Odd Socks

Even when I was a kid, I never really wanted to fit in. I never longed to do my hair the same way as everyone else, or to wear the trendy clothes, and use the same makeup. I was happy to stand out and be different – which is just as well, because I wound up 185cm (6’1”) tall, so at a girls’ school I was going to stand out whatever I did.
I frequently chose to be different because it seemed more interesting to me. In my year 8 German class, after 29 girls had said one by one, in German, “I come from Melbourne,” I said “Ich komme aus Bendigo.” Well, that’s where I was born, and I wanted a little variety. What I got, of course, was to be brutally scorned, and called “Bendigo” for the rest of my school days. The name itself wasn’t hurtful, but the tone of voice was vicious.
Still, I never wanted to be the same. What I did want, though, was to belong. I used to fluctuate between just being myself (and damn the torpedoes!), and fretting about whether I was following the unknown ‘rules’. I hated being teased, and I was fairly certain that the key to avoiding it was to blend in. Unfortunately blending in has never come easily to me.

Now that I’m an adult, I’m even less mainstream than I was as a kid. I wear odd socks, and that’s not the oddest thing about me, although it may be one of the more noticeable. It’s interesting how many people are disturbed, even threatened, by something as trivial as odd socks. It turns out that you can tell a lot about people by their reaction to your socks. These days I am more comfortable with my own weirdness, and increasingly uncomfortable with many of the trappings of a mainstream life. I even married a man markedly less mainstream than I. I am not particularly worried about what others make of us. What worries me, though, is the effect on our kids.

It’s not that I particularly want my kids to blend in. I suspect they’d be no better at that than I was. But I do want them to feel that they belong. I don’t want them to feel like outcasts. I want to help them to find kindred spirits and a sense of community. I don’t want them to be teased, ostracised and mocked the way I was at school. I know that by giving them a home life which is different from those of their friends, we are going to make that sense of belonging harder to find, and the mocking more likely.

We are teaching our kids about what we believe is important. We are showing them as best we can the way we want to live, and the things that we care about. There is no denying that we don’t care about many of the things their friends in the playground will care about. We don’t buy new clothes just because the old ones are unfashionable. We choose our clothes for functionality, aesthetics and durability, not for fashion. The idea that something that looked good last year is dreadful now, simply because it’s no longer fashionable, is one that just doesn’t make any sense to us. (I know, we are so last century!)

We don’t buy the kids the latest toys, or take them to McDonalds.  We use human power rather than burning fossil fuels if we possibly can – we ride bikes for fun and transport, use a hand mower for the lawn, and even hand saws. Admittedly the first dead tree did take a long time, because we had to keep stopping to fend off offers of chainsaws from astounded neighbours up and down the street. We go out to dinner frequently, but almost always with our kids. Neither of our kids, aged 6 and 2, have stayed overnight with anyone else yet, even their grandparents. I breastfed the eldest until she was 2, and am still breastfeeding the youngest, at 2.5 years and counting.

I know that these things, and many other things we care about, will often seem strange to the other kids in the playground. I know that “seeming strange” is an obstacle our kids will need to overcome in order to find that sense of belonging. We can’t take that obstacle away.

Perhaps the best we can do is to help them to be comfortable in their own skins. I suspect it’s much easier to find a place where someone like you belongs, when you know who “someone like you” really is. It has taken me over 30 years to be comfortable with who I am. The best gift I can give my children is to help them reach that point a lot faster.

On the nature of truth

Many years ago a friend, K, and I were discussing a traumatic situation between two other friends. K had spoken to the girl, and I had heard the guy’s side of the story. As K & I talked it over, I commented that the truth probably lay somewhere in between, but K was most indignant. “What possible reason would she have to lie?” he demanded.

I was somewhat nonplussed by the astounding naivete of that question, but K’s outlook on life has always been uncomplicated. Not simple, or dumb, because he is highly intelligent. But he took the view that things were very straightforward, and that what was said was generally true and unambiguous.

My own view was that she almost certainly had not lied – nor had the guy in question. But that what we had heard was not a precise, unambiguous and accurate portrayal of events, but rather their own individual interpretation of what had happened. We heard a version of the situation that was substantially filtered through their own perception and experience. There need be no intent to mislead or dissemble to get two radically different accounts of the same event. Few people  have photographic memories and I would argue that none have word-perfect, objective memories of events. We all recall events as we perceive and experience them, rather than precisely as they happen. That’s a natural part of the workings of the human psyche.

