My Mother Died Last Night

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My mother died last night. In a bed, in her living room, surrounded by her remaining children, a few granddaughters and my sister’s partner, a daughter out of law. Her own particular version of the modern family, proudly defying at the words we use to capture relationships.

There was poetry. There were tears, but not the agonized sort that might accompany a more tragic death. There was laughter and quiet singing from the few who could hold a note. There was whiskey and a cup of tea, and awkward moments from a family that didn’t really have a plan for this most unusual, but predictable of times.  One caught between the Celtic urge to suppress and a Polynesian will to express.  What we in New Zealand broadly call whanau.

She was lying on her side. It was peaceful, imperceptible. She ebbed away; each succeeding breath lighter and more distant, until one wasn’t followed by another. The exact moment of her passing only discernable in hindsight, marked not by a dramatic little gasp, or a visible exit of energy from her body, but just a diaphragm that didn’t contract another time. A muscle that had squeezed air in and out of her lungs for 86 years just stopped. Unable to lift her chest anymore.

Perhaps she still had a pulse, her heart beat on, until the life-fueling oxygen supplied by that last little puff had been exhausted. If there was, her final heartbeat was beyond the ability of my sisters’ gentle fingers to detect. As with the breath the last moment was only knowable by the absence of a beat that followed. “So, that was the last?”

The time of death was around 12:36am.  But to try and reduce it to a moment seems inadequate.

It was as if she died from the outside in. Her grip had long let go; her hand limp in mine, growing cold, but for the heat her flesh borrowed from mine. When was that? Another moment only detectable from a point in the future: By the absence of.

IMG_3066My Gabby had paid tribute to her grandmother, by observing she was always delighted when I entered the room.

Maybe it started when Ruby arrived from the airport about 10:30. There was a nod and a final smile: a last little moment of joy at the arrival of a grandchild.

Or was it earlier when she concluded our poetry reading by removing her hearing aids, then pulling the prongs of her oxygen system from her nostrils and lifting the loops of tube from behind her ears. Had she decided then, that it was time to curl up for one last sleep?

Did part of her die last Friday night when she went from being the compassionate social being inviting an old friend to stay for dinner, to a more naked state of needing her to “Go Away!” in a matter of minutes? Were these two moments in an armchair just two points, dramatically juxtaposed, in the long process of dying?

Incidentally, Friday was the night her brood has finally gathered. I’d arrived from New York on Wednesday morning. Mary had flown in from work in Wellington on Friday morning. Once we had completed the set, her set, she started to let go. Her final shutting down.

She was on a cocktail of drugs, to ease the distress of struggling to breathe. The morphine, mizadolam and clonazepam warded off that most primal of panics. But over the last two days her discomfort could not be hidden. By Monday, she couldn’t swallow, and suddenly each sip of water trickled down her outside. She was thirsty. She was restless. She kept trying to stand, to relieve the pressure of sitting in the same place for so long. Upright in the chair, then upright in the bed. She couldn’t decide if she was hot or cold. Covers kicked off, then blanket called for.

It was awful she declared on Monday night. And it was. On Tuesday morning she was sore. I hated to she her suffer like this. This was no mysterious terminal pain, but everyday travails that I to could imagine. Why did she have to go through this?

By Tuesday night I made peace with this. It was the best way one could hope to go. Having had a good life, not without heartbreak, but one to be more than content with. None of the sheer panic I saw when Sean sank into the Haast River. None of cold machinery that switched Dad off.

Sarah, who unexpectedly broke into tears while showering in distant New York, just has she had the morning her lovely Sam had died, knew. Earlier she had sent a photo of her own mother, Jenny, at a rest home in Auckland, dead with Alzheimer’s, but trapped in a body that didn’t know, or couldn’t remember?

Yes, this was an end we would all bargain for.

And the sun rose this morning.

 

#NotMeToo, Why Can’t We Accept Aziz Ansari Sexually Assaulted His Date?

By the undisputed account of her date with Aziz Ansari “Grace” was harassed and sexually assaulted. Some commentators are trying to exclude this from the #MeToo movement. We need to understand why.

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Image: Kristina Flour/Unsplash

The #MeToo movement has moved from addressing obviously onerous public and workplace behavior to confronting the messier realm of consent and intimate sexual encounters, and the transition revealed some disturbing fault lines.

The article that precipitated this discussion appeared on Babe.net. In it a 23-year-old woman, using the pseudonym Grace, described a date with comedian Aziz Ansari that went horribly wrong and which she had come to characterize as a sexual assault.

I was familiar with the firestorm this story provoked before I read it. That framed my view and set my expectations. I was surprised how many commentators argued this bad date should not be lumped into the same conversation as the abuses of Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK or Mark Halperin.

