Dropping in or dropping out?

This week we have had friends staying with us for a few days. They have been visiting from Germany, so we don’t see them very often, and it was wonderful to watch their children playing with ours. Because they were staying with us, we had the rare chance to sit down and catch up in a relaxed way, without a timetable or a formal commitment. It got me thinking about the lack of unstructured time in our lives these days, and its impact on our ability to maintain our friendships, our relationships, and our communities.

We tend, these days, to have very structured lives. Crowded timetables and hectic days. Things to do, places to go, people to see. And sure, you can get a lot done that way. But I’m not sure if it’s possible to nurture and grow your relationships in structured time. It is lovely to catch up with friends’ families on a joint visit to a place or an event (like the Zoo, or a concert), but it is forced and rushed time. It feels as though we are missing out on just dropping in, catching up, and hanging out. (Why do we hang out, and not down or up? And why do we catch up and not down? Such a strange language, such random prepositions. But I digress. How unlike me.)

When was the last time you dropped in on friends unannounced? I’ll bet it was so long ago you can’t remember. We don’t drop in anymore. We schedule time for a catch up. Dropping in feels rude and intrusive – the closest I will come is to call if we are in the area (yay for mobile phones) and tentatively ask if it’s ok, and that’s even with my family!

I am becoming increasingly certain that we need more, not less, dropping in and casually catching up. Those long weekend afternoons when we are just pottering about the house, getting things done, would be so enlivened and enhanced by unexpected visitors. There’s always time to stop for a cuppa and a chat, in my ideal world.

Certainly, this welcoming of unexpected guests also requires the ability to say “it’s wonderful to see you, but this isn’t a good time”, and for both sides to accept this situation gracefully and promptly. But given that proviso, what is keeping us from sharing each others’ lives more casually, and more intimately, than we seem able to manage now?

Years ago we visited friends in Adelaide, and they were so struck by our relaxed approach that they sent us a Christmas card later, with the observation that it was a pleasure to have friends to stay whose “only requirement is that we don’t trip over them”. Visiting friends in San Francisco on another trip, we first encountered the term “lump days”, and our holidays have been liberally sprinkled with them ever since – days when you simply chill out, often as a lump on the couch. This is a particularly lovely concept when you are visiting friends. Sure, it is nice to see a new place, and visit landmarks etc. But for me life is all about relationships, and visiting friends is about people, not places.

Our lives are so busy, we seem to be left with a sense that doing nothing is the same as achieving nothing. Therein lies the trap. There are many studies showing that children need unstructured play for optimal development. They need plenty of time to exercise their imaginations – to build cubbies, climb trees, and make trains out of boxes and sparkly pipe cleaners (it turns out that the sparkliness of the pipe cleaners is crucial to the function of the train). Although well documented, it seems to me that this phenomenon is poorly acted upon in our day to day lives. So many children seem to be enmeshed in such a tangled web of swimming, music, dancing and language lessons that they have very little time to chill out and explore their world.

But it seems to me to be equally applicable to our adult lives. To chill out and catch up with friends with no aim other than to connect with them, is an increasingly rare thing. As a friend remarked to me today, “I always catch up with people to do something. I forget that it doesn’t have to be that way.” I have found that it is often much more satisfying to hang out with no aim or schedule in mind. There is more potential to talk deeply, and indeed widely, and truly connect with each other.

So this is my challenge to you. Schedule some unscheduled time. Drop back in to your friends’ lives, and enrich your own. The kettle is on.

What smells so bad?

We have a reputation as weirdo hippy freaks in our street, I suspect, because of our bizarre and inexplicable devotion to hand tools. We mow our lawn with a hand mower. In our first few years here we cut down a few dead trees and then cut them up with hand tools of various sorts, and the thing that took the longest was stopping to fend off well-meaning offers of power tools by all the astounded neighbours.

We seem to have this weird notion that power tools are essential for many simple jobs. I know of no-one else for streets around who uses a hand mower, and yet our hand mower is lighter than most petrol or electrical models, and just as easy to push through the grass, with the added benefit that it doesn’t destroy our hearing, kick up kilos of dust (and allergens) into the air, or asphyxiate us with petrol fumes. Plus it is far less likely to cut our feet off if we make  a mistake with it, although it is unwise to fall backwards onto one. Take my word for it.

The strange thing is that it is actually easier to use our hand mower than most powered mowers I have tried. Ok, I probably couldn’t use it to get through a backyard that had been left unmown throughout spring and was now signposted “here be dragons”, but then I’ve tried an electric mower on that type of grass and burnt out the motor without getting even a metre forward.

