Up Front by Emma Hart


What's the Big Idea?

The other day, I was looking at my younger son sitting on the couch watching the news predict imminent nuclear war, and thinking, “This 80s revival is going a bit far.” But surely, it’s my generation who’ve been there before. Gen X, we’re the ones who grew up in the shadow of nuclear winter. I should have some advice for dealing with this level of existential dread. Perhaps Sting could write a song speculating that maybe North Koreans love their children.

Then I remembered. We’re Gen X. The only thing we know is that we know nothing, and nobody’s ever going to ask us. Our job is to keep the peace between our parents and our adult children who still live at home.

Then Theresa May called a snap election, and we were all, “Sure. Fine. This is just what happens now, in this world where everything is shit all the time, there’ll be another bit of utter crazy along in a minute, there it goes.” I was trying to work out who I would vote for in England, what with Labour being your basic omnishambles and the LibDems apparently run by a confused homophobe. Then I remembered that they don’t have any kind of PR, and all English people can do is vote for their local MP, and I ran a bath and drank wine in it.

We’re having an election this year, and I feel no more sanguine about that than any of this other bullshit.

It’s been my determination this year to somehow get through it without building a Merlot Bunker under my desk. That’s probably why I’ve been drinking so much wine in the bath. I don’t want to hide away and ignore all the shit, but it’s so hard. It’s easy to get distracted by how unoriginal Eminem’s music is, or just how afraid Paula Bennet is of dildos. Or how to spell the plural of ‘dildo’.

Just like any time you find yourself in the middle of something overwhelmingly complex, it pays to take a step back and say, “What’s the big picture? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What’s the ultimate goal? With that in mind, does what I’m doing make any fucking sense? How great are screwcaps?”

I know it’s got nothing to do with me, and the last thing the parties on the Left need is more Advice on the Internet, but here’s what I’d like to see in the lead-up to the election: big ideas. “What do we stand for?” “Who do we want to be?” They’re not the last questions we should be asking, ‘how’ has to come in there somewhere for sure, but we should still be asking them.

I feel like the left has got scared of big, ‘feeling’ words. We’re liberal social justice warrior snowflake virtue-signallers. But you know, who didn’t fucking cry watching “Pride”? We get big words like Justice and Equality and Diversity. They get jumping out from behind the couch and yelling “BOO! IMMIGRANTS all up in your ECONOMIC INSECURITY!”

I believe in big things, because small things are big things. The political is personal, if you will. I’m not afraid to say that, in part because I’ve demonstrated that I can throw down in the policy-wonk stakes, at least in my own areas. I hold my position on public access to electoral rolls because I believe in Democracy and Fairness.

Even so, just writing this column is making me squirm, just a bit. It’s awkward. It makes me want my bath. I understand how hard this would be, and how much mocking. But I want a country where everyone can feel safe, no matter their race or sex or orientation or gender identity. I want a country with clean water and protected environments for native species. I want a country where everyone has somewhere to live, that’s safe and warm and healthy. I want a government that wants those things too, and I do not have one.

Yes, govern in prose. But maybe we could do a little bit of that campaigning in poetry first?


For Your Own Safety

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a cricket game at Hagley Oval, because that’s what I do in summer. The oddest thing about it wasn’t that the Black Caps won, it was the toilets. For the second time in a game I’d been to, the portaloos were gender-segregated.

It’s an odd thing to do because it takes more work. You have to estimate how many women are going to attend, in order to work out how many pink (not even kidding) loos you’re going to need. The first time around, it appears they got it horribly wrong, and the queues for the toilets were horrendous. The second time was better, but even so, it has to be more inefficient. For reasons that I hope are obvious, having (for instance) five pink loos for fifty women and ten green loos for 100 men is less efficient than having 15 loos for 150 people. So why do it?

People made mistakes all day. I watched a man wander into the women’s side just in front of me and then realise what he’d done. “It’s free,” I said. “Just use it.” But he couldn’t, because all his friends were just outside laughing at him.