The issue with consent is not that men don’t understand it.  It is that they ignore the fact they don’t have it.

I read Grace’s story expecting a real-life version of Kristen Roupenian’s recent New Yorker short story titled Cat Person, which brilliantly captures a cringe-worthy sexual liaison between relative strangers, full of miscommunication, second-guessing and a messy array of emotions.

This was not the case. There was no ambiguity in Grace’s story. Unlike Roupenian’s fictional character Margot, Grace withdrew consent. After that she was sexually harassed and eventually assaulted by a man who had no regard for her wishes.

I’ve always felt the requirement to get verbal consent for any sexual act was a slightly over-wrought solution to the wrong problem. Not all communication is verbal. If you are making out with a woman and you put your hand on her thigh and her legs close then quite obviously she is denying you access to her private parts.

The issue with consent is not that men don’t understand it. It is that they ignore the fact they don’t have it.

This is exactly what happened here. Lost in the kerfuffle about Babe.net’s reporting of this story is the fact Ansari isn’t denying the events happened as Grace tells them. He claims he misread things and thought the sex “by all indications was completely consensual.” That’s B.S. He didn’t miss any signs – he bulldozed right over them because he wanted to take the shortest route to Fucking. His own words prove he knew she was withdrawing consent.

In the New York Times Bari Weiss claimed that Ansari was merely guilty of not being a mind reader. This is ridiculous. Grace says she removed her hand from his crotch after he had placed it there on five to seven occasions. Never mind his dog, even Pavlov’s guinea pig would have figured out this was not the desired behavior by then.

A man, whose career success is predicated on his ability to read a room, doesn’t get a pass here. Constantly asking for something that was just denied is harassment.

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Aziz Ansari. Image: Tyler Ross/WikiMedia Commons

After an initial flurry of activity that included exchanging oral sex, Grace indicated things were moving too fast for her and negotiated that there would be no intercourse until a second date. Ansari suggested they chill on the couch. She was hoping he would rub her on the back to calm her down, but he motioned for her to go down on him, which she did. Grace doesn’t know why she did it, except to say she felt “really pressured.” That is bad sex.

Bari Weiss in her column and Ashleigh Banfield in a televised open letter excoriated Grace for her behavior throughout the date. Some of their criticisms are valid, some smack of being wise after the event, and some show little regard for the fact or circumstance.

But they all reinforce a very dangerous, common and pernicious stereotype that Grace was somehow to blame for what Ansari did to her.

Women are not responsible for controlling men’s desires. Men are!

Banfield and Weiss both give Ansari rather cursory treatment, like they are content to place him in a box labeled “Douchebag, but not Abuser” never to be mentioned again.

Dear Ashleigh, you addressed your open letter to the wrong person. If you want to stop abuse, men have to change. We need to be talking about what Ansari did wrong.

Men need to accept they can’t always get what they want. It’s 18 years since I dated so I’ve probably forgotten the number of times I thought I was “headed for home” only to find myself “stranded on base.” That happens. Deal with it. (And, boys, if it has never happened to you, you might want to ask yourself why the women you’re with think its either not worth it or dangerous to say no.)

Remember minutes earlier Grace had consented to oral sex and then declined penetrative sex. After she performed this second blowjob the Babe.net article describes what happened next:

“He brought her to a large mirror, bent her over and asked her again, ‘Where do you want me to fuck you? Do you want me to fuck you right here?’ He rammed his penis against her ass while he said it, pantomiming intercourse.”

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Why is this not sexual assault?

Mark Halperin rubbed his erection against women without their permission. That was worthy of #MeToo and he has disappeared. But Ashley Banfield claims Grace has sabotaged the #MeToo movement and recklessly damaged Ansari’s career.

Could it be that Mark Halperin’s accusers hadn’t just preformed oral sex on him?

I’ll be honest. I “feel” this doubt, even though when I “think” through what happened it is clearly within the Department of Justice’s definition of sexual assault: “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”

There a situations where we struggle to align this almost impossibly broad legal definition with a common-sense notion of abusive behavior. Sadly, for some people this is one of those moments. Consent clarifies these dilemmas. It is what separates the bad sex Cat Person’s Margot endured from the sexual assault forced on Grace. Without consent, once you’re naked, sex is a free-for-all.

Jill Filipovic opens her thoughtful analysis of the dynamics of Grace and Ansari’s date bemoaning that, while it was a topic we should discuss, “it was jammed into a pre-existing movement grounded in the language of assault and illegality.”

Dear Ashleigh, you addressed your open letter to the wrong person. If you want to stop abuse, men have to change.

