Colour me Grumpy

It never ceases to amaze me what gets put into food these days. Last year we discovered, through a painful process of trial and error, that our then-5-year-old, Chloe, reacts badly to colours. It’s not a life threatening, call an ambulance style reaction, but a more insidious, subtle reaction that nevertheless had significant ramifications for our family life. She got grumpy.

In fact, she was more than grumpy, she was often quite distressed. It did not change her personality, but it seemed to move her much closer to “the edge”. Crises were magnified, anxiety inflamed, and distress seemed exponentially increased. In short, it made everything dramatically harder for her, and in consequence for us, than it needed to be.

This was a difficult discovery to make, because it wasn’t as simple as noting her reaction to “red cordial”, which is the classic behaviour-bomb that everyone knows about. In fact she didn’t react noticeably to the obvious culprits, simply because it turns out that there are some seriously troublesome colours in the most ordinary of ordinary foods. Once our attention turned to colours (and I can’t even remember why we became suspicious, but I do know that it was an act of desperation even to look into it), we found them in everything from cheese to fruit juice. Margarine, yoghurt, ice cream, biscuits, bread, sauces – even antibiotics. Forget lollies and soft drinks, colours were sneaking into almost every food in our pantry – and we have a healthy diet with a higher than average emphasis on unprocessed foods.

Thanks to fedup (, we soon discovered that even the label “no artificial colours” was no guarantee of safety, as one of the worst additives is 160(b) – also known as Annatto – which is a yellow colouring derived from a plant, and hence “natural”. It is associated with a huge range of behavioural problems, and indeed seems to be one of Chloe’s worst triggers.

When these “nasty” colours are constantly in your diet, spotting reactions to the obvious ones may be difficult, simply because the reaction is always happening. Indeed, once we had eliminated colours from our family diet, it became apparent that any inadvertent colours creeping into our food supply had an impact on me, as well as on Chloe. We talk a lot about the behavioural effects of colours and other additives on kids, but I wonder how many adults are walking around strung out, tense and aggravated, simply because of these bizarre chemicals in their diets.

The food industry resists all calls for change with a startling stubbornness. Why would they want to be associated with something that might harm people? One simple reason. Marketing. Apparently icecream that is more yellow (often due to the addition of 160(b) or 102 (tartrazine), both known causes of behavioural problems) sells better. Apple juice usually contains 150(d). Even orange or combination juices now often have 160(b).

Our food is being adulterated for the purposes of marketing. Well, there are few aspects of our lives that are not massively manipulated by marketing companies these days, so I suppose it should come as no surprise. But there is no food value – arguably there is actually negative food value. They do not change the taste. They simply manipulate our purchasing decisions. Is that worth poisoning us for? According to the big food companies, the answer, apparently, is yes.

The antibiotics our 6 year old recently needed were coloured with E129 – a red colouring which has been banned in the UK because of its proven health effects, particularly on children. Yet it is not possible – yes, you read that correctly, NOT POSSIBLE – to get antibiotics that don’t have colours in them. I find that truly remarkable.

Progress is being made, very slowly. Some confectionary companies use safe colours – thank goodness for The Natural Food Company. And even some “big supermarket” branded products now trumpet their lack of colours. It is possible to get icecream that is no yellower than the cream and egg it is made from, although it does involve a lot of careful label reading.

We’re getting there, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go. A few moments light reading in your pantry will show you that. Meanwhile all we can do is read the labels, learn to recognise the worst culprits, and try to avoid them wherever possible. Presumably the food companies will come to their senses eventually – but we may need to remove colours from their diets first!

P.S. Here is a list of the worst colours, thanks to FedUp (we generally avoid 102-160(b) inclusive, as it’s easier to remember, but some of the colours inside that range are reasonably safe):

102 Tartrazine

104 Quinoline Yellow

110 Sunset Yellow

122 Azorubine, Carmoisine

123 Amaranth

124 Ponceau, Brilliant Scarlet

127 Erythrosine

129 Allura Red

132 Indigotine

133 Brilliant Blue

142 Green S

143 Fast Green FCF

151 Brilliant Black

155 Brown HT

160(b) Annatto

Bunny Rabbits in the driveway

Many years ago I was wildly excited about the release of Billy Joel’s new album, River of Dreams. I was sitting in my car – a little maroon 1981 Daihatsu Charade, affectionately known as the “Dim Sim” or “Pregnant Skateboard” – listening to the title song on the radio. It had only been out for a week or two, and I just adored the song. It was late at night, and I had just arrived home at the student house I shared with two friends. I stayed in the car, bopping and singing at the top of my voice, until the end of the song. Once it ended I became preternaturally aware of the dark, the mysterious nighttime noises, and the fact that the house I was heading for was devoid of lights – my housemates weren’t home.

