Thursday, 27 June 2013

Thank you Wendy Davis

You already know who she is right now. The senator who spoke for a monumental 10 hours and 45 minutes to prevent a law that would severely restrict women's access to abortion in Texas. The liberal press (and wikipedia) are calling her "The LeBron James of filibustering" and, whilst the war to keep nasty misogynistic little bastards out of women's rights to their own bodies isn't won, a battle has been hard (and publicly) won. Thank you Wendy, and the women around the world on social media who stood with her.
Rejoicing as the vote is blocked. Photo: the guardian

There's not a lot of searing social commentary I can add to this that isn't all over the internet, but I felt it needed mentioned. Like a lot of people, I've needed to access family planning services. Usually, that access is casual, friendly and in the form of a three-month prescription pick-up (and don't I thank medical science that that's an option). Sometimes, though, it's been more frantic, more tearstained. Each time I've walked through the doors of a family planning centre, I've been greeted by the most sympathetic, caring women who've listened to my tale of woe with no raised eyebrows, no judgement, no hate. They've checked me out and given me tissues. They've held my hand and given me hope at times when it felt like life would never be the same again.

Speaking truth to power for nearly half a goddamn day

Until you've been in the middle of that sheer, gut-twisting panic (and I can only imagine how few white, middle-aged and middle-class male Republican senators have) you can't really understand how it feels to know that help is there. Not just any help, but safe, clean, knowledgeable and non-judgemental help. Help that won't shun you or phone your parents. Help that won't call you a whore. Help that will actually move you forward, whether that's in the short-term glow of the test result you were hoping for, or the longer-term help of whatever treatment, prescription or further action that might be needed to move you past that terrifying intersection you find yourself at.

Family planning, and the right for access to legal, medical procedures, is a fundamental part of a civilized society and one that I am eternally grateful that I have. That we still have to fight like this to hang on to this basic right sickens me, but I'm given hope that there are strong men and women across the governments and clinics of the world taking on the struggle.

New Zealand family planning:
UK Family Planning Association:

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Iain Banks, and books out windows.

The great Scottish author, leftie and all round good yin Iain (M) Banks died last week at the far-too-cruel an age of 59. Much has been made in the press of his wonderfully wry April announcement that he was dying of cancer ("I'm officially Very Poorly"), his contribution to literary and science fiction, and the fact he thought the Tories could well, the story about the monogrammed t-shirt is a lesson to any leftie writer who makes it big enough for the book circuit.
Everyone apart from me seems to have met him. Usually in a pub.

I confess right now that I didn't read that many of his books while he was alive. A couple of the Culture novels, a few of the ones without the M on the cover, some memorable lines from Complicity and Player of Games sticking out like silhouettes on my personal cultural landscape amid half-buried narratives. But there's one book for which is a big reason why I'm still writing and for which I always thought I owed the man both a pint and some therapists bills.

I wish I still had my original copy of The Wasp Factory, Banks' first published work that came out the year after I was born. That copy is riddled with yellow highlighter and the margins infected with note after note, written in sharp black propelling pencil. I haven't seen my first copy in about a decade, but I still remember the braille feel of those scraps of thoughts on nearly every one of the 184 pages (I'm including the pages with reviews and the title). It's The Book. You know, the one that you read that changes things.

As an English assignment in what was to be my last year of high school, we had to select a novel and write a critical essay on it. As one of those alienated weirdo kids who spent too much time in the library and who took English seriously, I used the two-page suggested book list like I was food shopping. In the space of two weeks I read voraciously, that little list opening me up to novels and authors that I didn't know existed. I inhaled Brave New World, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Periodic Table/If This Is A Man, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Of Mice and Men, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and, uh the collected thinkings of Whoopi Goldberg (it was called Book). I came out of this orgy of ideas, politics and stories of human deprivation feeling simultaneously inspired, angry, depressed and cynical, and that was before I read Whoopi.

