Up Front by Emma Hart


Stand for... Something

Recently, I was Pub-Talking to an acquaintance, an American guy who's been living in New Zealand for a few years now. One of the things that really struck him about New Zealand was our lack of patriotism. You see it on ANZAC Day, he said, but where is it the rest of the time? 

I mulled this for a while after I staggered home, because I think it's a more interesting question than it seems on the face of it. Stripped of its jingoism, patriotism is 'pride in your country'. I think it also extends to an idea of a national character, and pride in that. 

Our pride in our country isn't militaristic, and why would it be? We've always gone into wars as followers. When we do talk about our military history, we concentrate on defeats. This is both a tipper to our national character, and part of the reason our patriotism is invisible to an American lens. Those days when we're told we should be celebrating our country, ANZAC Day and Waitangi Day, are days many of us find complex and conflicted, and there's nothing wrong with that. 

That doesn't mean we don't have a strong sense of national pride, most visible when it's offended. Try telling anyone my age that Split Enz is an Australian band. Leave us off maps. Pavlova. Flat whites. He might have had a point when he said, "The things you do get upset about are so stupid." 

Here's the essential conflict, I think. We're pretty proud of our national character, mythological as it is. But part of that character is being Humble, so we can't ever mouth off about how great we are because part of being a Kiwi being great is not mouthing off about things. Not like those fucking Aussies. This tweet of Stephen Judd's from the Cricket World Cup about sums it up perfectly for me. 

 We're not those arseholes abusing batsmen when we get them out, and we don't want to be. 

This also comes with a sense of fair play, the idea that if we're going to kick someone, we kick up. We're proud of punching above our weight, after all. We were the first country to give women the vote (technically), and no matter their politics people seem proud of that. So too the nuclear ships ban, majestically giving the fingers to a world super-power. Not everybody cried all over their faces at the singing in Parliament after marriage equality passed, but give it a few more years, and it'll be one of those things almost everyone is proud we did. 

These are not, still, my favourite things about our national character. A couple of years back, I took great pride in doing something that to me epitomised what it means to be a New Zealander. I had a conversation, on Twitter, with the leader of a major political party, about giant robot dinosaur vaginas. (There are no prizes for guessing which leader it was.) We live in a country where she could have that conversation, publically, with no repercussions. We also live in a country where she could be the kind of person who would have that conversation. 

So, with the flag debate comes a discussion of our national character. Standfor.co.nz was supposed to provide a forum for that discussion; who are we? In a way, completely unintentionally, it's done that. In typical New Zealand social media subversion, the site is now displaying hundreds of messages basically saying that changing the flag is a fucking stupid idea. The flag design submission process has been similarly undermined, because that is who we are. As a country, we are giggling up the back of the class because we think you're a dick. I love that about us. 

In the end, though, I'm just another middle-aged middle-class Pakeha shaping my view of New Zealandness through the filter of my own experience. Does the way the internet allows us to group in communities of interest rather than geography undermine a sense of nationhood, or highlight national differences? Is our major source of recent pride that we've made John Oliver practice his New Zild accent? Are we too divided for there to be any point in having this conversation? 


Also, America? We are way better at democracy than you. Sorry. 


Reviewing the Election

Let me be frank about something that will probably shortly become obvious anyway: I have something of a crush on the Electoral Commission. Recently, they released their report into the 2014 election. I spent an afternoon reading it and tweeting about it, and about three days boring people solid talking about it. Luckily for you, I have a blog. 

The major area to be addressed, of course, is declining voter participation. This isn't a trend unique to New Zealand, as this graph makes clear.


You might also think that graph says something about compulsory voting, but that's not mentioned at all in the review. Participation in 2014 was up slightly on 2011, which is encouraging. However, the number of eligible people not enrolled to vote is estimated at 250,700, up from 147,200 in 2008. The groups least likely to enrol and/or vote are Pasifika, Asian, and young people. 

The problem with young people's engagement turns out to be a bit more complex, and a bigger problem, than you might have thought. It's not that 18-25 year olds don't vote. It's that they don't vote, and when they're 25-30 year olds they still don't vote, and when they're 30-35 year olds, they keep on not voting. They establish a pattern of not voting, and carry it through their lives. Meanwhile, new groups of non-voting young people keep coming along, and the percentage of the population voting goes down, and down, and down... 

The report mentions a number of things the Commission has already done to try to encourage people to vote. This includes a Kids Voting program, which apparently ran in 556 schools. I found this a bit disappointing, because in my frequently-expressed-while-drinking opinion, civics education was the key. Get young people excited about being able to vote. Don't let that pattern of not-voting get established. 

The Commission has no specific recommendations for future new action on this problem, past stating it requires a "whole of government approach". Still, this is the first election that the Commission have been actively involved in motivational messaging as well as informational, and perhaps the pay-off is still to come. 