Banfield and Filipovic want to separate this from #MeToo and keep the focus on sexual abuse within workplaces, where an abusive superior has the power to retaliate by undermining the career of a woman if she resists. It’s worth noting here, that while Ansari wasn’t Grace’s boss, they moved in the same circles. Circles in which he could have easily derailed her career by spreading the word she was difficult to work with. This is about the extent of the power Louis CK wielded over the women he targeted.

I think the problem is that what happened to Grace hits closer to home. The lecherous supervisor and the groper on the bus are in a sense public, to be dealt with by the HR Department or the Courts. Ansari was operating in a more private space. This situation is much more familiar to most people. As author Emily Reynolds observed, “Being coerced or pushed into sex you’re not particularly comfortable with is something that’s happened to almost every woman I know.”

Could it be that some of the reluctance to drag #MeToo into this space is because it is just too overwhelming? Let’s not jeopardize the gains made at work, for fear the backlash at home will swamp it. Are we worried that at a deeply ingrained level, where I felt a negative response to Grace’s going down on Ansari a second time,  #MeToo can’t win?

Maybe. But if the #MeToo movement is going to succeed, the bedroom is exactly the place it needs to go. It is the supposedly consensual intimate encounters like the one between Grace and Ansari that create a misogynist, sex-entitled male culture that is in turn the foundation of the more public abuses committed by the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world.

If we don’t change what happens in the bedroom, it will continue to leach out into the boardroom, the restroom and the lunchroom.

Grace says, “it took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault.” Why? Why we are more comfortable writing it off as an awkward sexual experience? Why are we focused on what Grace did or didn’t do? Why is the bar so low?

All these abuses are related on multi-dimensional continuums of power, intimacy, frequency and consent. You can’t really separate them. The fact that what Ansari did is so common and the she-lead-him-on response to it is so deep-rooted, only increases the urgency with which we must address it. A cultural reframing what is good sex, bad sex and illegal sex will not be easy.

I will start by using Aziz Ansari as an example of What Not To Do when I talk to my sons about consent.

Then, I’ll tell my daughter she should expect much more from her lovers as well has her bosses.

 

If You Can’t Win at Yoga, Why Do I Feel Like a Loser?

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Goddess Pose: So named because men can’t do it?

Having recently crossed that ephemeral line where I can no longer say I’m in my mid-forties I’m beginning to think about my body. Its not that I’m suddenly losing my capacity, but I’m conscious that the window of physical potential is getting smaller, so its time to look after what I’ve got.

Thus, I’ve taken up Yoga.

Last spring the first twinges of plantar fasciitis sent me to the running store to get proper shoes and the yoga studio in search of disciplined stretching.

I chose to do hot yoga, which involves practicing in a room heated to 90 degrees. You sweat. I sweat heaps, but I like getting a sweat up; it makes me feel like I’ve exercised. It is the same reason my father preferred tennis to golf. I’ve tried other types of yoga on my travels, thanks to the very handy MindBody App, but I still like returning to the warm room. Hot yoga seems like yoga for men.

My wife doesn’t like yoga. She lives and breathes and now works in fitness, but she has never taken to it. Recently, a friend asked if it was because she was competitive, and it clicked. She doesn’t like yoga because she can’t WIN.

I get that. Competition is the antithesis of yoga. It’s all about your practice, and sharing energy and being grounded and giving thanks. I’ve seen men fart and go shirtless, when I wouldn’t, but that is all accepted. There is no Nasty in Namaste.

But that doesn’t stop me feeling like a LOSER when I’m on the mat.

And often I’m on the mat; in child’s pose, in a pool of perspiration, panting like my lab on a hot day. Downed dog.

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My Downward Dog is still oblique even with knees bent and heels up.

At the end of the class the yogi will often direct us into child’s pose to take a moment and recover. Then she will offer this as a time for people to do anything in their practice that might not have been covered in the previous 50 minutes. The first time this happened, I looked up and the woman next to me was recovering by standing on her head. It was hard not to feel like a loser in that moment.

I returned to my child’s pose, which at least has the benefit of somewhat sheltering one from the outside world, but my mind still wandered to the fact my pose is far from textbook. If I rest my sit bones on my heels, my limited spine curvature means my head is sticking up. Its the only one.

If I’m face to the mat it feels like there is a 45-degree angle at my knees and my bum is 24-inches away from where it should be. That it is an open invitation to the instructor to come and press down on the base of my spine. She is working under the assumption my pose needs correcting. So I have to go through the additional ignominy of letting out a little squeal to inform her I’ve reached your maximum elasticity.

It’s the same with most of my poses. My downward dog is very oblique. In pigeon my folded leg is very acute.

I dread the phrase “and the full expression of the pose is”. Its something like what the concert-goer feels when the 80s band declares they are “going to play something from their new album”, but worse. It’s more than a buzz kill. It is like a buzz saw to my body image.

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Squatting is the not full expression of Crow pose.

