Stop, in the name of the law!

I have discovered, to my horror, that I live with at least one lawyer. My life has become a complicated series of negotiations, one continuous and heroic effort to leave no loopholes, and tie each instruction tighter than a straitjacket buckle. My beloved lawyer is all of 6 years old, yet she already has the logical powers of a superhuman devil-lawyer at her disposal. I dread the teenage years.

I don’t feel fully equipped for the struggle. I still make simple, rookie mistakes like saying “Yes, you can have a biscuit” and not realising until she turns up happily swinging a whole bucket of biscuits that I neglected to say “but just one, ok?”  I allowed her to go downstairs at bedtime to collect her beloved and indispensable soft toy, Rosie and it was only 10 minutes later when she hadn’t returned, that I realised my mistake. I found her struggling to carry an entire carload of soft toys, and greeting my reproach with wide eyed innocence – “but you said I could have 7 toys in bed.” Notwithstanding the fact that Rosie (who is the latest addition to our polyester menagerie) is HUGE and fills the bed all on her own. She is perfectly right, I did, many months ago, draw the line at 7 soft toys in the bed at bedtime, lest we lose her under a soft toy drift the size of Mt Kosciuszko. But back in those innocent days, her toys were more on the molehill scale. Rosie is a mountain all on her own.

I am slowly learning that every instruction must be couched in the most precise, impeccable and impenetrable logic, covering every conceivable situation and drawing every possible loophole tightly closed. I should be used to this – it’s the way my husband likes to debate things. But it’s not entirely his fault. 6 & 7 year-olds simply think differently. Terry Pratchett’s inimitable teacher, Susan Sto Helit, said it best: “You soon learned that ‘No one is to open the door of the Stationery Cupboard’ was a prohibition that a seven-year-old simply would not understand. You had to think, and rephrase it in more immediate terms, like,  ‘No one, Jason, no matter what, no, not even if they thought they heard someone shouting for help, no one – are you paying attention, Jason? – is to open the door of the Stationery Cupboard, or accidentally fall on the door handle so that it opens, or threaten to steal Richenda’s teddy bear unless she opens the door of the Stationery Cupboard, or be standing nearby when a mysterious wind comes out of nowhere and blows the door open all by itself, honestly, it really did, or in any way open, cause to open, ask anyone else to open, jump up and down on the loose floorboard to open or in any other way seek to obtain entry to the Stationery Cupboard, Jason!’ ”

In the end, of course, we will have to draw a line and challenge our 6 year old to work with the spirit of the law, rather than challenge the letter of it. But I fear our little lawyer will find her own ways around that one!

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A revelation

Recently, thanks to a wise friend who is further along the sustainable path than I am, I discovered op shops. Now I recognise that to many people that’s equivalent to saying I just discovered eating, or breathing.  No revelation at all, except for the shock that it has taken me this long. To others, though, I might as well have admitted to some sort of embarrassing social disease – not something I can necessarily help, but certainly not to be talked about in public, goodness me, what about this weather we’re having?

I grew up very much in the latter camp, so this has been a huge step for me. It all started when my friend kept appearing in gorgeous, flowing, floor length skirts, and saying “and I had to take a panel off – it used to be longer!” Being 185 cm tall, finding long skirts can be a challenge, to say the least, so the idea of a possible treasure trove of swishy, lacy, feminine, and above all long skirts was more than I could resist. Also these skirts didn’t look in the least second hand.

I suspected that said treasure trove was more likely to be found in the hills than in the local op shops in my conservative, suburban area, but since there are a couple not far away, I thought it was worth having a quick look. Oh my goodness. I found a long, black dress with purple, sparkly roses that looked new and cost me $15. I found a long purple skirt – not floor length, but almost – that cost me $8 together with a matching top. I found a gorgeous blue wrap around skirt with bright yellow sunflowers on it ($2.50). And in another raid on an op shop I was passing in Hawthorn, I found a set of beautiful Maxwell & Williams mugs with bright flowers on them, for 50c each. And they’re huge – just the way I like my coffee.

