Driven to it by the spider in the bath

There is currently a huge huntsman spider at large in our living room. I know it’s there, because we lost it last night, trying to catch it with a jar or chase it out the door with a broom, and I hermetically sealed the room for the rest of the night, in a bid to ensure it didn’t come out and wander the hallways, or worse, the bedrooms, in the night. Despite that, I still turned the floodlights on every time I ventured into the hallway, to make sure it wasn’t lurking somewhere, waiting to wreak havoc in some horrible, arachnoid way.

You may have gathered that I have something of a problem with spiders. Nothing big, just a HUGE problem. My husband, Andrew, has been trying for years to desensitize me, by exposing me first to jumping spiders, which even I have to admit are pretty cute, and then gradually training me to take bigger spiders outside. Anything not demonstrably poisonous gets escorted courteously out of our abode, and politely invited to take up residence SOMEWHERE ELSE YOU EIGHT LEGGED HELL FIEND!!!

Andrew calls it terrapy.

In fact this terrapy started years before I even met Andrew. When I was about 16, during a long late night phone call with a dear friend, I spotted a huntsman on the wall. My friend was forgiving, and once he regained his hearing he spent what seemed like hours coaxing me into dealing with the spider myself. I vividly recall him patiently talking me through the process of finding a weapon, getting close to the dreadful beast, and, eventually, after endless pep talks and encouragement, squashing it flatter than a tissue in a trouser press. Remarkably, my friend’s hearing recovered a second time, and he pronounced himself deeply impressed with my achievement.

Sadly my parents, who had been soundly asleep before the onset of the cataclysm, were somewhat less thrilled.

It was an excellent start on my training, and before long I was taking even large, hairy huntsman spiders outside. Admittedly they were firmly encased in something strong, like a jam jar, and I was screaming the entire time, but they were alive and in good condition, save for their hearing. This was a big step forward for someone who had been hitherto unable to get close enough to squash them with a shoe on a ten foot pole (I leave the obvious pun as an exercise for the reader).

Sadly, I clearly have a long way to go, as after this latest house guest disappeared I was demanding that it should receive no second chances. It has wisely chosen not to reappear, but I suspect it is lurking somewhere, waiting until I am least prepared and ill defended. There is something remarkably spine chilling about those 8 legs and the way they move. They create an altogether unhealthy fascination, and I am extremely jumpy knowing that there is an alarmingly large one roaming around free in close proximity to my bed. I am now considering burning the house down, just to be on the safe side.

On the bright side, although we live in a world populated with fearsome, loathesome beasts such as these, we also live in a world heavily populated with friends who will calmly, patiently, and affectionately talk you through facing and defeating your fears. For that, I’ll tackle any number of spiders.

Go for a wonder

Many years ago I visited my pen-friend for the first time. We had been writing to each other, in a confusing mix of English and German, for over 5 years, and since he lives in Kiel, in Germany, and I live in Melbourne, Australia, this was our first face to face meeting. This was pre-internet, startling though that may seem, so our contact was largely restricted to sporadic paper letters. Remember those?

I have many vivid memories of that trip, the strongest of them being the warmth with which his whole family embraced me and made me feel welcome. I have called them “my German family” ever since, and they still feel that way to me, despite the distance.

Although his English has always been far better than my German, we still managed our fair share of language confusion. We laughed about how he had written to me saying he wanted to drive to Australia, and about how I had alternated between addressing him as a boy and as a girl. (“Lieber” vs “Liebe” – an easy mistake to make.)

But the best mix-up of the trip was when I suggested we go for a wander. He heard it as “go for a wonder”. He took such delight in the phrase that I hadn’t the heart to tell him that it was a mistake. And, indeed, it soon came to appeal to me just as much, and it may be the nicest mistake I have ever been a part of.

