a plonker.

Then there is the particular awkwardness of meeting the French.  I assume that to them my name is a curious bastardization and treated the same way that snotty teachers treat any English name spelled unconventionally: “It’s spelled J-H-O-R-D-H-A-N, Mr”.  The only time I insist on my name being said “properly” is with a French person I don’t like: “no, sorry, it’s JOHN-Paul, not Jean-Paul”.  It’s like being asked to chew tin foil for them.  It works well for both of us. They think I’m a cretin, and I enjoy their displeasure.

My name does and doesn’t mean all of those things.  To me it means my mother liked French at school.  It means my father’s father was John and my mother’s father was Paul.  But it also means all those misunderstandings and missteps.  It means saying my name is John to people I think I will never meet again, and explaining that my last name is not Paul, or that it’s John and not Jean, and that JP is ok.  Finally, it means being patient and good-humoured.

If you have an odd name you either learn to be patient and good-humoured or you spend your life grumpy.  There’s no point in being grumpy.  The universe doesn’t know you or require your collection of atoms to have a label at all.  The air doesn’t know you when you breath and the earth doesn’t know you when you die.  Had you been born in another time, in another place….