However, none of these great works (and I've since re-read them all, apart from Book) really resonated with me enough that I thought I could write a 2000 word report on it (how word count expectations change, eh?). However, my travels through the adult literature section led me to the B's, and a slim black-bound paperback with a cover that looked like Nine Inch Nails albums sounded. I have a copy of the same edition now, and reading the cover blurb again takes me right back to the brown carpets and beige shelves of that public library in Scotland:

"Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my younger brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anyone in years and I don't intend to ever again.
"It was just a stage I was going through."
The moment when I saw the symbolism on the cover. Good god.

I read it in a day, sitting in a bright green box room. I remember it was a sunny afternoon when I read page 142, the sun low in the sky. I remember that because I vividly recall that the little black cover looked almost like a bird when I vehemently threw it across the room in horror on reading the end of the first paragraph (I just re-read it, hairs on my neck and bile in my throat rising in tandem).  Of the thousands of books I've read, that one paragraph is the only one to have caused me to react like I'd touched a live wire.

It wasn't just That Bit that caused The Wasp Factory to worm its way into my brain. I'd be doing the washing up years after the essay was written (top marks as you'd imagine; those notes in the margins were for something) and suddenly the image of a kite circling the world would fly across my peripheral vision. I'd look at the labels in my clothes and for a fleeting second consider cutting them out. For the first time in my life I realised the raw power of language and just what could be achieved with a well-timed punch to the medulla. Iain Banks succeeded where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn failed as far as one sixteen year old was concerned, and whilst I'm sure the comparison would leave him laughing into his dram, I'd like to think he'd appreciate the sentiment.

So here's to you Iain, you taught me more in a novel that's scarcely longer than the introductory preamble to some of the Big Classics on my shelves, and you taught my while making me want to throw your book out a window after setting it on fire so it could never get back in the house again.

Frank Cauldhame would approve.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The topsy-turvy world of roller derby

In a previous life I was a skater, committee dogsbody and coach for an established roller derby league. I was privileged to be a part of an exciting, positive sport for women that seemed a world away from the perceived image of more "conventional" sport. Injury, both mine and those of others, eventually caused me to quit skating but I have stayed on the fringes, attending games and recently MCing bouts. In the last three years I've come to know and talk to a lot of players and, alarmingly, a LOT of former skaters and people who got started but quit for one reason or another. One of the most common complaints or reasons for leaving is that of time. Of not having enough to make skating attendance requirements, let alone the various off-skate meetings, fundraising events, organising and running bouts, the list goes on. Add in coaching and an experienced skater could be on skates for up to twelve hours a week, not including off-skates commitments. Even an "average" skater, skating in a home team, could be expected to skate for six hours every week.

That's a lot of your waking moments.

Then there's the bouts. Big events requiring liquor licenses, catering, organising venues with seating for a thousand (in some places in Aotearoa up to four times that many!), ticketing, flyering, afterparties (a whole other event!), half time entertainment, and all on a Saturday night when they're in competition with all the other gigs and entertainment that happen in a big city at that time. It all has to be organised while all that skating is going on. And these huge entertainment evenings are held every month, sometimes even more regularly. For a group of women and men with jobs, partners, kids and a sport to play, it's a huge commitment.

"I just couldn't commit" is one of the most common reasons why people quit. Not because they didn't like playing, not because they found the sport too hard. Because they couldn't commit.

Roller derby, to me, is being run upside down.

Who wouldn't want to play a sport where you got to wear these?

Let's compare. Take ice hockey, a skills-heavy, similarly dangerous sport so I think it's a reasonable basis for rough comparison. Ice hockey is a triangle. At the bottom, you have a huge base of casual players. The Tuesday night social leagues. The kids playing after school. the work teams. No stress, just pay your weekly subs and turn up to a rec centre to play. No glitz, no aspirations to play in the Maple Leafs (mostly). Then you have the more serious players, who'll train more regularly, hit the gym to play better, will spend time watching matches for strategy ideas, but for whom it's a serious hobby to go along with their real lives. Some big games might have a small audience. At the peak of the triangle, you have your Ice Blacks, your NFL, your Olympic hopefuls. Those at the bottom go to games to support the players at the top, they admire them and learn from them. The game is accessible to all and there is the possibility of progression up the triangle, but it's not expected. 