And he was a cis man. He wasn’t being forced to make a fraught decision about where to pee that might risk his own safety.

Can’t we just have unisex toilets everywhere? And if, for some weird reason we can’t, can’t we let all women use the women’s, and all men use the men’s, instead of trying to force some men to use the women’s and some women to use the men’s?

People are concerned, apparently, for the safety of women. Not all women, of course, and not the women at most risk in toilets. Just cis women. Who are apparently at risk of an epidemic of violence from trans women.

When I was eight years old, I was attacked in a women’s toilet by a man. Weirdly, there were no Gender Police on the door to stop him coming in.

If you genuinely care about people’s safety, maybe concentrate a bit less on imaginary threats, and get behind measures to protect us from real threats.

I was heartened, in this time of Political Armageddon, to see that the National Party has changed its mind and decided to support Jan Logie’s Domestic Violence – Victims’ Protection Bill through to Select Committee.

The most dangerous time for someone in a violent relationship is immediately after they leave. Even going into a refuge doesn’t keep someone safe if they still have to go to work. Their abusive partner knows where they work. They know where the children go to school. If you can’t take a few days off without risking your job and your economic independence, you might die. It’s a real threat.

And yes, I know there’s a cost to employers. But do they really want to say, “Paying for someone to take leave on next to no notice and arranging cover for them, like I’d have to do if someone in their family died, is just too much trouble. I’d rather they got beaten up on my doorstep.”

It’s not even just about taking leave. As the bill explicitly states, it might be about letting the employee work from home, or at a different branch, or for different hours. Reading the bill, I found it pragmatic and actually quite conservative.

I’ve no idea what Family First’s position on it is, and here’s a tip for the Herald: I don’t give a shit.


The Little Things

So you know that thing where you’re using up all your Coping on dealing with international political coverage without going mad, and then your city literally catches fire? And you find you’re again waking up to the ambient sound of helicopters, and then some fucker stands in front of a TV camera and calls Christchurch people “resilient” and you yell even louder than you do during the last two overs of a one-dayer?


The Port Hills matter to a lot of Christchurch people who don’t live on them. They’re where we go to breathe, particularly since the quakes. We walk and bike and run, we say ‘hi’ to each other when we pass on the tracks. We get our heads above it all for a while. Watching them burn has been exquisitely painful.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you all about my cat. It’s what the internet is for, after all.

This is Min. He’s an arsehole. “Oh, but he’s adorable!” Yes, but he’s an arsehole. Right now, he’s on my desk pretending to be asleep, but I’ve had to move his paw off the function keys four times since I started typing.

Last year, our beloved old ginger tom Wooster died, leaving the ageing and FIV-positive Jeeves all alone. So after a while, we decided to get a new kitten. Min is short for “Satan’s Little Minion”, and we still didn’t expect him to be this bad.

To be fair, I’ve recently realised he’s not as stupid as I thought he was. Not ‘driving up the hill to look at the fires getting in the way of emergency services’ stupid. He’s just reckless. ‘Being the Prime Minister on TV suggesting both fires might be arson’ reckless. Turns out he likes it when the box he repeatedly jumps on falls over. He views getting accidentally kicked when he attacks people’s feet as basically an amusement-park ride.

Things I have tried to teach him are not Food For Cats:

-          Marmite

-          Muesli

-          Coffee

-          Human flesh

-          Bees

He’s still not exactly bright. For the last couple of days, I’ve been trying to teach him how to use the cat door, and failing. I bolster my flagging spirit by reminding myself that I did eventually get through to him on the matter of object permanence.

Owning Min has been remarkably like having a toddler again. The constant supervision is exhausting, and you find yourself yelling things you’d never expect anyone to have to say, like “Get out of the toaster!”

