The only thing we have to fear

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. “

Franklin D Roosevelt.

I was flung out of my comfort zone quite a lot in the last week. It was entirely voluntary (I was self-flung) but I was pretty nervous going in. And it had the most astounding effect on me.

Let me explain. Last week I had the incredible privilege of taking 4 remarkable young people, students at my school, to SC15, a HUGE academic Supercomputing conference with over 12,000 attendees. The students were well chosen – utterly wonderful people – and I didn’t have a moment’s concern over their behaviour. Nonetheless it is a massive responsibility to take someone else’s children and be responsible for them in a foreign country for a week. That was fear number 1.

Fear number 2 was food. I have a crazy long list of things that will make me unpleasantly unwell if I eat them, and eating anywhere new is always a bit nerve racking, especially because the whole cross contamination issue with gluten is often poorly understood, and a small gluten containing crumb could emphatically ruin my day, making the whole trip a lot more difficult.

Fear number 3 was sleep and energy. I am too tall to sleep comfortably on a plane, and I suffer from various sleep disorders that mean I am generally operating on the edge of sleep deprivation at the best of times. I’ve been to SC before and I know full well it takes a monstrous amount of energy to get through the week. I really wasn’t sure how this was going to go.

Then there were a whole stack of other minor fears clamouring for mind-space in the lead up to the trip. Too many to count.

I was raised to be afraid. Afraid of strangers, afraid of germs, afraid of being let down by my friends. Very, very afraid. And I was taught that the best response to fear was to run away. Don’t do it, don’t risk it, don’t go anywhere near it. I got really good at running away.

But I desperately wanted to go on this trip, to this conference, with these students.

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
And when do you think it will all become clear?
‘Cause I’m being taken over by the fear

Lily Allen, The Fear.

So I packed up my CPAP machine, filled my luggage with safe snacks, took a deep breath, crushed the urge to turn tail and flee, and booted myself right out of my snug little safety zone.

Once we actually got to the conference I decided that to really make the most of it we needed to talk to as many people as possible, and where they were willing, even to film them. This meant barrelling up to people (strangers!!) and not just talking to them, but asking for favours that might make them quite uncomfortable. By this time my comfort zone was so far out of sight I couldn’t see it with the Hubble, but I did it anyway.

And here’s where the wonderful thing happened. It got easier every time. I met some extraordinarily generous and talented people. I made friends. I learnt heaps. I got more out of this conference trip than I ever expected. And I came back on a high that still hasn’t left me. Who needs drugs when you can get high on how far away your comfort zone is??

Once I got over the jetlag and sleep deprivation and my brain started working again, it finally dawned on me. Fear breeds fear. And it feeds on itself. Every time I don’t do something because I am afraid, my fear feels vindicated. “See?” it demands. “I kept you safe! Running away works! Run away more! Run away again! There’s more to be afraid of!” and I get a little more anxious, a little more afraid, and a lot more withdrawn.

But when I do something in spite of my fear – when I take back control and tell my fear to shut the hell up – it’s my confidence that grows, while my fear starts to shrink. And every time I walk straight up to my fear and fling it out of my way, it gets a little smaller, a little lighter, and its hands around my neck get a little weaker.

I’ve come back from that conference more outgoing, more willing to talk to strangers (this will no doubt be disturbing news for my kids, who already find me rather embarrassing), and more confident than I’ve felt in years. I’ve finally worked out that the best way to kill my fear is to stare it down.

They say you should listen to your fears, that they’re your subconscious telling you there’s something wrong. But it seems to me that if we listen too closely and let fear drive us, then something will indeed be wrong, and it will get more wrong every day.

We’re afraid of refugees. We’re afraid of ISIS. We’re afraid of terrorism. We’re so afraid, and we’re letting it change our behaviour. We’re letting it shrivel us up and lock us down.

There’s no such thing as a life without fear, but it’s up to us whether we allow it to hog the driver’s seat, or keep it in the back with a muzzle on.

Dementia of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles has nothing on Dementia. Dementia is not a single sword over our heads, it is a hundred, a thousand, a million precipices on which we balance every day.

It’s having to explain to your 79 year old mother that her parents died 30 and 46  years ago, and that, truly, no-one is trying to hide them from her.

It’s picking up the phone not knowing whether it will be a pleasant chat, hyper-aggression, or tears.

It’s waiting for her to get lost. To fall. To forget to eat.

It’s knowing she needs help, but being unable to persuade her to accept it.

It’s knowing a crisis is coming, but not knowing precisely when or where or how.

