Perspective with lemon sauce

Years ago, when I was ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, I was more or less housebound for an alarmingly long time. After months of this I began to realise that being alone for large chunks of the day was incredibly bad for my mental health. I needed the constant bouncing around of ideas, emotions and experiences that comes from interacting with others. Without it, I became paranoid and lost perspective. Every day began to be filled with Everests in a tea cup. Insurmountable traumas grew out of anything anyone ever said or did. In short, I was all but ready to take a leap of the cliffs of insanity. Inconceivable.

Realising this, I sent out a call for help, by emailing my friends and begging for visitors. My dearly loved colleagues from Monash rallied around in an act of love that still brings tears to my eyes. Every Wednesday, without fail, these friends would bring lemon chicken to my house. It has to be said, from any rational perspective the chicken itself was terrible, but it had become something of a tradition, simply because it was less terrible than anything else the university cafeteria had to offer. And if I couldn’t come to the chicken, the chicken would come to me.

Once a week, the group would invade my home, take over my kitchen, provide me with lunch, and provide themselves with cups of tea. As close friends should be, they were perfectly at home in my kitchen, and there was never any need for me to lift a finger.

More than anything, though, they were there. Every week. Physically present, laughing, joking, hugging me, sharing their lives and bringing a vital dose of perspective, with lemon sauce.

That’s community. That’s how we stay sane and grounded in a crazy, chaotic world. The people we connect with are our anchors. Even in calm seas, without an anchor it’s so easy to drift way of course without even being aware of it. It’s those friends who are close enough to grab you as you drift past, to whack you in the face with the frying pan of “you have GOT to be kidding”, who strengthen our grip on reality, and extend our coping capacity so that we can make it through the trauma.

The problem is that these days community can be hard to find. With increasingly mobile work forces, people tend not to stay in the one job indefinitely. Neighbours are all but invisible to each other, rushing off to work, driving to whole other suburbs for recreation, and shopping in large, anonymous shopping centres. We don’t walk around our streets, shop locally, or often even play in the local park so much anymore. We drive somewhere bigger, better, or more air conditioned.

Even if your kids go to school locally, the pick up and drop off are usually so hectic, that unless you have a very special school community, you may hardly meet anyone there either. Especially if your kids are in before and after school care, which is increasingly common. Fewer people go to church, and when they do it’s often not a local church, so community is just that little bit diluted again.

We have lots of friends we see occasionally, and we love them, and love to catch up with them. But we are not sharing our lives with them by catching up once or twice a year. That may be friendship, but it’s not community.

We just don’t have the opportunities for community that we used to have. There are still some, but they are harder to find, and more and more people are finding themselves without community, sometimes without even realising it. And if you do realise it, it’s not always easy to find yourself a ready made community, or to create one. To create our hectic, transient and mobile lives, we have traded away something vital and precious, and the sad part is that we don’t even realise it’s gone.

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Possession is 9 tenths

This afternoon I heard someone on the radio answering the question “what is your most prized possession?” His answer? “My two kids.”

The thing that really bothers me is that no-one questioned it. There was a lot of “aw, that’s so sweet”, and talk of how wonderful his kids are, which is all very nice, but where was the outrage? Kids as possessions? Things that we own? From that attitude flow all kinds of ideas, none of them good.

Before you say “it’s just a figure of speech”, stop and think for a moment. Words have power. Psychologists have long known that “self talk” (the things you say to yourself in the privacy of your own head) is self-reinforcing – ie the more you talk yourself down (“I’m so dumb”), the truer it becomes. Psychologists will, among other things, teach you to change your self talk in order to become a happier, more positive person. Words have an incredibly potent impact on the way we see the world. We make jokes about political correctness, but the truth is that constantly talking about a person or a group in a demeaning way affects the way you see them. Change the language, change the world – albeit slowly.

There is a fundamental disconnect between seeing kids as possessions – property, over which we have ultimate power and control – and seeing them as human beings, with all the same human rights, and indeed responsibilities, as adults. We are naturally possessive of our kids – “that’s my girl” – but that is a two way relationship. “That’s my dad” has the same force, the same possessiveness. But to take it one step further, into ownership, takes away the right of self-determination. It deprives kids of their basic human rights.