I must admit that even now, at 37, I am a little afraid of the dark. You may save your Freudian analysis of that for your own private amusement. Back then, in my early twenties, I was feeling young and invulnerable, except for the darkness thing. So I got out of the car, carefully locked it, and tried to stiffen my backbone and pretend I was a fine, sophisticated urbanite with no darkness issues at all. Then there was a rustling noise in the driveway that sounded like footsteps, and I bolted for the house like a startled rabbit (which was ironic in ways that will shortly become clear). I scrambled inside, feverishly relocked the door, then rushed around the house turning all the lights on and telling myself I was being foolish.

That kept me calm for, oh, it must have been a second or so, after which I called a friend, A, who lived nearby and begged him to come and save me from the monster lurking outside my house. Being the manly type, the sobbing girl begging for help was an irresistible lure, so he made a beeline for my door. (I should add that he was, and indeed is, a very caring friend, but the rest of the story may reveal why I am leaning towards the mocking rather than the grateful in my portrayal of him now! Delay your judgement for a moment – I am not as ungrateful and callous as I may appear.)

Before A had time to get there, though, one of my housemates arrived home, and was rather startled to find me flinging myself at him and sobbing. By the time A arrived, all heroic and manly and expecting to comfort the distressed wench, I had recovered and was feeling fine, if slightly embarrassed at my uncharacteristically girly cry for help. He was rather disappointed to be deprived of the opportunity to play the hero of the hour, but he stayed to mock me for a bit, and then headed home. As he headed down the driveway, he saw a couple of rabbits in the bushes, and immediately leapt to the conclusion that these furry guys were the source of the rustling noise that had triggered my little freak out.

The next morning, when I arrived at the office that I was foolish enough to share with him and some other friends, they were all sporting large bunny teeth and twitching their noses at me. It took me a loooooooooong time to live that down.

Now that a chance playing of River of Dreams has reminded me of it, I am pondering how many of the fears in my life are, in fact, bunnies rustling in the undergrowth. I am, I admit, a bit of a worrier. Mountains get created out of molehills rather more often than they should. Perhaps I need a picture of a bunny taped to my bedroom door, to remind me that so often my greatest fears turn out to be completely unfounded. Bunnies, not monsters. Opportunities, not disasters. Perhaps the greatest thing we have to fear isn’t even fear itself, but the bunnies in our imaginations. Rustle, rustle.

Sparkly people

Recently I have had cause to notice a particularly wonderful class of people. They seem to go through life positively sparkling. They are the people everyone wants to be friends with. The ones that gather a crowd around them at parties, simply by being there. The ones who brighten your day just by saying Hi on the way past. They are like sunbeams on a cloudy day, and it’s fundamentally built in to their personalities.

I have tried to work out exactly what makes someone a member of the sparkly class. It’s not easy to define, but I  have come up with a short list of essential qualities. I think it’s something we can all learn from – we can’t all be innately sparkly, but we can certainly imitate some of these wonderful qualities in our own lives.

1. Paying attention. Sparkly people take a genuine interest in everyone they meet. When they ask you how you are, they really want to know. They make (and hold) eye contact, they are undistracted by events around them, and they really listen. These are the people you find yourself telling your life story to, without ever intending to.  It’s too easy to spend the time someone else is talking thinking about other things, or working out what we are going to say next. It’s a natural side effect of a hectic life. But taking the time to show real interest in someone else makes them feel special, important, and valued. And who doesn’t need more of that in their lives?

2. Remembering. Not only do they listen, but sparkly people remember what you tell them, and will ask you later what happened, or how it worked out, or how things have progressed since you last spoke. It’s intriguing, because sparkly people are almost invariably ludicrously, chaotically busy. They have more things (and people) in their life than even two people could realistically cope with. But they still remember you. Making you feel valued again.

