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.

Feeling Springy

I love September. When I was sixteen my sister and her boyfriend gave me armloads of daffodils and jonquils for my birthday, and for a week or two my bedroom was a a festival of Spring colour and fragrance. I felt very special. When the sun comes back after a long, grey winter, when the air warms and the wattles turn the world yellow I always feel that way again, whatever else is going on in my life.

Spring blossom

Spring feels like a burst of hope, in an explosion of warmth, colour, and intense perfume. Sunday’s low temperature was higher than many of the preceding week’s highs. It may well be warmer than most of next week too, as the winter is threatening to return for one last (I hope!) frozen hurrah.

This year my Spring is at least as much internal as external. Though the sunshine has been unusually delayed, the spring has returned to my step ahead of schedule, and it’s all down to my new best friend – my CPAP machine.

For those who have never encountered it, CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Air Pressure. Every night I do a Darth Vader impersonation and attach a hose to my nose via a soft silicone mask, and my beloved machine forces air into my lungs all night.

This may sound like a horrible, traumatic thing, but in actual fact it has been the most extraordinary revelation. Because it turns out I used to stop breathing in my sleep. Not a lot – my apnoea score is a meagre 7, meaning I stopped breathing just 7 times per hour.  But in between those 7 strange pauses my breathing was interrupted just enough to wake me up. This happened so often that I never actually went into deep sleep. I snored. I tossed and turned. And I woke every morning feeling as though I had been running a marathon in my sleep.

The impact of this was surprisingly extreme. My health was plummeting. I was becoming more and more depressed. I was struggling on just about every front, and as my desperation increased, so too did my despair. And then came CPAP. And over the course of about two months I experimented with different machines and different settings and finally found my way into deep sleep at long last. It took time. The first machine was noisy and the mask uncomfortable. It took time to find the right mask, the right air pressure, and just to get used to the whole setup. But even as I fiddled with the settings, things started to change.

I found myself singing as I rode to and from work. I found myself joining my kids on the trampoline from time to time. I started to bounce. And play. And feel.

It’s like staring at a black and white photo and finding it suddenly transforming into an immersive 3D interactive experience in vibrant colour.

It’s like being blind for years and suddenly being able to see.

It’s like spending half your life deaf and hearing a symphony for the first time.

It’s like going to sleep in the darkest of Arctic winters and waking on a tropical beach.

It’s like dying and being reborn, but without having to go through teething or puberty again.

It’s like watching a flower grow from seed to bloom in a matter of moments, right inside your own head.

Today I’m tired. I had a huge day yesterday, and a late night blissfully immersed in the kind of conversation that extends for hours beyond the first tentative “I should be going”. I woke at 5:30am and couldn’t get back to sleep because my head was buzzing with plans and ideas. I should be completely wrecked. But I’m just normally tired. And tonight I will sleep. Those words are beyond miraculous to me. I will sleep. And I will most likely wake feeling rested. From there, absolutely anything is possible.

I’m 44 today. My kids think that’s extraordinarily old. I’m told it’s all downhill from 40. I should, apparently, be feeling old and creaky and disheartened. Instead I have my life back. I feel brighter, more energetic, and younger than I’ve felt in years. CPAP is a daunting prospect, and it certainly takes some getting used to, but it has given me a whole new life.

Finding Compassion

All our Prime Minister can say is “Stop the boats!”

But stopping the boats does not stop the death.

Stopping the boats does not stop the torture.

Stopping the boats does not free prisoners, prevent rape, or feed the hungry.

Stopping the boats means they don’t die inconveniently within sight of our shores. Stopping the boats means they die elsewhere, while we rest easy in our privileged beds.

So we march. And the government closes its ears and covers its eyes.

So we sign petitions. And the government covers its eyes and closes its ears.

So we share photos of the doomed and the dying. And the government says it has solved the problem because it has Stopped the Boats. And the dying continues where we can’t see it.

I’m tired of marching. I’m tired of signing. I’m tired of sharing the photos. Above all I am tired of the torture and the dying, and the complete absence of compassion and humanity.

But compassion exists.

Humanity exists.

People are making a difference.

So rather than march and be ignored, I am going to put my credit card where my marching would be.

I am going to find compassion by funding compassion.

If my government won’t open its arms, I will fund those who will.

Please join me in funding compassion. Fund the UNHCR to shelter refugees. Families. People like us. People who are fleeing war zones, terror, and trauma. People who are just trying to find safety for their families. People who just want to be safe.

As yourself this: If your family was at risk, what would you do to protect them?

You can protect a family at risk right now. Fund Compassion today.

Together we can make a difference.

A question of identity

When my girls were really little, the youngest, JB, had a bit of a problem. She quite liked pretty dresses and flowers, but she was also dead keen on things she thought of as “boy stuff”.  She felt as though she had to choose a side. She was quite relieved when we talked it through and worked out that she didn’t have to be either a girly girl or a tomboy. She could just be herself. Now that she’s 8, she has clearly picked a side, and it’s her own.