Roller derby? Roller derby inverts the triangle. Every aspiring skater is told from the word go that they are making a huge commitment. Every skater in a league is expected to train as hard as they can, to go further. Every bout is a big event. Every skater is told that if they try really hard they can be the next Bonnie Thunders (the LeBron James of roller derby according to ESPN), and skaters who say that they "just want to play derby" are seen as anomalies, of letting others down, of not pulling their weight.

I've done it myself. On the nights where I'd be replying to emails at 2am I'd shake a fist at the skaters who turned up, skated, packed up and just left again. I made the passive-aggressive comments about the ones who didn't make the meetings. At the time, I thought I was annoyed at their "laziness" or lack of "commitment". Now I realise I was just a bit jealous. A lot of skaters like me are unable to strike the balance between skating and life, and quit. The skaters who stay will invariably have legitimate complaints about their work rate, exhaustion, and stress. It's not a good way to be.

From experience, the main issues that cause player attrition and burnout are attendance requirements, bouts, and fundraising pressures.

Attendance: How often is the league asking skaters to attend, and how is this time justified? Let's go back to ice hockey. Mackenzie ice hockey have their player code of conduct on their website. All players are expected to "Be on time and properly equipped for all practices and games." Sound familiar? Then you see how often teams  have practice: Once a week. For an hour. I've no doubt that there will be other practices, skate sessions, and the like, but an hour a week sounds a lot more reasonable than four, or six, or ten. Doesn't it? How often is reasonable for those who really just want to skate? Which brings me on to....

Bouts: Who are they for, really? They're fun, sure. Good entertainment, usually. But surely asking thirty or so women, most of whom work full-time or in further education and have family commitments, to stage a huge Saturday-night event every month on top of their skating commitments is a bit masochistic? Roller derby has her roots in sports entertainment but if it is to be seen as a sport in 2013, why spend the hours and the tears on the entertainment as well? Here's a challenge. Imagine your league with no home fixtures for an entire year. No bout committee. Your intra-league competition is a once-a-month special scrimmage, with winners announced at the end of the year. Competitive? Sure, just like your Saturday hockey games. Nothing to stop your other half and the kids coming to cheer support, but no tickets, no flyering, no panic over where the chip fryer is for the hot food stand. Maybe you have one or two big bouts a year, an exhibition bout or the final or an inter-league. It's a big deal. It's stressful, but not rushed. Everyone's got the energy, as it's your big celebration. People will go as it's an event, not a regular fixture battling for attention on a crowded weekend. It would pay for itself, which leads me onto.....

Fundraising: So, you drop your attendance requirements. Maybe your league has one skills night a week, and one scrimmage. If you don't make skills you sit out the scrimmage. Your subs decrease as you have fewer venue fees. You host one or two big bouts a year, they're big-ticket events and a fixture on the calendar. So what is left to fundraise for? I'll answer before you do:


Your best players. They represent you at WFTDA bouts, who are further up the triangle. They work hard for their jersey and let's face it, travel costs, right? Shouldn't we be fundraising for them? 

The high end- WFTDA

Let's try another way. The All-Stars run in parallel to the regular league. They pay extra for their training venues, they run their own trainings. They're higher up the triangle. Before a major away fixture, skaters on the All-Stars agree to a funding contract, to raise x amount towards the cost of travel and expenses. They can either pay it directly, or they can fundraise, find some sponsorship, or a mixture of all three. Many schools and groups run on this system for overseas trips worth thousands. It becomes the responsibility of the player to raise their funds in the best way they can. Players could work together on initiatives, other skaters could help with time or donations or whatever, but their assistance would not be mandatory. Working together to fundraise would help foster team spirit. The skaters who "just want to skate" aren't asked to commit time to raise money for others to travel the country/the world, and if your place on the squad depends on your ability to fundraise you're going to make the effort, aren't you? The first fifteen of your local high school go on week-long trips to Australia because they work hard to raise the money for themselves and their team, and you can bet your ass their training commitments are huge. 