So much of my life feels like a hectic rush – always hurtling to get things done, always hundreds more tasks piled up on the todo list after this one. Having small children has occasionally reminded (or forced) me to take a deep breath and live in the moment. There is no “quick walk” with a 3 year old. There are butterflies to watch, flowers to pick, ants to examine, and small pebbles to exclaim over. When you’re three, the line “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” describes your life completely.  Every moment of your day is an opportunity to wonder at some new aspect of the world.

We lose that, of necessity, as we grow up and begin to feel the sting of deadlines – some of which don’t so much whoosh as they go by as land heavily on your head, just before they explode. At least, that’s how it feels some days.

There isn’t much space for walking to wonder. But perhaps it is something we need to make more time for. To allow ourselves the luxury of living in the moment and watching the butterflies. To let go of what happened yesterday, and forget about what’s coming tomorrow.  Let’s go for a wonder.

The first step’s a doozy

Every day most of us make little compromises, and do things that we don’t think are right. We would prefer to do the right thing, but we are too tired, too stressed, can’t be bothered, can’t afford it today. Or it’s too scary, too intimidating, or simply too hard to make the right choice. We compromise on big things like career choices, and on little things like whether we walk or drive to the beach.

Each of these little compromises tarnishes the soul, and leaves us feeling a little bit worse for wear. We wind up with a little less self-esteem and a little less joy each time we fall short of the behaviour we think of as ideal.

This week I discovered something interesting – there is a snow ball effect that works both ways. Every time you compromise your principles, the rust spreads a little, and you are more likely to compromise the next time. The upside is that each time you draw the line at a compromise, and choose your ideal action, it gets easier. Every time you do the right thing, you make the habit of doing the right thing a little stronger, a little more ingrained.

Recently I made a difficult career decision: to move deliberately into a new area that I feel very strongly about. It’s a scary step, a leap into the unknown, but it is already paying off. I seem to have started an avalanche. Even the incredibly scary choices, the ones that feel like running into the lion’s den and shouting “snack time!”, are becoming easier.

With those big decisions, it can feel like jumping off a cliff.  The first step’s a doozy, but once you get over the edge, abseiling down that cliff can be the ride of your life. The trick is choosing to take that first step.

The last year has been a really interesting one in my life. I have been making more and more choices in line with my beliefs – practicing what I preach and putting my money where my mouth is. It has happened gradually, but each time I do it, it feels really good, and so I’m more likely to do it next time. All those little times when I didn’t compromise myself have added up to a huge dose of self esteem. Now when the first step’s a doozy, I am more likely to take it by default, instead of wimping out.

Human beings are very simple creatures, and easily programmable. When you do something that gives you positive feedback, you want to do it again. Hence the addictive power of drugs, like alcohol, that make you feel good. That initial feedback is the most powerful – the longer it takes to get the feedback, the weaker the reinforcement, so the delayed downsides of drugs don’t have the same force as that initial pleasure hit.

Each time I make a tiny compromise on my beliefs, I tell myself that it’s only a small thing. It doesn’t matter just this once. But it turns out that it does. That snowball effect creates an avalanche really fast. Newton said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. But it seems that every action makes the snowball bigger, too. So go ahead. Take that first step. It could be the ride of your life.

No man is an island.

This afternoon my 6 year old asked me a startling question. “Mummy, why are some people so mean?” On the spur of the moment, the best answer I could give was that sometimes people have trouble understanding how other people feel. And if you can’t empathise, then it’s hard not to be mean, because you have no idea of your impact on someone else.

Today I was sitting at the lights behind a 4wd towing a large trailer. The driver behind me was leaning on the horn, leaping about, gesticulating wildly and generally getting overexcited. He wanted to turn left and couldn’t get past me. Since I had stopped only just short of touching the trailer (far closer than I should have, in fact), I couldn’t see what he expected me to do. Even if I had moved far enough forward that I was touching the trailer, he still would not have had room to get around that corner.