Yet the neighbours still regard us with a bemused air when we get it out on the weekend. It is free to run (apart from occasionally sharpening the blades). It is quiet, clean, and smells good (did you know that freshly cut grass contains no fewer than 5 stress reducing chemicals? True!). Zero carbon, zero downside. Why are people still ruining my day with smelly air-rippers?

I suspect it’s habit, as much as anything. Our parents used petrol mowers, so we do too. It is true that the original hand mowers were incredibly heavy – but I am talking 80 year old models (of which we still have on in the shed). It’s a serious workout to push that beast. But our more recent model, maybe 15 years old now, I can lift with one hand. It does occasionally get jammed by a twig or a pebble hiding under the grass, but rather than flinging it at me at high speed, it simply stops, until I pull it backwards and the culprit falls out. Worst comes to worst I may need to turn the blades backwards – the work of a moment.

So why are we obsessed with power tools? Our neighbour has a chainsaw that, I swear, is actually more work to use than a sharpened hand saw, plus it is hideously noisy and smells bad. But he is appalled at the idea of a hand saw. What is it that power tools offer us? Is it a sense of strength that we don’t get from our own bodies anymore? Is it the illusion of power over nature that we crave? I’ve got bad news if that’s the case – nature has us permanently in her power, and she is getting cranky!

Leave your power tools to the side, and see if you can’t manage with a hand tool one day. You might be surprised and how easy, pleasant, and even fun it can be. Meanwhile, I’ve got a bike to ride. But that’s another story!

Full to overflowing

Grey clouds loom over an idyllic scene

sun drenched garden, dew dappled,

alive with birds twittering from flower to flower,

swooping and whirling from insect to insect.

Peace brought, chattering, to life

as thunder rumbles ominously over all.

Disaster and chaos fall from clear skies as freely as from grey.

No cosmic signal warns us of tomorrow’s soul – elusive until we watch it receding into yesterday with shocked incomprehension.

Touch me

I am a tactile person. I used to have a mug that said “I run on hugs”, and it is almost literally true, if you throw in the odd (very odd) food-based nutrient just for luck. Yet we are an oddly atactile society. Almost anti-tactile. We occasionally kiss cheeks – and even that is often an air kiss – but we rarely touch each other in any more substantial way. Yet touch may be the most important of our senses, and it is a crucial part of our relationships with others – and not just with lovers, but with friends.

One of my most enduring memories is of the time a friend – barely more than an acquaintance at the time – innocently asked me how I was doing. He didn’t know that my best friend, Di, had recently died, and I was having a particularly difficult day. Caught in a vulnerable moment, I explained why I was struggling, and he put his hand out and held my arm, in an intensely moving, wordless expression of sympathy. More than words ever could, it shored me up and enabled me to get through that day, and many others like it. It conveyed a warmth, affection and sympathy that was almost overwhelming.

Together with laughter, touch is one of the most fundamentally important things our friends can give us for sheer support and mental health. Di used to make me laugh so much that I literally couldn’t breathe. I would be collapsed somewhere, turning helplessly blue, laughing myself almost into unconsciousness. Having thus reduced me to an incoherent, pale blue mess, she would then invite passers by to view the spectacle. I think it was one of her favourite ways to pass the time.

Together, we were very tactile. Always hugging, tickling, or giving backrubs, we had a strong and supportive friendship that often had no need of words (although, to be honest, there were words, and plenty of them!). We used to say we were joined at the brain , and I believe a large part of that intense symbiosis was grounded in touch.

Why, then, are we so wary of touch as a society? Teachers are discouraged from touching their students, even (or perhaps especially) at the primary level, for fear of “inappropriate touching”. Yet I suspect the risk of reducing our tactility is much higher than the risk of anything untoward taking place. The impact of isolating ourselves physically may be much worse than we realise.

It has long been documented that premature babies have dramatically improved survival rates if they are touched regularly – despite the risk of infection, skin-to-skin contact has a profound impact on every measurable vital sign in a vulnerable newborn. “Kangaroo care”, where babies are worn in pouches on their carers’ bodies, preferably with direct skin contact, has been shown to be phenomenally beneficial.

Why should the benefit of touch stop at babies? Of course, it doesn’t. But perhaps in our effort to distance ourselves from our physical, base, animal instincts, we seem all too eager to pretend that touch is not relevant to our adult, independent, intellectual selves.