It’s knowing that it is tearing your family apart at least as much as it brings it together.

It’s crying when she wants her mum, and dying a little when she doesn’t know my name.

It’s a hundred tiny humiliations when we’re out and her behaviour is bizarre.

But more than anything it’s knowing that it gets worse from here.

It’s knowing that although her days are up and down, the weeks and months are taking her inexorably downwards – down towards what her dad became just before he died: a tall, thin, shrunken, fragile skeleton under a sheet, who didn’t even know we were there.

It’s not knowing how to stop the permanent fight-or-flight state of readiness. The constant fear that the next time the phone rings it will herald the latest crisis. Or that the next thing I say will be what sets her off.

It’s the guilt and shame of being almost as afraid of her, and of her future, as I am for her.

Dementia is a brain wrecker, a home wrecker, a life wrecker. It’s over our heads, under our feet, and heavy on our shoulders. And it gets heavier every day.

Another Farewell

The other day I got asked why on earth I chose to forsake a significantly higher salary and the chance to do science in order to hang out with teenagers all day.

Well. Because 5 years in, if people ask me what I do I still light up when I tell them I’m a teacher.
Because you can’t argue with a vocation.
Because I want to make a difference.
Because “teenagers” is not an epithet. Teenagers have energy. They have enthusiasm. They have intensity, and that intensity will change the world. And I can help them do that.
Because I still do science, but now I have whole classes full of willing collaborators.
And because it’s more fun!

Tonight is another Valedictory dinner. This will be my fourth, and each one feels like both the first and the last. I came into teaching from academia wanting to be part of something I believed in with all my heart. Wanting to connect. And wanting to make a difference.

But that very connection – that very sense of being a part of these lives, of being allowed in for a year or two or three, of being trusted – makes it really hard to say goodbye.

I put so much of myself into my job – maybe too much sometimes. I’m not very good at balance! But however much I put in, I get so much more back. In the enthusiastic class discussions. In the students who other teachers tell me hardly ever talk, but who engage so intensely with Computer Science that they are voluble, even cheeky in my classes.

In the students who always take an unexpected angle on any topic under discussion, and make me see things in ways I never would have found on my own.

In the students who still send me interesting things they have found that I can use in my teaching.

In the ones who flew from the start, and the ones who needed to be helped up that first step. In the comments in anonymous feedback surveys that make me laugh because I can hear their voices as I read them.

In the Christmas cards that tell me I made a difference. In every student who goes on to do Computer Science, and yes, every student who doesn’t.

Every class is special. Every student has so much potential, today and every day. Some will stay in touch, some might never glance behind them, but all of them will take a piece of my heart with them, whether they know it or not.

I can’t tell you how much I will miss you, my friends, but it’s time. Go change the world! You’ve already changed me.

#ThePlanForChange #TheTimeForCompassion for Refugees

I don’t understand the “us and them” rhetoric that infuses the national discussion around refugees. At the same time as politicians want us to be truly part of a global economy, we are locking ourselves off from the global community and declaring that suffering, trauma, and desperation are not our problem.

Today I went to #ThePlanForChange in Melbourne. The idea spoke to me because of that one word: change. Things need to change. I hesitated to go, because I wasn’t sure I was feeling emotionally strong enough to hear about the real conditions on Manus and Nauru, but I’m glad I did.

Rather than expose you to another of my rants, I’m going to share some of the words from the day I found particularly powerful. My apologies for any inaccuracies that may have crept in, I was typing as fast as I could.

“We need to change the discussion so that people understand… we are not talking about faceless people stuck behind barbed wire. We are talking about people who have risked everything to bring their families to safety.” Adam Bandt.

“No-one wants to leave their own home. The aid has been cut. We can do what we can to get that restored, but each of us has connections to NGOs, let’s see what we can do to enhance our support for those organisations. Let’s see what we can do to enable those people to stay safely in their own homes.” Bishop Philip Huggins. St Paul’s Cathedral.

“Encourage and appreciate People of Inspiration. There are many.” Bishop Huggins.

Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre shared with us what life is like in detention on Manus and Nauru. The following quotes all come from Pamela. “It’s only when you get to know people and become friends with them that they share with you the details of their daily life, and then you understand why they become mentally unwell, why they suffer so much depression, and why so many of them are just plain sick.”

What is life like? When parents put their kids to bed at night they are in 3m by 5m rooms, and the guards knock on the door at 11pm at night and call out “How many?” and the parents have to tell them how many people are in the room. The fathers sit outside the room at 11pm and 5am to try to answer the question before the guards knock and shout, and wake the children.”