I puzzled over it until the lights changed, just as it dawned on me that the trailer was pretty low – there was a good chance the car behind me couldn’t see that there was a trailer there at all. All he could see was a big space that was impeding his progress (by all of 60 seconds, but that’s beside the point). The reason I was not moving forward was completely hidden from his view.

This man was getting incredibly worked up over a situation that did not, in fact, exist. The insane bald woman refusing to move her car forward actually had to stop, or cause an accident. But all he could see was the obstacle in his way, the impediment to his progress. And all I could see, at first, was a crazy man getting very angry with me for absolutely no reason.

Each of us affects every person we encounter, however slightly, however randomly, throughout the day. We are physiologically programmed to mirror the feelings of the people around us (it is a very effective way of making fear contagious, among other things, and hence making sure that everyone runs away from the sabre tooth tiger without stopping to say “what sabre tooth tiger? I don’t see any sabre tooth t-“<crunch>).

The best of us, the sparkly people, leave a net positive effect on the world and the people around them. These are the people you always walk away from feeling better about yourself, about the world, without necessarily even knowing why. But everyone we make eye contact with, or even see, leaves a small print on our psyche. It’s generally not personal, but it becomes a part of us. The angry guy who doesn’t see the trailer in front of me might be having an incredibly bad day. Who knows what trauma led him to this angry place? My getting in his way is just incidental to what is really going on in his head.

The challenge is to absorb the sparkles, and let the rest go. To live and breathe the mantra “it’s not about me”. It’s very hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, without absorbing their trauma. Everything we do affects everyone around us. The closer the emotional and biological ties involved, the more profound the impact. Sometimes the most positive opportunity you have is not to respond angrily – as with the guy in the car. But sometimes there is so much more you can do, even when it’s risky to try. It’s not about you. But maybe you can help.

Folk law

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld* books hold wonderful mirrors up to our world. They take the things we take for granted, turn them around by 90 degrees and show us how strange they (and we) really are.

Many novels ago, Pratchett coined the term “substition” – meaning things that are actually true, but that no-one really believes. Among the things Pratchett calls substitions are “It’ll get better if you don’t pick at it” and “Sometimes things just happen”.

I think there are many Politically Correct beliefs that are probably substitions, to some extent. Things that we know we should believe, but that we really don’t, when push comes to shove. These are contentious things like “men and women are equal” and “race doesn’t determine intelligence or worth” and “it’s not right to discriminate against people based on how they look”. Daniel Goleman, in “Ecological Intelligence”, talks about psychological tests that reveal our deepest biases – the ones we would deny in our hearts and minds, but that nonetheless influence our actions in ways we would be appalled by, if we knew.

Some of these things are embedded in our folklore and our culture. Girls wear pink (don’t get me started!), boys blue. Girls have long hair, boys short. It’s the ones that become law, without any rational or indeed sensible basis, that puzzle and frustrate me. When my first daughter was born, she happened to be wearing a pink blanket one day when we were out and about. In my defense, she also possessed a blue one, but presumably it was the blue one’s day off. A friend who hadn’t met my baby yet commented that she was obviously a girl. Intrigued, I asked how he knew, and he laughed. “There’s no way you’d wrap a boy baby in something that pink!”

My friend, despite knowing me remarkably well, refused to believe my protestations that I would, in fact, have done just that without a qualm. Now that I am bald he might be slightly more ready to believe that I would do strange and unnatural things, but it puzzles me still. What harm would have befallen an innocent boy child, wrapped in a hot pink blanket? “People might think he was a girl!” I can see that this would be an undesirable fate for, say, a 15 year old boy with self-image issues. But does a 2 week old baby care, as long as there is a full breast, a dry nappy, and a comfy place to snuggle on hand at a moment’s notice?