“So you think you are a fit and healthy guy, try this buddy!”

And by this I mean squatting without falling over backwards as opposed to crow pose, which is what people who can squat do to challenge themselves.

My balance is terrible. If I arrive to class late and can’t get a spot next to the wall, I have a moment of panic. My tree pose is more coconut palm in a hurricane than stately oak. If, as the yogis like to say, we are all contributing to the energy in the room, I fear I’m inflicting chaos theory on the people next to me.

As for the breathing; the one breath, one movement mantra is beyond me. My practice is totally disassociated from my breath. If I’m not flat out panting, I’m breathing double time. I’m usually breathing out when I should be breathing in. Focusing on the breath just adds stress. At this point Yoga is hard enough without having to manage my oxygen intake.

I get it in principle. If I was using my breath my vinyasa might actually flow like a gentle river. I can visualize that languid stream, but I imagine my movement resembles a body plunging over a series of waterfalls.

And let’s face it if you are going over a waterfall, you are probably not winning.

Like the chest to straight-legged forward fold, the balance and breathing will have to wait. As will the spiritual dimension. Gaining awareness and reaching a zen state; that is post-grad yoga. I’m still doing YOGA 101.

Right now, yoga is just a glorified stretching regime and to that end it is working. I keep telling myself that I’m undoing years of neglect; that each session is unwinding a day of backpacking or ten miles run. It’s a very arbitrary measure, but it accounts for my incremental progress. There are no shortcuts in life.

I just completed a half-marathon up a mountain, racheting up my hamstrings with every step! Throughout the marathon-level training I put myself through for that race I used yoga to keep me limber. So what, if I still can’t touch my toes, the plantar fasciitis didn’t get any worse!

After around 60 yoga sessions I still feel stiff and sweaty when I compare myself to my classmates. But most of that is in my head. The vibe much less intimidating than the environment on the weights floor at the gym. I’m getting better at accepting that I’m not going to win any yoga accolades and just moving on … awkwardly to the next pose.

I’m giving myself plenty of practice.

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Tree Poses: Coconut Palm in Hurricane and Solid Oak.

Thanks to Lauren Porat of Yoga Spark for posing with me.

 

A Middle-Aged Man Tackles the Pikes Peak Ascent: America’s Ultimate Challenge.

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Pikes Peak from Manitou Springs. Its unusual to see the finish of a half marathon from the start.

Last week, I did the Pikes Peak Ascent, a half marathon from Manitou Springs, Colorado up to the top of Pikes Peak, almost 8,000 feet straight up to the rarified air of 14,115 feet. As befitting a peak known as America’s Mountain, the race up it is described as America’s Ultimate Challenge.

True, the Marathon deserves that moniker, but at my age turning around at the summit and running 13 miles down hill just seemed like a stupid idea. I’d rather keep my knees in tact for other adventures. And a month before my 48th Birthday, with life’s finish line visible in the distance, I’m all about maximizing my time.

The Ascent was appealing to me because I got to climb a mountain. My Bucket List includes hiking the Colorado 14ers; the 50-odd peaks in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet high, and this seemed like a nice way to knock Pikes Peak of my list.

“Make no mistake this not a run. It is a collective hike with competitive people.”

I’m not a runner. Sure, I’ll jog 6-10 miles with my friends at the weekend, and I’ve done a few half marathons, but I’ve never run a marathon and the desire to do so has never taken hold. I’ve always described myself as a “13.1 Miles Ain’t Half of Nothing” kind of guy.

People say I should do the NY Marathon. No thanks. I’ve driven through Queens and the Bronx. They are grim. I can’t imagine willingly running through the outer boroughs. I prefer the trails, and with an average grade of 11% this was much more manageable than most mountain trails.

After registering for the race during the winter I forgot about it until, after I completed the North Face Endurance half marathon at Bear Mountain in New York on Mother’s Day. That run took me 2:49 and was definitely a step up from the local trail race, the Paine to Pain Half Marathon around greenways of Westchester County, NY, which was my qualifying event for the Ascent. I did that in 2:04 for those using me as a yardstick.

When I finally dived into the Pikes Peak online community, I was confronted with the advice that as a flatlander I should train for the Ascent like I was training for a marathon. That was not particularly welcome news, as I’d never met anyone who enjoyed training for a marathon. Fortunately, I only had 12 weeks left before the race so I got to avoid the standard 18-week marathon-training program. Surely, having run a hilly half was worth an additional 6 weeks?