Yesterday I visited friends at a workplace I officially left nearly 3 years ago. As I left, I spontaneously hugged some of my friends, and it felt almost ludicrously good. I almost went back to hug the rest of them, but it would have been awkward. How sad, that it should be so difficult to establish touch with this group of people that I have known for so long. Of course, it is harder to change the boundaries on an existing friendship than to set them up with a new one. Nonetheless, the taboo against touching at work is fierce. Yet I really do believe that we deprive ourselves needlessly, and place ourselves in much greater danger than the danger of sexual harassment that we think we are guarding against.

Convinced though I am of the importance of touch, I still don’t know how to break down those barriers, apart from one friend at a time. So this is my challenge to you. Touch someone. Even as I write that, I recognise the risks inherent in encouraging people to touch people they wouldn’t ordinarily touch. It must be appropriate, it must not be unwelcome – we need to ask permission to take our friendships up a tactile notch. So ask permission. Open the subject. Don’t push a ‘no’, but welcome a ‘yes’ – with open arms!

Beauty and the geek

The Age was full of articles last Thursday on “Beauty and the Geek”. In one of them the producer claimed to be breaking the stereotypes by showing that the geeks were not totally devoid of social skills, and some of the beauties had more than 2 brain cells to rub together. Which is all very fine, I’m sure. But riddle me this: why, after all the incarnations of this show around the world, has no-one done one where the beauties are men and the geeks are girls?

Believe me, there is no shortage of geeky girls. I could find a large bunch up in my personal contacts list alone. And there are plenty of himbos around that would fit the bill, so it’s clearly not a shortage of talent. It could be as superficial as “no straight guy likes to be called beautiful,” but surely they could come up with an appropriately catchy title if that truly is a problem.

My suspicion…no, my fear is that very few of us actually believe in intelligent women. Smart people with more brains than social skills? Clearly men.

If I pitched a show that contained a super smart investigator, who is mega rich, likes a fling with the odd dangerous suspect, runs about saving the day in between glasses of expensive champagne and enjoying a congratulatory bonk with the rescueee afterwards, how many people would picture the protagonist as female? In fact, that’s a reasonably accurate description of Phryne Fisher, the wonderful, gorgeous and extremely female protagonist of Kerry Greenwood’s detective series, set in Melbourne in the 1920s.

We are not nearly as far from our 1950s roots as we would like to believe, even those of us who loathe John Howard and everything he weaseled for. The following conversation is all too common:

“I went to see the doctor.”

“Oh? What did he say?”

I believe a similar effect is evident in our attitude to friendship between the sexes. I have lost count of the number of times I have said “My best friend is visiting from San Fransisco”, and had people respond “How long is she staying?”

Even now, in 2009, for your best friend to be of the opposite gender creates, at the very least, a momentary shock. A jarring note. A sense that the world has shifted slightly out of alignment. Many people immediately seem to wonder: “how does your husband feel about that?” Which wouldn’t arise for a moment were my friend female.

We are still astonishingly hung up on gender stereotypes. On the things men do and women don’t. On the stuff women are good at and men are not. We like to think that we are over all that, and that we can all do whatever we want, unhampered by gender myths. But we have such a long way to go. Show me “Beauty and the geek” where the geeks are girls and… well, I still won’t watch it. But I will feel better about how far we have come.

Must go, it’s nearly time for dinner and someone has to cook it. Oh, look. My husband already has. Maybe the 50s are further away than I thought.


A friend recently did something so thoughtful and caring that it left me smiling for days afterwards. It was a small thing, and very useful, but its true value was in highlighting our friendship, and the fact that I have good friends in my corner, looking out for me.

There are those who argue that you can’t rely on people – sooner or later they will always let you down. And there is some truth to that – no-one can be there for you 24/7 for your whole life. People drift in and out of our circles, and everyone has moments in their own lives where they seem to just drop off the face of the world in order to shut down and cope with a personal crisis. If you rely 100% on a single person, you are likely to be headed for a fairly impressive crash. But I don’t see this as meaning that you can’t rely on people. Rather that you can’t safely place all of your reliance on any one person.

It is those moments when people show that they have been thinking of you, that they know you, and that what is important to you is important to them, too, that really make the sun come out in my personal universe. All my friend did to trigger this line of thinking was to save a section on Victorian charities out of a newspaper, and pass it on to me. It cost him nothing more than a moment, plus the organizational ability to keep the newspaper and remember to give it to me.