The main reasons non-voters gave for not voting in post-election surveys were: “lack of interest in voting” (27%), other personal reasons such as health and religious reasons or being away from home (22%); “didn’t know who to vote for” (11%); and “other commitments” (10%). Only 3% gave a reason of not knowing how, when or where to vote. Only 2% said it was because the voting place was too far away and they did not have transport. This indicates that it is less about institutional barriers and more about lack of interest or motivation to vote and the need to encourage people to value their vote.

There are many other smaller points of significant note in the review. You know that thing where people can vote for weeks before the election, but advertising is only restricted on election day? They've noticed how weird that is, and would like it looked at. The number of people advance voting is now so high (29%) that the whole way we run and regulate elections needs to be reviewed. For instance, under current law, scrutineers are banned from, say, wearing t-shirts with "Vote [Party]" slogans on them on election day, but not in advance polling booths before election day. Nor are there any restrictions on how close to advance voting booths campaigning is allowed. Discussing this is one of the many, many places the Commission has noticeably not used the phrase "this is fucking stupid". 

The Commission would also like the laws on Treating, and on election advertising and satire, reviewed. " The application of these provisions raises difficult issues regarding freedom of expression." They would like to change the way parties are allocated funding for opening and closing addresses, as (to paraphrase) no fucker watches them, and the money could probably be better spent on some Facebook ads or something. 

The section on voter expectations is an example of why I find the Commission so fabulous they're probably brunette and have an opinion on the Oxford comma. It's not about changing voters' expectations, it's about how they can meet them. 

For instance, many Special Votes are disallowed because the voter is not enrolled (95% of disallowed Special Votes). People not enrolled to vote who have cast a Special Vote assume that, in that process, they were enrolled to vote. So, says the Commission, why not change it so that casting a Special Vote at one election means you're enrolled to vote at the next? In fact, is there any reason why, when someone goes into a polling booth, advance or not, we couldn't just enrol them? 

Also, given growing concerns about privacy, is there any particular reason we publish electoral rolls and make them available for purchase? Some people who don't meet the threshold for the unpublished roll don't enrol because they don't want their details made public. " The Commission recommends that electoral rolls (and habitation indexes) no longer be available for general sale, that the inspection of rolls should be limited to offices of the Commission, and that house/flat/apartment number and occupation information should no longer be included in rolls available for inspection." 

The Commission believes that people should be able to change from the General to the Maori roll every electoral cycle, and that this option could be offered when packs are sent out for people to check their enrolment details. The delay in the last Census made the restriction on changing rolls worse than usual, but even under normal circumstances, is there really any justification for it? 

" The Government has indicated that e-voting for parliamentary elections will not be a priority for 2017." So the Commission, while noting they will study overseas developments, has not considered electronic voting. 

Nonetheless, something interesting has happened with overseas voting. The Commission noted that in 2011, overseas voting had dropped significantly because, and I shit you not, people were having trouble accessing the requisite fax machines. 

Fax machines. 

So now, if you're overseas and not voting from somewhere like the Embassy in London, you can download a ballot paper, print it out, fill it in, scan it, and upload it. The Commission reported no security issues with this system, used by over 22 000 people, and few technical issues not caused by a Browser Which Shall Remain Nameless. 

This column is getting too long for reading, and I haven't even touched on the Commission's award-winning work on providing secret voting for visually-impaired people. I can only touch on the substance of the report: you guys get in there, dig stuff out, and let's talk. I'm off to find out what the Electoral Commission's favourite martini style is, because I bet they have one. 


Mind Your Language

I have to admit, I had some mixed emotions when I heard Clean Reader had been taken off the market. Delight, because the app was ridiculously stupid. Sadness, because it was hilariously stupid. I still think it's worth talking about Clean Reader because it highlights a few pertinent stupid things about censorship. 

Basically, the idea was that if people wanted to read good, classic books but didn't want to read all the nasty swears and stuff, there should gosh-darned be a way to do that. If you bought a book through the Clean Reader shop, it would replace all the Rude Words with nicer, cuddlier, more wholesome words. 

Now you might think this isn't really censorship, and what does it matter? It's voluntary: only people who wanted to read books this way were going to. Where's the harm? 

We start with this idea that some words, in and of themselves, are bad. Offensive. And that removing those words, and leaving the underlying ideas they express intact, solves the problem. 

Let me tell you about my personal experience of how mad this is. I once had a boss who believed this, and set our on-line writing forum's Prude Controls to maximum. Anything it thought was a naughty word – starting at 'damn' – would be removed and replaced with '#$%&*'. Whether you'd said 'fuck' or you'd said 'damn', it would come out as '#$%&*', which, and here's the start of the problem, always looks like 'fuck'. Also, the filter had, as they very often do, the Scunthorpe Problem. So bars had  #$%&*tails and planes had #$%&*pits, and if you read that as 'fuckpits', you can see how much more fun I was getting out of the filter than my boss was. 