By early July, I was running longer than I had ever run in my life. I did an 18-miler around the local trails. Even though it is 10 degrees cooler in the trees, it was brutal in the New York heat and humidity. Driven by a fear of chaffing I took my shirt off to wring the sweat out of it fours times during that run. I even did a couple of sessions on the threadmill simulating the grades I’d be running at; neutralizing the boredom by watching rugby on my iPad in true Kiwi-expat style. My training was interrupted by a slight calf muscle pull on July 9. That was followed by two weeks intensive physical therapy. On Thursday 20th I asked my physical therapist when I could start running again. He advised that I should try a 10-minute jog over the weekend and see how I went.

That Sunday, I went for a jog in San Francisco. After 10 minutes all was well, so I carried on and completed the San Francisco Half Marathon. I figured if the therapy had worked I needed to get back into training for the Ascent, and if I pulled up lame? Well, it wasn’t meant to be. Besides, when you are 48 you can’t throw away the opportunity to run across the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Heading to Godley Head from Taylors’ Mistake on the Port Hills, Christchurch, New Zealand.

After San Francisco I flew to New Zealand to visit my mother. I was able to map a few runs for the Trail Run Project on the Port Hills overlooking Christchurch, before arriving in Colorado the weekend before the Ascent. Most people don’t have the luxury of having a week to acclimatize for the race. The first day I was there I drove up Pikes Peak, walked a mile down the Barr Trail and “ran” the last mile. After 200 yards I was gasping for air, and I was soon reduced to a fast walk. It took me almost 19 minutes.

Working on the dictum that the best way to acclimatize was to climb high and sleep low, I decided to base myself at 9000 feet in Frisco, the cheap-man’s Breckenridge, and polish off a few 14ers. First up was the DeCaLiBron loop, which enabled me to summit four 14ers in one day: Mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross. There was a lot of heavy breathing involved, but by the time I’d summited Torreys and Quandary Peaks mid-week, I was feeling much less breathless above 13,000 feet. I was tempted to check off Mt. Sherman to complete the 14ers in the Mosquito Range, but my wife cautioned that I didn’t want to overdo it before my race. In tackling the Class 3 Kelso Ridge on Torreys and the even gnarlier West Ridge of Quandary I was more than satisfied with my efforts.

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Crossing the Knife’s Edge at 14,000ft on the Kelso Ridge of Torreys Peak.

It was on to Manitou Springs the day before the race. Manitou is a lovely looking town, with the impressive Garden of the Gods as its backyard. I would have liked an extra day to enjoy it, and if I’d arrived on Thursday I might have got a PPA running cap before they sold out. At the Packet Pickup I was adopted by a group of Kansans, who couldn’t quite fathom that I would show up for the race without friends or a support crew. They were repeat runners, and over dinner they convinced me to ditch my hydration backpack and tackle the race with a water bottle and a pouch full of snacks.

Race day morning dawned bright and clear. It was warm at the start line. I didn’t feel cold in a t-shirt. At the last minute I threw my thermal top into my sweat bag, and decided that meeting it at the top of the mountain was a risk I was prepared to take.

I was well-versed in the course description provided by legendary Pikes Peak competitor Matt Carpenter at skyrunner.com. I had it well drummed into me that passing runners on the Ws, the first steep hill above Manitou Springs, was a waste of time and energy, so I stopped running half way up Ruxton Ave. Now, that was a slope I could easily handle, but as most of the runners had started walking by then I didn’t want to become one of those hares who blew his race in the first mile and got overtaken at the end.

Once the course hit the trail, it was pretty much single file up the Ws. A few people tried passing, but they hardly advanced their cause.

I was expecting after we got to the flatter stretch between No Name Creek and Barr Camp things would open up and we would start running. That was not really the case. After the 7miles to go sign the trail rounded a corner and headed down hill for a bit. That was the only time on the whole trail section of the race I saw everyone in front of me running in unison. I suspect that once I got on the trail I ran less than half a mile, and I feel I ran passed more people than passed me.

Make no mistake this not a run. It is a collective hike with competitive people. Sure if you were in the first few waves you might get to experience the race as Skyrunner describes it. I was bib number 1497 out of 1842, so there were 1500 people ahead of me when I crossed the start line; 1496 competitors and 4 random people who decided the hike the trail that day. Among my Kansan friends even those with lower bib numbers found themselves stuck in traffic.

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Join the Queue. On the Ws section of the Pikes Peak Ascent.

Hiking is my thing, but this was quite different to a hike. When I hike I will stop and take in the view, but when I pulled off the course with 2.5 miles to go to reapply sunscreen, I felt the pressure, as all the people I’d passed during the previous few miles seemed to stream by me.

Truth be told when I rejoined the procession up the hill, I was glad for the wee rest and concluded that had I not dropped out of line I might have fallen back naturally. The last two miles were a struggle. I was more than happy to settle in behind a woman I’d previously passed and let her set the pace.

