The total perspective vortex

I’ve been on sick leave for 3 weeks now, and today my GP urged me to take the rest of this week off as well. What started as a virus ended up with heart complications, which although they are benign, are exhausting. So I have been napping the days away, and when I haven’t been napping, I’ve had plenty of time to think.

For me, too much time to think can often be dangerous, as I have a tendency to take myself too seriously and spiral in on my own thoughts in a vortex of despair. This time, though, I haven’t had the energy to despair, and I’m starting to think that perhaps I don’t take enough time to think in the day to day marathon that I call my life.

I tend to push myself hard, stress over everything, and believe that if I stop pushing everything will fall apart. Well here’s the thing: I stopped. I was forced to. And here’s the tally:

People dying as a result: 0

Civilizations collapsed: 0

Worlds ended: 0

Fires started: 0

You get the gist, I’m sure. What happened was that a good friend took over my beloved year 11 class, and by the sound of it they’ve been having a great time. My year 10s are safe in the hands of my team teaching partner. Sure, people have noticed I’m not around, but there has been a marked lack of screaming and catastrophe.

I have so many things I was going to do in that time. I have so many things I want to do when I get back. So much to build, so much to fix. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the world does not revolve around me. My school does not revolve around me. Even my classes don’t revolve around me. If I quit tomorrow, I’m not sure there would even be a ripple before everyone adapted and moved on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting all maudlin and “woe is me” about that. I know I have a lot to contribute. But if I don’t contribute it all in one day, the world will continue in its daily course undisturbed. I love my job, but maybe I need to take a step back from it every now and then, take a deep breath and look around me. Maybe I need to learn how to love it without being consumed by it.

Douglas Adams wrote that “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.” But maybe sometimes we need to feel a little bit small, in order to remind ourselves that we are not wholly responsible for the universe. Sometimes the universe can get along just fine without us.

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Danger, Will Robinson!

Much of the Australian Government’s current behaviour seems to be predicated on danger. Apparently, aside from the “only visible out of the corner of your eye” budget emergency, we also have a security emergency, a border protection emergency, and a desperate need to sacrifice privacy and freedom in order to be safe from the ever increasing terrorism emergency. Indeed, one news article I read today suggested we Australians live in “increasingly dangerous times”.

Certainly we feel increasingly unsafe. The news is full of reasons why we should be terrified of, well, just about everything. Of strangers (especially around our children). Of hijabs and head scarves. Of hoodies. Of refugees. Of politicians (actually that one seems pretty logical).

We are told that we need to sacrifice the presumption of innocence, together with our privacy, and accept laws creating a new level of surveillance (maybe, depending on who’s talking today), and requiring people traveling to “suspect” places to prove that they were not there with nefarious intent. We have to accept this, or be on the side of the terrorists. Obviously. Because we are in so much danger.

And yet… Are we actually at risk? Are we more likely to die? The Bureau of Statistics says that in 2003 132,292 people died in Australia, whereas in 2012 the number was 147,098. So we are more at risk, no? Well… no. If you factor in population in those years, in 2003 the ratio was 0.0067. In 2012, it was 0.0064. So you were actually less likely to die in Australia in 2012 than you were in 2003. The overall death rate has dropped.

If you consider the facts (a proposition neither politicians nor the media are keen on, it seems), we are growing older, safer, and more prosperous all the time. We are increasingly blind to how good we’ve got it. We have an unprecedented degree of financial security. We can afford to extend our good fortune to refugees. We can afford to protect our privacy, our freedom, and the presumption of innocence. We can also afford universal healthcare and high quality education, whatever Tony’s cronies might say.

What we can’t afford to do is reject science, facts, and the reality we live in, in exchange for a politically constructed illusion that is convenient for people trying to gain power, but catastrophic for the rest of us.

There is increasing danger in these times, but it is neither terrorism nor economics. The real danger is ignorance and credulity. It lies in blind acceptance of political spin, and a failure to question the statements and the emotive slogans that are stuffed down our throats every day.

Whatever your political views, whatever your beliefs, the one thing we must all do is to keep asking questions. It may be too late to keep the bastards honest, but it’s not too late to call them on their lies.

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What makes a leader?

I was excited when a friend of mine went for promotion recently. He was diffident about it, but I watched him light up when he talked about things he wanted to achieve, and the possibilities he saw in his organization, and I knew he’d be amazing. I’ve worked with him before in leadership positions, and I’ve seen him interact with people on a daily basis. He has that rare gift of giving you his whole attention and making you feel important. Everyone knows him, everyone likes and respects him. And yet I know that’s a good start, but it’s not enough to make someone a great leader. So what is it that makes me absolutely certain he’ll be great?

