What is the most important thing you will do today?

What is the most important thing your daughter will do today? What do you want her to believe is the thing people will judge her on? Because, as a society, even here in 2014, we are still teaching our daughters that the most important thing about them today is the way they look.

“Oh!” you scoff, “surely you exaggerate!”

But let me ask you this: If you are female, how much time do you spend on grooming in the morning? Are you careful to ensure that your handbag matches your shoes, and that they both match the rest of your outfit? Do you always put on makeup before you show your face in public? Do you ever ask “Does my butt/tummy/body part of choice look big in this?”

Do you ever say “that dress makes me look fat” or “gosh, she shouldn’t wear that, it makes her look old/fat/short/tall/flushed/pale”? Do you obsess over whether your hair is frizzy/curly/straight and spend hours with a straightening wand/curling iron/leave-in conditioner and a hair dryer?

What do you think this says to your daughters?

Some time ago I was chatting with a bright, talented young honours student. She was about to deliver her honours talk, summarizing a year’s amazing research. Do you know what was worrying her most? She had a pimple on her nose. What would people think?? Never mind the quality of her research, it was her appearance that she was convinced people would care about, and remember. I never, ever, heard a male honours student fret about his looks before his honours talk.

But who can blame her? Our first ever female prime minister endured regular commentary on her dress sense and hairstyle. Yet, apart from the occasional justifiable shudder of horror over the budgie smugglers, our current PM’s dress sense rarely rates a mention.

Karl Stefanovic recently wore the same suit on TV every day for a year. Do you know how many people noticed? None. Until he started to make noise about it to make a point, bless his smelly jacket. Imagine if his female co-host had worn the same outfit every day for a year. The screaming! Actually there’s no way it would have lasted a year, it would almost certainly have cost her her job inside a week.

Yet the screaming and the clothing critique is largely a female phenomenon. It’s not men imposing this on us. It’s not men saying “hey, aren’t you going to hide your face before you go out?” (Except possibly in the media.)

This is only the norm because we make it so. We say “I have to put on my makeup before I go out.” Newsflash: you don’t. I haven’t put on makeup in 15 years, and I make it out the door just fine.

We say “I can’t wear that, it makes my tummy look huge.” and our daughters hear “Big tummies are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

We say “I have to go to the beautician, my legs are hairy” and our daughters hear “Hairy legs are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

We say “Hang on a minute, I have to put on my makeup before we can go” and our daughters hear “Our faces are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

Pretty soon our girls are obsessing over their weight, their pimples, and their hair, and we wonder why. After all, don’t we tell them they’re beautiful? Well yes, we do, but what we show them, is that beautiful is a perfectly made up face, a meticulously composed ensemble, and matching shoes. What we show them is that this stuff matters. That when they leave the house tomorrow what they will be judged on is not the quality of their work, their kindness and compassion, or whether they leave the world a better place, but whether their makeup cracked or their hair frizzed in the rain. Oh, and whether their clothes are so last season.

What we show them is that appearance is all important. That we must always be careful of how we look before we show our makeup (and never our faces) in public, because we will be judged by that more than anything else.

But you know what? We don’t have to be careful about how we look. Sure, it’s lovely to wear nice clothes and to feel like we look good. But it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to spend hours applying makeup and styling our hair before we leave the house. If you don’t believe me, ask Tracey Spicer. She has cut down her grooming time by an hour a day (AN HOUR! PER DAY! I haven’t got the patience to spend that long on my looks”). And you know what? Nobody died. These things only matter to us because we let them.

We shouldn’t be judging ourselves, or anybody else, by how well our earrings match our designer dresses. And we shouldn’t be teaching our daughters to, either.

 

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Newsworthy

My kids keep coming home from school with the recommendation that we extend their reading by making sure they read newspapers, and that they keep up with current events by watching the news. I certainly believe they should know what’s going on in the world. We talk about current events around the dinner table all the time, and they are well aware that I have strong political views. They have some pretty strong views of their own. But I will never agree that kids watching the news is a good idea. Even I don’t watch the news. Instead I pick and choose very carefully the news I read online.

We have this vague idea that “news” is a public service. That it is designed to inform us, educate us, and keep us up to date with what’s going on in the world. But it’s not. It’s not a public good. For all a strong democracy needs a well informed population, “news” is increasingly not serving that function. We need to keep firmly in mind the actual purpose of news: to make money. To sell newspapers, to sell advertising spots, to make money for its owners. That is the purpose of news. There is no other. Even the government broadcasters design their news to lift ratings and thus justify their own existence, and they have to match the commercial networks pretty closely to manage that.

