Images by Tina Tiller
Images by Tina Tiller

SocietyJune 8, 2024

The Sunday Essay: Silly little chump

Images by Tina Tiller
Images by Tina Tiller

On the comfort we can find in co-opting uncharitable descriptions of ourselves.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

For as long as I can remember, my siblings and I have called our mum “Chump”, a term of endearment she uses for us as well. 

Chump isn’t the only slightly off-kilter nickname in our family lexicon. Old boyfriends and past flings have often come to be known by reference to a fleeting incident or slip of the tongue, helping to remind our heartbroken selves of their less redeeming qualities: Plenty of Rank, my aunty’s ex-boyfriend who bragged about his military title; Ann’s Pants, my uncle’s first love interest whose lacey fuschia undies somehow ended up in my grandparents’ washing; and the DILF, my sister’s older neighbour whose affection for his two children turned out to be his only redeeming character trait.   

But Chump is the only one that’s somehow escaped the canon of lovers past and morphed into a term of affection for one another.

I’d always known Chump traced its origins back to one of my mum’s first serious boyfriends – a man five years older than her whose existence was confirmed when we ran into him at an open home when I was a teenager – and yet it was strange to think someone really once had the guts and nearsightedness to call my mum a chump. 

My mum has always been steadfast. During the Springbok Tour, she’d march every Wednesday and Saturday and was among the protestors who attempted to force their way onto Athletic Park. She worked behind the bar at a Wellington rugby pub and would make a point of pinning a “stop the ‘81 tour” badge to her shirt every shift despite her boss’s insistence that she take it off. During one shift, two police officers walked through the pub’s doors and took her upstairs where they wrongly accused her of revealing a plain-clothes officer’s identity to a bunch of fellow protestors, who proceeded to beat him up. At 19 she was able to hold her nerve throughout their sustained questioning. 

It wasn’t just my mum’s intelligence and tenacity that rendered her an unlikely candidate for the “chump” label, it was also her tendency to somehow be both terrifying and completely absurd. I’ve never met anyone else who seems to exist so far beyond the realm of what others – or society at large – thinks of them.

Home sick from school one day, I could hear my mum swearing across the house. I found her staring at a white piece of paper at the bottom of the stairs. “I know exactly who’s dobbed me in for this,” she said, holding out the parking ticket. “It’s that woman whose driveway I always park across when I pick up the twins from school.” It took me a minute to notice the two eggs in the teacup inconspicuously nestled on the bannister. We caught each other’s eye.

“You are not going to egg this woman’s house.”

“I was thinking you could just nip out of the car and do it.”

From a young age, I learnt to be grateful for my own pacifying abilities that prevented her from following through on some of her worst impulses. 

But there were also times she couldn’t be persuaded otherwise, and my dad, siblings and I were forced to accept the bizarre genius of her antics. The crown jewel among her stories of roguish middle-class retaliation is when she launched a counterattack on the neighbourhood thief who’d started swiping our copies of The Dominion when I was still a baby. Having set her alarm for the crack of dawn, an impressive feat given her general distaste for the mornings, she crept out of the house and seized the paper before the neighbourhood thief could get to it. 

She then carefully opened the plastic wrap so as not to leave an obvious tear and slid the paper out, opening it just enough to empty the contents of my soiled nappy into the middle. Sealing up the underside of the plastic, she returned the paper to the top of our driveway. Our paper was never stolen again. 

It’s an accomplishment she still recalls with a glimmer of true pride in her eyes, and when she sees the scepticism emerging in my own, she reminds me, “It’s good to have a slightly quirky mother, Alex.”

It wasn’t until far more recently – when I mentioned to her that I wanted to write about it – that my mother disclosed Chump’s full origin story. 

Her boyfriend had agreed to help her move a chest of drawers from her parent’s house in Lower Hutt to her flat in central Wellington. He’d hired a trailer and loaded the drawers into it but hadn’t thought to tie them down. As they were driving to Wellington, the wind scooped up one of the loose drawers, hurling it across the motorway. 

He brought the car to a sudden halt. “Silly. Little. Chump,” he said, spitting out each syllable. “Go and get it.” 

It was an abrupt departure from the months of love-bombing that my mum realised only in hindsight had marked the start of their relationship. My mum is naturally shy, and when she was younger, was particularly unsure of herself (it’s taken me a long time to realise her disregard for social norms and the opinions of others has been hard won). His affirmations of their singular connection and my mum’s brilliance must have supplied her with a much-needed, regular dopamine fix and ego boost. 

Terrified and not wanting to anger him, she scampered gingerly across the motorway, weaving her way through the oncoming traffic to retrieve the drawer.  

After that, “chump” became a regular put-down. He’d critique the minutiae of her actions and make her feel bad for not knowing things he felt she should. My mum, who had always taken pride in being able to jump-start a car while wearing high heels, and who possessed the rare talent of being able to drink a cup of tea while lying down, suddenly felt inept at everything. She’d come to trust his judgement more than her own. 

He became evasive, ignoring her calls and leaving her anxiously awaiting his. One Friday, he rang to say he was going out of town for the weekend and that he’d be in touch when he was back. The next day, she was waiting for the lights to change at the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee when she caught him driving past with a woman in the passenger seat.

“The more someone tells you you’re a silly little chump,” my mother told me, “the more of a silly little chump you become.”

My mum’s not well-versed in German philosophy, but she’d come close to a Hegel-meets-Esther-Perel understanding of recognition: the way others see us changes how we see ourselves. 

I would know: I was a silly little chump’s daughter, after all; long familiar with seeing myself only as I existed in the eyes of another.

My own brush with a love-bomber gone cold happened when I was 23.  