“It has just taken us 7 weeks to get a little girl in Maribyrnong into school. There are schools all around, but it has taken us 7 weeks to make it happen. The life for their mothers in detention is boring. They are used to working, to cooking, cleaning, and caring for their children. We gave them sewing machines so that they could do things, but now that Border Force has taken over they are not allowed to have sewing machines any more. 2 months ago we were allowed to take people shopping. Now we’re not allowed. There are 4 little babies down there (at Maribyrnong detention centre). There’s a baby, she’s well loved and she never smiles. The doctors say she is the youngest depressed person they have ever seen.”

“It is true, it is absolutely true the terrible stories you have been hearing about Nauru. A few years ago we suddenly saw young women start to arrive by boat. They have seen their families massacred. They have never been out of their villages until they made this escape. They were put into detention at Nauru. They were sexually molested every day… And there is no support, no protection.”

“Right now there is a young woman. We are waiting and hoping that she is allowed to come to Australia for medical care. She was raped and is pregnant. There is another young woman in hospital in Brisbane. We have begged the government to allow her brother and mother to be with her. They have said no.”

“We have to get this message out to Australians. It is too late for our children to come to us when they are grown up and say why did you let this happen? It will! They will say this! There will be a royal commission! These are hard questions for our country. We are rich, politically stable and gifted. We have all the gifts of freedom and security. Why can’t we just share it a little? That’s our challenge.”

“It’s really hard to hear, but that is what’s happening. If the people who have committed those horrible abuses were captured, prosecuted, and sent to jail they would still be in better conditions than the refugees on Manus and Nauru,” Corinne Grant.

“It doesn’t matter which places I go to, the common thread is that every single person in these places is so incredibly brave. The thing that strings them together more than anything is their strength of belief in family and community. They have decided to risk absolutely everything for that belief. People who believe in family and community are the people we want here!” Sarah Hanson-Young

“You haven’t seen the anguish on the mothers’ faces when they try to explain to their children they just don’t know when they’re gonna get out.” Pamela Curr.

“There are dozens of cases of Transfield staff out on stress leave. They have PTSD. They are traumatised. They are not proud of what that company is doing. They are not proud that the government has not allowed them to speak freely. If they tell their story as staff the government threatens them with 2 years jail. Not only are they threatened with jail, there is no mandatory reporting of the abuse and criminal activities…In any other organisation, if they see a child being treated badly, abused, a woman they have found in the middle of the night, they are required to report that. But in these places they are threatened with jail instead.” Pamela Curr.

“It’s not a choice between locking people up in places that are so cruel they make the prison system look like a 5 star hotel, including children, versus letting people not get the assistance they need and drowning at sea. There is another way. We could take the money we spent on asylum seekers (transfield over $5 billion) and spend it in the region on foreign aid by processing people’s claims and help look after them before they even have to get on a boat. Let’s do that! ” Sarah Hanson-Young.

“We could be saying ‘we could help look after these people while their claims are being processed, and we will take them safely. We won’t let this obsession with border control dictate the policy, rather than seeing the need of people in their most desperate position.’ Those women in the camps on Nauru would not be putting their children on a boat [if we gave them an alternative]. They would know that Australia would take care of them. They want to be part of a community. Let’s speak about what kind of country we want to be, and what kinds of things we can practically do to get there.” Sarah Hanson-Young.

What’s the answer? Well according to Andrew Jackson, whose experience on SBS series “Go Back to Where You Came From” changed his perspective on refugees, it’s quite simple. “Get rid of 457 visas today. They’re a rort. There are 20 Million refugees around the world. There are refugees out there with every skill set we need.”

Pamela Curr says there were 38 people in Maribyrnong detention designated security threats by ASIO. This was a political decision. She knows those men and roundly declares that they were no threat to anyone. They have been very quietly released. What have we done? And how can we possibly justify it?

“There are over 200 people in Australia whose life will be blighted [if they have to go back to Nauru as a result of the high court case]. They are so sick, so damaged, that some of them will try to take their own lives.” Pamela Curr.

I’m not sure whether I am more shocked or heartened by what I have heard today, but surely now is the time for change? In the words of Mark Seymour: “I see the dark clouds descending, but I swear my soul will survive.”

If you want to do something constructive you can support organisations like the ASRC (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre). You can offer practical support and host an asylum seeker in your home by connecting with Aylan’s List. Above all, as Pamela Curr said, ask yourself the question future generations will all be asking. “What did you do while all this was going on?”