If I had run more of the course I doubt I would have placed as high as I did. My official time was 4:52. Strava gave me 4:20 and 14.4 miles, which is consistent with the usual distance error on my phone, but it is hard to see how my cumulative stops would add up to 30 minutes. That said there were numerous points where my Nike+ decided to pause my workout even though I was still actually moving. As a result of failing to register a few restarts it only credited me with 11.5 miles when it is normally over 14 for a half marathon.

The last mile took me over 35 minutes. Maybe a week of hiking had done more harm than good? At times I had to slow my hiking stride to allow people running next to me to complete their pass or to avoid kicking the person in front of me. How much energy did I waste slowing down during the previous 12 miles? Who knows?

At the end I was pretty knackered. I must have been, because I managed to sleep on the bus on the way down the mountain, which is no mean feat on a long and winding road with no headrest. I met my friends from Kansas in the beer garden, and we spent the afternoon soothing our aching muscles with free ale. As we were limited to one slice of pizza for lunch, there was little to stop the alcohol finding a nerve to dull.

Apart from the official store running out of merchandise, and a bit of a scrum to get your sweat bag at the summit, the race was very well organized. Thanks to the volunteers who staffed the route at various remote points on the mountain.

That evening my 8 year-old daughter, who has yet to relinquish her child’s understanding of “a race”, asked me if I’d won.

“No,” I replied.

“Well, who did?” she continued.

“Some guy who finished in more than half my time!”

“Uh?” she muttered, he voice trailing off as she handed the phone to her brother.

Someday she will understand. Besides, my friends from Kansas said it was much harder than a marathon.

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At this point the finish-line selfie is more important and a few seconds of my time.

 

Can the Prime Minister Have a Baby?

Asking if a 37-year-old woman can have a baby and run a country smells of misogyny. But not asking men or women how they balance family and work reinforces the impoverished status of the caring domain in our society.

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Jacinda Ardern takes over the leadership of the Labour Party. (Image/NZ Labour Party.)

A New Zealand story appeared in my Apple News feed recently. As an expat from a couple of islands at the bottom of the world it’s always thrilling to make the news, even if this is the headline; New Zealand Political Leader Quizzed On Whether She’ll Have Kids

Eight weeks before the General Election, the opposition Labour Party had changed leaders after some less than promising poll results. The new leader, and prospective Prime Minister, was 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern, and some men decided to ask her if she would have kids.

“A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career or continuing their career at a certain point of their lives, late thirties. Is that a decision that you feel you have to make or that you maybe feel that you’ve already made?”asked a male host on the TV show The Project.

As the NPR article pointed out it this is not a question that is usually asked of male politicians in their thirties; “The double standard is closely tied to misogynistic assumptions about parenting and ambition.”

This is true. The current New Zealand Prime Minister, Bill English, a devout Catholic, has six kids and a working wife and he doesn’t appear to have had any problems juggling his family and the nation’s direction. He’s been asked about it on occasion, but the questions hardly amounted to a grilling or posed family and work as an either/or dichotomy. Any discussion of Bill English’s family life quickly comes down to him being internationally lampooned for feeding his kids canned spaghetti on pizza.

It’s even more frustrating that it is a question being asked in New Zealand, a country with a long history of promoting women’s rights. In 1893 it was the first nation to give women the vote. In 2005 all three branches of government were headed by women; the Prime Minister was Helen Clark, the Chief Justice Sian Elias, and Governor-General, the Queen’s representative in New Zealand, was Dame Silvia Cartwright. Hell, in the 1980s the future finance minister, and member of the conservative party no less, made news by beast-feeding her baby outside the Parliament chamber.

But this question is also absurd. Jacinda Ardern is clearly a high flyer. She has the necessary combination of drive and talent to be in position to lead a country at the age of 37. It is that, not her gender, which should be the primary consideration in any assessment of her ability to be a Prime Minister and a new mother at the same time.

Most people experience the demands of parenting, but most people never reach the pinnacle of their chosen career. Even fewer manage that before they are 40. At a visceral level this lack of experience makes it easy to question the capacity of someone like Jacinda Ardern to take it all on. Call it the ‘Parenting is hard enough, I couldn’t imagine being Prime Minister at the same time’ response.

Like most people I can’t imagine being Prime Minister. But that doesn’t mean being a new parent and being on top of one’s game can’t be done by someone with the necessary qualities. I’m married to a woman who did it.

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My wife rocks out on the Wii at night, while leading the recovery of Gatorade during the day.

My wife gave birth to three children in three different states. During that time her career took off. She was pregnant with our third child when we moved to Chicago and she embarked on the post-Recession task of turning around Gatorade. The G branding, the pre-game fuel and post-game recovery products, and from a New Zealand perspective, the first moves that lead to the signing of the All Blacks rugby team, all came to be under her leadership. She turned around a $500 Billion dollar business while she had three children under five running around at home.