3. Being busy. They are almost invariably ludicrously busy. I’m not sure how this contributes to them sparkling – it may simply be a side effect of being so lovely to be around, and collecting people like other people collect stamps or star wars figurines. Or it might mean that they don’t have time to dwell on the bad stuff.

4. Positive thinking. It’s not that they are never down. Bad stuff happens to everyone now and then. But sparkly people are rarely so down that they can’t muster a smile, and they are really good at seeing the upside of bad situations. It’s infectious. Tell a sparkly person that you didn’t get the job you had your heart set on, and they will tell you how wonderfully amazing you are, and within moments have you persuaded that a better opportunity will naturally present itself to someone as fabulous as you. And you’ll go on believing it, even after they have gone.

5. Not judging. Sparkly people are invariably non-judgemental. They are interested in everything, and predisposed to believe that everyone has a worthwhile point of view, even if it differs from their own. They will not judge you or belittle you for your choices. On the contrary, they will support and validate you in everything that you do.

Sparkly people come from all walks of life. I know a sparkly fireman, a school principal, a crossing guard, a Suzuki violin and ballet teacher, and a couple of professors, among many others. So here is my challenge to you – first, identify the sparkly people in your life. Then learn from them – put some sparkle into your own life.

But how do we fix it??

Everyone knows it’s a tough economic climate out there. Jobs are hard to get, and easy to lose. People who are already in work are struggling to keep it, and anyone not already in the job market faces a long hard road to break back in.

Which strikes me as a little odd. I mean, I know I am economically naive, and not well versed in business matters. But stuff still needs to be done, yes? I understand that there is not as much money in the system (and where did it go? Did it get eaten?), and hence ‘discretionary spending’ is down – people are not buying the stuff they don’t need at such a great rate. But that actually sounds like an upside to me – not buying stuff they don’t need? It’s buying stuff we don’t need that is devastating our climate, wreaking havoc on our lifestyles, and creating a lot of very unhappy people.

Perhaps we should declare a moratorium on buying stuff we don’t need? Yet the realist in me (tiny and malformed though she is) understands that buying less stuff means, in turn, manufacturing less stuff, which means more people getting laid off (by which I mean “sacked” – why is “laid off” better than “made redundant” which is better than “sacked”? Will we keep changing the terminology every time the current term acquires the negative connotations? Of course we will. That’s what we do. That’s why no-one is disabled anymore… sorry, it appears my digression may have digressed…). Ahem. Where was I?

If we don’t buy as much stuff, more people will lose their jobs. So we are locked into an endless spiral – buy stuff, wreck the planet, keep people in work. Or don’t buy stuff and drive people into poverty. Except that buying stuff was also driving people into poverty – just different people.

We desperately need a new model. Capitalism has been a wild, entertaining ride, but it has taken us as far as – perhaps further than – we can usefully go.

But what can we possibly choose to replace it? I wish I had an answer. But all I have is a list of problems.  There must be a model, a system, a way of living, that makes it more likely that everyone gets what they need. David Suzuki, in The Sacred Balance, identified clean air & water, food, shelter, love, and spirituality, as the essentials we all need. And globally we have the resources to make this happen. But we lack the will. We can’t make the leap from life as we know it into the vast unknown of taking care of everyone.

Some days I can persuade myself that if we all bought fair trade whenever possible, all supported organisations like Oxfam and Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF), all walked, rode or took public transport whenever possible, and did all the right environmental & social things in every facet of our lives, it would all add up to a fix. But I suspect the real solution is far more radical than that, and it may take a radical catastrophe to make radical solutions feasible. Meanwhile I’m going to install solar panels on my roof, and buy a cargo bike to do all my local trips using human power, instead of petrol. At least I can say I am doing what I can. I just wish it was enough.

Mind vs Body

We have this strange tendency, here in the western, developed, or ‘minority’ world, to divide the head from the body. Our entire philosophy is predicated on the idea that the brain and the body are separate, distinct individuals, with little or no impact on each other. We are uneasy with documented cases, like the placebo effect, where the two interact in ways we find inexplicable. Yet I have recently experienced in an intensely personal way the profound impact of the body upon the brain, and there are many documented cases of the brain’s effect on the body. Our understanding of ourselves, our physiology and our psychology must remain flawed until we can incorporate the brain and the body into one complete entity, and use that as the basis of all of our models. Let’s call it, oh, I don’t know – a human being, perhaps?