Hurtler’s disease

Over the school holidays we had a wonderful holiday in Perth, marred only by the way I hurtled past the couch in our rented apartment on the Friday and completely failed to miss, breaking my toe. Limping back to work somewhat sheepishly, I tried to pass it off as “Spontaneous Acute Proprioceptive Dysfunction”, but most people have immediately spotted that this just means I’m clumsy.

I thought that was all there was to it, until a friend was telling me via email the other day how he spent Sunday hiking with his son and a friend, instead of working. He said he’d had a fun day, but it “wasn’t very productive”. I dashed off a response commenting that peace and wellbeing were products in themselves and moved on, but the idea started to bubble in the back of my mind.

Companies are all about productivity these days. Union claims for pay rises are always met with demands for associated productivity increases – which is usually code for increased workloads.

In our personal lives, we feel productive when we achieve lots of tangible stuff. Ticking things off todo lists, tackling the paperwork, shrinking the looming inbox wall of guilt (or is that just me?). Things that we can easily count.

There’s panic on the switchboard tongues are ties in knots
Some come out in sympathy some come out in spots
Some blame the management some the employees
And everybody knows it’s the Industrial Disease

Mark Knopfler, Industrial Disease

But I’m starting to realise two things. The first is that the most productive things in our lives are probably not countable, tickable, or easily measured in any way. Love, rest, calm, emotional connectedness, wellbeing. ‘Little’ things that are the foundation of our lives.

The second is that I am vastly more productive at work when I make sure I have plenty of those unmeasurable things. Even if you measure productivity solely by measurable KPIs, it’s still crucial to focus on those unmeasurable, intangible things in order to increase (and improve!) those measurable, tangible outcomes.

On the weekend we went down to Sorrento. Usually when we do that we drive straight there, following our habitual technique of focusing solely on the outcome. But we had no deadline, no time we absolutely had to be there, so on a whim we stopped at a cafe on the way down. When we got to Sorrento we were vastly less tired, rushed, and grumpy than usual, even though we got stuck in heavy long-weekend traffic after our cafe stop. We made some space both in our drive and in our heads, and as a result we had a much better day.

My broken toe is a direct result of hurtler’s disease. Dashing about leads (for me, at least) to bumping into things. I was on holiday, yet I was automatically rushing because that’s just what I do these days. I rush. I work to deadlines. I check the clock. I stress.  I find it really hard to kick that habit, even when it’s wholly unnecessary. My default response to requests for “extras” like cafe stops, park visits, trips to the pool, or even games at home is “We don’t have time” or “I’m too busy”. And the sad part is that I have written about this very problem before, last time I broke a toe!

But the truth is we do have time. I’m not too busy. I just need to recognise that being productive sometimes means I need to stop. To slow down. To make space. That may be the most productive I will ever be.

Bright Sparks Day

Victoria has a public holiday today, in honour of the Australian Football League Grand Final tomorrow. We also have a public holiday on the first Tuesday of November, in honour of the Melbourne Cup horse race (which at least runs on the public holiday). I am utterly appreciative of a day off, don’t get me wrong. I believe we all work too hard, without much in the way of recognition, and the trend towards crazy working hours is bad for everyone.

But… seriously? A public holiday in honour of a football game? I guess it’s consistent with Australian history. After all the Prime Minister of the day, Bob Hawke, seriously suggested that Australians should be allowed to take the day off when “we” won the America’s cup (a boat race). But I can’t help noticing that no-one proposed a public holiday when Barry Marshall won a Nobel Prize for proving that ulcers were caused by bacteria – Helicobacter Pylori – rather than stress or diet.

We raise up football players as heroes. We laud movie stars and television personalities. We call the Melbourne cup the “race that stops a nation” and it’s not so far from the truth. We happened to be in Perth when the semi-final games were run involving the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles (different games, I know, I know), and the frenzy was amazing. Banners hanging from buildings. Crowds everywhere dissecting every moment of each game. I don’t begrudge anyone their interest in football, even though I don’t share it. But I do begrudge the public holidays, and the official reinforcement that sport is our proudest achievement.

Sport. Seriously? That’s what we’re proud of? That’s what we want to focus on?

Australia produced wi-fi, thanks to the CSIRO.

Fiona Wood created spray on skin, a radical, life-changing treatment for severe burns.

Howard Florey and his team discovered medical uses for penicillin, and ways to produce it in large quantities.

Graeme Clarke and his team developed the cochlear implant, giving hearing to people who would otherwise have spent their whole lives profoundly deaf.

All Australian achievements. And there are plenty more.