It wasn’t easy. She took maternity leave, but like many people in this hyper-connected world, she found time out of the office was not necessarily time off work. I remember her breastfeeding while on conference calls. Her maternity leave was much like the “holiday mode” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair went into when his fourth child was born while he was in office.

My wife is a woman of extraordinary energy and determination. I don’t know where she gets it from? Sometimes it is tiring just being around her, but it is the thing that has made her successful. She will say she couldn’t have done it without my help. As our family grew I shifted to working part-time and then not ‘working’ at all, but there are plenty of couples who raise kids while they both work.

There is a double standard here. But the original question asked of Jacinda Ardern does clumsily get to a truth. I suspect a woman is more likely to think about juggling work and family than a man. My wife frets about it all much more than I do. That makes writing this off as misogyny a little too easy.

The issue is not so much asking a woman how she will deal with having family and a high-powered job, but not asking a man in the same situation. Men also move between the worlds of family and work. They might be better at separating those domains, but how much of this is because we don’t make the same demands on men to focus on both home and career at the same time?

In a very real sense the caring domain is under-valued in our society. That is a problem and ultimately it is to the detriment of both genders. While calling out this out as misogyny is a valid criticism, it could have the unintended consequence of sweeping this conversation about families and caring under the rug.

We have to stop framing these issues in terms of what we can’t ask women, and start thinking about what we should ask men.

Learning to Walk in Your Wife’s Shoes

Here is a story of my Domestic Delinquency; An episode where I failed to do my share of the work around the house, and left it to my wife, who was working longer hours than me. I was sleeping in.

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Image/Pexels.com

My last post was Husbands: If Your Working Wives Are Doing Too Much Housework, That’s On You. In my mind it is a matter of fairness. You both have full-time jobs so you should share the work when you get home. I would say to men, if the shoe was on the other foot, and you were coming home and doing most of the work, would you think that is fair?

I’m far from perfect, and to expect other men to change with out acknowledging my own faults would be pointless. So I’m sharing an event that sticks in my memory.

My wife was pregnant with our third child and I was working part-time, having scaled back my hours after our first child was born. My wife’s sister and her family arrived for a visit one afternoon and my wife didn’t return from a business trip until later that evening.

She got up early the next morning to look after our toddlers. My sister-in-law made a passing comment about her not getting to sleep-in.

My wife repeated the conversation with me. It became an entree into a wider discussion about me stepping up. She was pregnant, starting in a big new job and we were about to move from Los Angeles to Chicago. I was quitting my job as a result of the move so it was my responsibility to manage all the non-work related stuff.

And she was right.

Our relationship was moving towards a much more defined separation of roles. She was about to make the biggest leap of her career, and I was about to assume the role of full-time homemaker. If anything in that moment I should have more time on my hands, as it was my last week at work. I suddenly had an extra 18 hours at my disposal, although as anyone who has run a household knows 18 hours can disappear quite easily.

Years later she has no recollection of this conversation, but I was chastened by it. I distinctly remember putting myself in my wife’s shoes and looking at it from her perspective. When I did that there was no disguising that she had gotten the raw deal. It’s an exercise I’ve often repeated over the years.

imagesThe reason this particular story stuck with me goes back to the early 1990s. In college I read a chapter of Arlie Hothschild’s The Second Shift. Her research found that even after they entered the workforce women still take care of most of the household and childcare responsibilities. I vowed to never be one of those guys, so being confronted with that reality hurt.

Today, I am a stay-at-home dad and the dynamic between myself and my wife is different to that of a couple where both partners are employed. The basic logic of fairness is harder to apply. Whether one partner is doing more than his or her share of the work, both paid and domestic, can only be discerned within the particular relationship.

It’s tempting to make simple division between one works outside the home and the other within it. This is no solution. That approach might benefit a man who thinks that the workweek ends on Friday evening, but fails to account for the life work that his wife does through Saturday and Sunday.

The second pitfall of comparing the contributions of a homemaker with that of a “gainfully employed” partner is we tend to undervalue domestic work. Running a household, raising kids and doing the volunteer work that knits communities together can easily add up to a full-time equivalent job, but it is seldom given the same status as paid work.

It’s not hard to imagine a working spouse coming home and saying I’ve had a long day at the office and I just want to relax. But try the reverse; Good luck to the homemaker who declares “I’m done,” at 6pm!

My wife works hard. She has a well of internal energy that I still can’t quite fathom. She’ll come home and say she’s had a long day at the office, pour herself a wine, a ask for her dinner, but that is usually followed up by the declaration that she has a hundred emails to catch up on because she’s been in meetings all day.

Tonight, I’ve cooked, done laundry, and put the kids to bed. I’ve finished my working day, and all I can hear from the next room is the click, click, click of my wife furiously putting her keyboard through another stress test.