I suspect the separation began as a side effect of scientific reductionism – break a problem down into ever smaller problems, until you can study changes by changing one small thing at a time, and observing the effect. Preferably in a test tube. Scientific reductionism has taught us many things, but it is a mistake to believe that it is sufficient to explain the world. Some things cannot be reduced to their component parts in a meaningful way – it reminds me of the Auditors on Terry Pratchett’s discworld, attempting to understand art by reducing it to its component molecules. Or trying to define good literature by means of mathematical formulae. A book is wonderful if it speaks to you in some way, stirs an emotion – try to define that with numbers, I dare you!

Some things are greater than the sum of their parts. This is where reductionism fails us. It cannot capture the magic of synergy. And it cannot capture the impact of mind upon body, or body upon mind.  At least not without putting the mind in a test tube.

Recently I have been recovering from chronic illness – becoming well, and properly nourished, possible for the first time in my life. I have coeliac disease, and it turns out I am very, very, easily poisoned – the slightest crumb of gluten damages my gut and makes me feel amazingly rotten. On the days when I haven’t been poisoned, I am high as a kite on an amazing cocktail of energy and wellbeing. The days when I inadvertently poison myself, I am sick and desperately grumpy and miserable.

Depression is a well known bedfellow of chronic disease. Most of the medical literature on the subject focuses on depression as “a normal reaction to the stress of having a chronic medical condition”. It seems to be rare that the connection between the wellbeing of your body and that of your mind are explored as causal relationships in both directions. Some studies have shown that positive thinking can affect the course of even serious diseases like cancer, yet the overwhelming assumption still seems to be that chronic disease causes depression simply by being an upsetting sort of thing to suffer. It’s not nice to be sick – of course people are going to get depressed about it. And I’m sure that can be a contributing factor. But I am convinced that the body physically brings the mind down, (or up!) and more easily than we give it credit for.

In my own case, my state of mind currently fluctuates in direct proportion to my state of health. And it doesn’t seem to be relevant how well adjusted I am, or how well I am getting on top of the dietary and lifestyle changes. A bad poisoning leads to a massively depressed me. But the reverse is also true – when I am well, unpoisoned, and energetic, I am positively euphoric. True, it may be partly a natural reaction to feeling well after a long time of feeling rotten. But the emotional reaction is often visible even before the physical/digestive reaction is detectable. When I am poisoned, my mood often crashes before my gut reveals the cause.

This fits perfectly with the placebo effect – studies have shown that sugar pills can do all kinds of amazing things, from eliminating pain to curing disease, in the hands of people who believe that they will work. And perhaps this also explains the success of homeopathy, which is otherwise inexplicable to current science. And the more impressive the packaging the sugar pills come in, the stronger the medicinal effect. Nifty, eh? So if we can persuade ourselves, and our bodies, that a drug will work, simply by dressing it up in snazzy clothes, why should we be surprised that our bodies can affect our brains with similar power?

Perhaps there is a group somewhere that I haven’t heard about, that is happily researching this very topic. In all probability there are several. But it’s not filtering through to the general population, or even the medical profession. They still seem to want to put my brain in a test tube. If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to study it in situ.


We trust our kids, and our kids trust us. We work hard to deserve that trust. Perhaps the hardest we have worked has been in our 2 year old’s child care orientation. When our oldest child, Chloe, started child care, we followed the standard advice. After one half an hour play there together, we left her for an hour. She was 10 months old. That first time she was fine. But things deteriorated fast after that. She would scream when I left her, and I dreaded those drop offs. It took months before the drop offs improved, and even then there was still quite a lot of screaming.

It wasn’t until Chloe was 3 that we finally realised that by continuing the traumatic separation, we were making things worse. Instead, we tried waiting until she was happy for us to leave. If she was crying, we stayed. If she was settling happily and gave us the ok, we’d leave. Her kinder teacher was vehemently against this. “If you come back when she cries, she will use it against you. She’ll cry to make you come back.” We heard this mantra so often, from so many different people, that it is clearly a popular belief.