I am totally hooked. In the absence of reliably ethical clothing (most of our clothes are made in sweatshops, even the ones made in Australia, but that is another blog entirely!), buying second hand is a way to opt out of the exploitative fashion industry. It is also an ideal way to find the quirky, different sort of clothes that tend to appeal to me, odd as I am. It is sustainable, because nothing new is being made, and I am reusing things that might otherwise be thrown out. Op shops generally fund charities, so I am also contributing to a good cause while getting lovely things for myself. I can’t see a downside!

Of course, there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t appeal to me, but I have walked out of every op shop so far with a find of some sort, which is a vastly higher hit rate than I ever manage in commercial shops, even with whole shopping centres to trawl through. Check out your local op shop. You might be surprised!

Ride to live, live to ride

I grew up believing that cycling on the roads was practically suicidal – you might as well throw yourself under a train and be done with it.  We occasionally hired bikes and rode on the bike path around the Yarra, near the Botanic Gardens, but we didn’t ride in our neighbourhood, or for transport. It was a dangerous, freaky thing to do.

Then I started dating a Cyclist. Not simply someone who rides a bike occasionally, but someone for whom the bike was a passion. Transports of delight on two wheels. The relationship grew, and it was inevitable that I would begin to ride. But the first few tentative rides on his old bike didn’t go well. For starters the bike was waaaaay to small for my ludicrously long legs – I kept inadvertently changing gears with my knees, which came as a dreadful shock to someone who had only just discovered that bikes even had gears. Talk about a crunching gear change! But I also had trouble overcoming my innate belief that to get anywhere under my own steam would be a huge amount of work. And I wasn’t a fan of hard physical work, particularly in huge amounts.

Then we visited Rottnest Island on a trip to WA, while I was still in the unforgiving grip of chronic fatigue syndrome. We hired bikes and cruised around the island, and I made a stunning discovery – riding is hardly any work at all, unless you want it to be, or choose to climb a mountain (and it never occurred to me that I would go on to do such a weird and crazy thing, but then I have a history of not predicting my own future terribly well). We gained enough momentum cruising down each gentle slope of Rottnest to all but propel us to the top of the next rise. The actual effort input was tiny. Although feeble, permanently tired and generally unwell, we covered most of the island without putting a dent in my vanishingly small energy quota. What’s more, I felt great.

It was a true revelation. Sometime soon after that I bought my own bike – a staid and conservative hybrid. I began to ride more, even riding to work on occasion, and I gradually became more and more confident, and more and more hooked on this remarkable lifestyle. One of the first things I noticed was that I was suddenly in the world, rather than separated from it by a big steel box with windows and a loud stereo. I was chatting to crossing guards, saying hello to other cyclists, and even exchanging friendly comments with people in their gardens. I noticed birds, cats, gardens and the weather in a way that I hadn’t since buying a car.

A car divorces you from the world in a forceful and aggressive way. You have your stereo on, your windows closed, and a whole heap of steel and glass (well, ok, plastic and glass these days) between you and the rest of the world. When was the last time you exchanged a friendly comment with a fellow driver? And when was the last time you received an angry or threatening gesture from another car? It’s truly a different world. Cars are the ultimate ego traps. Here am I, they say. I am all that matters. Get out of my way or be squashed under my wheels, it’s all the same to me! You move through the world, but apart from it. It boxes up your soul and shields it from any participation in the world around you.

It is all too easy, behind the wheel, to become oblivious to pedestrians, cyclists, animals, and the world in general. Today I was riding in a bike lane next to a row of parked cars, and I discovered the horror of that most cursed of missiles in the cycling world, the flung car door. I was fortunate to see it coming, so I didn’t wind up flung myself, but the flinger was completely oblivious to my presence. We are not bike aware in this country. Increasingly, we are not pedestrian aware either, for the simple reason that we don’t walk. Walking to and from my children’s child care centre, we very rarely encounter anyone else on foot, although when we do, it is always the same few people.

Our complete neglect of pedestrians is even more astounding when you look at a shopping centre car park. Heaps of parking spaces, but nowhere safe to walk once you get out of your car. Now that’s weird. Even if you drive to the shops, as nearly everyone does, surely you must actually get out of your car and walk to the entrance of the shops in order to wave your credit card about with wild abandon? Where are the footpaths taking you safely to the door?  There is nearly always a major through way (for cars) right outside the door, with a pedestrian crossing to nowhere (at our local shopping centre the crossing actually leaves you in the middle of a road), but no footpath to take you safely to your car. Presumably we have failed to develop the levitation skills that the planners were anticipating.