If I did a survey and asked a random selection of passers by if slavery was ever acceptable, my guess is that most of them would answer with an emphatic “No!” Yet a slave, according to dictionary.com, is “a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another”. People as property, rather than children as people.

I am a firm believer in self-determination. I believe that even newborn babies know when they are hungry, tired, or in need of a cuddle. A friend recently marveled how his son was “playing” with his mum’s breast while feeding, and when he finished feeding, they saw that his kneading of the breast actually made milk spurt out. It may have looked as though he was playing, but that tiny baby knew what he was doing. We can learn a lot from our children.

Yet much of the parenting advice we hear is about imposing things on children, right from the word go. From routines like “feed, play, sleep” where the emphasis is on not letting babies fall asleep while feeding, to “controlled crying”, where we treat their pleas for comfort as manipulation. It was only days after the birth of my first child that I was told “She’ll play you, you know. Wrap you around her little finger.”

Sure, there are some things that are not negotiable. Human rights come as a package with responsibilities. Respect for the human rights (and possessions) of anyone carries with it the assumption that the rights (and possessions) of others will be respected in turn. And there will always be rules, like don’t run onto the road. There is a balance to be struck, and it’s not practical to offer infinite choices all the time. But when we let our kids choose their own clothes, decide what they want for breakfast, and have a voice in important decisions that affect them, we affirm their human rights, and help them grow into mature adults who will respect the rights of others.

When we treat kids as possessions, we reduce them, at best, to slaves. And those who have grown up in slavery often want slaves of their own.

Two tyred to drive

The other day I had a physio appointment about 20 minutes drive away (around 12km as the bike flies), but I was exhausted – far too tired to drive. So I rode my bicycle instead. Bear with me – that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.  The trouble was that I was far too tired to drive safely. I was seriously concerned that I might fall asleep at the wheel. But I wasn’t physically tired – just overwhelmingly sleepy. Not an uncommon state of being for parents of small children, but also pretty common for all of us at one time or another.

Getting behind the wheel of a car in that state is one of the most dangerous things we can do – akin to driving very drunk indeed. Tucked up safely in a warm, cosy box, insulated from fresh air, road noise and our fellow human beings, listening to our favourite music, it is incredibly easy to nod off. Potentially micro-sleeping my way into the path of a truck wasn’t on my todo list for the day.

A friend of mine once fell asleep behind the wheel and woke up on the other side of the road, facing the other way. He was incredibly lucky that the road was empty. The dangers of driving while tired are seriously underestimated, largely because we treat driving as a not negotiable necessity. We have to drive – how else could we get home? Never mind getting a lift, public transport or a taxi, these are not options in most of our heads. We treat driving as a fundamental human right – something that would, no doubt, seem puzzlingly ludicrous to someone lacking food, water, or adequate shelter over their heads.

Ok, perhaps we can agree that driving while tired is a dumb and dangerous thing to do. But why would I choose to ride my bike, when I felt too tired to drive? There are two big reasons why you will be far more alert when riding your bike:

1. It’s physical exercise – guaranteed to get the blood pumping, the oxygen coursing around your system, and the adrenalin flowing nicely. Exercise is the single best wakeup drug there is, even better than caffeine (heresy, I know).

2. You are in the world, not cocooned away from it. With the wind blowing in your face, the cars around you audible in their approach, and the birds, trees, passers by all making themselves known to you, it is much easier to stay alert and integrated in the world around you. In a car you are cut off from all of that. The world is shut out, and it can take a lot to impinge on your attention – how many times have you not known of an approaching emergency vehicle, sirens screaming, until it was all but on top of you? In a car, that happens all too easily. On a bike, it simply doesn’t happen. (Unless you are crazy enough to cycle with earphones & an iPod or some such foolishness, but let’s not go there!)

For short distances, which most of our trips are ( by short I mean under 20km – the more you ride, the longer your definition of “short” will become), cycling makes a trivial difference to the time it takes. The biggest adjustment is mental. Deciding that cycling is a serious transport option, rather than an occasional recreation, will change your life. And it gives you another option when you are too tired to drive. What could be better?

The marks myth

The myschool website has set off all kinds of alarm bells all over the country. The assumption seems to be that parents will overwhelmingly prefer the schools with the highest academic ranking. I would like to believe that people are smarter than that, but I fear there’s an alarming amount of truth to it.