But there are two ways you can see it. You can see the crying as calculated manipulation, or as a genuine expression of need. The kinder teacher’s perspective was that, given such a potent weapon to use against us, Chloe would use it every time. Our belief was that Chloe would only use it when she felt she needed to – and that handing her a way of getting us to stay when she needed us would help her to feel more secure.

Put yourself in Chloe’s shoes for a moment. You are 3. You are able to talk, even quite articulate for your age, but still only 3. You are being dropped off at child care, and you don’t feel safe or secure – have you got any way of making your parents stay with you? Of saying “No, this is too much for me, I can’t do this.” If we dismiss children’s tears as pure manipulation, what would it take for us to pay attention, to see a real expression of need? How distressed must a child become in order for us to take it seriously?

The dominant theory seems to be that as long as the parents are happy with the situation, whether it is a child care centre, babysitter, kinder or school, the children will be ok, and will adjust. There isn’t a lot of attention paid to getting kids settled in and secure before the parents leave. The theory seems to be that the carers will handle that. The kids don’t need to feel happy before you leave. They’ll be fine. Indeed, when discussing the first day of prep, one school told us “it’s ok, we’re used to dealing with upset kids.” They were appalled at the idea that we might want to stay until Chloe was ready for us to leave. That wasn’t our job. The idea that perhaps the kids need not be upset in the first place, if it’s handled well, just didn’t seem to register with them.

In the end, our school of choice was delighted for us to stay as long as we needed to, and Chloe sent us on our way before the first bell went. She didn’t even want us to stay. But in the lead up to her first day of school, and the inevitable nervous planning, she took great comfort from the idea that we would stay if she needed us to. When people asked her about starting school she would always say “I’m going to be fine, but Mummy or Daddy will stay if I need them to.” Having that trust, that we would stand by her until she felt secure, seemed to make her feel more secure straight away.

So when Jane started child care, at 2, we had some experience with this trust thing. We were determined to make sure that Jane felt secure and happy at the centre, and with the staff, before we left her there. This inevitably made for a long orientation. I spent a lot of time in the room.

It was a lot of work getting Jane used to childcare this way. It was difficult for the staff. Although they were incredibly good about it, it was clear that it wasn’t what they were used to, and they didn’t expect it to work. It took a lot of time, and a lot of self-doubt and questions. We were told over and over again that there would have to be tears. Kids are bound to get distressed at first. They’ll get over it. But we weren’t sure that was true. I have to admit that we weren’t totally sure it wasn’t true, either – we were definitely running blind. But we were sure there had to be a better way. One of the key features was that we had no timetable. We wanted to wait until we felt she was ready. Fortunately, as I was working freelance from home, we had that luxury.

So I stayed with Jane, for full mornings, two days per week. Jane got used to the routine in the room, and began to get to know the staff. I played with her, but also encouraged her to interact with the staff. I came and went from the room for short periods, to get Jane used to the idea that I would always come back.

One morning she was playing so happily and ignoring me so much, I felt it was worth a try, so I left the room for half an hour. She wasn’t happy about me leaving – yes, there were tears. But I wanted to see if she would calm down with the carers’ help, rather than calming her down myself when I came back. And within five minutes she was accepting cuddles, within 10 she was playing in the sandpit. She did give me the cold shoulder when I got back – I got a very stern look that said “What did you do???? How could you???” but I also got nods when I said that the carers had looked after her, hadn’t they? “And I did come back, didn’t I?” More nods. “I always come back, don’t I?” Vigorous nodding this time. And she even agreed that she had had fun in the sandpit.

The next visit I left for 1.5 hours. This time I gave her a definite return time (after one of her favourite activities). There were separation tears again, but this time they had stopped in 2 minutes, and she quickly began to have fun. I didn’t leave the building – I stayed in hiding, out the back, so that I could peek. She wasn’t just ok – she was having a great time! This time when I came back she was excited to see me – no more cold shoulder.

The next time I left the building for the whole morning – and when I left, there were no tears at all!