We are hoping this weekend to take delivery of our Christiania bike, for doing the school & child care runs, and all the local shopping – basically anything within 5 or 10km. The imminent arrival of this delightful beast has seen me hop back onto the bike for any local trips I do without the kids, and today I even did a bike/train combination to get to a cafe in Hawthorn where I was meeting a friend. It was a buzz of huge proportions. I started the day tired, stressed, and a little down. I have come home buzzing with energy, having cruised just under 20km. The whole trip took a little more time than a car trip would have, but it was so much more delightful. I stopped at a little op shop I saw along the way, because I had a little extra time. I chatted to passers by at the lights. I enjoyed the sunshine, heard birds twittering, and had time to reminisce over the house where friends used to live, as I cruised past it down the hill.

This is life – this is taking part, not passing through. Ride to live. Live to ride. Now I get it!

Climate clamour

Last night I went to a climate forum organised by Climate Change Our Future in the City of Monash. It was both inspiring and terrifying. Inspiring because there are local attempts to create transition towns and Sustainability Streets, even in this conservative, middle class area, and they are thriving. In Ashwood they are about to open a local food co-op, where people buy/swap/share food from their own gardens, to minimise food miles. They are also beginning the process of becoming a transition town. There was talk of planting food trees in public spaces, forming communities to share knowledge and pool resources, and lots of positive strategies for becoming sustainable.
One of the really heartening things about these initiatives is that they are firmly grounded in local communities. There is no single blueprint of things to do, and an order to do them in. It’s up to each community to tackle the things that they are passionate about, and to share their knowledge and resources to cut their carbon footprints, develop sustainable lifestyles, and, above all, become a real community, not just people who happen to live near each other. How many of your neighbours do you know right now?
We also heard about two American researchers who have worked out how 100% of the world’s energy needs can be provided by existing renewable technologies within 20 years. The article is in this month’s Scientific American, and is a fascinating read. So next time anyone says “oh, but renewable energy can’t supply us with all the energy we need”, point them at that article – it can. And it can right now. The technology exists.
What was terrifying was hearing from David Spratt, one of the co-authors of Climate Code Red about the scale of the problem, the cataclysm (his word) that is coming, and the utter lack of the political will needed to tackle it. A 4 degree rise in average global temperature, which may already be unavoidable, will lead to the melting of the arctic and antarctic, and a resulting sea level rise of 70 metres. That would put 1/3 of Australia under water. One third. And it would be the inhabited, arable third.

The lack of political will seems to be grounded in a failure to grasp the scale of the problem, and the availability (and implications) of the solutions. Many of our ready answers to fears about climate change have come straight from propaganda campaigns by the fossil fuel industry. “Renewables can’t supply all our energy, we need a base load supply in case the wind drops and the sun goes down.” Yet this article shows that, with a mix of renewables including geothermal and wave energy, oh, and solar storage – yes, there are existing solar plants that store the energy and can continue to provide electricity throughout the night, in Spain – it can be done. And yes, closing down all the coal power stations will involve a loss of jobs. But starting up a renewable industry will create jobs, so there is balance. Besides, what good is a job if the world has gone to hell?
Then there is the “the world is actually cooling” furphy. A close look at the real information, graphs of global temperature etc shows that this is just ludicrous misinformation. It would be lovely to be able to believe it, but it’s just not true. If the world is cooling, why is the arctic ice melting?
“The climate may be changing, but it’s nothing to do with our activity, it’s just a natural cycle.” Sure, a natural cycle on a scale, and at a rate, never before seen in geological history. Temperature and climatic changes that have only ever happened over thousands of years are happening over decades, but it’s normal, and nothing to do with us. We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. We know that methane is a greenhouse gas. We know that greenhouse gases cause warming, and that there is an unprecedented concentration of them in the atmosphere, right now, and it is increasing due to our lifestyles. We know that plants take these gases out of the atmosphere, and we know that we have defoliated the planet at a massive, unprecedented rate. The debate is over, people. Climate change is here, and we only have one chance to tackle it.