It is natural for parents to want their children to have the best opportunities, and to maximize their potential. But what I find alarming is the idea that academic potential is all that matters. Leaving aside for a moment the myriad factors that contribute to a school’s test results, let’s proceed from the simple, albeit erroneous, assumption that schools with the highest results will ensure that your child achieves the most success.

Of course you would choose the school with the highest ranking. Wouldn’t you? Yet here’s the thing. All the research, and indeed most of the common sense, points to academic results being very low on the list of factors that make the most difference to your life, happiness, and even success. They are on the list. But they are nowhere near the top.

The factors that make the difference are overwhelmingly emotional and social. Resilience in the face of setbacks, ability to create strong, supportive social and professional networks, persistence… these are all far more important factors in your life than your marks on any exam you choose to name. They can also be learned, and even taught.

When we looked for schools for our eldest daughter, we checked out our three closest state schools. One of them had an awesome academic reputation, yet when we visited it, the overwhelming feeling we got was cold and impersonal. When the principal showed us around, the only interaction she had with the students was to shout at them for running in the corridor. When we asked if we could stay on the first day if our daughter needed us to, we were vigorously discouraged from such bizarre behaviour. “We know how to deal with upset children, it’s better if you go.”  Another school told us that we weren’t even allowed into the building after the first few days – “For security, you know.”

The school we chose, by an overwhelming margin, could hardly have contrasted more. The principal greeted all of the students by name (and they greeted her with enthusiasm and obvious affection and respect).  She paused our tour in one of the senior classrooms so that she could check on two friends who had recently been fighting. She wanted to make sure that the chat they had just had in her office, over tea and orange juice, had truly sorted things out – which it had. Their classroom teacher commented that it “must be healing air in there”.

The students in the younger grades all wanted to show the principal their work, which she enthused over appropriately. Even more to the point, she spent most of the tour talking to our daughter – not ignoring us, but clearly making our daughter her focus and priority.  We were charmed, and felt welcomed into the school community from the moment we stepped onto the property.

When we asked if we could stay if our daughter needed us on the first day, we were warmly encouraged to do whatever worked for us. The Principal assured us that the school would work with us to make sure that our daughter had what she needed, whatever that might be. As we drove away, my husband commented that he had the impression that if we stayed in the classroom all year the school would be thrilled.

This was largely the basis of our decision, and in the years since then we have had that decision confirmed over and over again. The school has a strong focus on emotional and social intelligence. The senior kids look after the younger ones every year – each year I assume that they have a really special year of grade 6s, and each year the next crop is just as wonderful.

The whole ethos of the school is that everyone looks after everyone else. When our daughter had some problems with another girl picking on her in prep, everyone rallied around her, and one of the grade 6s came up to me to ask if there was anything she could do.

It may seem strange for someone with a PhD in Computer Science to say that academic achievement isn’t worth worrying about. It’s certainly not irrelevant. But it’s a very poor basis for determining a child’s future. If you’re looking to choose a school, the emotional and social aspects of the school, though harder to measure and display on a website, are easy to see, and far more important in the long run.

It’s all made up

For some reason I cracked and bought a Cleo recently. It came with a free dress – bizarre, but true. The magazine itself remains astoundingly unsatisfying, and quite disturbing, emotional junkfood of the lowest order, but the bit that dropped my jaw right to the ground was this line: “Every day I spend time putting on primer, concealer, foundation, powder, mascara, eyeshadow, eye pencil, blush, bronzer and lipgloss. And that’s just when I’m doing ‘the natural look’.”

“The natural look.” 10 products. I dread to think how many products it would take to look made up. I can understand the attraction of eye shadow, mascara, lipgloss and even blush. It’s fun to play with colours and achieve interesting effects. But there are products in that list that I have never even heard of. Ok, maybe that’s not a big surprise, since I stopped wearing makeup years ago, and even before that never wore more than lipstick, eyeshadow and mascara. Maybe a little eyeliner if I was really keen.

Nonetheless, I can’t help suspecting that most of these products were developed by marketing departments. They’re not about people looking good, they’re about making money. That’s not necessarily so terrible, but the message behind them, when you look at it closely, is truly appalling. The message is that we are unfit to be seen until we have enough makeup on our faces to sink a small ship. Our skin is, on the face of it (sorry), fundamentally unacceptable. Our eyes need to be enhanced, if not surgically, then with 5 different types of goop, at the very least.