Jane is now happily settled in at child care. She doesn’t cry when I leave, she talks excitedly about everything she has done there, and she gives her carers big kisses and cuddles when we leave. Jane attends for 2 days per week, and it took 3 weeks to get to the point of leaving her there. That’s 6 sessions. It felt like forever at the time, but it is such a small price to pay for ongoing trauma free drop offs, and a very happy Jane who loves child care, and still knows that she can trust me.

So perhaps the staff were right – there were tears. But because we had taken the time to be sure that Jane knew the staff and the room, we could be confident that they were “I don’t want you to leave” tears, not “I can’t cope with this” tears. I don’t know how else we could have had that confidence.

While I was in the room with Jane I saw many, many children separated from their parents by force – pulled off mum or dad, screaming and reaching out to them, while mum or dad raced out the door, often looking just as upset as their kids.

I sometimes saw these same children crying all morning. Some cried until they threw up. Others cried themselves to sleep. Some just looked miserable and didn’t get involved in the activities going on in the room. Some parents were relaxed about it “He’ll adjust. Those are ok tears.” Some were crying themselves as they headed out the door. I felt for them, because that was me, once. Before I realised that there was a better way for us.

I’m sure our approach wouldn’t work for everyone. But the key for us was learning to trust our own instincts, over “expert” advice. To do what we felt comfortable with. I hope that never again will I follow expert advice when it feels so wrong. Chloe and Jane know that if they tell us they need us, we’ll be there. Knowing that we will come if they call actually seems to mean that they call less, not more. They are not fundamentally manipulative, they just need to feel secure. I can relate to that.

Let’s all go part time

Economists talking about unemployment often refer gloomily to a drop in full time work, particularly for men. Apparently it’s ok for women to be in part time work, but the assumption is that men want or need to be in full time work. Now that we find ourselves in a climate where jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate, maybe it’s time to re-examine that assumption. Many people are unemployed – and many more will find themselves unemployed over the coming months. So here’s a thought: let’s all go part time.

Ask yourself this – would you prefer to be unemployed, or to work 4 days per week? Or maybe even 3? Sure, there’s a pay cut involved. But the cut from 5 days’ pay to 3 would still leave a higher wage than the unemployment benefit. (For a ‘partnered’ person, this is a maximum of $409 a fortnight. Based on the minimum wage of $14.31/hr, that’s just over 14 hours of work per week.) That’s just the financial difference. Unemployment carries with it many other problems besides money. The risks of depression, alcoholism, family breakdown and physical illness all rise rapidly when a person becomes unemployed.

Andrew has been working 4 days a week ever since his oldest child was born. One day a week has been “Daddy’s day” for the last 6 years, and he has a magnificent relationship with his kids. Yet he is classified as one of the men who is “not in full time employment”, and used as an example of how the employment rate is a problem. Why is being part time inherently bad? Many people envy Andrew’s 4 day weeks, and his 3 day weekends. It’s a great arrangement. If he did not have kids to spend time with, think of all the things he could do with that free time. Andrew would be perfectly happy to remain part time, even after his kids were grown, if he could persuade his employer to agree to it.

And there’s the rub. Employers don’t want part timers. Try checking the job ads – there are very few jobs advertised as part time. Especially professional jobs. As a senior executive in a large corporation commented “In our organisation, part time work is something which is allowed to accommodate valued staff – not when taking staff on.” But even where companies do choose to “accommodate valued staff”, there has to be a highly compelling case for why the staff member wants to be part time. Caring for children, or sick family members counts, although it still seems to be more of a struggle for men to get this kind of leave than women. There is an unspoken but pervasive assumption that it is the woman’s role. But wanting more leisure time, choosing to study something unrelated to work, or simply looking for work life balance? That’s disloyalty, that is.

But why should this be? Why is it career suicide to do so much as express interest in not devoting your life – body, soul and major organs – to your job? Surely no-one would argue that it is healthy, or even good for your productivity, to be wholly obsessed with work, to the exclusion of everything else?

The biggest obstacle may be that many professionals work far more than a standard 40 hour week, with lots of unpaid overtime. If you have people explicitly paid for a designated number of hours per week, they may be less likely to put in huge amounts of unpaid overtime. Thus businesses might have to start paying people for the work they actually do. This is an aspect of “user pays” that business is understandably reluctant to adopt.