It was made clear to me last night that the biggest problem is the lack of political will to take meaningful action on climate change. Organisations like GetUp and Avaaz are making politicians edgy, so support them if you can – the more people who are motivated to take action on these issues, the more the politicians will perceive them as important. Ultimately the single most effective thing we can do to create the political will now is to hit the politicians where it hurts – in the ballot box. Vote for the strongest climate change policy you can find. My guess is that it will usually be The Greens, but I may be biased because I am a member of the Greens. But if you have a by-election in your electorate coming up, and at the next state and federal elections, the most powerful thing you can do for the climate is to vote for climate change. Hit the major parties in the ballot box, and they will green up faster than than the ice sheets are melting. And that’s alarmingly fast.

A real kick in the nose

I sat down today and listed the products most people use every day that are perfumed. It’s an astonishingly long list, and every one of them probably has a different scent. Soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, hair gel/spray/mousse, after shave, washing powder (which often leaves clothes strongly scented), fabric softener (ditto), dishwashing liquid, hand wash, moisturiser, sunscreen, cosmetics (even eye shadow and lipstick), cleaning products, and toilet paper. I am sure I have missed some, and that’s before anyone actually deliberately applies perfume, or uses an ‘air freshener’ (which is simply perfume for the entire room – it doesn’t “freshen” the air, or remove bad smells, it simply masks them with strong perfume). Even nappies, plastic bags and tissues are often scented.

I have two strong objections to this. The first is that for anyone sensitive to perfumes, encountering a person who is awash in this many strong scents can trigger anything from a severe headache to a full blown anaphylactic reaction. Kids who are sensitive to perfumes can become wired, aggressive, hyperactive, sometimes even to the point of losing bladder control and language skills, simply from being near someone wearing fragrance – and because of the above list, almost everyone is wearing strong perfume, all of the time. It does make me wonder whether there are kids out there who have been diagnosed with ADHD on the basis of a perfume or food sensitivity. I have a friend with a nearly 3 year old who is the sweetest, brightest, loveliest boy you could ever hope to meet. He also has astonishingly advanced language skills. Until he is exposed to the wrong perfume, at which point he becomes hyperactive (zooming around the house, screaming constantly), aggressive (this child who never, ever hits, will hit and kick everything and everyone within reach), and completely incoherent. Just from being near someone wearing perfume.

The second problem is sustainability, or the appalling lack thereof. So much wasted effort goes into fragrancing everything from the floor to the windows, the children and the dog. I dread to think what the carbon footprint of the fragrance industry is, even if you only assess that part of the industry that deals with all these incidental perfumes. It is wasted effort, because the human nose is a marvellously adaptable instrument that tunes out scents to which it is frequently exposed, or which have been around for more than a few minutes. It becomes, effectively, deaf and blind to those smells. Which leads us into an ever-escalating arms race, as people apply more and more perfume in order for their poor, abused noses to be able to detect it.

Indeed, noses that are frequently exposed to strong perfumes become, rather like ears abused with too much industrial noise, increasingly insensitive. Not only does this exacerbate the perfume arms race, it also leads to a whole society of people who are unable to detect a gas leak, or even the smell of smoke, until it is extremely strong.

To be sure, it is nice to smell a pleasant fragrance (if it doesn’t make you sick, that is). There is a reason why we like to stop to smell the roses (in theory, at least – if we had time! But that’s another blog). Flowers smell nice, and so does a good perfume. But we have really let it get away from us. I bought some baby vicks vaporub for my daughter a while ago, and it wasn’t until I got home that I checked the ingredients – it contained lavender oil, eucalyptus oil, and… fragrance! Why would you add fragrance to something that already contains eucalyptus and lavender??? The trick with the magic word “fragrance” is that the manufacturer has the legal right not to explicitly tell you exactly what it is, so that isolating a particular fragrance that you react to is close to impossible.

We have had friends visit us for an hour, who have left their scented imprint in our furniture for literally weeks afterwards. Many perfumes are astonishingly persistent – which of course compounds the problem for those who are sensitive to fragrance. They can’t simply wait until you leave, because even after you have gone, you have marked the area like a territorial skunk.