I have no deep philosophical objection to making money. That’s not the problem. The problem is that to garner page hits, ratings, and market share, news has to be the stuff that attracts attention. So a quick look at the front page of a commercial news site will reveal: details of a horrendous murder (overseas), details of a horrendous rape, a heroic rescue from a warzone (overseas), speculation about Schapelle Corby’s boyfriend, criticism of a model for being too thin/fat/attractive/unattractive, a famous person’s suicide (which happened months ago, but details of which are on the front page almost every day), and fashion tips about what you absolutely must do.

Go look at the front page of any online news service. True, I picked a Murdoch paper for the above summary, which is, perhaps, a little unfair. But go look at the ABC site and ask yourself which of those stories my kids “need to know” in order to understand the world.

“No shirt fronting as Abbott talks MH17 with Putin.”

“China unveils sophisticated stealth fighter aircraft.”

“Authorities investigate travel company accused of rip-off.”

“Voters want right to recall poor performing MPs, survey says.”

“New York doctor now free of Ebola discharged from hospital.”

(top 5 headlines from the ABC site this morning)

Young people (and the rest of us!) suffer from increasing levels of stress, depression, and even anxiety disorders. They need to come to grips with the world around them, and develop coping strategies for the realities of life. But these are not the realities of life, they are ratings grabbing manufactured dramas. They are not events around them. They do not include vital knowledge about ways the world around them is changing. They do, however, include a lot of things to get anxious about. A lot of ways to misinterpret the world. A lot of ways to raise their stress levels and make them feel like the world is out of control. A murder that is sufficiently grisly will get airtime around the world for months after the event, and then again when the murderer comes to trial. Celebrities get airtime constantly. But this is not “current events”. This is saleable gossip.

Sure, we might talk about some of these things around the dinner table, but not in headlines. Not with sensational trauma stories designed to get ratings, but with reference to justice and compassion, in ways we believe our kids are old enough to understand.

And it’s not only the killings that we don’t want our kids to see. It’s the twitter attacks, the abuse of public figures because of the way they dress, and the obsession with Kim Kardashian. None of this is healthy. None of this is in the public interest. As far as I can tell the messages are: “The world is a terrifying and dangerous place, your body is both public property and the wrong shape, and celebrity equals importance.” None of this is stuff our kids need to have shoved down their throats 24/7. Certainly they will need to learn how the world “works”, but not at 7, not even at 11, do they need to hear these relentlessly negative messages, when they are so ill-equipped to process them.

When I watch the news I get increasingly alienated and depressed. I hate to think what it would do to an impressionable, compassionate 11 or 7 year old.

 

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Nothing is really disposable

My ride to work route goes through several industrial estates, past a McDonalds, and alongside a university. Naturally the roads, footpaths, and bushes in the area are clogged with an inordinate amount of rubbish. Over the last four years it has amazed me how I can pass the same rubbish week in, week out, and it never moves until there is a big storm at which point it is magically whisked away, out of sight, out of mind, to be replaced a new crop of flotsam from somewhere upwind.

Last week I finally got around to buying myself a long “claw on a stick” device that means I can pick up rubbish without getting on and off my bike, having to bend down, or getting my hands grubby. I take a shopping bag with me, fill it up with rubbish, then empty it into a bin when I get to the end of my ride.

Today's haul included a balloon on ribbon, several lengths of polystyrene, juice boxes, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws.

Today’s haul included a balloon on ribbon, several lengths of polystyrene, juice boxes, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws.

Taking an extra 5 minutes to get to work gave me time to pack a standard plastic shopping bag with rubbish. On the way home I did that again, and this time also picked up a huge length of pink plastic bubble wrap that has been sitting in the bushes for weeks.

I like to think that this will make a difference – there are a lot of plastic cups, plastic bags, straws, and juice boxes that won’t wind up in Port Phillip Bay because of me. There was quite a lot of polystyrene (where does it all come from?) which breaks down into little white balls that look just like fish food in the water, and it’s now safely in bins because I took those 10 extra minutes out of my day.

But in practice I will still look at those spaces and be appalled by how much rubbish there is there. I can’t pick it all up, even over time, as it accumulates faster than I can pick it up. So I started pondering how we could stop it – maybe make McDonalds responsible for all of their rubbish? Make them pay to send cleaners out and pick up every item of branded trash within a 5km radius?

Make businesses responsible for the roadside rubbish outside their premises? What about the parkland? Who is responsible for that? Pay people for the rubbish they turn in? Container deposit schemes for plastic bottles? What about the lids on coffee cups?