It seems to me that most, if not all, human conflicts could be avoided, or at least substantially reduced, if more people understood this truth at the gut level.

I was once bailed up by a friend who was massively upset with me. He bombarded me with things he swore I had said, and demanded I explain, justify and make sense of every individual word. This was impossible for me, because not only was I dealing with his memory of what had happened, rather than a word perfect recall of what I had actually said (though that is what he swore it was), but because human language, and especially English language, is simply not precise, unambiguous and perfect. Those of us with a mathematical or computer science bent might wish it were so, but it can never be. We just don’t work that way – even computer scientists and engineers don’t work that way. (Although we’re not necessarily very good at accepting it!)

Thus “the truth” of a situation is a flexible beast, assuming a different shape for every participant, and gradually metamorphosing through each telling and retelling. Sometimes my truth clashes so badly with another’s that it seems like we inhabit different planets, and this can be a tremendously distressing experience. To be accused of saying things I have not said, or to be told that things happened which I am certain did not – when it comes from a sufficiently influential source, it can be powerfully unsettling.

The challenge, for me, at least, is not to take it personally. To release the cherished notion of absolute truth, and embrace its flexibility as an example of the rich diversity of life. A poetic notion, and a noble aim. But I am a long, long way from achieving it.

Facebook consumption

There have been a lot of very interesting responses to my ramble about facebook privacy. Most of them offline, which is intriguing in itself. It’s clear that I didn’t manage to get the source of my unease across, but it has provoked some intriguing discussion.

One friend commented that he wondered if he was one of the people I was thinking of who “didn’t contribute anything” to facebook. This was a fascinating insight, not least because it was in no way intended by me. In fact, he is regularly logged on, so he was not on my mind at all. My concern was with the people I can’t see – the ones who I don’t know are there, but who nonetheless read everything and hence observe my ‘life’ in ways I don’t fully understand, and am not yet comfortable with.

It’s not that people know about me – obviously the stuff I put on facebook is knowingly, consciously public. That is, after all, the point. It’s that people know about me without me knowing about it. It’s all the people who use facebook undetectably (to me, at least). People who don’t post much on their facebook pages, and who aren’t online when I am, who nonetheless read a lot of the stuff I post. My unease stems from the fact that I can’t see them. In every facet of my life until now, can’t see/hear/detect them has been 100% equal to “they’re not there”. (Ok, except when Andrew joins in with the hide and seek, but I swear that’s because he cheats! When he turns up it’s in places I *know* we’ve looked!)

On facebook, however, ‘can’t detect them’ means… well, nothing! So even though I know, intellectually, that anyone I am connected to (I rebel against using the term “friends” in a facebook sense!) can read everything I put up there, it is never reinforced with any sort of tangible reflection of that fact. Until I am talking to them in real life and they reveal their inside knowledge. At which point I am mildly spooked.

Anyway, let’s return to the fascinating concept of ‘contribution’. Facebook is, indeed, a community made up of contributions. People contribute content in various forms, and it reinforces links, helps people share interests, and creates a strange kind of keeping in touch, where you know what people are up to without the inconvenience of having to actually interact with them. Or, at least, you know what people want you to think they are up to.

So if you are a facebook lurker, consuming the content of others but not producing content of your own, what implications does that have for the community? Are you a drag on the system – a dead weight, carried by others? Or are you, rather, an important consumer of content that we crave attention for? (My inner grammar nazi is going slightly crazy at this point, but that is a rant for another time!)

Is there some sort of obligation to produce as well as to consume? Or are all those content consumers out there simply feeding the egos of the electronic extroverts? Stay tuned for musings on the altered nature of digital versus real life introversion and extroversion…

how much wood could a wood chick split?

I may have got a little carried away splitting wood this morning – I no longer have any strength in my hands, nor any fine motor control. (There are those who would argue I never have had fine motor control, actually.) But it was totally worth it. The tangible evidence of success and progress, in the form of a huge pile of split logs. The immense satisfaction of the sheer physical violence involved. Swing, swish, whack, crack!