True, having part time employees may require creative solutions in some cases – there are continuity issues in some jobs. But there is nothing fundamental about a 5 day working week. Working patterns have simply evolved to fit it. With a bit of creativity we can develop new working patterns to fit a new length of working week. There are few jobs where it is utterly crucial for the same person to be physically present 5 days out of every 7.

This is a manageable way for all of us to downshift – to switch emphasis from consumption to experience. Instead of working most of our waking hours in order to buy stuff, we can work less and experience more. Experience time with our loved ones. Play sport. Ride a bike. Create an idyllic, low water garden. Read more books. Volunteer for a local charity or community organisation. Socialise, learn, involve ourselves in the local community. We can grow immeasurably rich this way. How many of us actually meet every one of our emotional, social and intellectual needs at work? Think of the potential impact on rates of depression, obesity, and isolation, if we all had time to be more engaged with our local communities.

True, a decrease in consumption will not help us to rebuild our economy the way it was – but do we want that economy back? That economy flew high and then dropped us deep into trouble in an instant. It requires ever increasing consumption, which we can’t physically sustain, simply because the earth is finite. Sooner or later we will run out of resources, or destabilise our climate to a catastrophic extent, and the smart money is on ‘sooner’. So continuing to strive for increasing consumption is madness. We need a new solution. Many new solutions. What we don’t need is to continue to work ourselves, and our planet, into an early grave.

Out of place and out of sorts

I have been pondering the nature of fitting in, and today I experienced some stark examples of being almost catastrophically non-mainstream. First there was my quest to find some kids’ multivitamins that don’t involve fruit juice, citrus flavours, or hidden fructose. There doesn’t seem to be such a beast, but there is a large collection of people keen to assure me that I don’t really want anything so bizarre. But with kids possibly suffering from fructose malabsorption, and one with severe reflux in the presence of anything even remotely citrussy, I really did want something exactly that bizarre. So mostly I encountered a lot of shaken heads. Oh, and Blackmores kindly said that they couldn’t tell me what their flavours were, due to commercial confidence, but it was perfectly ok, because they’re “all natural”. Oh. Good. So is hemlock.

So I gave up on that and foolishly did a quick rummage through clothing shops, hoping to upgrade my wardrobe just a tad, since most of my clothes are utilitarian at best, threadbare and a decade old at worst. Being the middle of winter, I thought some winter clothes would make useful additions to my wardrobe. Such naivete! The only clothes currently in the shops are summer clothes. Of course. Now, I admit that August did sneak up on me with great cunning and duplicity this year, but last I checked August was still very much winter. Certainly the hail currently pounding down outside my study window suggests that warm clothing might still be a good idea. Not that I wouldn’t be happy to see a little sunshine right now, but I think summer clothes in August would be “courageous, Minister”!

In a last desperate throw of the dice, I decided to look for gluten free (GF) food that is also fructose friendly. For those of you who haven’t met the twin problems of gluten intolerance and fructose malabsorption, they are fairly compatible dietary restrictions. Gluten free food is by nature wheat free, and fructose friendly diets must also be wheat free. So far so good. But those who suffer from fructose problems must also avoid onion, garlic, honey, and a bizarre range of fruit and vegetables. Oh, and a weird artificial fibre called inulin which seems to be particularly prevalent in GF food. Most of the GF cereals are sweetened with honey. Or worse, fruit juice concentrate. And the savoury foods all seem to have onion or garlic.

That’s it. The shops have nothing for me anymore. They don’t want to know about me. I am far too weird for them. And yet it is not uncommon for those who suffer from coeliac disease (extreme sensitivity to the slightest crumb of gluten) to also suffer from fructose problems. So there must be an awful lot of people out there combing the GF aisles, and sighing sadly to themselves. Clearly one of us needs to start up our own food range!

Similarly it is surely not uncommon for people to seek to buy winter clothes in winter. Especially for kids – I have no idea what size my two year old will be by January. She may be taller than me, at this rate! So the idea of buying summer clothes for her in advance is just absurd. But by March, when it will be hot, and she will probably have outgrown most of her stuff, what will be in the shops? Winter clothes! Round and round and round we go. Where shall we stop? Nobody knows, but let’s just hope we’re not going postal.