At the same time, the slogan of the virtual 'entertainment facility' I was running, "A proud tradition of customer servicing", got through just fine. You don't need much ability with language to know that you can say the filthiest things using only the most cromulent words. 

Clean Reader also has the 'everything looks like 'fuck'' problem: sometimes it makes things ruder than they were to start with. All words for female genitalia are on the scarily-long list of things that Clean Reader replaces with "bottom". "Vagina" becomes "bottom". In Clean Reader, all sex is anal sex. 

And yes, the correct scientific terminology for naughty bits (you should watch The Naughty Bits, you really should) gets censored just as hard as the nastiest slang terms. 'Clitoris' also becomes 'bottom'. All terms for male genitalia are replaced with 'groin'. Imagine the effect on any kind of sex education. Blanket censorship has always taken out sex manuals and contraceptive advice, and one of censorship's greatest voices considered that a feature, not a bug. 

Take a minute, too, to ponder the implications of a vocabulary that leaves you no possible way of expressing the concept of 'clitoris'. You're not just removing the word, but the idea. It's like sex education from the 80s. 

But here's where Clean Reader really fell down, apparently to the great surprise of its creators. Authors, notably Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig, were Not Happy. What Clean Reader does is Bowdlerisation. It doesn't just remove words, it replaces them with other words, words the author didn't write. Bowdler removed Ophelia's suicide from Hamlet, as being too disturbing for children. In the process, he removed the idea that Hamlet's revenge-obsessed behaviour had serious negative consequences for other people. If you hack about Shakespeare's plays, changing words and indeed whole incidents, to what extent are they still Shakespeare's plays? 

And I know it probably seems quaint and precious and selfish these days for authors to want to control their works. But this is vandalism. 

The kind of vocabulary characters use is part of the way writers define them as characters. If characters from The Wire start talking like they're in Famous Five books – "Gosh darnit, what the freaking heck is that freak doing here?" – they have become different characters. Less plausible characters. Completely freaking ridiculous characters. Language, including apparently 'rude' language, gives atmosphere. It can create tension. Words are all writers have. So I'm thinking the way Clean Reader says the mother of a puppy is a 'witch', and chickens have 'chests' is a whole lot less funny when it's your book being freaked in the jerk*.


* Yes, 'arsehole' is one of the few words that doesn't become 'bottom'. I love this so much.


I Walk the Line

There is a line on the floor at Christchurch hospital, a yellow line with daffodils on it. Here it is, blurrily stretching into a distance of institutional corridor. Every time I walk it – which is every day – I'm reminded of my Oncology Privilege. Only oncology patients get a line. Everyone else has to deal with the literally unreasonable warren which is that hospital without that help. 

It makes a certain amount of sense, of course. Who else is coming in here every day? Twenty days so far, and ten to go, though I get weekends and Waitangi Day off. There is a point where we have to leave the line, at the stairs, and head down to the oddly-named "Lower Ground" floor, but the line is waiting for us down there too. I wave my bar-code under the reader to let them know I've arrived, and enter the waiting room. 

There are always some familiar faces and some different ones. Our appointments are scattered randomly throughout each day. There are volunteer drivers, and women from the Cancer Society cheerfully offering people cups of really vile coffee. There's a bin of communal knitting and a table where a jigsaw is always being done; some indication of how much time people spend in here. There's a camaraderie of strangers. At this time of year, at least the mostly-windowless depths of the hospital are blessedly cool. There's free wi-fi but no cellphone coverage, so I can get Twitter and cricket scores but no texts or phone calls, which is pretty much perfect. 

So I go in to Treatment Three, and they check how and who I am before bolting my head to the table. Sometimes the mask is really tight, and the pressure on the back of my head makes me acutely aware of the sore spots on my scalp that tell me exactly where the beams are going in. Those must be the places where the hair in my comb every morning used to live. 

Someone on Twitter asked me if I could smell the radiation yet. A couple of weeks in, I realised what she meant. There's a coppery sensation around my soft palate. I don't know whether to call it a smell or a taste. I wonder if there's something directly stimulating that part of my brain. You analyse the experience because there's nothing else to do when you can't so much as open your eyelids. There's just machinery moving around you, and the bed moving, and then that sound I have grown to hate, that makes me reflexively cringe. 

A week or so ago, I was feeling pretty cocky. This wasn't as bad as I was expecting. About mid-week, everything hit at once. Today I will take eleven pills to deal with the symptoms of the treatment that is making me ill in order to make me well. I wonder how it feels to the people who work here. They know they're helping people, but what they see is people coming in reasonably well, and leaving very sick indeed. They're unfailingly patient, positive, and kind. They say very nice things about my tattoos. 