Not long ago I was lucky enough to hear Bob Brown speak, and you can’t listen to Bob for so much as 60 seconds without being struck by his passion, his optimism, and his drive. The central tenet of his talk was that optimism is a driving force. If you let pessimism knock you out, there is no way forward. It takes optimism to drive change. You have to believe that change is possible, and that you can make it happen.

Bob is an intriguing character. It’s enthralling to hear him talk, but he is not one of the world’s great orators. His speeches seem unplanned. He digresses from his digressions recursively, until you are so many levels deep you can’t remember where it all began (yet you are fascinated all the way through). He is not king of the media friendly three word slogan (“Axe the tax!” “Stop the boats!” “Harass the Homeless!” “Revile the Refugees!” “Persecute the poor!”), or master of the newsworthy soundbite. And yet he is a great leader, with talented and passionate people rallying around him in their thousands. Why should that be?

I believe it’s his passion that makes Bob Brown a leader. Bob sees what needs doing and he goes for it. He is dedicated, driven, committed, and utterly honourable. He leads from the front, always first to put himself and his principles on the line. Bob became a leader, not for power or control, but for change. He wanted things to change, so he stood up, grabbed them by the throat, and damned well made them change.

My friend, who is now on the management fast track, is the same. I don’t think he sees himself as a leader. He’s not interested in power, or making a big noise about his achievements (which are many). But he has a vision for how the world should be, and he wants to make it happen. And he will, too.

I am beginning to see that the best leaders have no particular interest in leading. They want to change things, to fix them. They accept leadership as a troublesome necessity for making that happen, but they are not interested in power for its own sake.

“Those who most want to rule should under no circumstances be allowed to.” Douglas Adams.

Leadership in politics and in business is all too often painted as being all about power and ambition. But that’s not leadership. That’s naked self-interest. Leadership is about a vision for the future. It’s about a drive to effect positive change, and to leave the world better than you found it. As Bob said, there is one question we should be asking that overrides all others:

“Will people 100 years from now thank us for what we are doing? If you can’t say yes to that, you ought not be doing it.”

 That’s leadership.


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It’s lonely in the ER

Last night when my friend Kate went to bed her heart decided to start skipping beats. Lots of them. For around 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly, she found this a little unnerving, so although she didn’t feel particularly unwell in any other way, and she wasn’t in pain,  Kate decided to call 000. She felt a little bit of a fraud by the time the ambulance arrived, because of course the skipping had stopped, so there was nothing for them to record on their portable ECG, or to hear with a stethoscope.

The paramedics were amazing. Alex walked in, introduced himself, and shook Kate’s hand. He smiled into her eyes and asked her what was up. He made a fast and incredibly effective effort to build a personal connection, and Kate felt immediately reassured. As she told him what had happened, he asked lots of questions, and collected information very calmly, while his partner, Sharon, hooked Kate up to the ECG machine.

There was no rush, no sense at all that she was wasting their time, or that they had more important cases to attend to. They were calm, they were competent, and they were immensely reassuring. When Alex said he thought they should take her in to hospital, Kate was surprised, but not at all scared, because of the compassionate and matter of fact way he handled the whole situation. He explained all of the possibilities clearly and eloquently, and left her feeling that she was in the best of hands.

On the ride in to the hospital Kate was still hooked up to the ECG, but Alex made sure she was warm and comfortable, and then talked to her all the way, about her job, about her kids, about anything and everything – laughing, joking, and connecting, with the result that by the time they got to the hospital she was quite relaxed. In fact her blood pressure was textbook normal, which for a stress bunny like Kate is all but miraculous!

Kate commented to Sharon while waiting in reception that she felt rather silly, since the abnormal heart beat had disappeared, and Sharon warmly reassured her that it was much better to get it checked out and find that it was nothing, than to ignore it when it was serious. Both Sharon and Alex kept assuring Kate that she had done the right thing. Here she was, in the ER with heart problems, and she was feeling relaxed and happy. That speaks volumes about the incredible skill and compassion with which those paramedics did their jobs.

Then Kate asked Sharon what time she was due to finish, and she said 7am. They had started at 5pm. And they’d done the same the day before. 14 hour shifts, not as a once off, but a regular occurrence! It amazes me that even though they must have been feeling exhausted, stressed, and massively under-appreciated as the government makes it clear that they do not believe ambos deserve a pay rise or better conditions, Alex and Sharon still made Kate feel far better than any medication could ever manage.