It was that intense sense of progress and achievement that really struck a chord. The huge pile of split wood, and the rapidly shrinking pile of wood to be split, gave me a real buzz. Being a parent rarely gives that immediate, tangible reward. That sense of having made immediate progress. Of course, there are plenty of other rewards – those sticky kisses, seeing your kids play together and care for each other, the endless cuddles.  But those tangible signs of progress – that feeling of having got a lot done today – there aren’t many of those built in to parenthood.

I can’t speak for lots of parents, of course – I am not lots of parents, although it sometimes feels as though I am trying to be! – I am only one mum, and can only speak for myself. But I wonder if that is part of what drives parents back into the workforce. Leaving aside money and mortgages, I wonder if it’s that sense of achievement that is what leaves people feeling as though parenting “isn’t enough”.

Certainly while working at Oxfam, even though it’s ‘only’ volunteer work, I have revelled in the chance to work on something tangible, with clear signs of progress. Plus, of course, the social aspect of having co-workers, and of being appreciated for what I do. While appreciation isn’t lacking in parenthood (“you’re the best mum in the world!”), it is not the same as genuine adult appreciation of your skills and contribution. It is too easy to be the best mum in the world (it often involves chocolate, although this morning it was a mandarin).

Having identified the problem, I have no idea how it can be fixed. Perhaps parents appreciating each other more is part of the solution, but it may simply be that a balance between work and parenting will always be a healthier mix for some people. It is certainly working for me.

Facebook – changing the nature of privacy

I am uneasy about facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against it – in fact I am completely addicted to it. Having resisted it for a long time, once I took the plunge and signed up I quickly got hooked. But there are whole new social constructs built into facebook that I don’t think we have understood – and there are implications that I’m not sure I’m ready for.

It wasn’t long after I joined facebook that I was ‘found’ by an old friend. Facebook told me “you are now friends with Tim.” This is strangely unsettling, there is an implication that I wasn’t friends with Tim until it became ‘official’ on facebook. Of course, it’s catchy terminology – much simpler and niftier to say “you are now friends” than to say “You are now connected on facebook”.

The upside turned out to be much more significant than I imagined – I already had Tim’s email address, and he had mine. But via facebook we communicated much more often. There was the convenience of chatting when we were both online at the same time, but also the prompt of our status messages – I learnt that he was moving into a new flat, that he had a new job, that he had bought a dog, and all of these things prompted quick conversations between us that would not have happened otherwise. It truly did make us more connected. I know more about what’s going on in his life, and vice versa, than I ever have before. It’s great.

But that part of it is all open and transparent. It’s the weirdness of all of those public conversations that I just can’t get my head around. Some of them are fun – I comment on a friend’s status message, he comments on mine. Another friend joins in, it’s all very light hearted and cheerful. Even when my status messages are flat and depressed, the responses often help to boost me back up.

The other day, though, I was talking to a friend I am linked to on facebook. We hadn’t talked in ages, and we never seem to be online at the same time, so it was good to catch up. But what took me by surprise was all the stuff she knew, because she had, of course, been reading my status messages, and all those conversations. It hadn’t occurred to me that she had, because I couldn’t ‘see’ her. It felt really strange.

I suddenly stopped to think about all the people I am friends with on facebook, around 70 at last count, many of whom I never see online. They don’t post to facebook much. No status updates or conversations. They are invisible to me on facebook, yet my facebook interactions are not invisible to them. It is so easy to forget they are there.

It’s not, you understand, that I have a problem with any of my facebook friends reading what I post there. It’s just that there is this sense of community that is wildly inaccurate. This feeling that you are interacting with a small crowd of people in a private room, when in fact there are all these hidden watchers. It’s as though the private room is a glass box (one-way glass, and covered with hidden microphones) in the middle of a shopping centre. There could be hundreds of people wandering by, watching and listening to your conversations while they go about their business, and you might never know they are there. Particularly when you add in the ‘friends of friends’ who can see surprising amount of your stuff, even if you are paranoid about your security settings, like I am.

My unease is at least partly because I grew up with private conversations. Every mode of interaction I have had, until now, has been with a known group, a known, and detectable, audience. It was clear, open and straightforward. Perhaps it is, or will be, different for kids who grow up using tools like this right from the womb. They may never develop this false sense of privacy, of knowing who is there or listening simply by looking around. But I do wonder what the social implications of that will be?