No Australian PM would dare to be anti-sport. That would be a real vote killer. But being anti-science is quite socially acceptable. So our politicians pander to sports fans by giving public holidays and being seen to be sports-mad. But they kill funding for science (which struggles on and changes the world even so!). They raise sportsmen (always men) to godlike status. And they feel quite free to ignore scientific evidence when they make their policy decisions.

Science changes our lives every day. It saves our lives. It improves our lives. It changes the world. If we’re very lucky it might save us from the worst of climate change, if we actually listen to it.

Sport entertains us.

What does our adulation of sportsmen teach our children? That if you’re good enough at wielding a bat, a racquet, or a ball, if you can run fast, or swim a world record, all sins are forgiven and any kind of bad behaviour is acceptable. That sport washes away all sins.

So I’d like to propose Bright Sparks day, in honour of all the remarkable and bright Australians who are changing the world. The engineers who invent things. The scientists who discover things. The people who make our very lives possible.

A day to reflect. A day to create. A day to recognise the contribution of science and engineering to everything we do. A day to celebrate real achievement.

Imagine teaching our children that scientists and engineers are heroes who change the world. Now that would be something to celebrate.

Stop Violence against who?

I’ve always been a bit uneasy about the slogan “stop violence against women”. Not because I disagree with the sentiment, but because I think it leaves a huge hole in the issue we need to tackle.

We certainly do need to stop violence against women. And against children. But also against men. And animals. Recent reports of native wildlife being shot with arrows, and wombats being deliberately run over in a NSW campground are horrific. Who does this sort of thing for fun?? Someone who sees violence as entertainment!?

What we have is a society that sees violence as a solution. That manages crowds of refugees with tear gas and water cannons. That deals with a bloody revolution by bombing civilians.

That deals with frightened, desperate people by stripping them of their human rights, exposing children to horrific abuse, and putting their lives at risk so as to appear “tough on border control”. Which, by the way, wins votes for the perpetrators.

We live in a society where violence is perceived as a solution to many things. Where a drug problem becomes a war, instead of a health problem that can be managed. Where our collective instinct, when threatened, is to lash out, notwithstanding the simple truth that violence begets violence, and that wars create wars.

So yes, let’s stop violence against women. There’s no question there’s far too much of it. But let’s also give everything we’ve got to build a society where violence isn’t the answer. Where communities are built and connections made. Where unhappy people can reach out for support, and the foundations of our society are the connections between us, not the walls we build around ourselves.

I know I’m a little naive. I’m not suggesting that the answer to Daesh is a group hug. I don’t know that there is an answer, although something clearly needs to be done. But I’m pretty sure that bombing them isn’t going to make them turn around and say “Sorry, you were right. We’ll just leave our weapons in a pile over here and become nice peaceful citizens. Sorry to trouble you.” More likely is that they will ensure, as far as they can, that civilians die in their place, and the west gets blamed.

I don’t hit my kids. But sometimes I do lose it and shout at them in a pretty aggressive way. And I know that when I do that it’s because I have failed to find a constructive way through whatever situation we are in. When I lose control of my temper it means I have failed to find a workable solution. And I always, always regret it.

Asimov once wrote that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. To be fair, he had a character say that, and we probably can’t accuse him of believing everything any of his characters ever said. But it’s a compelling line. Violence isn’t a solution. It’s a failure.

Maybe I’m looking for more change than we can manage from where we’re starting, but it would be nice to see it at least part of the conversation. Stop violence against women, definitely. But let’s see if we can’t make violence itself unacceptable.

PS It’s been suggested to me by someone I respect greatly that I may be distracting from the effectiveness of the Stop Violence Against Women Campaign, and that stopping violence altogether is too hard. We have to tackle it piece by piece. But the more I think about it the more I think that it’s not going to work. Malcolm Turnbull today said “Real men don’t hit women.” With the very clear implication that real men can hit men and that’s ok. And that’s wrong on so many levels. Women are weak and can’t take it (rubbish). Men are strong and can take it (rubbish). We are all weak and strong in our own ways, but no-one should ever have to take it. Violence is wrong, and we can make it wholly unacceptable, not just against women but against anyone. We shouldn’t do a clothing check, or a DNA test, before we decide whether we can hit someone or not! That kind of attitude makes it ok to hit a transgender woman (“because she’s really a man”), or a homosexual man (“not a woman but not my sort of a man”). It relies on stereotypes that we should all be trying to leave behind. Of men protecting women. Of women needing protection. Of men not needing protection.  Support the Stop Violence Against Women Campaign – it’s important. But work towards stopping violence, full stop. Real men, real women… real people don’t hit.