The absurdity of the situation is such that it is actually very, very difficult to buy unscented products. The only brand of unscented soap stocked by our local supermarket went out of production last year. The only brand. Have you looked in the soap aisle of your local supermarket recently? There are hundreds of soaps in every possible scent, except for ‘none’. And that’s just soap. Now try for unscented shampoo, cleaning agents, or toilet paper. If your sensitivity is severe, you may even find yourself poisoned by usually safe products, simply because they have been stored next to a perfumed product – right in the blast zone of those astonishingly persistent chemicals.

This is my challenge to you – next time you shop, try to buy everything on your list in an unscented version. When you have finished screaming and tearing your hair out, let me know how it went!

An unpalatable truth

We’re surrounded by a bizarre and complicated conspiracy of silence. We’re not supposed to talk about it. If it gets a mention at all, we have to gloss over the details, and, in fact, lie outright, for the sake of not making anyone feel stressed or guilty. And the last thing I want to do is make anyone feel stressed or guilty. But it seems crucial to me that we make decisions about our children’s health and well-being based on facts rather than marketing.

Earlier this year I went to a health professionals’ seminar on breastfeeding, and it contained some truly stunning information. Even one bottle of formula fed to an otherwise breastfed infant increases the risk of otitis media (ear infections), gastrointestinal infections (gastro), and allergies. Cows milk formula actually sensitises for allergies – the risk increases dramatically with exposure to formula. For children who receive formula in the first week of life, the risk  of a subsequent cows milk allergy is 8 times higher than for exclusively breastfed children. That’s a single bottle of formula in the first week of life.

We are very lucky that we have the option of formula where breastfeeding is truly impossible, or too traumatic to continue. I would not for a moment criticise anyone who chose to formula feed their baby. But I do want them to have the most accurate information on which to base their decision. At the moment the prevailing message is that formula is just as good as breastmilk. It won’t do any harm. Breastfeeding is nice, but formula is fine. The truth is, it’s not, but it is hard to be explicit about that, without upsetting people who felt that they had to formula feed their babies. No-one wants to traumatise anyone. But everyone should be making their health choices based on accurate information.

We’re surrounded by a distressing number of myths, like these:

  • Myth 1: formula fed babies sleep better. (Many formula-fed babies sleep worse, due to the problems created by a food that their systems are not able to cope with properly . My exclusively breastfed baby slept through when she was 6 days old.)
  • Myth 2: babies should be fed by the clock, to get them used to a routine. (The best way to increase your milk supply and keep your baby fed and happy is to feed when your baby is hungry. What does the clock know about how empty your baby’s tummy is?)
  • Myth 3: Supplementing with formula is helpful when supply is low. (The best way to increase your supply is to feed more often. Supplementing with formula means your baby will feed less often, and may actually lead to your supply dropping further.)
  • Myth 4: If a baby is unsettled and wants to feed a lot, it means your supply is low and you need to switch to formula. (There are many reasons babies get unsettled and want to feed. It may mean your supply is low, but feeding often will fix that, as your baby’s instincts are telling you. It may mean your baby is getting an infection and needs your milk more than ever. It may be a growth spurt, or teeth coming through, or simply tiredness.)
  • Myth 5: Children should be weaned by 12 months. Feeding after that is unnatural and unhealthy, and children get no further benefit from the milk. (The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that children breastfeed until at least 2 years of age. Immune factors in the milk continue until at least this age – no-one has actually studied the milk beyond this point, as so few children are still being breastfed at 2. Less than 1% of children in Australia are still breastfeeding at 2.)
  • Myth 6: If the mother gets mastitis, she should wean immediately. (The best treatment for mastitis is to feed as much as possible from the affected breast. Sudden weaning can actually cause mastitis, and may dramatically worsen existing cases.)

A very interesting point made by one speaker at the seminar, is that we don’t actually know what normal behaviour is for a health, breastfed infant who sleeps in the same room as mum and feeds on demand. It hasn’t been studied. Most of the growth charts and behavioural recommendations are based on formula-fed infants in the US in the 1950s. Some mothers are pressured to put their children onto formula by health professionals who are using growth charts based on formula fed babies (who are heavier, on average, than their breastfed counterparts. Oh, and far more likely to be obese adults.).

Sadly, many of the myths above are spread by the very health professionals who should be informing and educating us, rather than promoting myths that can be harmful to the health of our children.