We’d swiped right on each other on Tinder and quickly became inseparable. A strange euphoria surrounded the first month of our romance. Entire weekends were spent lying in his bed, where we’d swap stories of growing up in Wellington, of earnest dreams, and things we were embarrassed about and too afraid to tell other people. “It’s been so long since I’ve met someone I’ve liked as much as you,” he told me. 

The dumping transpired only a couple of months later and came as a shock, although it really shouldn’t have. It happened outside a Vietnamese restaurant on Majoribanks Street one mid-winter Wednesday evening. I remember thinking it was a weird choice because we’d eaten there so recently, and I can still feel the unfortunate joke making its way out of my mouth.

“Did you pick this place because it’s close to my dad’s house and you’re going to break up with me, and this way I can go home and cry about it?”

His jaw dropped. There was a stunned silence before he uttered something in the affirmative.

“Perhaps we should just grab a beer instead then,” I replied once it finally dawned on me that he wasn’t just carrying on the gag. 

I’d felt his distancing, that he was no longer enthralled with me. He took longer and longer to reply to my messages, and cute phone calls were replaced with emails with attachments about laser hair removal for legs. Once when we were making out, he grabbed a benign lump under my breast and told me how weird it was. The week before I was flung from the fling, I’d plucked up the courage to ask him what was wrong. He reassured me nothing was.     

When we met up for coffee a few weeks after he dumped me – in my naive pursuit of the ever-elusive closure – he told me there was just something about me he couldn’t see past. When I asked him what it was, he wouldn’t say.

I don’t know if it was just the relationship and its humiliating ending that devastated me, or if my own predisposition to self-doubt meant I spiralled more than most, but the end result was the same. A raw emptiness hung over the next few months. I’d spend the hours before every night out with friends dreading running into him with another woman. I’d scan the faces of other BYO patrons and gig-goers both dreading and desperately hoping to glimpse his face among them. 

The worst part was when I was alone and left to my own devices. In bed at night, I’d spend hours speculating on what it was about me that proved so unsalvageable it wasn’t even worth mentioning. I’d fixate on everything from my lack of altruism to my fondness for dad rock. I’d berate myself for not being interesting or intellectual or confident enough, oblivious that, in carrying out a constant stocktake of my shortcomings, I was becoming even less so. The more one is made to feel a silly little chump, the more of a silly little chump one becomes. 

During this time, I burned through most of the money I’d worked to save during high school and university. A mid-range mirrorless camera, pottery classes, books I had no real interest in but felt I should read, a slew of town dresses from Wild Pair and Lippy – part of this was the search for a distraction and the desire to be immersed in something other than my incessant rumination. But more than anything, I wanted to become someone worth loving. I’d fantasise about running into him 10 months on from our breakup in the flattering dimmed light of the Matterhorn courtyard. By this point, I’d have read all of Proust and listen only to Neutral Milk Hotel, and he’d realise I was a Serious Intellectual with Opinions after all. 

As the months of my self-obsessed excavation wore on, and in an attempt to rectify some of my less appealing qualities, I decided to become a vegetarian (it seemed like a relatively quick win). It’s a decision I’ve stuck to in the near-decade since, but I’ve never been able to provide a compelling explanation for my dietary stance: over-compensating for rejection does not fit neatly into the animal rights/climate change binary. 

My mum dealt with rejection’s sting differently. Seeing her boyfriend in the car with another woman riled her in a way that being called a chump didn’t, but perhaps should have. She broke things off and fueled any remaining sadness into indignation. With a friend in tow, she snuck round to his house one evening with nothing but a dildo, a can of Impulse deodorant and some superglue. Shoving the can into the hollow dildo to ensure it stayed perfectly erect, they glued it to the bonnet of his car. 

When he rang the next day to accuse my mother of the crime, claiming a neighbour had seen a lone tall blonde woman by the car, she knew she was in the clear: had the neighbour really spotted her, he would have seen two tall blonde women.   

“For God’s sake Gavin, stop going on about it. Somebody probably just did it on impulse,” she retorted before slamming down the phone. 

My turning point came more slowly. 

When I told friends I’d been dumped because of some mysterious personality defect, reactions ranged from bemused eyebrows and straight-up laughter to outright disgust. These reactions were comforting but not entirely reassuring: I was convinced this boy had been able to sniff out whatever it was about me I’d somehow managed to conceal from everyone else. Whether it was the possession of something or the lack of it, I wasn’t sure.

I also wasn’t sure how references to my unspecified personality problems started making their way into conversations with friends and colleagues, but they did.

“Did you have a good weekend or did your awful personality get in the way?”

“Fundamental Personality Problems, are you keen for drinks on Friday?”

It was a fitting nickname for the daughter of a silly little chump, and one that brought more comfort than the mental gymnastics required to convince myself my ex-boyfriend’s mean words shouldn’t hold any weight. It’s impossible to rationalise your way out of heartbreak or the rumination rejection begets, but taking the piss out of the situation meant I gradually appreciated that his judgement of me may not constitute a gospel truth. I also began to suspect that it was a mistake to peg my self-worth to the approval of a 25-year-old with bad comms. 

My mum probably wouldn’t think adopting “chump” as a term of endearment constitutes an act of reclamation; of pulling back your own identity after it’s been subsumed or squished down by another. It feels self-indulgent to point to something so personal, the petty politics of one’s private life, as an example of reclamation. But it’s interesting how much comfort comes from co-opting the less charitable descriptions of ourselves. Perhaps a healthy dose of taking the piss is a prerequisite for repossessing ourselves; of clawing back the power we unintentionally relinquish to another by allowing them to tell us who we are. 

And while it’s hardly a dildo on a car bonnet, there is something deeply cathartic in bringing a hurt to the front and centre. To repurpose the barb that stung you can expose it for what it is: the mere opinion of another. 

Keep going!