The story behind this particular effort, though, is the bit that makes me smile. First, my friend had to know, and remember, that I was looking for a job in some kind of charitable organization. Then he had to think about me in that context when he saw the section – “oh, this might be useful to Linda”, and then he had to bother to act on it. It’s that sense that he was looking out for me that is particularly priceless. That’s friendship, right there, in a nutshell. (Not that I am suggesting anything about anyone’s nuttiness, at all. I promise.)

It’s those small, but reliable indicators, that really sum things up. The friend who responds immediately whenever I send him a distressed email, despite being on the other side of the world. The friends who form a small research army on my behalf, trying to help me sort out my health issues. Always popping up with a new research article or relevant webpage.

The ones who take time out from their own traumas to be sympathetic and encouraging, even when I’m being a complete nutcase. (There are those nuts again!) Even more, the friends who will calmly beat me about the head with a rolled up newspaper when I am being totally nutty. Everyone needs someone to do this from time to time. There is no-one more priceless than the person who will say, with the greatest affection, “Stop it. You’re being stupid.”

It’s the friends who periodically pop up and say “let’s do coffee!”, or drop by unexpectedly for a cup of tea, just showing that they haven’t forgotten you. The ones who drive for an hour just to take you out for coffee and relieve your cabin fever. The ones who take the time to read your blog and give you encouraging feedback. The ones who encourage you to raid their book collection, and point out (with great success) the ones they think you will love. The ones who can tell what kind of day you’re having from your hello. The ones who know how you take your coffee (by the bucket, thanks). The ones who remember the important stuff going on in your life, and show that it’s a part of what’s important to them, too. It’s just people who care about you, and take the time to act on it now and then.

These are the people who provide the energy and resilience I need to get through the tough times in my life.

You know who you are. Thank you. Drop by anytime!

Hitting where it won’t show

When I grew up, teasing wasn’t called bullying until there were visible bruises. My abusers knew to leave their mark inside my head where it didn’t show.

I always felt there must be some fundamental problem with me – some flaw that made me a target. Was I inherently unlikeable? Somehow absurd? Whatever it was, it seemed obvious to my young self that it was me, not them, that was the root of the problem.

I was generally safe with friends, but whenever I was alone they would walk behind me, singing about me, teasing me, pointing me out to everyone.

It’s odd. The worst song sounds harmless enough – it began “We love you Linda.” Yet I can’t tell you how profoundly I dreaded it, and how badly I wanted to just disappear into the ground whenever I saw them, or heard that song behind me. It echoed in my nightmares for years. Their incessant mockery, and the attention they drew to me, was unbearably distressing.

There was plenty more, of course. Most of it not as benign. No aspect of my appearance or behaviour went un-mocked. My hair, my clumsiness, my clothing, accent, food – everything I said and did. It was all, apparently, contemptible.

Sometimes I wonder – do those girls even remember it? Did it mean anything to them?

I have often pondered whether I could have made it stop. Certainly the advice “just ignore them”, which I followed as scrupulously as physically possible, was all but catastrophic. I vividly remember the way they took it as a challenge. How far could they push me before I snapped? Those rare times when I said something back were snatched up like trophies, and used for further torment.

Just writing about it now, the fear, humiliation and rage swirl around me again. Rage at them for their cruelty, but even stronger rage against myself for whatever it was about me that drew this torment down on me. These days I know that it was much more about them than it was about me. I know that intellectually, but the emotions still run deep. The sense of shame and failure is hard to shake off.

I think the worst part was the sense that it was inescapable and unavoidable – somehow my due lot in life. “Just ignore them” was the best I could do, and I did it with all my heart, magnifying my own torment with the belief that I was irretrievable and beyond help. Of course, back then it might not have helped going to the teachers with it. I wasn’t bruised or bleeding. But I wish I had tried. Who knows – it might even have helped the bullies.

Perhaps it was because I wasn’t good at blending in. I was always bored by mindless conformity. Maybe it was worse being at an all female school, but whatever the reasons, not conforming was a dreadful crime that never went unpunished.

That wasn’t all it was though. Other girls were different in more visible ways than I ever was, and they didn’t seem to attract the same level of torture (although it may be that I was too miserable to notice).

In the grip of adolescent angst and uncertainty, it seemed clear that I somehow deserved it. I was not able to get through school in harmless obscurity. I had to admit to not liking the colour pink, or give a different answer to questions in class. I was always getting myself noticed.

Oddly enough, it didn’t teach me to keep my head down. Perhaps at 185cm tall that was always going to be too much to ask. I still have a tendency to put myself in the line of fire – particularly if I think something is unjust.