There are times I feel frustrated, where I would like a little more help, but it is seldom because my wife is expecting me to wait on her while she binge watches “The Gilmore Girls”.

If I remind myself to walk in my wife’s shoes, I realize that she is doing more than her fair share of the work required to keep our family functioning.

And, so far, my wife hasn’t had to ask me to up my game since that morning. (That was her edit by the way.)

Husbands, If Your Working Wives Are Doing Too Much Housework That’s On You.

No Trolls, I'm not implying African American men are lazier than Whites. I like the photo and it highlights the need to get boys attuned to housework.
Frank Mckenna/Unsplash

If you are interested in gender equality this is a depressing conversation:

Jancee Dunn Wrote a Book Called “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids” and We (Heleo) Made Her Talk to Her Husband About It.

A brief backstory; Dunn and her husband, Tom Vanderbilt, were living a life of domestic equality until their baby “shot out” and “these very traditional gender roles just came out of nowhere.”

Jancee Dunn and Tom Vanderbilt during their Heleo chat
Jancee Dunn puts her husband on the spot.

As they tell it, Vanderbilt stopped being the primary chef. He took up road cycling, which consumed several hours every Saturday,  and played online chess in the evenings. He was more likely to enter the kitchen in search of a glass of wine than dishwasher to empty. Dunn noticed that a lot of moms shared her anger about husbands being so “blithely unhelpful” after having kids, so she wrote a book about it.

I remember studying The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild’s seminal work on the division of domestic labor, at university in the early 1990s. Hochschild found that working women still take care of most of the household and childcare responsibilities. As evidenced by Dunn’s book, things have not changed much in the intervening 25 years. That is DEPRESSING.

This issue is about men. The solution is quite simple; Men need to do their share of housework. It is easily quantifiable and its much easier to open the dishwasher than it is to open up emotionally. Towards the end of the interview Dunn and Vanderbilt briefly discuss their resolution of the issue, but the title of her book misses the point; the solution, to this problem lies with men.

It is not a woman’s job to stop hating the fact she is doing the lion’s share of the housework. Dunn goes through all sorts of emotional hoops; confessing to martyr tendencies, reframing her perception of Vanderbilt’s behavior and admitting fault for not having relinquished control to her very capable husband. That’s all well and good, but much of it would have been completely unnecessary if her husband had done some work around the house.

How can we reach a point where men pull their weight?

First, let’s acknowledge that housework is tedious. If doing laundry, washing dishes, cleaning toilets and changing diapers was fun and fulfilling work, we wouldn’t have feminism. We can’t blame men for not wanting to do it, but all these things are necessary to a functioning household, so someone has to do it.

This morning my son scrambled himself some eggs. During the subsequent discussion about cleaning up afterward his tween angst exploded, “This is STUPID!”

To which I rolled out my familiar retort, “Yeah, it sucks, but its got to be done, so get on with it.”

Which brings up the second point; it is necessary to teach boys how to do housework. My wife reports conversations with her working mom colleagues who lament that their husbands are useless around the house. Serving cheerios for dinner or washing brand new jeans with white shirts. Nobody wants to be incompetent, but as evidenced by my son attacking the egg pan with a sponge, boys don’t acquire these skills by osmosis. Credit to my mother more teaching me to do housework, apparently a number of mother’s do everything for their sons.

An added benefit of educating boys about the domestic sphere is it puts housework on their radar. Translating that awareness into action is a harder battle. My father was a great role model. When my mother started a business in the late 80s, he began to cook and clean. I don’t know if the chores where equally apportioned, but he did a lot more that most of his peers. Today, I’m a stay-at-home dad. I do most of the work around the house, which is a different dynamic to the one we are discussing here. Having progressive parents certainly made it easier for me to follow my current path.

Dunn and Vanderbilt’s solution is to have regular family meetings to dole out the workload.

“Expert after expert said, “Sit down and have a family meeting,” which is not that fun, but they [all] would say, “You have to very clearly parcel this out because the arguments arise from ambiguity.”

Jancee  Dunn

Setting boundaries and expectations is great. Tracking progress is also important. I have a chore chart on which we track whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher. That works for my kids. It can work for you and your spouse.

My suspicion is that some couples will go through all of the above and the men will still shirk their responsibilities. As many people have found traditional gender roles are quite resilient. I’ll admit I can be a domestic delinquent at times (There’s a future column.) If we are going to move beyond traditional roles, then putting the focus on the next generation of husbands might be more productive, hence my attention to setting an example for boys.

To my fellow dads, from a man whose primary role is the Second Shift, do more around the house. When a working dad like Tom Vanderbilt writes a book titled “How Not to Make Your Wife Hate You After Kids” we will be getting somewhere.