Until it finally dawned on me that this was very much post-horse-bolting thinking. Picking up the rubbish is not the point. Stopping it being dropped is not even the point. The point is that we can’t afford to continue generating rubbish. We really can’t. We need to come to grips with the idea that there truly is nothing disposable. Rubbish persists, whether it’s in the streets, floating in the bay, or in landfill. It takes energy to create it, to transport it, and to trash it, and it still remains, a toxic blight on our landscape.

There are so many ways to avoid rubbish – keeping a water bottle with you for refilling, having a keep cup for your coffee, buying fresh, unpackaged food – yet most of them require effort. And goodness knows we’re all busy, exhausted, and stretched to our limits. But until we recognise that “disposable” is a myth, we’ll go on making the wrong choices every day, piling our earth high with rubbish that none of us wants in our garden.

These days everything is temporary. Hole in your jacket? Chuck it. Phone a couple of years old? Toss it, it’s obsolete. Ipad not the latest model? Upgrade! Microwave door broken? Get a new one! (microwave, not door)

We don’t repair things anymore. We are ashamed of things that are old, not the latest model. We have to have TODAY’s fashion in devices, clothes, and cars. But in the long term? This is just not going to work. We are going to be outnumbered, out-massed, and outlived by our own rubbish. What an epitaph.

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Hands off Point Nepean

Have you ever gazed out over a pristine beach and felt both awed and calmed by its beauty?

Beach scene

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a forest, breathing in a sense of peace?

Have you ever wondered what it is about natural places that causes them to speak to us in this profound way? That changes us every time we interact with them? That draws us in and gives us a sense of connectedness and belonging?

These are the reasons we preserve these magical places in National Parks. According to the Australian government:

“National parks are usually large areas of land that are protected because they have unspoilt landscapes and a diverse number of native plants and animals. This means that commercial activities such as farming are prohibited and human activity is strictly monitored.

Like zoos, national parks have several purposes. The foremost of these is to protect native flora and fauna. But national parks are also there so Australians and foreign visitors can enjoy and learn about our unique environment, heritage and culture.”

Unfortunately somebody will need to update this – it is becoming increasingly clear that national parks are now nothing more than commercial opportunities. After all, we wouldn’t want our forests “locked up”, would we, Mr Abbott? The Federal government plans to put a coal port slap bang in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef – not merely a national park, but a world heritage area. An irreplaceable treasure.

And now the Victorian government plans to excise a huge chunk of the Point Nepean National Park for commercial development.

Pt Nepean was declared a National Park in 2009, after years of vigorous campaigning by the local community.

Beach at the Quarantine Station, Pt Nepean National Park

Beach at the Quarantine Station, Pt Nepean National Park

Understandably, they believed this meant that the park was now protected, open to the public for ever more, to be preserved and maintained as a national treasure.  Point Nepean includes the old Quarantine Station, and if you have never visited, I urge you to make the time to go while you still can, because it is an amazing site – a wonderful combination of stunning scenery and the incredibly moving stories of those early settlers, brought off ships and housed in quarantine on this wild and remote patch of coast.

See it while you can, because if the State government has its way it will be rezoned, stripped of its environmental and heritage protections, and access restricted to wealthy clients of the “Wellness Centre” and “Geothermal Spa”. Of course, there is no geothermal spa at the site, but it’s only a matter of drilling around one kilometre into the earth, and with any luck they will find some nice hotsprings to bring to the surface – without damaging the surrounding bushland, you understand, because of course drilling one kilometre (one thousand metres! Can they really be serious?) into the earth is so easy to do in a non-disruptive, non-destructive fashion.

The proposed development includes a jetty designed to allow easy access for speedboats coming from around the bay. Which sounds all very fine until you realise that the jetty would be right in the middle of an integral section of Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park, and a known dolphin nursery. According to Parks Victoria, the thinking behind the park is this:

“By keeping some of these marine areas in a natural state, free from potentially damaging human activities, we will protect these environments into the future. Victorians will also benefit from the positive effects that this protection will have on recreation and tourism, community education and scientific research.”

Which seems rather at odds with a high-traffic jetty encouraging speed boats and jet skis through an already fragile area. The development is being fast tracked and deliberately placed outside normal planning controls and public scrutiny, which is always a red flag. If it is truly of benefit to the community why try to hide it, and avoid public discussion and debate?