As they left they wished Kate well, shaking her hand and smiling at her in a way that both reassured her and made her want to beg them to stay – she had felt so comforted and protected by their competent, compassionate professionalism. For around 5 minutes Kate lay on the bed in the Emergency ward, wondering what was coming next, until a staff member appeared. Relieved, Kate assumed that things would start happening now. But no, this was a matter of fees and forms to be sorted out. Still, it relieved the monotony, so it was welcome. A nurse dashed in and made grumpy comments about the location of the chart, which she snatched from the administrator before dashing out again. Kate was not looking forward to having this nurse look after her!

Nonetheless, when the nurse did show up she was brisk but kind, as she told Kate to get out of her nighty and into the hospital gown. I know it has been said before, but do hospital staff really understand how humiliating these gowns are? They are cold, they are drafty, and they are impossible to tie up secure enough not to show your naked vulnerability, and indeed your knickers, to the world.

Fortunately Kate was allowed to keep her pyjama pants on, so she did not feel quite so exposed, but the curious thing is that these gowns open at the back – and Kate needed to have a huge array of sensors stuck to her chest. So her nighty with the convenient buttons down the front would have allowed much easier access. As it was, when the cable was uplugged so that Kate could go to the loo, vainly trying to clutch her gown closed behind her, the orderly (male, of course), had to rummage around inside the gown to try to reattach it. In the front of the gown. Around her breasts.

Luckily Kate is not a particularly shy person. In fact she has strong views about the naturalness of the human body, and how there is nothing embarrassing about the naked human form, but even so this stranger rummaging around in her top, and peering at her breasts, left her feeling incredibly vulnerable and exposed. In fact the entire ER experience made it clear that Kate was completely powerless.

She had to ask permission (and help, for unplugging all of the cables) to go to the toilet.  She had to ask to be allowed a cup of water. She was hesitant to bother the staff, because she did not want to distract them from all of the other patients, who she was sure were in much greater need than she was, but for the first half an hour she could not even reach the buzzer, and she fretted about how she would alert them if her erratic heartbeat returned. They had even taken her handbag and placed it on a bench at the side of the room, out of her reach, so she could not reach her phone.

Kate was lucky that she had a book in her pocket and was able to read to while away the time. She was also lucky that she had private health insurance and could afford the out of pocket expenses to choose to go to the local private hospital, rather than the invariably crowded and busy public hospital that would have been the default. In the end she was only in there for 4 hours, with a battery of clear tests showing that there was no immediate danger, and a fistful of forms for follow up tests to confirm the initial diagnosis of a benign, if disconcerting condition.

The staff at the hospital were kind and attentive, given that Kate’s case was not particularly urgent. But in a hundred little ways her dignity was stripped from her and left at the door.

What struck me, though, as Kate told me her story, was that her overwhelming impression of last night is the warmth of Alex’s hand, and his smile, as he shook hands to say goodbye. Alex and Sharon held Kate’s life in their hands last night, but she felt secure and protected from the moment they walked in her front door. Lonely and vulnerable though she was when she arrived in the ER, Kate coped with it all, because of the support and strength those paramedics left behind them. Those overworked, under-appreciated paramedics on their 14 hour shift. I don’t know what we pay Alex & Sharon, but it’s not enough.

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If it ain’t broke, throw it away anyway

Our 20 year old microwave broke yesterday. The mechanism still works, but the door opener snapped so that the microwave could no longer be opened. My husband, who has the heart, soul, and incidentally the degree of an Engineer got it down, choked a little on the accumulated dust behind it, and took it apart to see if he could fix it.

Inside he found a piece of aged, brittle plastic that had snapped. And then he asked me a curious question: “So, Lin, do we want a new microwave, or shall we fix it?”

“Is it hard to fix?”

“No, I just need to find a bit of wood or metal, shape it to fit, and screw it in.”

“Ok, I think we fix it, don’t we? By which I mean you fix it, and I’ll stand around looking impressed.” (I’m a software girl. I don’t do hardware. It’s fiddly and I tend to break myself in the process.)

Roughly 20 minutes later the microwave was fixed, cleaned, and back in its rightful place.

What puzzles me is that if I did not have access to this wonderfully talented & obliging engineer-type person, I don’t think I would have hesitated – I’d have chucked it out and got a new one. Sure, the big ticket items like fridges and washing machines usually rate an attempt (generally expensive, often futile) at repair, but smaller items like microwaves and coffee machines are alarmingly disposable. I’m not even sure I could find someone willing to repair a 20 year old microwave, if I tried.