Sometimes it feels as though we are hemmed about with things we SIMPLY DON’T DO. Of course, many of them are useful rules that prevent us from needing to attack our neighbours with a rabid teddy bear, like not scattering our rubbish about the street (it’s unfortunate that we can’t persuade more people that we simply don’t do that one!), or not setting our stereos on 11 and thumping out something with an uneasy bass beat at 3am (ditto). These are the grease that allow the wheels of large cities to turn without crushing people underfoot… too often, at least.

But these random, unthinking but nonetheless vehement taboos against innocent colours (well, perhaps hot pink isn’t entirely innocent – it does have a rather knowing look at times), hairstyles (perhaps I should try a mohawk next?) and clothing (quick, tell me what you think of when you see someone in a cape?) – these are the dirt in the grease, that clogs up the chain and starts to wear away at the bearings. These are the things that slow us down and make us just a little grubby. I believe I have overextended the metaphor, but you probably get the picture. I would like us to re-examine our prejudices.

It’s time to reclaim the scalp – once a symbol of prisoners, concentration camps and cancer, now simply the skin on my head. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes people just do stuff. Sometimes it doesn’t mean much, but sometimes it can make us think. So get out there and get thinking!

(* If you haven’t read any Discworld books, I recommend you start with “Going Postal”. While it’s not the start of the series (far from it), it doesn’t require much in the way of background knowledge.)

(**In case you haven’t spotted it, there is a button at the top left of this blog which you can click on to subscribe to the blog. Enter your email address and wordpress will automagically email you when I post something new. Magic!)

A bad taste in my mouth

Recently I realised that the lemonade icy poles we had been innocently letting Jenna have for an occasional treat might actually have lemon juice in them. Jenna gets terrible reflux from citrus fruit. I figured lemonade was just sugar and water, so I hadn’t stressed about it too much – there was no lemon listed in the ingredients. Instead there was the apparently innocuous word “flavor”. But then I noticed that the front of the lemonade bottle says “natural lemon flavor”, so I wondered about the icy poles.

Now you might think that natural lemon flavor comes from lemons. But not necessarily. Legally, “natural lemon flavor” means that it tastes lemony and is ‘natural’ (usually plant derived). Doesn’t necessarily mean it comes from lemons. It could be as innocuous as citric acid. But it might be lemon juice. Rather than take the risk, I called the consumer information number on the pack – Nestle encourages their customers to call with any queries.  Pardon me while I make sceptical, snorting noises – you will understand shortly.

According to Australian law, flavors are trade secrets. Companies do not have to say what they are, or where they come from. Which is all very nice for their little company secrets, but when you have an allergy or intolerance sufferer in the house, it makes life very difficult. Anyway, I called Nestle, hopeful of an answer, and was told “we can’t tell you. It’s a trade secret. If you’re worried, don’t eat it.”

This isn’t very helpful when you have a 3 year old whose diet is already hugely restricted, and you wanted to give her an occasional lemonade icypole as a treat! Yes, we do make our own, but kids love getting something from the milk bar, or out of a packet. Home made never holds the same attraction, especially when the kids all around them are getting treats.

So I asked if there was any way I could get this information. They said they would only divulge it to a doctor. When I asked if my doctor could write them a letter, they said no, the doctor would have to call in person, and enter into a contract with the company. This smells very much like a ploy to make sure it never happens – name a GP who has the time for shenanigans like these!

For allergy sufferers at least, things have improved slightly in recent years – serious allergens such as nuts, soy, shellfish and gluten must now be identified on the label. At least people at risk of anaphylactic reactions are better protected than they used to be. The situation is rather grim for anyone who reacts to something that’s not on the list, though.

So here is my question – what advantage does our society gain from valuing trade secrets over health? Call me naive, but I’d have thought our legal system (and our system of government, for that matter – stop laughing, you!) should be about protecting people. Not about maximizing company profits. But tell that to James Hardie and sufferers of asbestosis or mesothelioma.

Sometimes I wonder how we went so astray, I really do.