Our cheekbones need to be higher, our noses reduced, our spots concealed and our lips  puffed. Our cheeks thinner, our foreheads lower, and our chins de-emphasized. We need to add new contours, hide old ones, and generally try very hard not to look the way we really look. In other pages of the magazine I found “face illuminating lotion”, and advice on keeping your cleavage smooth forever – including a product called a Decollette pad, which you use to “cushion the fold between the breasts and replenish your skin while you sleep”.  It’s true. I couldn’t make up anything this weird. (I may be turning to bad puns to ward off the horror, for which I apologise.)

So this is the overwhelming message of these magazines, and of the legions of products all but forced upon anyone who wants to look “fashionable”: You look bad. You look really, really terrible. Only with the application of hundreds of dollars worth of creams, powders and assorted goo can you be rendered acceptable to the modern world. You must cover yourself in order to look good.

It’s like a big, gooey, expensive burkha, only not to ward off the gaze of men.

You know what? I don’t buy it. Beauty is friends making time for you. Beauty is in the smile of someone who is pleased to see you. Beauty is in my 3 year old’s chuckle, and in my 7 year old’s declaration that “You’re the best mum in the world, Mum!”

I am 38. And I look it – and even that might be charitable. But I like my face, and I like my smile, and I don’t need a chemical burkha to conceal my face, in order to make cosmetics companies rich. Do you want to look good? I can sell you the secret to a Natural Look that will last all day. It’s called your face.

It’s the journey

We have become minor local celebrities. Everywhere we go we collect a comet tail of kids saying “that is so cool” and adults saying “aren’t you hot?” Sadly, I think the adults are referring purely to temperature.

This is all thanks to a whole new lifestyle. Nearly all our local trips are now done by Christiania bike. It is a large trike with a box in the front for kids, shopping, almost anything you can comfortably carry in a small car. It has a carrying capacity of 100kg (excluding the rider), so we can easily take a 3 year old, a 7 year old, and a full trolley load of shopping home from the shops, even up the hill.

It is incredible fun in its own right, once you get used to the behaviour of a trike, as opposed to a two wheeler, but by far the best thing about the Christiania bike has been our sudden full immersion in our local community. Indeed, we plunged in so fast I am still gasping.  We chat to the people we pass (those brave few that still walk). We wave at people in cars, who look variously astounded, appalled, or envious. Once we get to school we are invariably mobbed by a crowd of enthralled primary school kids, and a bunch of amazed parents.

We are cheered on up the hills, and admired while we coast down them. We are getting to know many of the people on our regular routes, as they come out to chat and check out this bizarre creation.

We have had to slow down our lives somewhat – I see this as an upside, although some might not. It takes around 10 minutes longer to do the school run on the bike instead of in the car, but that’s a pretty small price to pay for the fun we are having, the fitness I am gaining, and the environmental footprints we are not leaving. It means we have to factor in a little more time for some trips, and I am yet to discover our limits with respect to heat – there is an excellent sunshade on the bike, but the hills are rough on the rider in high temperatures. Still, we have managed 35 degrees without trouble, with help from a spray bottle of water, wielded by the kids with great enthusiasm (I may need windscreen wipers for my glasses). I suspect we will be driving on the 43 degree days, but it remains to be seen exactly where we draw the line. I am hoping it will help me lose some weight, but it is not nearly as much work as I expected, so it might not be quite the silver bullet I was hoping for on that front!

I need to get a cycle computer for it, so that I can see how far we are traveling. All those short trips add up. Today we did the school run morning and afternoon, and a short local trip in the morning as well. Rough mental arithmetic suggests that we did at least 12km, all on one 35 degree day. That’s not a bad effort, now that I think about it. That should add up to a lot of fitness and a lot of friendly conversations over the next few years.

I haven’t tackled Wheelers Hill yet, the local mini-mountain – I’m working up to it gradually. But we seem to have knocked off the mountainous lifestyle change without breaking a sweat. I am sure there will be times when we don’t use it. When I am too tired, or sick, or haven’t got time. Our mileage will vary, but the richness of our lives has increased immeasurably.