Indeed, when my coffee machine broke under warranty a couple of years ago, the shop did not even look at it, they simply replaced it. Odds are that machine wound up on a rubbish heap somewhere, even though the broken part was simply a piece of tubing that needed replacing.

That’s the act of a society that has infinite resources to call upon. No limit to the metals and plastics we can chew up, and no constraint on the pollution we spit out.

Let me hear you say ‘smogulous smoke’ (smogulous smoke)
Schloppity schlop (schloppity schlop)
Complain all you want, it’s never ever, ever, ever gonna stop.
Come on how bad can I possibly be?
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? I’m just building an economy.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? Just look at me pettin’ this puppy.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? A portion of proceeds goes to charity.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? How bad can I possibly be?

How bad can I be? The Lorax.
There are other signs of a society that believes it has infinite resources. Such a society might, for example, buy a new mobile phone, laptop or tablet device every year. My phone company spammed me incessantly when my contract was up, trying to persuade me to buy a new phone. They could not wrap their heads around the idea that the one I’ve got is working just fine, thanks.
Or it might package food to within an inch of its life (or perhaps beyond) in foil, foam trays, and plastic. It might produce plastic toys that break on the first use, and pack them into plastic packages, tie them down with plastic cable ties, anchor them to a plastic backboard, and shrink wrap the lot in still more plastic.
It might produce an infinite variety of single purpose items that nobody actually needs, like separate cleaning sprays for kitchen, bathroom, and laundry benches, another for shower screens, and still another for the toilet. Oh, and don’t forget the magically different floor spray. (We use a combination of vinegar and bicarb for all of that, and it’s amazingly effective, despite the devastating lack of brightly coloured packaging and almost, but not quite, entirely unreal floral perfumes.)
Such a society might throw away bike tubes every time they puncture. Buy coffee in take away cups every day. Store leftovers in disposable plastic wrap, and take lunch to work or school every day in new plastic bags. It might even buy a single item at the supermarket, put it in a plastic bag, and then just drop the plastic bag on the ground somewhere when it’s no longer needed.
And maybe, one day, such a society might pause and take a good hard look at itself. Such a society might wonder what kind of a world it was handing to its children.
And then it might take a travel mug to buy coffee. It might choose simple, multi-purpose cleaning products, and use reusable containers for leftovers and lunches. It might buy in bulk to minimize packaging, and refuse plastic bags. It might even choose to ride, walk, and catch public transport instead of driving.
And who knows? Such a society might even feel good about itself, eventually.


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Why marriage equality matters

I have read so many arguments around gay marriage. From impassioned pleas, to shrugging “meh, marriage is dead. Why bother?” essays that seek to convince us that marriage equality really doesn’t matter.

I don’t believe marriage is dead, because I know that deciding to get married made a difference to my relationship. In my head, whenever we argued, I used to think “well, if we can’t work it out, I can just walk away.” There always seemed to be an out. But once we got engaged I stopped thinking that, and started thinking instead “ok, how do we fix this?”

I recognise that not everyone thinks that way. And arguing that it’s important to me does not in any way make it important to anyone else, except maybe my husband!

But here’s why I think it’s important, more than any other reason:

Because we are currently allowing our government to say that same sex relationships are not worth as much as straight ones.

Yesterday the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony included John Barrowman kissing a man. Instantly social media was buzzing, with people falling over themselves to say how great it was. I can’t help but wish we were better than that.

No-one would have said how great it was to see a straight kiss in the opening ceremony. A gay kiss should not be remarkable. Kisses happen every day, in quite unremarkable ways. There are passionate kisses. Casual pecks. Lingering and tender kisses. Between men and men, women and women, and men and women. They are not remarkable. They are life. And it saddens me deeply that it is still remarkable to see a gay kiss in a public forum.

We still say “ooh! Look! Ian Thorpe is gay!” and chatter about it at apparently infinite length. We still find other people’s sexuality fascinating, when it is nothing to do with us. And we are still ok with politicians, even our Prime Minister, saying that gays must not be allowed to marry. That marriage is between a man and a woman, and that any other relationship is not as valid, not as worthy, a little bit wrong.

Marriage equality is only a little bit about marriage, but it is all about equality. About recognising, FINALLY, that people are people, and that a loving relationship is a loving relationship, regardless of whether the genders form a traditional matched set.

While we say it’s ok for our politicians to argue that gay relationships are not as real as straight ones, how can we argue that our kids should not tease gays in the playground, and that workplaces should not discriminate against gays when hiring, or indeed firing?