Bald as a coot

On the spur of the moment, I recently decided to shave my head. Not for charity, or for health or climate reasons, although it is a lot cooler to be bald, I must say. Just on a whim. In actual fact I think I’ve been manipulated to this point by my husband, who was sick of getting a face full of hair every time he hugged me. He has been egging me on to this for years, but I never thought I would actually go through with it.

I’ve now been bald for 4 days, and I must say it has been a fascinating experience. I have always been a little curious to know what I would look like bald, but more than that I was fascinated to see how people would react. Girls don’t usually run around with shaven heads without good reason, and while I have lots of reasons, they’re all closer to whimsy than good, sound reasons.

Here is one thing that I have discovered as a result: my identity is independent of my hair. Now that doesn’t sound terribly surprising – had you asked me before I shaved my head, I’d have said that of course I believed that. But it turns out that what we say we believe, what we think we believe, and what we actually believe are 3 different sets, possibly overlapping, but far from identical.

When I shaved my head, I felt radically different, and I was afraid that people would treat me radically differently. Every time I looked in the mirror, a stranger looked back at me. For the first few hours I was completely freaked out. After that, every time I was due to encounter a new group of people who hadn’t seen it yet, I became quite tense. My identity felt as though it was bound up in the hair I had thoughtlessly discarded.

Interestingly, when I warned my 6 year old daughter of what I was about to do, she said exactly that: “It feels as though mummy is going to go away and not come back.” To her, unfettered by politically correct thoughts of not judging people by their appearances, and knowing the person within, etc etc, I was about to depart in a drastic way from the mother she thought she knew.

In practice, when she woke to a bald mum, she refused to look at me for 5 minutes, demanded I wear a hat for about 20 minutes after that, and after that was fine with it. Now she takes delight in feeling the fuzzy stubble, although she still occasionally complains that I look like a boy. At 6 there is an intensely pink/blue divide. (Speaking of which, I must digress to point out that in the early 1900s, pink was for boys, because it was such a strong colour, and blue was for girls because it was so delicate.)

Reactions so far have been fascinating. My parents, in-laws and sisters have initially been completely freaked out by the very idea. My work colleagues and friends have been surprisingly supportive (although my goodness, has it started people talking! I’m not paranoid, it’s just that everyone is talking about me!). Even relative strangers have been interested and supportive when I’ve been out in public. A few don’t mention it, possibly careful where they tread, in case it is illness such as cancer that has left me this way, but more than I expected have asked me about it directly.

It’s interesting – we’re not usually a very direct culture, I’d have said. There seem to be so many no go areas, things we don’t mention or comment on. Perhaps it’s because I have been openly acknowledging people’s reactions, but most people do ask, and so far very few have totally freaked out  – at least, not to my face.

Mostly I forget that I’m bald and just get on with life, only remembering when I put my hat on or take it off, see my reflection somewhere, or watch someone react to their first sight of my slightly fuzzy scalp. My hair isn’t me. My appearance isn’t me either. Maybe after a few weeks of this I might actually believe that, and not just think I do.

Saying goodbye

I have been thinking a lot about funerals lately. I have been to many of them – sometimes supporting friends, and sometimes on my own account (and too many of both!). Many people reflexively say that they hate funerals. And there is no doubt that funerals can  be traumatic. But I think that they are also incredibly important.

3 years ago, when a very dear friend of mine died, his son arranged a “celebration of his life”. As a vehement atheist, there was no religious component to James’ funeral. It was simply a huge gathering of his friends, sharing their memories and love of him. There were tears, of course, but in an atmosphere of love and community that I will never forget. I am not afraid of tears in public (fortunately!), and I think they can be very therapeutic. The sense of community at James’ funeral was intense, and the memories that we shared were vivid and incredibly heartwarming.

In a time of intense grief, funerals can serve to remind us that we are not alone. They can be a wonderful moment to consider our lives and friendships, and to reflect on how lucky we are to have shared our lives with someone, even in those moments when we are missing them desperately. They can show us a side of our friends and loved ones that we might not have seen for ourselves, and remind us of how valued they are in our community.