I often think that the measure of a truly civilized society is the value it places on intangible things that don’t fit in traditional economic models. On community, on nature, on sustainability, on relationships.  On things we can’t easily label with a price tag. Our relationships with these wild places are irreplaceable. As we break down our connection with the natural world and base our lifestyles on foundations of ipads and concrete, we lose a vital part of ourselves.

I often walk on the beach at Pt Nepean, and I frequently see dolphins playing in the shallows. My family and I pick up rubbish along the beach, most of it washed up from other areas of the bay. When I told my girls, aged 11 and 7, that there was a big development proposed for the area, they were horrified. “There’s too much rubbish there already!” they cried. Sums it up, really.

PS. If you want to protect our history and our national parks, you can contact your member of Parliament and urge them to act.

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Senate Committee Submission

Scott Morrison and the Abbott government want to pass a law giving them the power to incarcerate and torture asylum seekers without anyone being able to stop them in the courts. Make no mistake. This is not about “stopping the boats”. As Julian Burnside said, someone who gets shot at home or dies in a boat on the way here is just as dead. If they don’t get on those boats, they risk death or worse at home. They are not economic migrants, they are the most vulnerable people, in desperate need of our help and compassion.

The good news is that you can make a submission to the Senate Committee detailing your opposition to the bill. Make a stand. Go on record as being opposed to our monstrous and appalling treatment of refugees. Getup has made it really easy.  My submission is below, in case you need inspiration (only took me 5 minutes to pour my heart out onto the keyboard), but please put it in your own words, as it will be more powerful that way.

Make a submission today!

Here’s mine:

I oppose this bill most vehemently.

Australia has a responsibility, both moral and legal under the 1951 UNHCR refugee convention, to care for and protect asylum seekers, regardless of their mode of entry.

In the past, Governments have egregiously abused their powers and not only failed to protect refugees, but further harmed them, as indeed our government is doing now. The only way to prevent this is to have them answerable to the courts.

Detention without charge or recourse is fundamentally abhorrent to any person who believes in basic human rights, and any person with any compassion and decency, yet this is what this bill proposes to allow. Without oversight, without recourse, without a shred of human decency.

I volunteer at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Dandenong. I have met people who are so traumatized, who have been through so much, and who still have no hope of a normal life. I know one family who has been in detention for 24 years, first in Malaysia and now here. They have been released in to community detention where they cannot work. They are in a remote suburb with poor public transport, separated from other family members and with no community support, and they are told they will remain this way for at least 3 years, after which there is no knowing what their fate will be. This is absolutely unconscionable.

Australia has the capacity to support and help these refugees. To resettle them and welcome them in to our communities. Please reject this appalling bill as the travesty of justice that it clearly is.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr Linda McIver.

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Better to try and fail?

I’ve been inspired by my students to renew my friendship with my lovely old piano. It’s probably around 100 years old with a beautiful tone and a wonderful feel to the keyboard. My playing doesn’t do it anywhere near justice, partly because I’ve never done enough practice to get really good, but also because I am woefully afraid of making a mistake.

This is a surprisingly crippling affliction. If you are so afraid of making a mistake that you can’t play a note, or you have to stop and fix the ones you stuff up, then you will always struggle to get through any piece complex enough to be worth playing. The gap between the music in my head and the sound flowing from my fingers is so wide that I get frustrated and give up, instead of barrelling through and enjoying the ride, focusing on what I can do, rather than what I can’t.

A psychologist told me years ago that perfectionists were often extreme procrastinators, largely because if they can’t do something perfectly, they would rather avoid doing it at all – and who has time to do everything perfectly these days? I was pretty sure my former teachers would have snorted their coffee at the suggestion that I was a perfectionist, so I found her comment rather startling.

Over time it began to make sense, though. I don’t dance, in spite of a deep and abiding love of music. I won’t play the piano in public. I berate myself for not being good enough, or organized enough, for not working harder, practicing more, or doing things better. I beat myself over the head with every class that doesn’t go as well as I’d hoped. This is classic perfectionist behaviour.

You have to learn to pace yourself
Pressure
You’re just like everybody else
Pressure
You’ve only had to run so far
So good
But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you’ll have to deal with
Pressure

Pressure – Billy Joel

Yet last Tuesday I watched a student get up and perform in front of the whole school, singing and playing guitar for the first time in front of such a large audience. Once or twice he flubbed his lines, gave a grin, and kept going. The audience cheered him on, and applauded rapturously when he was done – and for good reason. His performance wasn’t perfect, but it was great. The audience loved it. The song was gorgeous, and his rendition heartfelt and beautifully evocative. I hope he is very proud of it.