It strikes me as strange, in hindsight, that no passer-by ever intervened. Of all the other girls who must have seen it (and there were over 350 in my year level alone), not one ever turned around and said “hey, stop it. That’s mean.” Perhaps they didn’t realise the extent of it. Perhaps they were glad it wasn’t them. Perhaps they, too, thought I deserved it.

These days, anti-bullying campaigns in schools focus heavily on passers-by. Or more accurately, on not passing by. On stepping in and calling attention to the bullying.  They call it “Bystander Training”. Last year when my daughter was bullied a little in prep, her friends, some older kids, and even the grade sixes in her school rallied around her. There is a culture of looking out for each other in that school that is wonderful to see.

It is the intense sense of helplessness and unworthiness that makes it so hard for the victims of bullying to stand up for themselves. Imagine the profound effect it could have for a bystander to stand beside them and say “that’s not fair. Stop it.”

I believe the strongest impact we can have on the world is to stand up for what’s right. To speak out against injustice, stop to help those who need a hand, and to teach our children to do the same.

Emotional Junk Food

Recently I drastically reduced my internet connectivity. I went from being permanently logged in and checking my email with constant, desperate obsession, to logging in once a day to send and answer email. The laptop remains on, as I use it for work and music, but the web browser and chat programs are mostly off. It was an act of some desperation, but its impact has been profound. I am more engaged with my life and the people around me. I am more satisfied, less discontent. But that’s after only two days. Ask me again in a week.

I had started to feel that my internet use was emotional junk food. By coincidence, last week I received some more emotional junk food – a free copy of “New Idea” from Spotlight, where my daughter and I had gone to stock up on sparkly fabric and glittering gems for our fairy wing project.

Many years ago I swore off women’s magazines. I used to buy them sporadically, enticed by an intriguing headline at the checkout (more often Cleo or Cosmopolitan than New Idea, but the effect was much the same). But every time I bought one I would read the sparse content in between the hordes of ads, and I would come away feeling vaguely disgruntled, unsatisfied, and a little grubby. They definitely did not enhance my quality of life.

For a few years I repeated this cycle every 6 months or so – buy one, be dragged down by it, and then swear off them for a while. Until I finally got wise and swore off them altogether. So it was fascinating to see this free copy of New Idea. At first I was going to donate it straight to someone I thought would actually read it, but then I glanced at the cover.

Here is a list of the stories I found therein: “Hollywood’s greatest love story.” “Random reality TV person gets a husband” “Random celebrity’s hot new romance” “Random celebrity family’s reunion” “random other celebrities: ‘we can’t wait to be parents’” “Random TV show star tells of her extra special baby joy” “Women can’t stop throwing themselves at Random Criminal”. With the names removed, you could probably fairly accurately represent any individual issue with this list.

And then there are a lot of recipes and clothes (most of which only go up to size 14 or 16, and ALL of which are shown on models who might very well have never eaten more than a single bean at any meal in their entire lives. And by the way, the models are all tall, and none of these clothes can be bought off the rack by tall people – they do not fit us! Ever!! ). Oh, and there’s hair (fabulous), makeup (flawless, and used on flawless skin), and a few different ways of achieving perfectly flat tummies. And a smattering of astrology and numerology, together with large numbers of photos of (thin) celebrities.

I think this actually goes beyond junk food, and into the realm of serious toxicity. What are the messages here? Living vicariously through other people’s (reported) love lives, being thin, getting thinner, having flawless skin and perfect hair, cooking like a gourmet chef, and wearing the latest in fashion at all times. But only if you’re thin. (And it’s best to be tall, but you can’t buy the clothes unless you’re short – not that I’m bitter, you understand!)

Now here’s the rub – the publishing companies argue that they wouldn’t publish this stuff if people didn’t buy it. And, like junk food, it practically walks off the shelves. But there’s a chicken and egg problem here – marketing works, it is intended to manipulate our behaviour, and it has decades of psychological research behind it to show exactly how to do that. So in marketing these magazines they are manipulating people into buying them, which they then use as justification for making the magazines in the first place.

It’s arguably a free country. We have a fine tradition of free speech (at least, we used to). Yet I am beginning to suspect that marketing is sufficiently unethical that we should be increasingly concerned about its impact on our lives, lifestyles, and especially our children. We can sell just about anything, if we use the right marketing. We can sell junk food that wrecks the body, and emotional junk food that tarnishes the soul. We can do it. It’s a free country. But should we?