When a friend’s dad died recently, I was struck by how many of my friend’s friends and colleagues went to the funeral, even though many of them had never even met his dad. There was an unspoken but strong and tangible support offered, and accepted, that day. It was a very practical way to show love and care for a friend.

It’s easy, in the grip of intense grief, to turn inwards. To feel incredibly alone and isolated. Funerals are an automatic antidote to that feeling. They force us to look outwards and see the community around us.

Funerals are never easy, but that’s because death isn’t easy. Saying goodbye with such finality can’t help but be traumatic. The funeral is an important step in the grieving process, and a way of reinforcing our support and love for each other. In a time of desperate loss, what could be more important?

To sleep, perchance to sleep some more.

I am more frustrated than it seems reasonable to admit. We are physically incapable of staying late at parties with our children, and it drives me nuts. I can almost hear the disparaging comments after we leave, even though they probably only get made inside my own head.

The truth is that staying late at parties is only one tiny part of the things we do not do, and have not done in years. We don’t see films. We don’t watch tv – not from any high-minded decision to abstain, although the quality of tv makes such decisions attractive, particularly surreality tv. Instead we leave early, collapse into bed early, and in various other ways withdraw from society, from a desperate need to sleep when our children are sleeping.

Our girls are nearly 3 and 7. The 7 year old only disturbs our sleep occasionally, apart from a dreadful inability to sleep in – she wakes at dawn, regardless of what time she went to bed. Late nights result in a massively grumpy small person for days. But that much we could (probably) live with. It’s the silent reflux that our 3 year old suffers that completely does us in, sleep-wise.

“Silent” reflux is, in fact, anything but. It should be called “screaming hysterically reflux”. It always leaves someone screaming hysterically. Sometimes the victim, sometimes the collateral damage – us. Until she was diagnosed, she was waking screaming once an hour. These days, with medication and a gradual identification of her triggers, she usually only wakes 2 or 3 times a night, although we still do have horror nights from time to time. We are very slowly getting to the point where she actually sleeps through, although that is still a rare cause for celebration, rather than a normal event.

All of our friends know we have various food intolerances in our house. But few people really understand the full impact of this on our daily lives. Our eldest almost certainly had silent reflux, too, although she was never diagnosed, and wasn’t quite as bad. She also grew out of it earlier. I hope that our 2 year old will also grow out of it eventually, but I am not holding my breath. Indeed, holding my breath would take too much energy away from my main endeavour, which is trying to hold myself together.

7 years of sleep deprivation has made it seem so normal to me that it’s only occasionally, when I glimpse the lives of others, and their reactions to our circumscribed and limited lives, that I realise how drastically it has changed us. From what we can and cannot do, or contemplate – such as visit incredibly dear friends and family overseas. There is simply no chance that we would consider voluntarily risking jetlag and extra lost sleep – to how we behave. Have you ever tried to be bright, sociable and outgoing when all you want to do is collapse, and you can barely hold your eyes open? Have you ever tried to do that every day for 7 years straight? It is only now, as the sleep deprivation recedes slightly, that I realise how different I have been. How introverted (me?! Normally the extroverts’ extrovert!) and depressed I have been.

In truth we are incredibly lucky – our kids are not seriously ill. They have nothing life threatening, growth threatening, or developmentally challenging. But they, too, suffer emotionally and socially when their sleep is bad. Our two year old is incredibly shy, and the worse her reflux is, the more shy and introverted she becomes. It is fundamentally difficult to cope with life when you are permanently on the edge, sleep-wise, and downright impossible when you spend most of your time over that edge.

It’s getting better. One day it might even get good. But in the meantime, I offer this glimpse into our lives as a small, yet heartfelt apology for the events not attended, the parties left early, and the relationships not tended the way they should be. Trust us – we’ll be back!