This way, we flip the triangle. The wedge at the bottom are the twice-a-week players who rock the sports court and get a yearly shot at an audience. The better players form almost a sister league, training hard and playing harder. Progression if you want it, a fun sport to play if you don't. And hell, maybe we get our own Bonnie Thunders at the top. 

I know this doesn't address all the problems and issues around the sport, and I know that some people might be reading this and wondering how easy it'll be to cut my brake lines, but I love the sport, the women who play it and the women who want to play it and think that maybe, just maybe, there could be a place for all of us on the track. But I know there isn't space for all of us on the point of a triangle.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Faggotry and footy

Sorry for the radio silence, in the last few weeks I moved house, had a big thing on at work and was lucky enough to have my mum come for a visit from overseas so blogging took not so much a back seat as relegated to the boot with a tartan rug over the top. 

My whole family are rugby fans and one of the perks of moving to New Zealand is that I can now experience the thrill of supporting a team that wins things other than wooden spoons and certificates saying they tried hard. With this in mind what better way to spend last Saturday than at Eden Park, watching the might of the All Blacks (TM) take on Les Bleus, for the first time since that hold-your-breath-for-twenty-minutes exercise in terror that was the 2011 World Cup Final. I was looking forward to seeing the ABs on home turf for the first time (North Harbour doesn't count, sorry), and mama Glitter was keen to experience the atmosphere of a sold-out international test between two old rivals, and we chattered excitedly about how it would measure up to matches she'd been to at the Millenium Stadium and the Stade de France. She even wore her French supporters hat in the shape of a wonderfully fluffy tricolored chicken. 

photo: Paul Estcourt/The New Zealand Herald

The rugby itself had little to commend it. The French played rugby for about an hour, the All Blacks gave just enough of a performance to justify the next round of MasterCard adverts. The crowd, however, were another matter. French supporters got abused and stared down every time they opened their mouths, the AB fans around us screamed that the referee was a motherfucking cunt when a penalty went the other way, and the inebriated good old boys in front of us decided that as Scottish people we should be supporting New Zealand and had no place chanting "Allez les Bleus" (in language that was slightly less polysyllabic)  Our celebrating the French try was given short shrift indeed. 

I appreciate the strength of feeling that surrounds rugby, but to tell a complete stranger they're not allowed to support a team? To yell and scream abuse at the opposition's #10 when he's about to take a penalty? Mama Glitter and I left with a nasty taste in the mouth at the level of bitterness and aggro on display by the local supporters. We felt grateful that the worst they had on us was the wearing of a comedy hat.

So I was not in the least bit surprised when I read Hannah Spyksma's open letter to the "fans" at the same match, who, when she called them out on their repeated use of homophobic slurs, replied with "If you don't like us using the word faggot then don't come to the footy - because it's just part of the game".   The NZ Herald published the letter, and an article on the response it had received. The venerable Radio New Zealand's afternoon panel show also had a discussion about it, where Finlay Macdonald and Karl du Fresne agreed that while nasty language can get excessive, rugby fans "...shouldn't have to change their language just to mollify someone who might be offended". 

This opinion does not seem limited to middle-aged white male columnists who like to think they can be edgy whilst simultaneously appealing to the kind of rugby fan who thinks abusing a young woman in public is acceptable. A spokeswoman for Eden Park said that it's not the job of the stadium to "be the PC Police"

And here is where the wheels come off the bullshit bus. Finlay, Karl and all the small-minded bigots that night miss the point that it's not about someone being offended. It's about someone feeling unwelcome. Threatened. To sit surrounded by people using a word that describes a fundamental part of who you are as an aggressive slur doesn't make you feel a bit peeved- it makes you feel unsafe. At risk. And to have hundreds of people sit around while you are made to feel threatened and unsafe makes you feel that should that threat be realised then nobody will step in. How are you supposed to enjoy the match when you're fearing for your own safety?

Standing up to homophobia, racism or any other kind of bigotry isn't just mindless busybodying. It's saying that making people feel threatened is not acceptable. The sooner the "PC gone mad" brigade understand that the safer I and many others will feel to be who we are, wherever we are.