And he’s vicious. This is where I feel like I’m failing most spectacularly. He’s nearly five months old, and he’s still as scratchy and bitey and Jeeves-bullying as he was when we got him. When he was four months old, he brought me his first dead sparrow. The other day he pulled a monarch butterfly to pieces in the lounge.

It’s a comfort to me to know that it’s not really my fault my cat is such an arsehole. Every now and then I get updates from the people who own his brother, who is also, as it turns out, kind of an arsehole.

But here’s the thing. Min is also the first cat I’ve known who has a teddy bear.

He loves Unicorn. Well, he’s attached to it. He took it to the vet when he was neutered – early, because we got a special My Cat is an Arsehole dispensation. He likes to cuddle Unicorn’s throat with his teeth, and tickle its tummy with raking strokes of his back legs.

He’s also attached to me. He loves me, I guess. He likes to sleep on my pillow. When I lie down to go to sleep, he likes to run his claws through my hair, and knead my scalp. To be fair, I have slept with people with less respect for my boundaries. I’m finding I’m actually losing the ability to sleep without someone pinning down my head and purring really loudly in my ear.

The thing is, he really is fricking adorable. He’s soft and lovely and cute as all shit and a cat, and I love him. He’s going to continue to be a murdery disaster his whole life, but at least he’ll never learn to use matches.


Walk This Way

It’s been a couple of weeks since we all stopped pretending that 2017 was going to be any better than 2016. I mean, yeah, it was shitty that all those much-loved celebrities died, but what made last year such a shitter was that it was the year so many people decided to Choose Hate. Brexit. Trump. Those decisions were made, but we haven’t started to feel the real effects yet. And now, it’s nearly Inauguration Day.

What I’m seeing now is such a feeling of helplessness. What can we do? A number of people have told me that they are, basically, climbing into their internet bunkers. Setting up keyword blocks, avoiding news, hiding from things that make them feel angry and sad, because there’s nothing you can do. And I understand this. You have to pick your battles.

Before you do this, though, please make absolutely sure that there really is nothing you can do.

I don’t have all the answers. The answer I have this summer seems to be the answer to, “That guy, what’s his name?”, which is “Andrew Little.” Most of us don’t have the reach of, say, Carrie Fisher. We don’t have big platforms. And we’re all the way over in New Zealand. It doesn’t really directly affect us, right, for the same reasons there isn’t much we can do.

One thing the internet means, though, is that our communities of interest aren’t often geographical. I care about what happens to LGBT people no matter where they live. Women. Refugees. Racial minorities. Religious minorities. Disabled people. Some of us feel more connected as members or allies of those groups than we do as New Zealanders.

We all have platforms, too. All that differs is the size, the reach. An internet acquaintance of mine was heavily involved in the effort to get Jennifer Holliday to withdraw from performing at the inauguration. He got called some interesting things for this, and I personally had never heard the term “necknuts” before. But it worked.

Please know that I HEAR YOU and I feel your pain. The LGBT Community was mostly responsible for birthing my career and I am deeply indebted to you… You have loved me faithfully and unconditionally and for so many years you provided me with work even though my star had long since faded.

Thank you for communicating with me, I had no idea that I still meant so much to all of you.

I was telling a friend the other day that, while I couldn’t join in the Women’s March on Washington, I could make sure that at least people knew it was happening. People were standing up. The least I could do was say, “Look, over there, people are standing up.”

Except it turns out now that I can go. There are marches in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. I will be there. It’s something I can do.

All are welcome. The march is for any person, regardless of gender or gender identity, who believes women’s rights are human rights, that diversity is the strength of our communities, that all voices deserve to be heard & that we are stronger together.

Yes, that’s this Saturday, and that’s not much notice, but it’s also not all that much effort. And what a thing to be part of. The people knitting the Pussy Hats for it in the States have caused a wide-spread shortage of pink wool. And who knows, it might do some good here, in an election year, to show that women will stand up, that we care. The thing is, when you add all those marginalised groups together? There are more of us than there are of them.