He was brave to try something he hadn’t done before, and certainly courageous to make a mistake and not let it derail him. Really, that’s what life is all about, isn’t it? The ability to trip and get back up? The courage to try something new and not be daunted when it doesn’t quite work out the way you expected?

It’s not like I don’t try new things – throwing in an academic career in my late 30s and taking the leap into teaching was a chasm-crossing move that still takes my breath away, four years later – but sometimes the internal pressure to do something perfectly or not at all seems impossible to shake. I want things to be exactly the way I picture them in my head, and if I can’t do it RIGHT NOW I have to wrestle down an extreme urge to take my bat and ball and stalk off home.

Watching my students throw themselves into new endeavours on a daily basis – not necessarily worried about whether they sink or swim, but determined to wrest everything they can from the experience – is slowly teaching me that fear is one of the only things standing between me and the person I really want to be.

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Where’s your village?

“Year 12 farewell assembly. The tradition is they walk up the middle stairs while staff form a kind of honour guard. One student was hanging back and I wasn’t sure why. Then his friend arrived who has a knee injury and can’t handle stairs. He was waiting for her, and he piggy backed her all the way up. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my school!”

On average my facebook posts probably gather 5 likes each. Even the cute pictures of sugar gliders get maybe 10 or so likes. But this post, by the end of a single day, had 44 likes. This story resonates. People go “awww! That’s beautiful!” There is something about people looking out for each other, going a little further to help each other out, and quietly being there for each other, that speaks directly to our hearts.

Do you know why? I think it’s because we know it’s missing from our lives most of the time. In general we live incredibly isolated lives. It’s not that we don’t have friends – most of us do. But we don’t see them every day. We don’t necessarily notice if we don’t speak to them for a few weeks running.  Huge upheavals can happen in their lives without us ever knowing, even though we love them very much.

I don’t believe we do any less, care any less, or love any less. We have friends, we have work, we have busy, busy lives. But what we really don’t have, most of us, is community. Many of my closest friends live 10, 20, or even thousands of kilometers away. We are pretty good at keeping in touch. We call. We email. We facebook. But we don’t live next door. We don’t always notice the pauses in the conversation that might mean something has gone badly wrong, because we are all so busy that pauses happen all the time. Packed into those pauses might be the death of a parent, an episode of depression, even an ambulance trip to the emergency room, and we might never even know.

If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea
I’ll sail the world to find you
If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can’t see
I’ll be the light to guide you

Find out what we’re made of
When we are called to help our friends in need
You can count on me like 1, 2, 3
I’ll be there
And I know when I need it
I can count on you like 4, 3, 2
You’ll be there
‘Cause that’s what friends are supposed to do, oh yeah

Count on me – Bruno Mars.

We don’t know our neighbours beyond a cordial chat when we happen to be getting into our cars at the same time. We certainly don’t drop by to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. We don’t walk to school and get to know all the families on the way. We don’t shop at the local shops and know the shopkeepers’ children. We live in huge cities and commute from one side to the other for work. We shop at massive shopping centers surrounded by strangers.

George Monbiot argues that this is killing us. In our busy striving for individualism and wealth, we are losing contact with the very things that bring us the deepest satisfaction and contentment. I’m really lucky, I find many of these things at my school, with both staff and students. There is a sense of community there, beautifully exemplified by the piggy back, that fills a vast hole in my life. I can’t imagine leaving, and it breaks my heart a little each time we say goodbye to the next crop of year 12s.

But not everyone can work or study at my school. Not everyone will find their community in their workplace. And whoever we are, however introverted, however independent, we need community. We need that sense of people looking out for us, and that meaning and fulfillment that comes from looking out for others.

I think what we’ve failed to recognise is that friends are not the same as community. Community is, of necessity, a local thing. If you start to feel depressed and can’t bring yourself to call anyone, people who see you every day might notice and have the chance to help. But if your friends are all remote, they’re not likely to notice until the time between phone calls becomes obvious, which could be weeks, or even months. If you break your leg, have a sick child, or a sick parent, and you don’t call for help, community has the chance to notice because of the change in your routine.

The problem is that our cities are built in ways that actively discourage community. Our houses are getting bigger and our fences higher. Our local shopping strips are dying, to be replaced by huge, impersonal shopping centers miles away that we have to drive to. Our public transport, which at least allows us to walk through our neighbourhood on the way to and from our very remote jobs, is slow, erratic, and expensive. Everything about our town planning encourages us out of our neighbourhoods, into our cars, and away from any potential community we might otherwise build.

And the trouble is I think it takes a community to fix it.

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