We should not feel guilty about the way we feed our children. We all want to do what’s best for our children, and there are many ways to achieve that. But we should be making our decisions based on facts, not on myths and outdated opinions.



Oddy WH, et al. BMJ 1999;319:815-819.             Kull I,et al.JACI 2004;114:755-760

Marini A, et al. Acia Paediatr Suppl. 1996;414:1-21

Gdalevich M, et. al. J Am Acad Dermatol.2001;45:520-527

Gdalevich M,et al. J. Pediatrics.2001;139:261-266

Duncan–Taussig, Pediatrics Vol 91,May1993 Taussig, Pediatrics Vol 91,May1993

A bad case of not belonging

It wasn’t until my postgraduate years at Uni that I worked out anything at all about who I am and where I belong. There are a whole host of complex reasons why it didn’t happen before then, and I’ll leave that for conversations with qualified therapists, if you don’t mind. But the primary reason why it did happen then, is that I found a wonderful, close knit group of friends where I finally felt truly accepted.

We worked together (ahem. truly. It was work. Well some of it was. I make no comment on whose work, or on what. But it was remarkably productive). We played together – everything from zone 3 (laser tag in its infancy – the innocent days when a handful of people could hire out a whole venue, and not have to deal with random ludicrously co-ordinated 10 year olds who went round maliciously winning everything, not that I’m bitter), to volleyball and all night video marathons. I felt as though I belonged, for the first time in my life. Which is odd, because every other member of the group was male.

This went on for years. Occasionally someone would leave to go overseas, or break the sacred trust and get a real(ish) job. New members occasionally arrived. But the group was remarkably stable for a surprisingly long time. As time passed many of us got married, and the partners were invariably lovely people who fitted in well, and accepted our somewhat bizarre traditions with graceful resignation (and occasionally even with glee).

These people were, in a very real sense, my second family. We shared a lot, and supported each other with great intensity. They were there for me during some of the best and worst moments in my life, and I felt totally secure with them in a way that I never had before.

As time went on, though, something strange began to happen. The men began to do “men things” – gathering around the BBQ, hanging out in a separate room to the women. Which was fine, I generally just followed them. It’s not that I didn’t want to spend time with the women – many of them are good friends of mine. I just felt like I belonged more with the men – my erstwhile peer group. But then they started having poker nights. And they invited my husband. Not me.

On a rational level, I tell myself that I understand the need for male bonding, but in practice I don’t know that I really do. I don’t feel the same need for female bonding. I don’t see a fundamental social difference between the sexes, just as I don’t see a fundamental relational difference between mums and dads. The fundamental difference in parenting lies between primary and secondary carer, and it is not built-in that the primary carer must be the mum. Indeed, it is an accident of our ludicrous obsession with full time work that there needs to be a primary & a secondary carer at all, instead of two equal carers, but that is probably another blog (or 50).

I do know that I am not the only girl who feels more comfortable hanging out with guys, and I know that there are plenty of guys who feel, on average, more comfortable hanging out with girls. It’s not to say that we don’t have close friends of our own gender. It’s just that most of our friends tend to be of the opposite gender, and we’re fine with that.

So it puzzles me that my friends – my peer group, this once-close-knit family of mine – need to exclude me from their bonding sessions.

Of course, reading over the blog so far, I can spot the rational flaw (dammit). “I don’t see a fundamental social difference between the sexes.” Clearly I do, otherwise my ratio of male friends to female friends would not be skewed. The trick is that I fall on the ‘wrong’ side of that difference. I have been one of the guys for so long, that it comes as a shock to suddenly be perceived as “one of them”, rather than “one of us”.

Perhaps the guys at the poker night are concerned about the tales I might take back to their wives. Or they might feel unable to make comments about any racks that happen to come under discussion if there was a rack actually at the table. Having never experienced a poker night, I don’t know how my presence would change it, and there are elements of Schrodinger’s cat in the whole situation – it’s not a box I can actually open, unless my two year old manages to get her “zing! you’re invisible!” wand working properly.

And I must admit that I was only ever one of the guys to a limited extent. We did interact in different ways. They all hugged me a lot more than they ever hugged each other. I suppose there comes a time when you have to accept the changes in your relationships, borne of time and circumstance. But I am not sure I can ever really be reconciled to not being one of the guys. Albeit a guy in a long purple skirt.