Anyway, all of this failure to thrive in the retail world has left me with a shocked sense of what it is like to be permanently different. I am relatively lucky – having coeliac disease curtails my dining out opportunities dramatically, and makes it unlikely my friends will want to, or indeed be able to, cook dinner for me (apart from one utterly magnificent angel who can achieve absolutely anything in her kitchen with grace and good humour. With the possible exception of the transmutation of lead into gold. Possibly.). Because the diagnosis is recent, I am still stunned by all of the things I cannot do – like stopping to buy a snack if I get hungry. But I can still walk. Just imagine trying to make your way through the world in a wheelchair. Even those places that have ramps often have impossibly difficult doors that swing rather than slide, and are ludicrously heavy. And doorways are narrow (difficult enough to get through with a pram, take it from me!). Buses? Even those with a low floor? hah! Now there’s a thought – someone needs to invent hovercraft wheelchairs.

Imagine, for a moment, being blind. Or deaf. Or in any way non-standard, really. For all our rhetoric about diversity, inclusivity, and even multi-culturalism, we are really not good at including anyone who was not stamped out of the standard mold. Sure, we can retrofit ramps, or put beepy things on our pedestrian crossings. But it’s all a bit of an afterthought. Don’t even get me started on the topic of websites and accessibility. Oh, we might try, if we can be bothered. But it’ll be tacked on at the last minute. And not necessarily updated when we update the content. I mean, they can always phone, right? And we’re only talking about a few people. It’s not crucial. It doesn’t matter to us if we lose that tiny fraction of available business.

Can you imagine the sense of alienation? Here is another website I can’t access. Here is another building I can’t get into. Here is another sign I can’t read, another person or business who doesn’t give a damn about me. What a damning indictment of our society, that we are not inclusive as a matter of course, but only when we have to be, by government ruling.

Fair enough

Some truths seem to be more self evident than others. Some truths spread better than others. It seems self evident to me that paying farmers a fair price for their produce, making sure that they can actually sustain themselves and their families with their labour, is a good thing to do.  Conventional produce, that which is not certified fair trade, may be produced using child slavery (like cotton from uzbekistan, coffee and chocolate from the Ivory Coast). Large companies may control the market such that farmers get paid a pittance, can barely afford to feed their families, much less educate them and care for their health.

Fair trade goods are available – these days even in the major supermarkets. Yet they have still barely penetrated the mass consciousness of our society. I swore off conventional tea, coffee and chocolate when I read about child slavery. There are plenty of high quality fair trade alternatives (try Alter Eco’s mocha, or their Dark Velvet – mmmm! Lindt be damned, this is chocolate!). Can you imagine allowing someone to enslave your child? Or enslaving someone else’s? Yet this is what we do when we buy these products, whether we are aware of it or not.

So why hasn’t fair trade taken off? Why is it not the dominant market force? Is it simply that advertising is too potent? That we all suffer from compassion fatigue and don’t think about it, because it’s all too hard? Are we believing the neo-liberal economic rationalists who would have us believe that all trade is fair, market forces will sort it out, and the global financial crisis was an aberration caused by really nasty people, nothing to do with a system whose fundemantal design flaws appear to be completely hidden by its superficial design flaws (thanks Douglas Adams)?

It could be to do with our natural tribal instinct to care more about things happening to “our tribe”. People like us trigger a response quicker than people who look different and live a long way away. It’s far easier to label people as different, than to consider that there, but for an accident of birth, go I. What if we had been born on the Ivory Coast? What if we were growing up in Uzbekistan?

I suspect that the real answer is that we are busy, and tired, and thinking of other things, and when we shop we grab the most recognizable packet, which is the one most heavily advertised. Marketing is effective – that’s why companies spend billions on it. So until the fair trade movement can afford to spend those billions, fair trade produce is unlikely to be successful enough to afford to spend billions on advertising… damn. Catch-22 with horrendous consequences.

What can you do, besides wring your hands? Buy fair trade. Ask in cafes if the coffee is fair trade (and be prepared to explain fair trade to them!). Talk to your friends about the benefit of fair trade. Blog about fair trade. Shout fair trade from the rooftops. And check out the Oxfam shop ( ) for tea, coffee, chocolate and gifts. They call them “gifts that give twice”, although I think they actually give three times, because I get a lovely warm glow when I find the perfect gift and know that the artisan who made it is earning a living wage!