We say that gay youth should be able to come out without fear of discrimination. We say we care about their mental health. We say it’s just as ok to be gay as it is to be straight. But we clearly don’t mean it. Because we also say at the highest levels that gay marriage can’t be real.

I believe in tolerance, and respecting other people’s viewpoints, but I find it increasingly difficult to tolerate or respect the point of view that says, in effect, all men are equal – but some are more equal than others. Surely we are better than that?

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Everybody hurts

Recently I was struck by my friend Kaye Winnell’s wise and courageous facebook post:

“I struggle with anxiety and depression, and I have done since the birth of my first baby. Some days, no matter how many pies I bake or kilometres I run, I still feel fat, ugly, lazy and stupid. No matter how many people tell me I otherwise, I still feel worthless, and as if one day the world will find me out, and will realise what a loser I am and that I have just done a really, really good job of hiding it. Some days I am so scared to step out of my car and walk into work I can’t breathe.

But I truly believe that this illness has made me who I am, made me a fighter, made me more compassionate, and helped me understand that what we see on the surface is not always the truth.

We are faulty and human. We are scared and we make mistakes. We screw up our lives sometimes.

If you have similar struggles, be brave and don’t be ashamed. “

It’s really easy, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, to feel as though you’re the only person who has ever felt like this. The whole post is profoundly moving, but the bit about being found out is really striking. In private, tentative conversations I’ve discovered that many of my friends share that feeling. Regardless of how much positive feedback you get, how many awards you win, and how much tangible success you achieve, you may be convinced that none of it is your doing. Sooner or later the world is going to find out that you are actually no good at what you do. You are an imposter. Parachuted into your position by a series of freak chances, in no way are you actually qualified or capable to do your job – whether a profession or parenting. This feeling can be utterly corrosive.

It leaves you intensely vulnerable to any kind of negative feedback, regardless of how constructively it is phrased, because you are always waiting for that moment when the world realizes you don’t belong here.  So anything from a friend canceling a visit, to your boss suggesting that you need to do something differently, can be that proof, and it can drive you to despair in a heartbeat. With a jolt of adrenalin you know that it’s here! You’ve been rumbled! It’s all over now.

If you’re lucky you have someone supportive nearby who can spot this moment and talk you down from the precipice. If you’re even luckier you have learnt some strategies over time for re-educating your hopelessly panicked self-esteem. And if you’re profoundly lucky, you have both. But there will always be days when your support person is absent or distracted and using your own self-rescuing techniques is beyond you, whether it’s because you are tired and run down, or you actually did make a mistake that you feel really bad about, or you’ve had a couple of run-ins with someone who really knows how to tear you into tiny pieces. Some days it would be so easy to give up.

When your day is long
and the night – the night is yours alone
when you think you’ve had too much of this life to hang on
don’t let yourself go, ‘cos everybody cries
and everybody hurts

REM, Everybody Hurts

Researchers often claim that women are disproportionate sufferers of imposter syndrome, but I wonder if that’s because men are less likely to admit it and seek help for it. We still send very strong messages in our society that it’s ok for women to seek help, but men have to be strong and independent. Either way, no-one, whether male or female, talks about this much. It’s an intensely vulnerable feeling, and exposing it publicly feels like a huge risk.

So I was really impressed to see Kaye write about this and post it publicly. The more we can be open and honest about our struggles, the easier we make it for everyone struggling around us. You look at the strong, confident leader who sits near you at work, and you don’t hear his brain whispering to him “You’re no good at this. You’ll be found out, and it will be humiliating. And you’ll deserve it.”

You look at the successful, articulate, and assertive manager in the office next door, and you don’t know about those times when she closes her door and lays her head down on her desk, overwhelmed by the feeling that she is out of her depth.

And they don’t see it when you do, either. We’re all so busy being strong and independent, that we make it harder for ourselves, and for everyone around us, when we actually do need help, because we are pretending that we are always strong, always confident, and perpetually in control.

So I’m putting it out there. I suffer from imposter syndrome. I get huge amounts of positive feedback. My children are healthy and happy. My students get amazing results. But sometimes I firmly believe that it’s despite me, not because of me. Sometimes I feel like a giant spanner in the works of life. Logically I know I’m not. Rationally I know I am a good and loving parent, a supportive and encouraging teacher, and someone who gives everything I do everything I’ve got. I’m proud of that. But some days I don’t believe it. Some days I can’t understand why anyone would hire me, or even be friends with me.

But I know this: those days will pass, and they do not define me. Everybody hurts sometimes.

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