The Up Front Guide to Internet Dating

Six months ago, I decided I’d write a column on internet dating. I’d been dating for a couple of years, and boy did I have some Reckons. Still, the people I’d been out with deserved their privacy. What I needed was for other people to tell me their stories. I’d anonymise them, and then sneak my own in among them. They’d be the sort of stories that made you laugh while saying, “Oh god, that’s awful.”

So I asked. Then after a couple of days, I specifically asked men to send me their stories about women, because I wasn’t getting any. Meanwhile, the stories from women kept coming. And they were increasingly awful. They were so awful I put this column on indefinite hold.

I was reminded of it again at the National Writers Forum, when Chris Cleave was talking about how he does character research. One of the things he admitted to doing was signing up to dating sites and reading people’s profiles. They do two things there, he said, that people don’t do elsewhere. They describe themselves, and they describe what they want. Given my profile includes the phrase “If you're smart, funny, and kind and you like cricket and kinky sex and have an opinion on the Oxford Comma, you should get in touch urgently,” I conceded he had a point. And I really should write this column, despite its intrinsic difficulties.

(I once had a guy message me to say, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen cricket and kink mentioned together.” Bless.)

Here’s my advice for women. I’m bi, so obviously I’ve dated some women. Keep doing what you’re doing, women, it’s excellent. Straight women, I do have some advice:

-          Don’t talk about how much you hate your children

-          Don’t endlessly bitch about your ex

-          Don’t bring the ghost of your ex-husband on dates with you

Men. Sit down, men, you’re a bloody tragedy.

Look, I’m sorry you still have to do most of the initial approaches. Seems mad. All this time and women are still sitting back waiting. And I guess sending the same message to forty or fifty women seems like a time-saving measure, but stop it.

Hey gorgeous, how are you?

hoooowdy bombshell........ how are you today?

Hi, how are you today? Love your smile and your profile

Hello pretty how are you doing

These are from the top of my OKCupid inbox. I’ve received literally hundreds of these. I’ve never responded to any of them. Read a woman’s profile. Mention something from her profile when you message her. Pretend you give a shit.

Dudes my age? You are probably not George Clooney. What the hell is wrong with women your own age that isn’t wrong with, y’know, you? Your 18-35 ‘looking for’ age range is just fucking creepy.

Dudes my son’s age? Bless. But stop it. You’re my son’s age. It’s creepy.

But mostly, guys, STOP LYING. I’ve had guys turn up to first dates and been unable to recognise them from their profile pics and description. Don’t lie about being single: it’s really awkward when your wife calls during our date wondering where you are. Don’t lie about being Scottish, FFS. And you, the three guys I heard about who faked their own deaths? I don’t even know what to say to you.

Don’t abuse a woman for not replying to your messages. You’re just proving her right.

If a woman asks you to stop contacting her, do it. Then. Not seven months later.

If a woman lets you give her a ride home after a date, don’t go back and break into her house when she’s sleeping.

Yeah. It got awful.

There’s a lot I still don’t know about dating. It wasn’t a Thing when I was single the first time. I don’t know how long I’m allowed to simultaneously date multiple people for. I’m not sure when there’s a commitment. I find the difference between vanilla dates and FetLife dates fascinatingly tricky. In one case, at some point I need to bring up kink, and it’s always awkward. In the other, we’re sitting there knowing each other’s kinks and probably having seen intimate photos of each other, but not knowing each other’s jobs or names or hobbies.

There is a lot I have learned, though. I can, as it turns out, hold a conversation with absolutely anyone. I’ve dated lawyers, lecturers, programmers, truck drivers, machinists, artists, people of six different nationalities. I’ve learned really interesting things.

I’ve also learned I have very high standards. If I want someone who hogs my bed, ignores my needs, and doesn’t respect my boundaries, I have a new kitten.