She has very short hair, and today is wearing a grey and black striped hoodie, old blue trackies with a pink stripe (and paint splotches from when we helped some friends paint their new house), and black sneakers. Tomorrow she could just as easily be wearing a frilly dress. We’re both at home with a virus, and when we went to a new GP to get a medical certificate for me, the GP asked who this “handsome young man” was by my side.  JB was unfazed, but the doctor was hugely embarrassed when I introduced them. She felt terrible that she had made the wrong assumption about JB’s gender, but it happens all the time, and JB isn’t bothered by it at all.

What does bother her, though, is when she corrects kids her own age and they refuse to accept it. One boy came up to me on Sunday and said “Your son keeps saying he’s a girl.” It bothered him hugely (and it probably didn’t help when I laughed and said “My son is a girl!”), and he and a couple of other kids pushed the issue to the point where JB became quite upset. They kept insisting that she had to be a boy, largely because she has very short hair. She was wearing a red t-shirt with cherries, and trousers with pink on them, so I assume it was just the hair. Kids like to put people in categories. It’s a normal, human way of processing the world. It’s a learning experience for them when someone doesn’t quite fit in the usual box. Adults, though, should know better.

I’ve known people with acute gender dysphoria who have eventually transitioned, and with people who don’t readily identify with a single gender. I’ve known people who are homosexual, or kinky, or polyamorous. I’ve even known a few people who society considers normal (although they are rarer than you might think). The one thing that becomes clearer to me with every new experience is that we, as a society, urgently need to learn to accept people for who they are on the inside.

There is nothing more comforting, enabling, and joyful than being accepted for who you are. And there are few things more destructive and corrosive than being told that who you are is somehow wrong.

That’s why it’s not “political correctness gone mad” to want to stop labeling toys as just for boys, or just for girls. Because in doing that we are telling girls who like “boys’ toys” that who they are is not normal, and not ok. And we are telling boys who like “girls’ toys” that who they are is not normal and not ok. And we are pushing the boys into nice, safe, boy occupations like building and engineering, and we are pushing the girls into nice, safe, girl occupations like teaching and nursing. Whether they belong there or not.

We reinforce these rigid gender boxes in so many unthinking ways. Schools have boys’ uniforms and girls’ uniforms. Why can’t they just have uniforms, and let people choose the bits that suit them? There are high schools around here where girls can wear shorts (although it’s not well advertised) but the girls’ shorts are dark blue, while the boys’ are grey. What is the point of that? Why do we feel this intense need to draw this deep dark line under gender, and underscore it so hard we cut through the paper?

Being very tall, I used to worry that someone would “catch” me buying men’s jeans, or that I would inadvertently buy something off the wrong rack, and find out later that I was accidentally wearing men’s clothes. It took me a surprisingly long time to decide that there was no inherent shame, or indeed gender, in clothing. Clothes, for the most part, don’t actually have genitalia.

Here we are in 2015, and we still have poker nights for the men and tupperware parties for the girls, but I take some heart from the fact that my younger friends don’t seem to acknowledge the divide the way my contemporaries do. When I hang out with younger crowds there’s no clear gender split, yet when I hang out with my uni friends my cherished status as “one of the boys” has been revoked. Among people my age it remains strange to try to breach that divide, and once I had kids I was put firmly back into my gender role, whether I liked it or not. (I did not!)

I hope we don’t wind up imposing our rigid and, let’s face it, very broken ideas about gender on the next generation. I hope that those kids who continue to tease JB for being a girl but looking like a boy might stop and reflect on why it bothers them so much. Above all I hope that we are capable, sooner rather than later, of ditching the boxes and accepting people for who they are.

The promise of Spring

This morning, towards the end of a long, cold, and immeasurably gloomy winter, I dragged myself out for a run. Well, I say a run. It was more of a stumble, really. But it was pre-dawn, I was outside, and the sting of frost had finally faded, to leave a cold but bearable morning.

There was a wispy layer of thin cloud, with pink and gold highlights shyly appearing and disappearing as the sun struggled out of its metaphorical bed. The morning air was still and, while not precisely warm, it hinted at warmth to come. Frostbite, it promised, was a thing of the past.

I run to throw off the shackles of another restless night. To escape the lead weights of insecurity that threaten sink me on many an otherwise unremarkable day. To leave behind the gnawing doubts – am I fit to be a parent? Could I have handled that better? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I giving them what they need? Am I a good teacher? Was that class a complete train wreck, and can I salvage something from the wreckage? Have I lost it? Did I, in fact, ever have it?

I run towards a future where I sleep, and I am confident. Where I am fitter, stronger, and more patient. Where I spring out of bed in the morning feeling rested and energetic. I don’t even know if that future exists, but I have to keep running towards it, or like a shark who stops swimming, I fear I will drown.

I don’t run far – yet. But I get the blood pumping and the breath rasping. I run far enough to fog up my glasses when I arrive home.

And I run far enough to see the clouds turn silvery gold in the morning sun. To smell the Daphne and Pittosporum as they promise me Spring in all its glory. To see the blossom trees unfurling in eager beauty, believing in a season we can’t yet see or feel.

I run far enough to find hope in the daffodils and narcissus that force their own way through winter’s dark depression like small, localized sunrises. To feel the warmth on a breeze that doesn’t yet exist. And to know that Spring is coming, both inside and out.