So while I know I'm supposed to be positive, all the time, no matter what, this is not a great experience. I have been told that "shithouse" is not an acceptable medical term for how I feel when I wake up in the morning, before I take my meds. 

I don't want to dwell on the shithouseness of it either, though, which makes talking about all this awkward and difficult. Part of the camaraderie of oncology, I think, is that we all know we're not going to casually ask "How are you?" or "So, what are you doing today?" with no discernable interest in the answer. ("My standard reply to "How are you?" is now "Hi." It makes no difference.) 

So what I do want to do is say thank you. Thank you to my treatment team, for continuing to treat me like a functioning adult. Thank you to my family, for picking up the not-inconsiderable slack and easing the pressure on me. Thank you to my friends, who invite me out and offer me rides and send me presents and sometimes are just there, making me laugh. Thank you to the guy who bought me Sky for Christmas, for those days when I can only lie on the couch. Thank you to the Black Caps for cheering me up no end through my treatment. I have been assured by many people that they're only doing it for me. And thank you to all The Isis Knot donors. You've eased a time of considerable stress for me, and made me feel useful and valued, even on those days when I can only lie on the couch. 

People. They're pretty fucking awesome.


Adric and the Art of Asking

Some of you may remember the time, five years ago, when I had to go into hospital and have the brain tumor that was blinding me removed. We called it Adric, we made jokes to cope with the fear, and you were all amazingly supportive and kept me sane through a long but ultimately successful rehabilitation. I complained about the endless MRIs afterwards, because I was obviously fine, and what was the point in putting me through that? 

As it turns out, we picked the wrong scifi metaphor. This isn't Dr Who. This is the Marvel universe: nothing ever dies. Adric is back. 

Right now, he's a tiny little thing, about the size of a 1x1 Lego brick, sitting on the front edge of my sella turcica. (In comparison, he was roughly the size of a 2x4 Lego brick the last time I had him removed.) He's not bugging anyone right now, but he's growing, and given time he'll be poking around buggering up my eye and/or my pituitary gland again. So, in fine comic-book tradition, we're going to dose him with radiation. 

As soon as I get back from my holiday in early January, I will start receiving radiotherapy, five days a week for five weeks. My oncologist thinks, given my underlying issues with fatigue, the treatment will continue to affect me for about three months. 

Next week, they're going to make a plastic mould of my head, so I can't move at all during my treatment. This sounds like the least fun way I have ever been restrained. I'm hoping we can keep it afterwards, and there will be prizes, or at least kudos, for the most imaginative uses. 

The treatment will come with side-effects. Almost certainly there will be tiredness, hair loss, loss of appetite, nausea, and difficulty swallowing. Things get worse from there right up to the very unlikely memory loss and cognitive impairment. 

I have been through Some Stuff in my time, but this is the most frightened I have ever been of something I could see coming this far in advance. When I had surgery, I had a mother and a partner. Not so much now. 

So here's where you guys come in. There are probably going to be three months where I can't work. People have wanted to help me, but I am terrible at accepting help. I may be unable to Internet very much, and I'm going to miss that sense of engagement. I kind of hope people would miss my voice, too. 

I believe I've come up with a solution to all these problems. For an embarrassing number of years, I've been writing a novel. Of course I have; who hasn't? For a ridiculous number of those years, a group of people – including a few PASers – have been reading it and providing me with feedback. It kept getting pushed onto the back burner, though, by paying work and an hilarious succession of major crises. 

Well fuck it, you know what? This is the time. Starting today, I will be releasing a chapter a week of The Isis Knot. I'm using technology to return to the fine traditions of Dickens, and serialising my book. It's free to read, but there's a donate button on the site if you'd like to help me pay for hats and access to cricket. An ebook will become available, but to begin with, I'll be sticking with drip-feed torture. 

A word of warning about content: I am the only person in the world currently NOT writing BDSM erotica. Well, not for commercial sale. Well, not this book. The Isis Knot is, I suspect, dispiritingly and surprisingly safe for work. It's about the things people will do when they're part of a group; what they will sacrifice to belong. It's also about asking the question, "In what circumstances could someone commit a murder, and I would think that was okay?" On counting, I've realised I could have called it "Four Funerals and a Wedding", but that makes it sound misleadingly cheerful. 

It's still hard for me to ask for help. And maybe this isn't your thing: that's okay. But even if it's not to your taste, or you don't want to give money, maybe link to the site? Tell someone who might like it. I want to give you lot something, and keep my voice around while I'm away, and if you want to give me something back, that's great. Most of all, I just want to tell this story while I still have the chance.